History and Current Relevance of the Non-Aligned Movement - Why a radical transformation is required

One of India's major achievements during the Nehruvian era was the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (referred to in this article as NAM). The NAM has a reasonably glorious legacy behind it. But right now, it is nothing more than a showpiece. This article looks at why NAM should either be scrapped or reformed in a radical manner.

The past

Before beginning a discussion on the present-day relevance of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it might be useful to recall the circumstances which forced the formation of the NAM. The NAM was formed in the period right after the Second World War. The end of WW II meant that only the USA and the USSR were the really strong countries left, the rest of the countries having suffered immense long-term damage due to the war. The two superpowers were not just immensely strong, they were also extraordinarily suspicious of each other. Besides, there was an intense rivalry between them as to which of the two countries followed the better economic and political system. While the USA claimed liberal democracy and capitalism to be better, the USSR claimed communist polity and socialist economy to be better. Two superpowers, eager to expand their influence over the rest of the world resulted in the formation of two separate camps. The USA had nearly all the Western European countries plus countries like Canada, Japan and Australia behind them while the USSR had the Eastern European countries plus China as well as smaller countries like Cuba and Vietnam (North Vietnam prior to reunification). Besides both countries had numerous followers among the poorer countries of Africa and Asia who joined the alliances with the superpowers with the hope of getting aid in the form of finances or arms which they could use against their regional rivals (Pakistan was a good example). The Korean peninsula was also divided between these two alliances.

The world thus was clearly divided into two distinct alliances. These two alliances were intensely hostile against each other. Although there was no out and out war between both superpowers directly, the alliance system indirectly led to the escalation of conflicts. The Korean War was an early example as was the slightly later Vietnamese conflict. If this would have been allowed to continue, the developing countries risked becoming the pawns of the superpowers. This was realized early on by Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia, Sukarno of Indonesia and Nkrumah of Ghana. They got together in Bandung in Indonesia for a conference which later got transformed into the Non-Aligned Movement or NAM.

It is important to realize that in those tough times, the NAM did have some successes to their credit. In fact even before the NAM was created, Nehru and the Indian diplomats had played their own role in resolving the Korean conflict. Although the countries of NAM could not avoid getting embroiled in certain conflicts, this cannot be considered as their failure, as very often wars happened even when the NAM members did not desire it (a case in point can be the Sino-Indian wars as well as the India-Pakistan conflicts). Besides the NAM provided an identity to many of the countries of Asia and Africa who had just emerged from the shadows of colonialism and were just finding their feet in the international arena.

The present phase

After a dramatic series of incidents comprising of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of the USSR and the collapse of the 'second world', the 'cold war' ended in 1989. Immediately questions were raised regarding the relevance of NAM. Many of these questions continue to this date. It is necessary for us to remember that at this point in time, the world is multipolar with one large superpower, that is, the USA. China probably comes at a distant second, while countries like Russia, Japan, UK and the EU (as a collective) occupy joint third positions with countries like India and Australia occupying another level. There is no alliance system as was the case in the pre-1989 world. Then in relation to whom are the Non-Aligned countries not allied to?

Is NAM a platform for developed countries? Not quite.

Some apologists of the NAM have written or spoken about the NAM being a platform for the developing countries. The theory is that NAM has helped in building a coalition of the so-called 'global south', thus helping boost the confidence of the developing countries. This may have been the case in the past, but as the membership of the NAM has expanded, the claim is proving to be harder and harder to support. This is because, among the massive number of countries who participate in the NAM as full-scale members, many are extremely rich countries. Also, the failure of NAM can be understood from the kind of things which have happened at forums like the WTO over the years. Resolutions after resolutions, which have sought to take away the rights of the developing countries and promote neo-colonialism, have been passed at WTO without the NAM members acting as a united bloc. This is reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s when the New International Economic Order turned into nothing but a piece of paper. Far from standing up against the might of the West, the NAM members have been often co-opted by the developed countries into accepting piecemeal grants rather than a permanent solution to the problems of the developing world.

There is a basic reluctance on the part of the NAM members to recognize their own failures. At present, NAM is the largest international body that runs without a permanent secretariat. The discussions at NAM have often been pretty words without any kind of solution to any problem. Sure, we can choose to preserve the NAM as a relic of our past. But then it would be nothing more than a showpiece at the museum. Or if they do want to preserve the NAM and at the same time make it purposeful, then they should appoint a secretariat, conduct their conferences and meetings more frequently and preferably fix some kind of criteria for new members (to prevent the body from becoming too large and unwieldy). Another idea may be to bind the members so that they adopt a common position in bodies like the WTO.

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