A Requeim for Nonalignment?

Sumit Ganguly | 18 Sep 2020

The 14th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) concluded this weekend in Havana, Cuba where an aging patriarch, Fidel Castro, sought to infuse new life into a moribund movement even as he fought for his own.

Ironically, two Caribbean island states, Haiti and St. Kitts and Nevis, actually joined the movement this week, bringing the total membership to 118. The NAM, which had its formal genesis at Belgrade in 1961, has long ceased to have any material significance.

At the height of the Cold War, in 1979, Cuba had assumed the presidency of the NAM. When a prominent Indian diplomat was asked how Cuba, a staunch client state of the Soviet Union, could possibly assume the presidency of the NAM, the straightforward answer given was that the organisation lacked a "credentials check". It is not a wonder that Junius Jayawardene, a former president of Sri Lanka, is believed to have once quipped that the only two states that could truly be considered non-aligned were the United States and the Soviet Union.

As expected, the latest NAM summit has produced a tortured document that lambasts American imperialism, denounces the concepts of "failed states", "humanitarian intervention", "pre-emptive wars" and lauds sovereignty and self-determination. Despite the presence of, and the call from, the outgoing Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, on the importance of promoting human rights and democracy, it is doubtful that very many of the member states of the NAM will pay much more than rhetorical support to his words.

The vast majority of the members of the NAM are squalid, authoritarian states which have squandered their resources, oppressed their populations and invaded their neighbours. They also are known for harping on the inequities of the global economic order while systematically overlooking their own, myriad domestic failings.

It is distressing to recall that the NAM did not start out with these many "self-inflicted wounds" to use the words of the political scientist, Faoud Ajami. Instead several of its original leaders were staunch, anti-colonial nationalists, who had sought to lead their nascent nations away from the Manichean struggle of the Cold War. They included Sukarno from Indonesia, Nehru from India, Nasser from Egypt and Tito from the former Yugoslavia.

Their original goals, quite apart from preventing their nations from being enmeshed in the titanic superpower struggle, were laudable. They had sought to bolster multilateral institutions and diplomacy, struggled mightily to delegitimise the last, cruel vestiges of colonialism, promote a more equitable world order and reduce the resort to force in international politics. In the end, the only substantial accomplishment of the NAM was to hasten an end to the ailing European colonial order in Africa and Asia. To some limited degree they also facilitated some minor, global arms control efforts.

Beyond these accomplishments, for all their periodic fanfare, the NAM achieved little. Barring marked exceptions, all their leaders succumbed to the temptation of domestic authoritarianism of one ideological stripe or other. Given their authoritarian predilections, not surprisingly, they showed scant regard for protecting human rights at home while dwelling on the evil legacies of colonialism. Many of them abjectly failed to promote economic development and sought to shift the blame for their policy failures on an unjust global economic order. Finally, with exquisite irony, several of them proved to be able acolytes of either the Soviet Union or the United States (usually the former) while loudly proclaiming their non-aligned credentials.

By the 1970s, the NAM was, for all practical purposes, a spent moral force. Yet, none of their leaders or their followers appeared to have either the intellectual sagacity or moral clarity to infuse the organisation with new ideas and precepts. Nor, for that matter, did they muster the requisite courage to simply disband the entity recognising that it had long outlived its usefulness, however limited. Consequently, it continued to hold its annual meetings across the globe, induct new members and issue meaningless and hoary statements after every summit.

The Cold War's end actually provided a viable moment for a requiem to this organisation that had already lost its original rationale. Despite some desultory talk about ending the organization, it gathered renewed force. Several of its staunch supporters insisted on its continuing relevance because of the emergence of American unipolarity. In their analysis, the movement had acquired new significance to counter overweening American power and thereby ensure the autonomy of smaller states in the global system.

Notionally, the NAM might have been able to pursue this goal of what scholars of international politics refer to as "soft balancing" --- against the United States, thereby limiting the unbridled exercise of American power. However, such balancing required at least a modicum of unity of interests and purpose amongst this extremely diverse coalition of states. Unfortunately, the NAM states had more differences amongst them than sharing common misgivings about inordinate American economic and political might.

Consequently, when it came to forging a common platform for action all the NAM could agree on were a set of vacuous platitudes and little else. More to the point, as no other state loomed on the horizon to tame American power, many of them reached bilateral accords with the United States and, for all practical purposes, came to terms with American power.

The latest NAM summit has brought to the fore the bankruptcy of the movement. States ranging from Venezuela to Iran, who have serious bilateral differences with the United States, for reasons both sound and imaginary, came together to lead loud denunciations of American conduct. Others, who have their own grievances, but unwilling to align themselves with either Hugo Chavez or Mahmud Ahmedinejad, chose to maintain lower profiles.

Despite the latest round of grand pronouncements from Havana, it is doubtful that the NAM will have the slightest impact on the course of global politics. At best, its exhortations will be ignored in the councils of global power. At worst, it will only convince its detractors that it has again failed to provide any meaningful suggestions for addressing genuine global ills such as poverty, hunger, disease and the continuing scourge of war.


Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the India Studies Institute at Indiana University. 

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