Speech prepared for the UN Youth New Zealand held on the 25.05.13, held at the University of Auckland.
Today I’d like to look at whether institutions like the Non-Aligned Movement and NATO are still relevant in today’s world, and whether snubbing the United States as the largest economy on the planet is a prudent foreign policy decision. There will be a time for questions following my talk, at which point you can throw anything my way, I’ll try to answer as best as I can.
So, in the words of Henry the Eighth to his wife, “I won’t keep you too long”.
For a small country to compete effectively in this world there really is only a few options. It could find a willing power patron ready to open their much larger marketplace in preference to the smaller nation. But there’s always the chance of manipulation here.
It could form a military bloc with like-minded neighbouring countries who share a political ideology or strategic interest. Or maybe the best choice is to join a huge multinational group to create better leverage when dealing with the world’s biggest powers.
In the case of organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement, the latter seemed to be the best choice when it was formed in 1961. There are a lot of good things about the movement. And any international organisation boasting 120 member states should be a significant voice on the world stage.
But as the new millennium slowly unwinds, there seems to be a distinct air of impotency around the Non-Aligned Movement and other Cold War structures.
Sure, many rising nations from around the developing world, especially from Asia and Africa, still participate in the Non-Aligned Movement, but the force of the movement has seriously deflated, and along with other Cold War structures, it could be time to re-evaluate the necessity of these institutions and maybe throw our collective weight behind more comprehensive structures like the UN.
In fact, the USA, Soviet Russia, and Communist China never approved of this movement and worked for its destruction from the very beginning.
But the impotency I’m talking about was on full display during last year’s Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Tehran.
The summit attracted delegations from most member states. And even the United Nations Secretary General popped in for a bit to see how things were coming along. 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.
Whatever issues the members of the movement wanted the world to react to became overshadowed in Western media by sensational Iranian rhetoric leaving the movement wondering why it turned up in the first place
Of course, the very fact that Iran has assumed the mantle of the movement’s rotating three-year leadership, rather than, say, a geopolitically and economically more important country from the fast-growing Asia Pacific region, points to the growing irrelevancy and dislocated political agenda of the movement.
Not that the members seemed to care, but the 2012 summit in Iran received little more than an ambivalent nod from the Kremlin, and the United States couldn’t care less. And Beijing understands that its Asian neighbours who are part of the movement still can’t cohere into an effective opposition to counter what it’s trying to do in the Asia Pacific.
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 a whole range of newly independent nations stretched their political legs to take their chances in a post-colonial world. The idea to come together reflected the inherent problems that small countries have when competing with larger nations.
This was a good idea at the time, for everyone. Because from the perspective of the two superpowers, any country not aligned with the other one, was good news.
Of course, their collective decision to stay away from America and the Soviet Union 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 truly completely detached from Soviet or American ideology, regardless of what they said at periodic summits.
But now that it’s over. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the reasons for Cold War institutions no longer really exist. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States by default became the ideological target for the group of nations as the Non-Aligned Movement experienced a profound identity crisis.
What makes this group even more redundant today is that most of the participating members also belong to the UN, meaning that many of the issues raised by the movement will generally make it to front of the UN assembly anyway.
In the first years of the 21st century, the original moral desire not to align within any hegemonic geopolitical structure - as a matter of course - has all but dissolved. And in many ways this can actually cause more problems than it fixes in today’s supremely interconnected world.
With so many competing strategic and national objectives between the member states – after all, we’re talking about nations aligning that sometimes aren’t even on the same continent - it has made the diplomatic glue meant to stick these countries together very watery indeed.
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 destructive acts of violence inside their own countries.
Countries as diverse as Libya, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Cambodia, Syria, Vietnam, and Palestine are all current members of the movement. Each has fomented their own belligerent quarrel – however justified –with the world’s only remaining superpower. And as far as this goes, the United States, as the symbol of Western hegemony, remains a lightning rod for many of those nations to vent their complicated anger.
But at the same time, the United States has never been a more important nation to the rest of the world’s security.
And it pays for these smaller nations to look at the United States not as a threat to world peace, but as a necessary partner. And there are compelling reasons to do so. So I’ll do a quick sprint through the history of the last few decades to show why. Bear with me.
The 20th century was both extremely destructive and constructive for the American people. They participated in two brutal European wars, various conflicts in Asia, low-level fighting in South America, and even lower level scraps in Africa.
Essentially, the United States created a footprint on the world so large to protect its own interests that it has essentially become in many ways responsible for what goes on in the world.
While the Cold War period was long and tedious, remember that few American government officials thought it would ever end. Countering the Soviet Union, by their logic, was going to take a constant stream of money, poured into the military-industrial complex in an ever-expanding, spiralling arms race.
Neither side truly knew the complete picture of their rival’s weapons capability, leading to a huge amount of uncertainty which translated into expensive weapons programs again and again - just in case.
The fog of war was so dense during this time, and the fear of nuclear war even greater. But looking back now at some of the people involved, the amount of times a world-ending war could have occurred boggles the mind. And yet it never happened.
