Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Non-Aligned Movement faces increasing irrelevance in post-Cold War world

Any international organisation boasting 120 member states should be a significant voice on the world stage. In the case of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) however, there is a distinct air of impotency. While many rising nations from around the developing world, especially Asia and Africa, still participate in building up the Cold War relic, the force of the movement has seriously deflated.

The 2012 NAM summit in Tehran attracted delegations from most member states. Even the United Nations Secretary General attended. Putting all these developing, and in a few cases already impressively developed, states together should be a recipe for action. And yet the gathering was in some ways hijacked by Iran as it used the movement as a counterweight to U.S.-led efforts to isolate the country over a suspicious nuclear energy project.

2012 17th Non-Aligned Movement summit delegates
The very fact that Iran has assumed the mantle of the movement’s rotating three-year leadership, rather than a geopolitically more important country in the fast-growing Asia Pacific, points to the growing irrelevancy and dislocated political agenda of the group.

The 2012 summit in Iran received little more than an ambivalent nod from the Kremlin. While Beijing, which is only an observer nation, does not have many reasons to fully engage with a movement whose heyday was back in the early 1970s and 1980s.

There once was a coherent mission for the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. Many countries simply either could not or refused to take sides with one of the major duelling superpowers. The movement became an influential voice in world politics as newly independent nations stretched their political legs to take their chances in a post-colonial world alone.

From the perspective of the two superpowers, any country not aligned with the other was good news. This didn’t stop Washington and Moscow from fighting what were actually very hot wars inside many of the member’s territories or manipulating those nations through diplomacy or aid structures. Practically though, a good chunk of the member states were never really completely detached from Soviet or American ideology, regardless of the rhetoric at periodic summits.

Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States became the ideological target for the movement as they experienced an identity crisis. Most of today’s participating members also belong to the UN, meaning that many of the issues raised by the movement will generally make it in front of the UN assembly for assessment.

Non-alignment was a noble goal for South Asia, Africa, South America, and the Asia Pacific during the fearful days of Cold War. But in the first years of the 21st century, the original desire not to align within a hegemonic geopolitical/military structure has essentially dissolved.

With so many competing strategic and national objectives within the member states, many of which are entirely irrelevant outside an individual state’s system, the diplomatic glue has been tough to administer. There is also something depressingly hypocritical about a movement standing for human rights and equality of all races while many of those member states are responsible for some of modern history’s most disgusting acts of violence inside their own countries.

For instance, countries such as Libya, North Korea, Iran, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Cambodia, Syria, Vietnam, and Palestine are all members of the movement. Each has fomented their own belligerent quarrel – however justified –with the world’s only remaining superpower. As far as this goes, the United States, as a symbol of Western hegemony, remains a lightning rod for many nations to vent their complicated anger.

Yet the long list of present-day NAM member states includes a number of countries actively engaging the United States for economic development and stronger political ties. Using only the latest salient example, the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, was warmly hosted this week by United States President Barack Obama at the White House. Myanmar has been a member of the Non-Aligned movement since 1961.

Members of the Non-Aligned Movement (observer nations in light blue)
Naypyidaw is deliberately looking beyond the outdated NAM and reaching out to the United States for the first time in decades. For Myanmar, caught geographically between the two rising powers of India and China, America actually offers an important economic counterweight for the budding nation. Under an older regime, Myanmar might have continued to strengthen its historic relationship with China and snubbed the United States. But the world is changing, taking with it the once-prevailing reasons for smaller, developing nations to oppose the powerful Western world together.

In similar ways, the Philippines and Malaysia, both signatories of the NAM, are responding to the evolving dynamics in the Asia Pacific in ways they would never have dreamed only a few decades ago. Other members such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Indonesia, Egypt, and South Africa all remain members of the movement, as they have been almost since its inception. Although it would be a casual reading of history to say these nations were ever truly “non-aligned” with the United States.

This dissonance indicates the uncomfortable truth about the post-Cold War period. In the same way the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was a structure for a specific time against a clear threat, the Non-Aligned Movement is an edifice lacking almost all of its original reasons for existence.

The UN, with all its foibles and intricacies, is much better placed as an institution to protect the interests of vulnerable nations. And although the movement was designed to avoid military blocs, member countries with the resources to join such blocs are today gravitating towards them for greater protection. Today’s world teeters on the brink of chaos in many places. Remaining aloof from the world system, and without interaction with the United States, is a dangerous position to be in.

Ultimately, the historically anti-Western characteristics of the Non-Aligned Movement will be difficult to maintain as the new century progresses and large, growing regional powers create new strategic choices for many of the movement’s members. Snubbing the United States or Western Europe in today’s splintering, multi-polar world in favour of China or India will be a difficult choice.

If the movement is to have any clout in the coming decades it will need to seriously re-examine its goals. It might not ever have been expected back in 1961, but the need for such a movement in all likelihood probably doesn’t exist today.

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