Non-alignment: A Third Foreign Policy Option During the Cold War?

Non-alignment during the Cold War was a foreign policy of post-colonial states trying to maintain independence by avoiding aligning with the US or the USSR.

Apr 27, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

non alignment cold war foreign policy


In 1955, the non-aligned foreign policy was born at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. The newly independent Asian and African states declared decolonization as their primary foreign policy course. By refusing to align themselves with either of the two superpowers — the United States-led Western bloc and the Soviet Union-led Eastern bloc —non-aligned states tried to maintain their sovereignty. The leaders of Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia emerged as prominent figures in promoting non-alignment. The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961 at the Belgrade conference in Yugoslavia.


Origins of Non-Alignment During the Cold War

soviet union united states winning friends cartoon
Cartoon referring to efforts by the Soviet Union and the United States to win friends during the Cold War, 1955. Source: National Library of Wales


Non-alignment as a foreign policy approach originated following the end of World War II, the subsequent wave of decolonization, and the start of the Cold War.


World War II changed the international environment and encouraged colonies around the world to pursue self-determination. As a result, the Asian and African colonies of European colonial powers achieved long-awaited sovereignty and independence between 1945 and 1960.


The period also marked the beginning of the Cold War, an intense confrontation for supremacy on the global stage between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War was characterized by the rapid bipolarization of the countries around these two superpowers and their blocs, trying to pull states into their spheres of influence. The Soviet Union-dominated bloc was known as the Warsaw Pact, and the United States-dominated bloc was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO.

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The term “non-alignment” was first used by Indian diplomat V. K. Krishna Menon at the United Nations in 1953. Menon was referring to the new foreign policy approach, according to which India refused to side with any political or military alliances involved in the Korean War of 1950–1953.


bandund conference photo
Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ethiopian delegate Yilma Deressa, the Gold Coast’s Kojo Botsio, and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (from left to right) attended the Bandung Conference, 1955. Source: Zocalo


The first attempt to formalize the non-alignment approach was at the Bandung Conference (Asian-African Conference) held in Indonesia from April 18 to 24, 1955. The newly established governments of Burma, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka sponsored and organized the conference.


A tangible result of the Bandung Conference was a communiqué signed by all 29 representatives of mainly Asian and African countries. The document outlined the objectives of the non-aligned states: the support of cultural and economic cooperation, safeguarding the principle of self-determination, and protection of human rights, including the abolition of racial discrimination. These objectives intended to encourage cooperation among emerging nations by helping them navigate the complex international environment of the Cold War.


The Bandung Conference laid the foundation for establishing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The idea of the Non-Aligned Movement further developed during the meeting of the non-aligned states on the Brijuni Islands in July 1956. Yugoslavia’s president, Josip Broz Tito, India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, defined the movement by signing the Declaration of Brijuni on July 19 of the same year.


The declaration read:


“Peace cannot be achieved with separation, but with the aspiration towards collective security in global terms and the expansion of freedom, as well as terminating the domination of one country over another.”


The Principles of Non-Alignment

nehru zhou enlai beijing photo
Jawaharlal Nehru with Zhou Enlai in Beijing on October 19, 1954. Source: The Hindu


The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, also known as Panchsheel (Five Restraints), represents the base of the non-aligned foreign policy approach. The Panchsheel was first introduced by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in October 1954 at an official meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. These principles were intended to guide emerging Sino-Indian relations.


The five principles were the following:


  1. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty;
  2. Mutual non-aggression;
  3. Mutual non-interference in domestic affairs;
  4. Equality and mutual benefit;
  5. Peaceful co-existence.


The Five Principles were modified during the Bandung Conference. Based on the Panchsheel, the conference adopted a “Declaration on Promotion of World Peace and Cooperation.” The declaration outlined ten principles of the non-alignment policy, also known as the “Ten Principles of Bandung.”


Two Worlds, 1950. Source: acc. Phillips


These principles entailed the following:


  1. Respecting and defending the fundamental principles of human rights and the Charter of the United Nations;
  2. Safeguarding the territorial integrity and independence of all nations;
  3. Acknowledgment of the equality of all races and nations, regardless of size;
  4. Not interfering in another state’s domestic issues;
  5. Supporting the state’s right to self-defense in accordance with the United Nations Charter;
  6. Refusing to join the collective defense organizations in support of either one of the superpowers;
  7. Abstaining from military intervention against the territorial integrity or political stability of any state;
  8. Supporting the resolution of conflicts through peaceful means, in compliance with the Charter of the United Nations;
  9. Encouraging collaboration among all nations;
  10. Respecting international law and subsequent obligations.


Adherence to these principles was deemed necessary to become a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and is often referred to as the “quintessence of the movement.”


In the context of Cold War power struggles, these principles restricted signing military agreements or joining multilateral military alliances such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The principles cemented the perception that newly independent and non-aligned nations would remain weak, silent, and neutral in international affairs. Contrary to this assessment, the stated objectives of the non-alignment policy were to give developing nations a voice, particularly at the United Nations, and to help shape world politics by assisting them in choosing a middle path in the West-East confrontation.


