Whatever Happened to the Non-Aligned Movement? Martin Evans Recalls the 'Third Way' of Cold War International Politics, Now All but Forgotten

By Evans, Martin | History Today, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Whatever Happened to the Non-Aligned Movement? Martin Evans Recalls the 'Third Way' of Cold War International Politics, Now All but Forgotten


Evans, Martin, History Today


THE TERM 'THIRD WORLD' WAS COINED in August 1952 by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in the left-wing magazine L'Observateur. With the Chinese Revolution just three years old and conflict raging in Korea, political thinking was dominated by the Cold War, in which the two ideologically opposed alliances, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, seemed to be leading the world towards an all-out war between capitalism and communism. Yet, Sauvy argued, such a perspective ignored the real revolution in international relations: the arrival of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America on the world stage. Drawing an explicit comparison with the role of the Third Estate during the French Revolution, Sauvy wanted to convey the colossal transformation represented by decolonization. As in 1789, Sauvy warned, 'this third world, ignored, exploited, scorned, wishes to stand up for itself'.

Sauvy's Third World took on a concrete form with the Bandung conference, which opened in Indonesia on April 18th, 1955. Lasting eight days, it brought together representatives from twenty-nine countries, accounting for half the world's population. Those attending were determined to develop joint policies that would exert a real influence on international politics. The talks, dominated by the likes of Egypt's President Nasser, China's foreign minister Chou En-lai, and Yugoslavia's President Tito, were marked by belief, confidence and idealism.

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Throughout, however, Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India, was the acknowledged elder statesman. Veteran of the Congress of Oppressed Nations held in Brussels in 1927 and progenitor of the first Asian Relations Conference in 1947, his doctrine of non-alignment shaped the whole conference. Nehru argued that a neutral Third World could become a force for good. No longer pawns in the 'Great Game', these countries should break away from the tired politics of the Western powers and usher in a new international era based on peace and cooperation.

The final communique called for a new global politics based on recognition of the equality of races and nations, large and small, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Making an explicit link between Nazism and colonialism, the Bandung conference also declared its support for the rights of the peoples of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to self-determination, thereby encapsualting a gathering spirit of revolt against European domination that was closely connected to other events: notably, the foundation of the Arab League in May 1945; the independence of India in 1947; and the end of French rule in Indo-China in 1954.

The black American activist Richard Wright recorded his personal observations in The Color Curtain (1956) in which he described the conference as vibrant, vital, a coalition of the dispossessed. As such Bandung was a damning verdict on the West, even if Wright saw the future beset by tensions and pitfalls:

The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed--in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon the Western world!

Six years later a summit in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade in September 1961 led to the formal establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement. Tito, whose regime had broken with the Soviet Union in 1948, played a pivotal role, as did Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister of Ghana, who asserted the importance of African perspectives. The outcome was a framework for joint action in which the concepts of independence, non-alignment, third worldism and developing countries were all intertwined.

By the time of the Cairo summit in October 1964, though, the twin fights against colonialism and neocolonialism were the core concerns. …

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