alignment, Boris Buden

narrator Boris Buden
term alignment
published 22 December 2015, Berlin, Germany

The word “alignment” doesn’t belong to the common vocabulary of geopolitics. It is rather its negation that more than a half-century ago entered the political stage of the world. The so-called Non-Aligned Movement was founded in the midst of the Cold War at the first Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries, held in September 1961 in Belgrade the capital of what once was socialist Yugoslavia. It was initiated by Josip Broz Tito, then the president of the country, and attended by Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Soon over 100 countries mostly from the Third World joined the Movement, which played a significant role in the international politics in the second half of the 20th century.

 

Today, none of the founding fathers of the Movement is still alive. The country, where it was founded, Yugoslavia, fell apart in a civil war, without any of its successor states showing interest in the legacy of the Non-Alignment. Yet the Movement itself, although having lost any significant influence on the international politics, has curiously survived the end of the Cold War, in which it had found once its raison d’etre. This, however, seems now to be changing too.

 

Since recently Narendra Modi took office as India's prime minister, the world’s second-most-populous nation and one of the founding members of the Movement has openly abandoned non-alignment as the guiding principle of its foreign-policy. The change is even more significant if we remember that it was in fact an Indian, V. K. Krishna Menon, who in 1953 coined the term "non-alignment". Yet another Indian, Jawaharlal Nehru, was first to define it as a geopolitical concept based on five principles: Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty; Mutual non-aggression; Mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; Equality and mutual benefit; Peaceful co-existence.

 

But today India’s prime minister has a better idea, something he calls “multi-alignment policy”. Behind what some commentators not without irony call a “grand vision” there are no more universal principles in the tradition of Kantian “eternal peace” but rather a very pragmatic idea of doing business with all. Without abandoning its independent course India has moved to a contemporary, globalized practicality, according to which it will carefully balance closer cooperation with major players of today’s global geopolitics, like US, Russia or China. It will do it in a way that advances country's economic and security interests, without being forced to choose one power over another.

 

As long as a particular vision of international politics was based in no more then a pure negativity to alignment, there was no need to introduce the term into the vocabulary of geopolitics. But now, after the non-alignment has ben turned into a multi-alignment claiming similar strategic vision of international politics there is obviously sufficient reason to conceive of “alignment” as a new concept of the contemporary geopolitics.

 

This change in the vocabulary of international politics corresponds, however, with the change in the perception of historical reality, or more precisely, it implies a new “grand narrative” of recent history, a narrative that makes sense of particular political decisions, causally connects them and depicts a broader historical picture in which these decisions are made. Such a narrative, in which the aforementioned turn in the general strategy of Indian foreign policy from the old principle of non-alignment to the new one of multi-alignment, appears as a symptom of a much deeper historical transformation, is offered in Immanuel Wallenstein’s short essay “Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity” published 2007.

 

As the title already suggests, the emergence of a new paradigm in today’s international relations—the so-called multipolarity—reflects a very concrete historical process, the decline of the United States of America, which, according to Wallenstein, has become apparent only after the fiasco of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Contrary to most analysts who see the United States hegemony in the world-system at its peak in the post-1991 era—the era dominated by another paradigm of international relations, the unipolarity—he argues that this hegemony has been in decline ever since 1970. In fact, he tells a generally different story of the last hundred years, not one of the two World Wars, but of the “Second Thirty Years’ War” from 1914-1945, a concept that was introduced 1946 by Charles de Gaulle. For Wallenstein the principal antagonists of this single 30 year’s war were the United States and Germany. According to his view, the USSR was only militarily assisting in the victory of the United States 1945 with which began the period of its unquestioned hegemony that lasted until 1970. It was a period in which the United States absolutely dominated the world-economy as its most productive and efficient producer. It turned its former enemies, Germany and Japan into its political satellites and struck a deal with its sole challenger, at least on a military level, the Soviet Union. According to the agreements in Yalta the world was divided into two blocks, which respected its clearly demarcated boundaries. Despite of many crises, which often culminated into local wars, like in Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan, the military status quo between two blocks guaranteed a long lasting global peace, a peace that was, curiously, called war, or more precisely the Cold War.

 

However, as Wallenstein argues, already by the mid-1960s both Western Europe and Japan had reached virtual economic parity with the United States. At the same time, the countries and political movements of the developing world, for whom the Yalta deal had not brought any significant benefits, started to pursue their own interests. This was politically articulated in the form of a struggle for national liberation that often had a clearly anti-colonial character. Wallenstein sums up this political process under the name of “the world revolutions of 1968” meaning the multiple revolutions that occurred between 1966 and 1970.

 

This is where we should historically situate the Non-Aligned Movement. It was a revolt against the neo-colonial and neo-imperial order but a revolt that targeted what at that particular historical moment was securing and perpetuating this order, the Yalta-deal and the bi-polar logic of the global power-relations that this deal brought into being.

