THE Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had its genesis in a bipolar world; it was built around the Bandung principle that countries throwing away the yoke of colonialism should carve out an independent path eschewing alignment with power blocs created by the United States and the Soviet Union.
It developed a special focus on continued decolonisation and the quest for an equitable economic order.
The fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact plunged it into an identity crisis and even today many people in nations like India that pioneered its establishment describe it as no more than a relic of the Cold War.
India is not the only state from the elite group within NAM to have sought a strategic partnership with the United States that was vigorously projected as the sole superpower since the 1990s and as an indispensable nation that had brought the flux of history to an end by demonstrating freedom and market economy as the paramount principles of state organisation and inter-state relations.
Nothing contributed more to the survival and re-emergence of the core concerns of NAM than the failure of the victors of the Cold War to create a just and peaceful world order. Instead, there were apprehensions in the East and West alike that the United States was establishing a subtler empire that increasingly used its unopposed military, economic and diplomatic strength to perpetuate old political and economic disparities.
Globalisation was soon critiqued adversely for its inherent tendency to aggravate existing international imbalances and deepen them even within the states coming within its seductive ambit. Similarly, a perception that the ‘Empire’ employed the rhetoric of freedom and human rights but was always ready to use force in fulfilling its agenda permeated what over time built up into a powerful counter-narrative.
Of the many forms of resistance to the alleged ‘neo-imperialism’ of the Great Powers — Soviet Union in 1980s and the US-led West after its demise — the emergence of non-state actors was easily the deadliest. In its endeavours to restore a raison d’être for itself, NAM took an unambiguous stand against extremism and terrorism. This alone should have led to an unqualified acceptance of the movement in the West.
Regrettably, the US seems to have reverted to its Cold War-era hostility towards it partly because Tehran was the venue of the just concluded 16th summit and partly because the American establishment is opposed to the collective articulation of opinions on international issues that are at variance with its own preferences of the day.
The US State Department described Tehran as a “strange and inappropriate choice” for the conference; it mounted a campaign to dissuade the UN secretary general and other world leaders from attending it. Quite perversely, the Washington Post dubbed the gathering of leaders of 118 nations as “anti-American” and a “bacchanal of nonsense.”
Washington’s opposition was not the only reason why Tehran took up the hosting of the 16th summit as a challenge. The Iranian revolution gave the slogan ‘neither East, nor West’, and the Iranian regime believes that it can intellectually revitalise the movement during the three years of its chairmanship.
Then, it was an occasion to demonstrate that Iran was not isolated, that a huge gathering of world leaders implicitly accepted Iranian assurances about the peaceful nature of its much-threatened nuclear programme and that a show of solidarity would strengthen the view that any military action against Iran would be utterly devoid of legality. Furthermore, Iran would have in the summit a fighting chance to put across to the NAM nations its reasons for supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Iran succeeded in achieving its immediate objectives in varying degrees.
The Non-Aligned Movement is poised to infuse fresh life into a whole host of concerns pushed down to a lower order of priority by the American neo-conservative discourse: sovereign equality of nations, North-South and South-South cooperation, reform of the UN, particularly of the Security Council, disarmament on an equitable basis, the dark side of globalisation, inadmissibility of the threat of use of force and unilateral military interventions, interfaith and inter-civilisation dialogue, global poverty, food security, and scourge of diseases in disadvantaged Asia and Africa.
Its declaration running to 688 paragraphs is a compendium of significant issues warranting an approach other than that crafted by the triumphalism of the Great Powers in the early 1990s; it will continue to reshape the culture of international relations setting up norms that the high and mighty violate with impunity today.
The movement is not a power bloc and can rely mostly on its soft power. None of its first exponents would follow its texts to the exclusion of benefits derived from the dominant powers of the post-Soviet era. A former Indian foreign secretary has counselled his country that it should extract whatever is possible from NAM and “treat its NAM membership as merely one component of its international positioning”. The same prescription would apply in most cases even as NAM remains an immensely useful forum to constrain the arbitrariness of the putative ‘Empire’.