The First Summit Conference of Belgrade & the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries (NAM)

nehru during belgrade conference photo
Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the first Non-Aligned Summit Conference in Belgrade, 1961. Source: The Hindu


In 1960, the Fifteenth Ordinary Session of the United Nations General Assembly admitted 17 new members from Africa and Asia to the United Nations. The event gave a decisive boost to the development of the non-alignment policy.


From September 1 to 6, 1961, the First Summit Conference of Belgrade was held, also known as the Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries. Representatives of 25 states attended the conference. Afghanistan, Algeria, Yemen, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Congo, Cuba, Cyprus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, and Iraq represent the official founders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).


NAM was declared a movement, not an organization, as its founding members strived to free themselves from the bureaucratic implications of the organizational agencies. The movement was intended to reflect the interests of each member in international politics without compromising their own independence and sovereignty.


Until the early 1970s, NAM was mainly focused on supporting decolonization processes, navigating Cold War tensions, promoting disarmament, particularly nuclear arms control, and safeguarding human rights.


International organizations, especially the United Nations, provided an essential platform for promoting the self-determination of states and decolonization. The movement’s founders spoke up to defend the rights of colonized peoples and denounced the colonial powers’ continued presence in impacted areas. These efforts resulted in the United Nations Resolution 1514, widely known as the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” adopted in 1960. Non-aligned states actively participated in drafting and then adopting the resolution, which reaffirmed the right to self-determination and urged international society to speed up the decolonization processes.


non aligned movement session belgrade photo
Hall for plenary sessions on the opening day of the Conference of Non-Aligned Movement, 1961. Source: DAI Roaming Academy


As part of NAM’s support for decolonization, its members expressed solidarity with the national liberation movements of colonized nations, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The members of the movement provided political and diplomatic assistance to struggling nations and promoted the peaceful resolution of conflicts by offering their states a platform for dialogue. NAM also advocated for the diplomatic recognition of the newly independent states by international organizations.


India, for example, had greatly contributed to the African National Congress in South Asia by building strong diplomatic relations and hosting its leaders in India. Egypt, like India, assisted the National Liberation Movement of Algeria politically and militarily.


Beginning in the 1970s, the Non-Aligned Movement changed its focus from political to economic. Their agenda viewed the existing world economic order as subordinating poor, developing nations. During this period, the Dependency Theory gained momentum. According to the theory, economic growth in leading countries was not accompanied by development in poorer countries. Furthermore, the economic activity of wealthy nations frequently caused severe economic issues in the developing world.


To address the issue, the non-aligned countries endorsed the so-called New International Economic Order. It called for modifying established trade patterns and introducing improved terms of trade for developed countries, including encouraging developing nations to diversify their economies and integrate into regional trade unions, lowering trade tariffs, and promoting free trade. As a result, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order and its accompanying program of action on May 1, 1974.


Challenges of Non-Alignment During the Cold War

non aligned movement summit photo
The 18th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Non-Aligned Movement, 2019. Source: President of the Republic of Azerbaijan


An international arena characterized by rivalry and bipolarity presented the non-aligned nations with persistent challenges. To some degree, the non-alignment offered newly independent nations a more flexible course of action and the possibility to bargain for better socio-economic incentives through security guarantees. Even though their stated goal was to maintain independence during the Cold War, the dominant powers of the United States and the Soviet Union pressured them to be aligned with their respective blocs.


The means were often in the form of economic incentives, military aid, and diplomatic and political manipulations, including offering favorable trade conditions, diplomatic recognition, or security guarantees. In many cases, these attempts proved successful, as many of the newly independent, non-aligned states faced internal and regional challenges and lacked adequate resources to cope with these issues independently.


The Sino-Indian War of 1962, which occurred just a year after the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement, represents the first significant challenge to the movement. The Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the key figures in the movement, turned to the United States for diplomatic and financial assistance.


Anwar El-Sadat, Egypt’s newly elected president, abruptly turned away from the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1970s and instituted the Infitah Policy, also known as Sadat’s Open Door Policy. It signaled the beginning of a new strategic alliance with the United States.


Other notable examples are the second India-Pakistan conflict in 1965 and the June War of 1967 between Israel and its neighboring states, where Egypt was a key belligerent of the conflict. The Iran-Iraq War during 1980-1988 culminated in the United States entering Iraq. These challenges had deeply shaken the unity of the movement.


tito nehru nasser photograph
Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito (right) with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (left) and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 1956. Source: Radio Free Europe


Nevertheless, non-alignment during the Cold War managed to positively influence the decolonization processes, supported human rights and the development of more inclusive international law through the United Nations, advocated for the equality of newly independent states, and provided a platform of discussion for the states with different socio-political and cultural backgrounds.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.