As an aside, an intriguing reason for this suggests that because the Soviet intelligence apparatus was so pervasive and profound on the European landmass, Moscow knew without much doubt that NATO troops in Central Europe were stationed strictly as a defensive measure.
Because they knew what was going on far better than their Western counterparts, Russian spies and officials after the Cold War have made it perfectly clear that if the Americans and their European allies had moved down the path to a truly offensive military strategy in Europe, the history of the world would be very different.
Despite all the tension, the Soviet Union collapsed under Boris Yeltsin’s undisciplined rule towards the end of the century. The chaos in Russia after 1991 left only one superpower remaining in the world: the United States. With their new-found freedom, the American’s enjoyed a relatively calm decade in the 1990s (at least it was for them).
But what really stuck out was the sudden surplus of highly advanced military equipment, built and amassed for a war with a comparable power which never came.
Hundreds of warships and aircraft carriers, thousands of advanced aircraft, untold numbers of missiles capable of travelling around the globe - suddenly lost their use.
Washington woke up after 1991 to discover it accidentally controlled history’s largest empire. The problem is - America doesn’t know what to do with the enormous power it gained so quickly.
Since it couldn’t position those war machines against an enemy like the Soviets, Washington has instead positioned its incredible forces in various places around the globe to protect trade routes and lines of communication.
Rather than take power by force, as many other leaders in history tried, America has slowly taken over the world by the simple method of protecting trade routes. This particular path to power requires extreme selfishness, but also a low tolerance for violence. It is in American interests to keep the world from fighting so the world can produce more goods.
It works a bit like this:
American diplomats book a meeting with the leader of Country A who requires an assurance that Country B will not interfere in the upcoming commerce with the United States.
So the borders of Country A need to be protected, and if the native government can’t ensure this using their own troops – which is the case 9 times out of 10 - then Washington needs to take up the slack and send its own troops instead.
Now the first step is in place, but there’s still problems. Soon it will be necessary to talk to the government of Country B to get some measure of cooperation in the enterprise.
The attacks on the border or the refusal to allow pipelines to be built is making it difficult for the United States to do respectable business with Country A.
So once a concession with Country B is secured, the trading can continue more or less unabated. But what do they do about Country C? And then what about Country D? And so it goes on, all around the world, all the time. Developing relations with individual countries results in global influence pretty quickly.
Now his is oversimplifying things a bit. But no matter how obvious it appears that there really is an empire carved out by the United States is still not a talking point in American intellectual circles.
They’d rather pretend the empire doesn’t exist. And that’s fine. But the rest of the world understands the American hegemonic position very well and many countries are only too happy to court the United States for their own benefit.
This includes, ironically, many countries who are still members of structures like the Non-Aligned Movement, whose central tenet never to side with large powers like the US is being questioned.
So what are these smaller nations seeing when they look into their backyards? Why are they changing their mind? Members of the Non-Aligned Movement, for instance, are now firmly in the middle of a world exploding into barely restrained competition over the riches of geography.
Issues like resource allocation, border disputes, immigration policies, political differences, and energy development now have to be dealt with and it is becoming difficult to do so while remaining staunchly non-aligned with the world’s largest economy.
Many Asian and African countries are finding the law of the jungle is dictating who gets what in the great race for what’s left. This is frightening them, and rightly so.
America may have been beaten up behind the bike shed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the presence of the United States military, and the influence it brings wherever it goes, is still a hugely respected force.
Today, smaller Asian countries look at the United States as a friend and a powerful one at that. For instance, during this year’s recent dust-up on the Korean peninsula, long-range stealth bombers flew halfway across the world from their bases on the American mainland to “participate in military drills” in South Korea.
The message was read loud and clear by the North Koreans, who immediately issued political responses decrying the act as “American aggression”. But they are correct only in part.
What the event displayed was not meant solely for North Korean eyes. Every regional Asian power seeing those bombers arrive ready for war from half a world away understood the true scope of American power. Sealing the deal for those observers, the stealth bombers flew all the way back to the US on a non-stop flight as if it were a simple routine.
But advanced aircraft are only a small percentage of American power. It is on the seas that the United States truly shows its dominance and global reach every day and remains one of the core reasons that countries are still trying to get American attention and economic assistance.
To show just how important the oceans are for the Americans, it pays to understand that they really have divided the world into seven seas, if you will.
Sure, there are still internationally recognised Economic Exclusive Zones which are under strict control of whatever coastal country is nearby. But the vast majority of the world’s oceans are beyond these zones. In United States Navy parlance, these areas are called “blue water”, and in them sail the massive US Navy.
No ship traffic, military or civilian, can move on these waters without the say-so of the US Navy. To put job this in perspective, your clothes or your computers probably required travelling on one ocean or another to get to your local store – where you bought them.
The fact that these and countless other goods slip across the sea right now is largely thanks to the US Navy first and foremost.
