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Africa, Latin America and the Active Non-Alignment Option

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia (L) votes alone during a General Assembly Emergency Special Session on Ukraine at the United Nations in New York on March 23, 2022. TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP

By Jorge Heine

Seventeen African countries, most prominently South Africa, abstained in the United Nations General Assembly vote from condemning Russia for invading Ukraine and demanding Moscow stop fighting and withdraw its military forces. Many more that voted in favor of condemning the invasion have opposed the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia, fully aware that more people will die across the Global South from these sanctions than from the war in Ukraine.

According to the United Nations, 13.1 million people could go hungry because of the war. Leaders of ArgentinaBrazil, and Mexico, the largest nations in Latin America, have proclaimed neutrality in the Ukraine conflict. Two of them made state visits to Moscow shortly before the war erupted.

Welcome to Non-Alignment 2.0, or, as my colleagues and I call it in our recent book, Active Non-Alignment and Latin America: A Doctrine for the New Century. As the world stumbles towards the Second Cold War, developing nations realize that if they want to safeguard their autonomy, the last thing they need to do is to align themselves with either of the great powers.

Highly fragmented and plagued by divisions, Latin America is already at the end of its tether. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the region is going through its deepest crisis in 120 years. In 2020, regional GDP fell by 7.7 percent, more than twice the rate of global GDP negative growth. Latin America was also ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. With 8 percent of the world’s population, it accounted for 30 percent of the world’s deaths from the pandemic in early 2022.

There is an urgent need to put the interests of Latin American countries front and center, so as not to be pulled into proxy conflicts or used to advance the priorities of others. Brazil, the world’s largest producer of soybeans, imports half its fertilizer from Russia. Should it stop doing so, and push its agricultural sector to a breaking point?

Our proposal draws on the honorable traditions of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the “autonomy school” in Latin American International Relations literature. Mostly, though, it recognizes what the World Bank has called the “Wealth Shift” from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific that has taken place in the new century.

Today, there are more billionaires in Beijing than in New York City. In 2050, the top three economies will be China, India, and the U.S., in that order. Of the top ten economies in the world in 2050, seven will be from today’s Global South. The diplomacy of the cahiers des doleances of the old Third World has been replaced by “collective financial statecraft.” This shift is epitomized by new multinational development banks like the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank, which have opened new vistas for countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The strengthening of regional mechanisms, a commitment to multilateralism, to regional coordination in global economic governance, and a reorientation of Latin American foreign policies toward these new realities, are all part of the measures needed to advance an Active Non-Alignment agenda.

When we originally proposed Active Non-Alignment for Latin America in 2020, some critics argued it was both anachronistic (in harking back to NAM), and utopian (in the sense that no Latin American government in power then would take it up). A scarce two years later, far from being a “pie in the sky” proposal for a distant future, Active Non-Alignment is already happening, although leaders may not call it that.

Last December, Latin American countries took part in both the Summit for Democracy in Washington, D.C., and in the China-Latin America Ministerial Forum in Mexico City. Presidents Alberto Fernández of Argentina and Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, defying the Western diplomatic boycott. They also pursued significant bilateral agendas, including signing an MOU on the Belt and Road Initiative in the case of the former and starting negotiations for a free trade agreement in the case of the latter.

There are occasions when a single event acts like lightning, illuminating a vast landscape, exposing faults and fractures previously obscured. The war in Ukraine and its fallout has been one such event, bringing to the fore the ever-growing rift between the West and “the Rest.” Western sanctions, for which the poor across Africa and Latin America will pay the heaviest price, should make it abundantly clear why Active Non-Alignment is the way forward for the Global South.

Jorge Heine is a Research Professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, a former Chilean ambassador to South Africa, to India, and to China, and a Core Faculty Member at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.

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