THE mid-20th century was the era of decolonisation, as imperial powers receded from their colonial possessions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was also an era sandwiched historically between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
The new nations were almost by definition nationalistic: they faced the monumental task of transforming vast exploited populations with meagre exploitable resources into viable national identities, all under “new management” installed virtually overnight.
Despite their many differences, these new nations understood that they shared key features like economic weakness and political vulnerability. But they also knew that working together would produce a confidence and strength that could ease their common problems.
Among the national leaders who combined a sense of mission with a sweeping vision were Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Ahmad Sukarno of Indonesia, Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia.
Marshal Tito had fallen out with Stalin’s Soviet Union by 1948, and spent the rest of his political life forging an independent socialism for Yugoslavia.
He also poured his energies into a nascent project of non-alignment, becoming synonymous with it in his later years.
Prime Minister Nehru’s commitment to the cause of non-alignment came early, with his exposure to international gatherings promoting national sovereignty and international peace.
These influential conferences included the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels in 1927, and the first Asian Relations Conference which Nehru hosted 20 years later.
President Nasser was a secular nationalist who worked for both pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism, condemning the United Nations along with the West for selling out the Palestinian people.
President Nkrumah headed the first independent nation in British Africa, in the process becoming the father of pan-Africanism.
These and 25 other leaders attended a seminal meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, over one historic week in April 1955. The host of the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian Nations was President Sukarno, who cited world peace as a condition for national sovereignty and warned of colonialism in all forms.
A Cairo meeting in June 1961 prepared for a summit later that year. Conditions for participation included an independent national policy of non-alignment, co-existence with states of different political systems, consistent support for national liberation movements, and abstinence from military co-operation in “Great Power conflicts.”
In September 1961 Marshal Tito hosted the first Conference of Non-Aligned Heads of State or Government in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. But the formative stage for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had been set in Bandung six years before.
From the beginning, NAM meant more than simple neutrality between the two contending superpowers, the US and the USSR. It primarily stood for a dynamic independence based on each member nation’s history, culture, aspirations and character.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, noting in 1983 how NAM membership had multiplied four-fold, said non-alignment was “not vague, not negative, not neutral.” This reflected well how her father Nehru first saw it: substantive, positive and pro-active.
Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere celebrated non-alignment as “an expression of freedom.” Vice-President Mohd Hatta of Indonesia described it as an “independent and active” force in shaping his country’s foreign policy.
However, cynics see it as only a seesaw between the two superpowers of the day, maintaining a passive equilibrium from a static posture of equidistance. They then argue that since the era of bipolarity ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so should the purpose of non-alignment.
This neglects the basis of non-alignment as forging an independent path to development with national integrity. Moreover, to suggest that the non-aligned status of more than half the world was never more than a by-product of superpower feuding only slights the sovereignty and aspirations of member nations.
Senior officials of NAM countries have no doubt that a stronger NAM is needed. As Nyerere put it: “There is no earthly reason why the end of division among the Rich (North) should lead to disunity among the Poor (South).”
Ever since NAM’s inception, non-alignment was both a policy instrument and a tactical strategy. Pundits who question NAM’s relevance today typically confuse between the two.
As a strategy, non-alignment positioned countries between the superpowers to safeguard their fledgling sovereignty, and to procure whatever material gain available from superpower rivalry. While this tactic no longer applies in an immediate post-Soviet order, it may need to be revived with the emergence of any new power centre in the world.
As an instrument, non-alignment has always been vital for member countries to remain steadfast in their own development path, free from undue pressure or influence from any superpower. This makes NAM even more important in today’s unipolar world.
Seasoned observers of NAM know from experience how treacherous global power politics can be.
The movement was established in an atmosphere of consternation but also cordiality, indignation but compromise, with some sense of trepidation but also much hope. None of the superpowers baulked, while then-US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even seemed well disposed to it.
Yet despite the righteous declarations of NAM, the United States and the Soviet Union each cynically mined the movement for allies against the other. Dulles in particular split the movement in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, containing China, encircling Indonesia, dividing Vietnam and the Korean peninsula, thwarting democracy in Pakistan and compromising non-alignment in Thailand and the Philippines.
At the same time, however, NAM had a genuine resonance with some communities outside its immediate Third World constituency. Its supporters included individual African-Americans whose own experience of White domination enriched their appreciation of NAM’s anti-colonial struggle: among them, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, activist Malcolm X, and journalist Margaret Cartwright, the first Black reporter assigned to the UN.
NAM remains important also because its mission to elevate the welfare of member nations is still unfinished. While the movement’s founding fathers fought nobly for the cause of national liberation, some of its members today are tagged with charges of “terrorism” and the label of “rogue state.”
Yet these allegations have always been subjective, depending on the identity of the accuser as much as that of the accused. In practical and non-partisan terms, terrorism and the rogue state are the preserve of the weak and desperate alienated from the world community, as well as the very strong and brazen immune to international criticism.
The energy and imagination of NAM’s founders gave much to the movement, upon which its members today need to build. But even these sterling qualities were not enough to tame enemies within and without, as evidenced in the short-lived fortunes of Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba.
NAM today has matured sufficiently to place policies before personalities, with esteem deriving more from proven success in national development than rousing rhetoric. In this, two countries in particular stand out: Malaysia and Cuba.
Cuba has logged impressive achievements in education and health care, the two key areas of development for any country. Malaysia today stands as the most developed of developing countries, achieving this as a very multiracial nation with a Muslim-based polity.
With Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad hosting the XIII NAM Summit next month, Malaysia comes full circle. An “unofficial” Malaysian delegation had tried to attend a NAM-affiliated organisation in Ghana in 1965 as a prelude to NAM membership, led by a young Parliamentarian Dr Mahathir.
The theme of the summit in Kuala Lumpur next month is revitalising the movement, the core of the summit’s Kuala Lumpur Declaration.
This will accompany the Final Document, outlining the movement’s position on terrorism and other issues of the day.
Last October, NAM’s 114 members and other UN states lobbied against a prospective US war against Iraq.
The XIII NAM Summit will be an opportunity to affirm NAM’s opposition to a US invasion, much as it may be an opportunity also for a superpower to snub the majority will of the international community.
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