Revisiting Non-Alignment and Yugoslavia’s Global Role

by Ljubica Spaskovska


The 17th Non-Aligned Summit that took place last month in Venezuela went largely unnoticed and was generally portrayed by the media as an anachronistic event of a Cold War-era bloc. This is despite the fact that the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) remains the second largest international body after the United Nations. It was the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that on this occasion thanked the Movement for mobilising the international community on issues ranging from sustainable development, the fight against poverty and nuclear disarmament, especially commending it for its role as a key player in helping formulate the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. His address also emphasised the often overlooked fact that ‘the UN and the NAM are united via a common purpose’.

The recent conference jointly organised by the University of Graz and the University of Exeter addressed a growing field of ‘global Cold War’ studies through the Yugoslav experience of non-alignment. Although there has been a true proliferation in research revisiting the ‘Third World’ and its role in the Cold War, the region is more often approached through the lens of Great Power competition or that of the role of the Blocs in the ‘global South’. Moreover, the literature tends to conflate the role and agency of the ‘Second and Third Worlds’, thus obscuring a fundamental division – both terminological and substantial – which emerged in the 1960s with the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM): that of the developed vs. developing world.

Yugoslavia’s membership in this unofficial bloc of non-aligned and developing countries which asserted its identity more concretely at the United Nations and especially within the ‘Group of 77 developing countries’ (G77), took Yugoslavia outside of the state socialist Soviet-dominated orbit and allowed it to fashion a distinct identity as a European, Mediterranean, non-aligned, (‘more developed’) developing country. The wide spectrum of transnational encounters and exchanges the conference participants addressed stemmed from this unique position Yugoslavia was allowed to preserve and use to vie for influence and recognition in a divided, yet increasingly interdependent world.

The Conference

A group of papers uncovered often overlooked links and exchanges with the Western world which were nevertheless determined by Yugoslavia’s non-alignment: from Vladimir Unkovski-Korica’s analysis of the Yugoslav encounter with social democracy and Yugoslavia’s role in helping create Eurocommunism; Carla Konta’s account of Fulbright’s trip to Belgrade and his poignant description of Yugoslavia as a combination of communism, nationalism, pragmatism, Western syndicalism and the welfare state; Manfredi Mangano’s rich overview of the dynamics, tensions and overlaps between Yugoslav socialist self-management and West European socialism, to Sara Bernard’s paper on Yugoslavia and the OECD which reflected on the country’s technological dependency on the EEC, but also the fact that it enjoyed a privileged form of economic cooperation with Western Europe since it legalised labour migration in 1963 and became a full OECD member in 1967.

A second set of papers on gender, development and cultural diplomacy uncovered a past of personal life stories and projects that have only recently begun to emerge: Chiara Bonfiglioli and Sandra Prlenda embedded the Yugoslav understanding of gender equality within wider debates on women and development within the UN (through figures such Vida Tomšič and Dunja Pastizzi) and as essentially related to class and development, i.e. that what was needed was a radical change in global economic and not only in gender relations. Mila Turajlić’s paper on the Yugoslav cinema of intervention and her feature documentary presentation ‘The Labudovic Files’ engaged with the fascinating story of Stevan Labudović and several other Yugoslav cameramen and film-makers who ventured from war-torn Algeria to Mozambique, Mali and Tanzania.

While the two brilliant key-note speeches by Professor Kristen Ghodsee and Professor James Mark provided the indispensable wider socialist/global context, Mr. Budimir Lončar’s witness account gave a unique, subjective, yet well-informed take on some key questions and events from his long career as a diplomat and the last Yugoslav Foreign Minister. He underlined the generational shift after the death of Tito in 1980, and the rise of an elite with no WW2 experience and no real understanding of non-alignment and its origins in the liberation war. In light of his personal attempts to prevent a violent break-up of the country, he recalled a reassurance Hans-Dietrich Genscher gave him before the dissolution that non-aligned Yugoslavia has a place in a new Europe.   

Rethinking the legacy

The end of the Cold War dramatically redefined Yugoslavia’s international position.From proactive actor that adopted a conciliatory approach and promoted peaceful conflict resolution and rapprochement between East and West, the country suddenly became the problem solutions were urgently sought for. The Non-Aligned Movement also faced the challenge of reinventing its role in a world no longer divided into military blocs. After 1992 Yugoslavia’s non-aligned foreign policy became largely equated with Tito’s personality, lavish lifestyle and travels, and in light of the new elites’ Euro-Atlantic aspirations it lost relevance as a subject of academic or serious media scrutiny.

Recently, however, this trend has begun to change. At the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the NAM in 2011, the Serbian President hosted around 700 representatives of more than 100 states at a summit which accentuated ‘the enduring attraction of the universal principles of Non-Alignment’ and a sense of continuity with socialist Yugoslavia. After a fifteen-year period of conscious political distancing from the Yugoslav past, the political elites in the region have mobilised this legacy for particular diplomatic battles or gains.      

While the political re-appropriations of this legacy are clearly motivated by pragmatic goals (in the Serbian case, for instance, with lobbying to prevent future recognitions of Kosovo’s independence), within the realm of public history and academic research there has been growing interest in these largely forgotten transnational (diplomatic, cultural, economic) encounters and in recovering the memories of the actors themselves.

The global history of non-alignment and Yugoslav internationalism could provide an excellent venue for a new generation of scholarship that would move the field of Yugoslav studies forward and place it in conversation with other disciplines and area studies reflecting on the ‘global Cold War’ from a fresh perspective.       


Title picture: “Belgrade Conference, September 1961”, Creator: Suletic (Wikimedia Commons, Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Author

Ljubica Spaskovska is is Lecturer in European History at the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Last Yugoslav Generation: the Rethinking of Youth Politics and Cultures in Late Socialism (Manchester University Press 2017) and1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2019), withsee more


Spaskovska, Ljubica: “Revisiting Non-Alignment and Yugoslavia’s Global Role”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (23.10.2016), URL:

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