Caught between America, China and Russia, many countries are determined not to pick sides. As the American-led order in place since 1945 fragments and economic decoupling accelerates, they seek deals across divides. This transactional approach is reshaping geopolitics.
One way of capturing the sheer scale and heft of these non-aligned powers is through a Russian lens. Our sister organisation, eiu, has analysed countries based on their economic and military ties to Moscow, their diplomatic stances including votes at the un and whether they support and implement sanctions. Although 52 countries comprising 15% of the global population — the West and its friends — lambast and punish Russia’s actions, and just 12 countries laud Russia, some 127 states are categorised as not being clearly in either camp (see map), writes ‘The Economist’.
To get a handle on what non-alignment really means The Economist has also looked at a narrower panel of the 25 biggest economies that have sat on the fence on the Ukraine war, or wish to remain non-aligned in the Sino-American confrontation, or both. The members of this group — call them the transactional 25 (t25) — are hugely varied in terms of wealth and political systems, and include giant India and tiny Qatar. Yet they have some common ground.
They are brutally pragmatic and have collectively become more powerful. Today they represent 45% of the world’s population and their share of global GDP has risen from 11% in 1992 to 18% in 2023, more than the EU’s. Their strategy of neutrality involves big risks and opportunities. Whether they succeed will influence the world order for decades. And needless to say, both America and China will work to win them over.
In the 20th century non-alignment meant different things to different countries at different times. At conferences in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 and Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961, leaders presented a “third world” apart from the West and the Soviet bloc. From the late 1960s these countries increasingly focused on economic inequality between the “global south” (a less loaded term for the third world) and the industrial north. A formal institution, the Non-Aligned Movement, was joined by nearly every African, Asian and Latin American state.
Today, non-aligned countries are not defined by their membership of an institution, but rather by their characteristics and behavior. Non-aligned countries also usually think Western leaders are hypocrites.
Such stances are broadly in line with public opinion. A report by Cambridge University last year found that in liberal democracies 75% hold a negative view of China, and 87% do of Russia. But the picture is almost the reverse among the 6 bn people who live elsewhere. A gap is opening up between how the West sees the world and how the rest sees it. In a poll published earlier this year by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, a plurality of Indians (48%) and most Turks (51%) said the future world order will be defined by multipolarity or non-Western dominance. Just 37% of Americans, 31% of people in EU states and 29% of Britons agreed. The West thinks it is watching a sequel of the cold war; the rest of the world sees an entirely new film.
So who makes up the t25? The diverse group encompasses some of the world’s most populous countries and two of its largest democracies, India and Indonesia, alongside Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are all run by autocrats of various flavours. Large wealth disparities exist, too. In Saudi Arabia GDP per person is more than $27,000, on a par with some European countries, while in Pakistan it still lingers around just $1,600.
Despite their differences, the non-aligned countries share a common aim: to make expedient deals in a fluid environment. For two decades many were able to simultaneously build relations with the West, China and Russia. No longer. The West is imposing sanctions on Russia and restricting Chinese access to technology.
For many this is a grave threat. Sanctions on Russia saw energy and food prices soar globally, prompting a backlash across the non-Western world.
But many in the non-aligned world bet that they can win from economic decoupling and political fragmentation, by hedging their relations between the big powers and by influencing other countries themselves. To understand this transactional strategy, look at the approach of some of the big countries caught in the middle. Brazil is a good case study. America classes Brazil as a “major non-NATO ally”, a legal status that entitles enhanced co-operation with America’s armed forces.
Yet Brazil is also hedging between the superpowers. Like others in its region, it has declined Western proposals to give old Russian-made equipment to Ukraine in exchange for new arms. Lula’s arrival in Beijing on April 14th underscores China’s economic importance. Trade between Brazil and China was nearly $153bn in 2022, a 37-fold increase in two decades. Partly this reflects how Brazil took advantage of tit-for-tat US-China tariffs to increase agricultural exports to China at America’s expense.
The non-aligned countries want to avoid taking sides. But the big powers, America and China, are keen to draw them into their orbit. Beijing sees asserting leadership of the global south as a way of bolstering its resistance to American pressure. It positions itself as a model for others within a broad family of developing countries. It draws a contrast with the West, which it says prefers smaller clubs (like the G7). “China shows up where and when the West will not,” says Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s vice-president.
Though America and the EU have in recent years launched rival schemes, the perception remains that, if you want infrastructure that can help transform your economy, your first call is to Beijing. After Ms Harris released a soundtrack featuring African artists to accompany her recent visit to the continent, one senior African official noted, dryly, that Chinese visitors bring loans and engineers while Americans bring playlists.