The security of global commerce drives the US Navy. It is in the direct interests of the United States to make sure the world’s sea lanes remain open and free of territorial squabbles.
In the 21st century, this is the world that developing nations see. A number of countries are actively engaging the United States for economic development and stronger political ties.
Using only the latest example, the President of Myanmar was warmly hosted this week by US President Barack Obama at the White House. Myanmar has been a member of the Non-Aligned Movement since 1961 which should drive home just how far we’ve come since the Cold War.
Myanmar is deliberately looking beyond the outdated Non-Aligned Movement and reaching out to the United States for the first time in fifty years.
Myanmar is caught geographically between the two rising powers of India and China, and America 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 as one entity.
The United States is deeply invested in keeping the world in a peaceful state. The last decade of fighting has been a rough ride for America’s image around the globe, but there are still few sights bound to change the tune of a belligerent country than spotting a fully-armed US aircraft carrier floating threateningly just offshore.
This is the type of assurance countries like Myanmar and others are looking for when they travel to the White House. An alliance with the only remaining superpower might be going directly against the fundamental tenets of their historic moral ideology, but the alternatives to the United States are not compelling at all.
In similar ways, the Philippines and Malaysia, both signatories of the Non-Aligned Movement, are responding to the evolving dynamics in the Asia Pacific region in ways they would never have dreamed only a few decades ago.
While the United States has not always been a benign power in the eyes of many Asian nations, the American preference for peace and stability in Asia to keep the flow of goods coming is convincing many Asian governments that America might be the least-bad choice.
Both of these countries are looking around their immediate security environment and seeing the Chinese military grow in influence.
And political overtures from Beijing are one thing, but their territorial aggression and resource tactics suggest otherwise. And while many developing Asian countries still harbour some discontent towards the United States, very few officials in Asia are suspicious of the vast US security apparatus protecting globalisation.
They see the US Navy as their barrier, as a buffer between their burgeoning economies and the larger, more aggressive nations that surround them.
Even these nations knew during the Cold War that refusing to align entirely with one or both of the superpowers was probably a foolish step to take. Going too far down that track, while politically beneficial for their leader’s careers back home, would leave them hanging when that tension inevitably concluded and created a victorious superpower.
In fact, it doesn’t seem to have ever really mattered which particular flavour of whatever anti-Western movement or group a country belonged to, money has always been important and America is where the money is.
This dissonance indicates the uncomfortable truths about the post-Cold War period.
What strikes me as an important parallel to the problems of the Non-Aligned Movement is the experience of NATO. In the same way that NATO was a structure for a specific time against a now-defunct threat, the Non-Aligned Movement is an edifice lacking almost all of its original reasons for existence.
The participating countries share a sense of history harking back to when the global environment was a much more dangerous place than it is today. Somewhat predictably - using a heavy dosing of hindsight bias - both structures have ended up in the same boat.
Neither group faces anything like the global danger which forced them into their alliances all those years ago. In a very real sense, the structures set up to deal with the Cold War world are experiencing something close to irrelevancy.
What we saw in Tehran last year depressingly displayed what can happen to a multinational movement without a clear mission.
The commandeering of the summit as an Iranian platform for its own geopolitical tensions should send ripples through other member states that it might be time to find other ways of projecting a voice into the global community.
Structures like the UN, with all its foibles and intricacies, is much better placed as an institution to protect the interests of vulnerable nations and champion the rights of the downtrodden.
It is somewhat true to say that the Non-Aligned Movement has not yet found a major function in the modern world. It has failed to set in motion any major social or political policies, and is usually quiet on subjects that are extremely relevant to the 3 billion people who live in its member nations.
Because the Non-Aligned Movement is heavily skewed away from the west, its citizens - many of whom have never heard of the organisation - are often among the poorest in the world.
It is estimated that as many as 55% of the global population lives in Non-Aligned Movement countries, so clearly any policies implemented the by Non-Aligned Movement as a whole would have a profound effect on a huge number of people.
But there has been no real progress towards finding a major new role for the Non-Aligned Movement, which has instead been overtaken by other regional groups and affiliations.
In modern international politics, the Non-Aligned Movement has a very low profile. Many other organisations, such as the United Nations, the European Union, and even ECOWAS have arguably been more effective, and the Non-Aligned Movement has consequently endured something of an identity crisis as it struggles to find a reason to exist.
Should another Cold War style conflict erupt, the movement might find itself suddenly relevant again. But in the interim, there is a strong need for the movement to come up with some cause that it can pursue that will make it seem to have a strong purpose in the modern world, otherwise the Non-Aligned Movement will continue to fade into obscurity and irrelevance.
Today’s world teeters on the brink of chaos in many places. And remaining aloof from the world system, without any 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 and dangerous strategic choices for many of the movement’s members.
Snubbing the United States in today’s splintering, multi-polar world will be a brave choice indeed. And it pays to listen to the lessons of our forefathers and realise when an institution is no longer necessary, but the members of those structures still require our protection and assistance.
Thank you very much