 

But this—“the world revolutions of 1968”—is also the historical moment at which, according to Wallenstein, began the structural decline of US power and authority in the world-system, a new reality of which those in power in the United States soon become aware. Wallenstein argues that the key objective of all presidential regimes after the1970s, from Nixon to Clinton, was nothing more than to slow down this decline. As one of the consequences of the series of structural adjustment the US politics has undertaken ever since—making of the former satellites, Western Europe and Japan, the partners in the implementation of common world policies with whom it works in various international institutions from the Trilateral commission, the G-7 to the world Economic Forum in Davos—the new geopolitical order has emerged, an order we might call “multilateralal”. At stake is a new global condition in which, as Walenstein writes, “the United States has been reduced to the position of being one strong power in a multipolar world.” (59)

 

But this is also a condition in which the alignment, or should we say, the politics of alignment, becomes an imperative, although it is not felt as such. The decision to align is made today as a matter of rational choice. And it is made everywhere, not only on the geopolitical level. One cannot see oneself as a member of a community if this community is at the same time not seen as a member of something else, of another, larger community aligned around a so-called value, a cultural or religious identity or simply an interest. The urge to align seems to have become a driving force of social being, not one of its affects that regulates external relations of a society and is activated only after this society has already ben created, but a sort of condition of its possibility that precedes and facilitates its very formation and assures its inner consistency and historical reproducibility. To be social today means to be always already aligned. And since becoming social is always already a matter of becoming political, alignment is a political issue or even better, an issue of the political, that is, an issue of creating society and bringing into existence the social being as such.

 

Yet the multipolar world in which one has no other choice than to align is far from being a world of social stability and peace. The more eagerly we align ourselves in order to secure stability, the more fragile our social constructions and the more loose our social relations become.

 

And when it comes to peace, the vocabulary of geopolitics (and Wikipedia too) has already reacted to the new reality. It has coined a new concept, the notion of “The Cold War II” that was introduced 2014 by a Russian historian and political pundit Dmitri Trenin.

 

The Cold War II is also known as the New Cold War and even as a more sinister notion of the Colder War. The term refers to the renewed ongoing tensions, hostilities, and political rivalry that intensified dramatically in 2014 between the Russian Federation on the one hand, and the United States, European Union and some other countries on the other. The tensions escalated in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine.

 

So the Cold War is back, moreover, the geopolitics is back on the agenda.

 

At this place we should come back to what Wallenstein calls “the world revolutions of 1968”. Not only they denounced the Yalta deal; they also denounced the traditional antisystemic movements we call today The Old Left, which was comprised of three components, Communist parties, Social-Democratic parties, and national liberation movements and which Wallenstein defines as having a two-step strategy: first to conquer state power, and then to change the world. The Revolutionaries of 1968 concentrated primarily on the second step, on changing the world, which has become a differentia specifica of the New Left.

 

Yet when it comes today to the politics of global Left, both practically and in terms of its historical visions, there is a problem precisely with what we are here talking about. As Alberto Toscano argues, in the last 25 years the Left has almost completely ignored the geopolitical perspective.  (416-417) Totally devoted to all sorts of the so-called struggles for hegemony, mostly in the sphere of culture and education, as well as socially focused on the sphere of civil society, it has forgotten that geopolitics frames the conditions of a political action, especially in terms of a politics of radical transformation, emancipation or revolution. Geopolitics situates all these struggles into the reality of geopolitical constraints: economic competition, scarcity of resources, biopolitics of population, military calculations.

 

The old anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist Left, including the left involved in the class struggles was much more realistic and was concretely involved into something we can call instrumental geopolitical calculations. Toscano calls it the “battle-hardened realism” and argues that it has disappeared from the strategy of the Left after 1989/90, i.e., after the fall of historical communism and the demise of the Warsaw pact, etc.

 

It seems as thought the Left for more than 20 years completely accepted the proclamation of historical closure and liberal-democratic hegemony, in short, the Fukuyama’s turn to the so-called post-history in which no historical move is imaginable outside the ultimate horizon of capitalism and the system of the so-called western liberal democracy.

 

But this is changing now. The circle of historical idleness and immobility is finally closed. If the Cold War is back, the geopolitics too should be back on the left wing agenda— and with this the drama of alignment too.

Alberto Toscano, “Carl Schmitt in Beijing: partisanship, geopolitics and the demolition of the Eurocentric world”, Postcolonial Studies,11 2008, 4,417 — 433.

Dmitri Trenin, "Welcome to Cold War II" , Foreign Policy. (March 4, 2014).

Immanuel Wallerstein, “Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity”, Harvard International Review 29, no.1 (Spring 2007), 54-59.