The Non-Aligned Movement derived its initial strength by buffering Third World countries from being coerced into choosing between the Soviet and American blocs during the Cold War. But now those very founding principles may be obstructing it from charting a new direction, writes WANI MUTHIAH.
WHEN the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was first established, it was clearly defined as being a platform to represent the collective views of Third World nations which had neither the political clout nor economic brawn to individually face possible repercussions of the Cold War that was being waged between the Soviet Union and the US.
Fearing the likely ramifications if they were to align themselves with either one of the two feuding superpowers, the founding nations, which shared the commonality of being former colonies, built the movement around five founding principles of non-alignment:
Based on these principles and propelled by common concerns, the NAM had its first summit in Belgrade in 1961 to mainly address colonialism and superpower confrontation issues.
According to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Associate Professor of History Dr Vinay Lal, NAM’s early strength was drawn from buffering Third World countries from being forced to choose between the Soviet and American blocs during the Cold War, which lasted between the end of WWII and the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union.
But drastic changes in the global geo-political scenario in recent years had somewhat decreased the movement’s relevance and seriously questioned the purpose of its continued existence.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, NAM appeared to have some ethical and political relevance, but its importance began to diminish in the 1970s. Since the late 1980s, when the Soviet bloc began to crumble, NAM has become pretty much a non-entity in world affairs,” added Dr Lal in a phone interview with The Star.
Dr Lal, author of Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy, added that the nation-state concept synonymous with the movement, had also contributed to the NAM becoming insignificant in the international arena.
(More than 50 new nation-states came into being after decolonisation in the 20th century.)
“Many of the nation-states have been known to be coercive, bloody, and homogenising enterprises which imposed strict criteria of inclusion and jealously guarded their frontiers.
“The logic of the nation-state system was also such that they only looked after their own interests and could enter into temporary, and even contradictory alliances to further their individual interests,” added Dr Lal.
Fragile unity and varying agendas among member states were also factors which threatened the continued existence of the movement.
Dr Lal cited India, which was one of the founding nations of NAM, as an example of a member country which had “essentially betrayed the principles of NAM'' due to the pursuance of its own agenda.
“There is concrete evidence that India, which is now committed to neo-liberalisation and globalisation, has decided that it wishes to emulate the US and acquire great power status and it is a remarkable fact that India’s links with Israel, the US’s staunchest ally, have grown tremendously since the BJP acquired power five years ago,” he added.
He said the NAM, though led by Nehru, was in some ways inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and the present political elite in India were known to despise Gandhi and this was one of the reasons why India, which once provided leadership to NAM, had itself repudiated everything the movement stood for.
University of Warwick’s Professor in Politics and International Studies Dr Jan Aarte Scholte said since NAM worked on the principle of solidarity it could revive itself to actively promote global security and equity to advance the interests of Third World countries.
However, in a telephone interview, he said NAM should be cautious not to provoke North-South polarisations as this could be detrimental to many progressive causes.
“Southern coalitions should not exclude parallel North-South initiatives while strengthening regional ties because issues like debt relief for poor countries and protection of minorities can only be powerfully addressed when like-minded forces in the North and the South come together,” said Dr Scholte, a leading European authority on globalisation.
He said NAM could also play an important role in bringing collective pressure from the South for more equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of globalisation as currently prevailing policies towards globalisation had often worked to the disadvantage of the South.
“We see this in many aspects of present arrangements that govern global trade, finance as well as communications among other things, and discrimination in the current globalising world also falls on lines of age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion and so on.
“NAM has not shown itself to be a particularly good vehicle for addressing these forms of social inequality in spite of being the gathering of governments and governing elites of nations which have benefited disproportionately from globalisation,” he added.
However, if leadership of the NAM would prompt Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad to give more attention to wider Southern and global interests, his contribution to globalisation debates would be greater and he might indeed help to resuscitate the movement, he said.
“The Prime Minister of Malaysia has spoken out forcefully against some of the reckless liberalisation that has accompanied contemporary globalisation.
“And his actions, particularly on capital controls, have inspired many critics of neo-liberalism, in both North and South, to see that alternative approaches to globalisation are possible,” added Dr Scholte.
Asked how NAM could best address the issue of terrorism, UCLA’s Dr Lal said any decision taken or resolution passed at the Kuala Lumpur summit with regard to terrorism would be rendered useless because of the fundamental changes in world politics.
“I think it must be transparent to anyone who has seriously contemplated the course of world politics that unbridled American hegemony itself constitutes a form of terrorism for the rest of the world,” said Dr Lal.
He said American policy, which had been to impress upon the world the fact that nations which refused to emulate the US and it’s apparent free-trade policies and political system would be condemned to oblivion, was also a form of terrorism.
“The manner in which the US is now preparing for an unprecedented war against Iraq, when much of the world is hostile to this proposed war, is in itself an indication that if the world, including NAM, doesn’t wake up to the fact that the US is now engaging in a gross abuse of power, the terrorism of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda will be mere child’s play,” added Dr Lal.
Dr Scholte reckoned that even though member states could effectively express their perspectives on terrorism and broaden the debate at the Kuala Lumpur summit, NAM lacked the resources to take more concrete measures other than merely “talk shop.”
Senior analyst and Asia/Pacific editor of the US-based Foreign Policy in Focus, John Gershman, reckoned that NAM, facing various challenges, including those which emerged after the Sept 11 tragedy, could reinvent itself to address these issues effectively if it wanted to.
“The clearest challenge is that there are not two camps between which countries try to stay non-aligned – there is one superpower and a shifting amalgam of other countries that may differ from the US on certain issues, but there are no competing power blocs,” said Gershman.
Gershman said NAM’s framework had simply replaced the old bipolar world of the Cold War with a North-South framework that solely emphasised economic issues to the exclusion of security issues until the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US.
He added that the post-Sept 11 period had created a political window which could be utilised by NAM as an ideological space to propagate innovative action and proposals to address non-traditional transactional threats to collective security such as terrorism, AIDS and climate change.
However, NAM’s founding principles such as sovereignty, self-determination, non-interference and South-South co-operation might obstruct the movement from charting a new direction unless its member nations were willing to either eliminate or redefine some of these principles to pave a path for the movement to meet the current challenges.
“I think NAM needs a real debate on when principles of sovereignty and non-interference need to be challenged. Self-determination, for example, was reserved for the leaders of government, while independence movements were repressed; self-determination was never a full principle.
“South-South cooperation was always greater in rhetoric than in action,” said Gershman.
Member nations, he added, needed to first call attention to the actions of fellow member states that infringe on their security even if indirectly, such as failure to counter the haze problem by Indonesia or incidents of repression which caused problems for other countries, if it wanted to effectively take up global issues with non-member nations.
Gershman added that since Malaysia was scheduled to chair NAM for the next three years, Dr Mahathir could play an important role in challenging South states to pursue innovative regional initiatives as well as push member countries to commit towards ensuring that a solution was found for Palestine.
“And given that Malaysia is also heading the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), NAM would be an important opportunity to press more on both the issue of combating terrorism and supporting a political settlement in Palestine,” he added.
It looks like much work lies ahead for NAM at this summit.