Relevance of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 21st Century


The Non-Aligned movement (NAM or movement) emerged in the late 1950s as a policy of passivity and détente which was followed by developing nations in the face of an intense cold war between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which represented the two blocs of capitalism and democracy on the one hand and communism and one party system on the other. The idea of a separate bloc of developing nations who wanted to maintain their own unique identity and military independence, not identifying with either of the two blocs was conceived by the Indian Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Bandung Conference  held in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia is regarded as the antecedent to the NAM where the ’10 Principles of the Bandung Conference’ formed the basic framework of the movement; it gained a proper footing in global politics after the first NAM summit at Belgrade in 1961 which was convened by the founding members. A crucial factor that played a key role in drafting the main principles of the NAM was the potent nuclear warfare threat that hung over the world due to the vast nuclear arsenals that were possessed by both the powers and small developing nations that were used as storage for these nuclear weapons such as Cuba and Turkey. [1]

 The NAM movement played a crucial role in ensuring that newly decolonised nations maintained their own identity, did not fall into chaos and anarchy due to the inexperience of leadership or get drawn into the conflict and fighting between the two rival blocs. Prior to independence, several Asian and African nations had social, cultural and economic beliefs that were shaped by those of their colonisers and these nations played a role at best on the fringes of global politics. After independence, several of them inherited the values, beliefs and ideologies from their colonisers which proved to be somewhat problematic for national leaders who wanted their nations to have a distinct voice and belief systems of their own and not that of their erstwhile colonisers. The movement wanted to eradicate these fundamental problems that plagued newly decolonised and developing nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia by providing a platform of solidarity for countries that were going through similar monumental challenges in terms of nation building and ideology. It stood for rejection of imperialism, neo-colonialism, promotion of multi-lateral talks, international relations on an equal footing to all nations, preservation of native economic ideas and ensuring the United Nations plays a central role in global politics. [2]

However, the relevance of NAM has slowly diminished over the years and after the end of the cold war and collapse of the USSR, several ideals and principles that it stood for became archaic or outmoded in a drastically changed global environment. The absence of two distinct fighting blocs and emergence of US hegemony which resulted in a unipolar world are the main factors that led to NAM losing its significance.  The NAM continues to exist with the 17th NAM Summit scheduled to take place in Venezuela in 2016. Its members consist mostly of Third World and developing nations and the principles of membership remain the same: primarily no military alliance with any other nation, particularly a superpower.

However, contrasting viewpoints and discourse continue to exist regarding the relevance the movement plays in a global environment which is drastically different from one prevailing in its inception. Through the course of this essay, various viewpoints regarding the relevance of the movement are analysed and a summary is offered.

The debate that exists with regard to the significance of the NAM is mainly divided between two groups of scholars— the critics being scholars primarily belonging to the nations of the North (developed and rich nations) showing little or no advocacy for the movement on one side and advocates of NAM consisting of   its member states and the so-called Marxist scholars of developing nations ranged on the other side. To understand the coherence of these two divergent groups of discourse, the arguments are systematically broken down starting with the viewpoints of the critics of the movement.

The Critics

The NAM has been severely criticised in the post-cold war period particularly by the United States of America who felt that the movement is undermining its authority which has led to several North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) operations being carried out against nations of the movement under the umbrella of  ‘international and human rights violation’. The main argument against the relevance of the movement is with regard to change in the global scenario. When the NAM was conceived, the world was going through a tense period and was divided into two blocs, and there was a felt need for a third voice. However, currently the world is a uni-cum-multi polar world, with enough space for several more voices to be heard of various strong powers such as Japan, China, Russia, United Kingdom and France. This has somewhat mitigated the hegemony of the United States of America.

The NAM was essentially created as a support group to help newly decolonised nations to develop a voice and ideology independent of their colonisers and, as a corollary to ensure that such new nations do not slip into anarchy or de-stability. However, colonisation and de-colonisation is a thing of the past and the anticipated problems of decolonised nations no longer pose a serious threat to world order. [3]

Another critique questioning the relevance of NAM goes to the very need for a separate movement. The movement was tasked with ensuring that developing and third world nations get an equal footing in international relations in all spheres. However, with the existence of several organisations that provide a platform to developing countries for different and specific purposes, the NAM is perceived as yet another platform and hence its relevance is questioned. Independent organisations such as ASEAN, SAARC, Asian Development Bank, organisations within the UN aimed at developing nations such as UNDP and UNIDO and cluster of similar developing countries such as the G-7, BRIC and Commonwealth have all led to question the relevance of the NAM.

Further, the main economic ideals that the NAM stands for have not evolved in tandem with modern global thoughts over the past years. Ideals of socialism, state control of economy, and equitable distribution of wealth were extremely popular during the formative years of the movement due to the economic success demonstrated by nations that upheld these ideologies such as the Soviet Union. However, in today’s global setting, very few socialist and state controlled economies are flourishing or playing a crucial role in global politics. Unfortunately, the NAM has not been able to move past these archaic beliefs. The economic policies of the world are, at least until recently, controlled mainly by multi-lateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank while trade relations were guided by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). All these are dominated primarily by the United States which favours American policies.  [4]

Then again, NAM has not been able to play a strong role in supporting or dissenting military invasions and activities carried out by the NATO particularly in the Middle East and on countries that are members of the NAM. This is often seen as the biggest failure or irrelevance of the NAM as the very genesis of the movement rests on military resistance of superpowers and coming together of non-aligned nations as a collective voice against military domination of the super powers.

