Home >Opinion >Online-views >From non-alignment to new alignments

Time was when summits of the non-aligned movement (NAM) were tedious, even, boring events. Everybody stuck to the script, papered over differences and produced bland final communiqués. For instance the 7th NAM summit in New Delhi in 1983 is best remembered for the burly Fidel Castro engulfing the petite Indira Gandhi in a bear-hug while passing on the chairman’s baton than the final document. Not any more.

The recently concluded 16th NAM summit in Tehran will be remembered for the pleading demarches by the US and Israel, among others, to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon not to attend the meet; the subsequent admonishing lecture delivered by Ban to his hosts; the very open dust-up between Egypt and Syria; the parochial effort of Iran to justify its nuclear programme while entirely ignoring the democratic movements in its neighbourhood; and the high on rhetoric but low on action final document. Above all, the summit will be remembered for the efforts of states to use even the NAM forum to forge new alignments.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing the 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, in Tehran, Iran on 30 August. Photo: PIB

Similarly, India, used the occasion to build on the long-delayed trilateral cooperation between Kabul, New Delhi and Tehran and set up a joint working group to enhance investment cooperation, trade, and transit between the three countries. In addition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his oft-repeated pitch for an enhanced role for India in global governance and appealed to NAM members to “agree on action to reform institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the World Bank and the IMF". The speech also highlighted India’s new alignment with Africa through the India-Africa Forum Summit (underlining Africa’s resources and potential markets as well as its crucial votes in any plan to reform the UNSC). These new alignments within NAM and the vocal public disagreements reflect an effort to make it relevant to the changing needs of its members.

For the first 30 years of its existence, NAM focused on three D’s: decolonization, disarmament and development and was relatively successful in its efforts, particularly with regard to decolonization. While NAM was found wanting in promoting democracy among its own members, it did contribute to democratizing global governance by working to expand the UNSC from 11 to 15 members in 1965, thus allowing for greater NAM representation.

However, in the post Cold War period, the three ‘D’s’ became less relevant: The process of decolonization is almost entirely accomplished; with several key members developing dynamic economies and some becoming members of the G-20, NAM development model lost appeal; finally, with three of the four non-NPT nuclear members also being NAM members, its disarmament efforts weakened. Moreover, NAM’s inability to prevent the slow, painful and brutal disintegration of one of its founding members—Yugoslavia—and its reluctance to confront authoritarian regimes pushed it to the edge of irrelevance.

While NAM’s large, unwieldy and disparate membership certainly does not make it easy to work together on contentious issues, the lack of enlightened leadership at the helm of this movement has also contributed to its near demise. Iran had the opportunity to stake its claim for that leadership role but as the Tehran tamasha has amply demonstrated, it chose to squander this chance, pushing NAM further down the road to oblivion.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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