Times of non-alignment are over, it is good for Nepal

Nepal voted against Russian aggression in Ukraine at the UN General Assembly. It could herald a new era of truly independent foreign policy for Nepal.

Women and children, fleeing from Ukraine, arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland. (Photo: AP/RSS)

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

Nepal did the right thing in voting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly. Such aggression cannot be condoned whatever the grievances Russia may have in relation to NATO’s plans of further expansion to Eastern Europe.

Nepal’s vote should be used to start a conversation about the role the country inspires to have on the international stage. This is not going to be an easy conversation because it is something that is loaded with pre-conceived positions, biases and ancient views of the world based on old ideologies.

Yet if Nepal wants to find its place in the world, it is essential that a new foreign policy emerges from such discussions but in order to do so, we really need to start by rethinking and reshaping the mindset that so far has guided the country’s foreign policy.

If Nepal commendably held a values-based position in its vote on Ukraine’s war, why should I lament the current status of the foreign policy of the country and propose a broader conversation about the need of revising its national geopolitical paradigms?

It was the declaration of Minister for Foreign Affairs Narayan Khadka about the fact that with this vote at the United Nations, Nepal did not take sides.

I really struggle to understand this statement unless we consider it as a sort of “face-saving” attempt at not irking Russia, a country that, at the time of the USSR, had notably contributed to the development of Nepal.

Minister Khadka in the media brief held on March 7 shared that the country is still adhering to the overarching principles of Non-Alignment, a position that might have been useful in the past, during the Cold War. Yet what are the meanings of Non-Alignment in the twenty-first century? Does endorsing and embracing such an old policy prevent the country from taking firm positions on the world stage?

Nepal’s foreign policy has always been framed against finding the right balances among competing superpowers who surround the nation or, as in the case of the US, have strong interests in South East Asia.

As in the case of the MCC’s Nepal Compact ratification, there is a constant fixation on ensuring that the country does not join any foreign alliance, a refrain that has become a sort of paranoia that is self-defeating and harmful to the inspirations and goals of what should be an ambitious nation willing to establish itself in the world stage.

Think new 

It is true that such positioning does not only represent the pillars of the foreign policy of Nepal but also those of many other nations in the South of the world and the countries and people who suffered colonization or other abuses from the West over the course of the past centuries.

There is no doubt that the playbook used by the US and the vast majority of the European nations was dirty and considerably unbalanced and unfair. Certainly, many wounds from the past must still be healed and there is still so much to be done in this regard.

It is unequivocally clear and straightforward that there is nothing controversial about standing with Ukraine. There is no need for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to clarify anything.

For example, it was only in mid-February of this year that we got an apology from the Dutch Prime Minister in relation to the atrocities committed by his country during the 1940s Indonesian war. Another example is the agreement that Germany is going to provide compensation to Namibia for the former’s crimes when it colonized the African nation. The reparation in the amount of 1.05 billion Euro (US$1.18 billion) over a period of 30 years is ridiculous if you think about what happened but still at least something symbolic, especially because there is a formal recognition of abuses and suffering caused by the occupying power.

While nations and peoples who experienced colonialism and other forms of oppression must pursue justice at the international level, it is also important that such countries are able to chart a future path not overwhelmingly bogged down by past grievances.

And here I am returning to the case of Nepal adhering to the principles of Non-Alignment. Nepal took the decision, the correct one, in condemning Russia’s invasion and this, literally, means taking sides.

It is unequivocally clear and straightforward that there is nothing controversial about it and there is no need for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to clarify anything. Nepal needs to overcome old assumptions about its role in the world.

The standoff about the MCC is clearly an indicator of how many people are still guided by old ideologies rather than common sense and practicality. Nepal has its sovereign rights to pursue peaceful relations with China and India but strengthening its bonds with its neighbors does not mean abdicating on the duty of expanding its own foreign policy footprint even if this effort might sometimes collide with others’ interests.

National interests first 

An independent nation with global aspirations must go beyond old dichotomies and feel free to pursue its goals at global levels, always putting its own interests first.  A self-interest-driven foreign policy means that sometimes Nepal may upset its neighbors or friends—such as the US, the UK or the EU—but such annoyances do happen in foreign policy and that’s okay.

Look at the members of the EU. They do not always agree on the same instances and they do have differences among them but ultimately they come together for the most important positions as the current Ukrainian crisis is showing.

Ina Karpanko who lives in Poland reunites with her son Vanya who fled the war from neighboring Ukraine at Medyka border crossing, Poland, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Nepal should feel more confident and secure about its role in the world.

It does not mean turning into an irresponsible and insensitive geopolitical player, especially in relations to India and China but it is inevitable that the country must focus on its own development and its foreign policies should be dictated by this ultimate goal.

Even understanding its neighbors’ sensitivities and ‘red lines’, for example, Kashmir for India or Taiwan for China, does not preclude Nepal from asserting its own positions in the world even if these might not be espoused by Delhi and Beijing. 

A confident nation with clear goals and inspirations will be able to project a new sense of self-reliance and positive ambition on the global stage and the international community will notice it.

The country needs to become a real partner rather than a vassal as it holds allegiance to no one else but its own people. A confident nation with clear goals and inspirations will be able to project a new sense of self-reliance and positive ambition on the global stage and the international community will notice it.

So it is good that finally, the country approved the MCC grant and it is extremely good that Nepal did the right thing at the UN General Assembly in deploring Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Perhaps this could be a turning point, a true demarcation from its powerful neighbors. Hopefully in the future too, Nepal will again make the right decision based on the overarching principles enshrined in its constitution, a sovereign document that seeks peace and prosperity rather than aggression and devastation.

And at that time, there will be no need for any assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about not taking sides. That will be a time when the country will always take sides but only for its own prosperity and for the welfare of its own people. The times of non-alignment are over and this is going to be good for Nepal.

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Views are personal.

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