There is lack of strong leadership and statesmanship within the NAM which would guide a policy of collective power and purpose as a pressure group. The movement has no leader or president or a permanent secretariat and leaders of all member nations play a collective role in decision making which often leads to indecisiveness. Hence, the NAM is seen as one which takes a generic position on global issues and has slowly become more of a club and discussion forum where nations gather at summits to carry out discourse and discussions regarding various global issues without any power to influence global change or bring out a policy framework that gives alternate solutions to the problems that plague the world and have a direct impact on developing nations.

The Advocates

The advocates of the relevance of NAM comprise of members of movement, so-called third world and developing countries. ‘Marxist’ scholars also see the NAM as an extremely important organisation that is more important now than ever. With an expansion in the number of members and frequent summits attended by world leaders, the movement believes that it still continues to play an extremely important role.

One of the biggest arguments for the validity of the NAM is regarding role of the United Nations and other such agencies and their effectiveness. The power of multi-lateral agencies was a central theme to the conception of the movement as NAM was looked upon as a counter weight that gave developing nations an equal footing in world politics that agencies like the UN, WTO or IMF did not.  On several occasions where the United States managed to overpower the authority of UN such as when it carried out military operations in Iran, Iraq or Libya, the credibility of the United Nations as a neutral body to protect the rights of developing countries has been questioned. Further, the Security Council of the UN has only five permanent members where each has the power to veto; several global crisis situations do not get the needed global response due to use of this veto power. Issues such as the Iran-Iraq war, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine conflict could not be resolved due to the exercise of veto power.

 These issues that plague the United Nations have further strengthened the relevance of the NAM where a group of nations have a legitimate forum to oppose the control of the United States and other powers in global politics particularly in the military sphere. The absence of NATO from the ambit of UN jurisdiction and the role it played in the Arab Spring particularly with regard to NAM members such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt is a powerful advocacy for the NAM to continue to act as a force of developing nations and resist or even reverse the acts of these military power blocs. [5]

 The 16th NAM summit held in Tehran in 2012 Iran is an example of the solidarity shown by fellow NAM members towards each other. The backdrop of the summit was Iran being pressurised by Israel, United States and other powerful allies to abandon its nuclear programme. However, with most NAM country leaders and the UN General Secretary Mr. Ban Ki-Moon being present at the summit, attempts to arm-twist Iran by world powers failed where the movement’s members supported Iran’s development of nuclear missiles for peaceful purposes under the framework Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. The thought behind this summit was to give developed nations a confidence boost and to stand united and strong in the face of domination by world powers. [6]

Another support for the movement is in the arena of economic agendas where developed countries try to impose their economic interests on developing nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia.  Market de-regulation is one such example of imposition where developed countries coerce third world nations to open their markets, remove tariffs and reduce import rates to allow imports from developed countries, which mainly fulfils the economic interest of the selling countries by providing them with a vast market base in which to sell their products and services. The globalisation and liberalization trend worldwide have generated complex economic problems where WTO rules and procedures have failed to provide equitable economic gains to the third world and successive WTO summits have failed to reach consensus on many issues. NAM’s role in WTO negotiations to protect the trading rights and opportunities of developing countries does exist to a certain extent. Also, several decisions regarding finances for developing countries are dictated by lending agencies such as IMF and World Bank that are largely controlled by the United States and other developed nations. NAM is extremely relevant in such a scenario to ensure that voices of developing nations are not lost and they get their fair share of chance along the developmental path. [7]

The NAM can also play a significant role in ensuring that the ecological divide of the North and South are mitigated and nations of the South are not unfairly blamed for economic degradation for using existing, albeit polluting technologies. Several developmental and heavy industrial projects cannot be carried out by developing nations due to restrictions placed on them by the developed powers. This is a blatant case of double standards by the nations of the North who have themselves carried out extensive industrial projects in earlier decades that caused severe environment degradation and climate change. The NAM can play a crucial role in ensuring that these developing nations get a fair chance in carrying out developmental projects without unfair impositions by the superpowers.

In Summary

Through the course of this essay, the criticism and advocacy of the Non-Aligned movement have been analysed in detail.

By looking at both sides of the debate it can safely be said that NAM has not completely lost its relevance in the world order which is in constant state of flux—whether having two blocs, being unipolar or even multi-polar. It can also be safely concluded that the idea of NAM itself is in dire need of a re-think in order to rejuvenate and regenerate its policies to maintain its relevance in the world.

The NAM is an extremely important platform for developing nations who need to form a bloc of their own to stand together in solidarity. The NAM is without doubt important to promote South-South solidarity and North-South Cooperation. The movement has lost a significant amount of validity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, rise in multi-polarity in global politics and the inability to synchronise its policies with the changing global environment.  A coherent vision and belief system as to what exactly the NAM proposes to achieve in today’s world is critical for its survival.

The NAM needs to develop a permanent framework including physical location, cooperation between countries of the North and South (rich, developed nation and third world, developing nations), source of funding and powerful engagement strategies with other countries and global agencies to make it more relevant before it fades completely and becomes a phenomenon of the past. If these changes can be brought about by the movement where it is in accordance with the current global realities, no doubt the NAM can achieve the tasks and carry out functions it was formed to do.










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