Image: Belgrade Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement marking on 11 October 2021 the 60th anniversary of the first NAM conference. Source: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s Facebook page. - Photo: 2023

Is the Non-Aligned Movement Struggling to be Re-Born?

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, 18 Feb 2023 (IDN) — In the 1960s and 70s, the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), founded in Belgrade in 1961, was one of the largest and most powerful political coalitions (now numbering 120) led initially by countries such as Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, Zambia, Algeria, Cuba and Sri Lanka.

The concept of “non-alignment” gained political traction at the UN during the height of the Cold War, which ended around 1989.

When Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) inherited the chairmanship in February 1978, he was skeptical of NAM—which was reputed to be politically independent, with no strong links to either of the world’s two superpowers, namely the US and the Soviet Union engaged in a longstanding Cold War.

In an interview with an American news reporter, JRJ downgraded the political myth about “non-alignment” when he infamously declared there were only two “non-aligned countries” in the world: the US and the Soviet Union.

All other countries, he argued, perhaps rightly so, were politically or economically aligned, either with the US or the Soviets.

And now a third country—the People’s Republic of China (PRC) described as the world’s second largest economy after the US—has emerged as a new superpower.

A rising China also threatens to undermine the concept of non-alignment since several NAM countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, now depend heavily on economic and military aid from Beijing, politically aligning themselves with PRC.

The new development triggers the question: Is NAM still alive or is it struggling to be re-born, particularly at a time when a new Cold war is emerging at the United Nations—where veto-wielding permanent members, China and Russia, are aligning themselves against the US, UK and France.

The split has resulted in a deadlock over military conflicts and civil wars in Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, and most recently Ukraine, among others, and is also politically dividing UN member states.

Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Union (EU), was quoted as saying on February 17 that South Africa, its largest trading partner and a former chairman of NAM in 1998, “is moving further away from a non-aligned position” and fast becoming a political and military ally of Russia.

But South African officials deny this, claiming they are still officially “non-aligned” in keeping with the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement, according to a report in the New York Times.

H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, told IDN: “As far as I know, no government. is trying to revive the old ‘Movement’ of Non-Aligned countries. But there is much talk about the ‘Idea’ of nonalignment and its refurbishing to handle the looming confrontation / Cold War in the Indo-Pacific”

Some tend to confuse or conflate the ‘institution’ of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with the ‘idea’ of non-alignment, he pointed out.

“This is too simplistic an attitude towards a dynamic conception. While the Movement or the institution of NAM suffered internal inertia and faded away with the ending of the Cold War, the idea of non-alignment lived on, dynamically creating space for emerging nations to pursue human/territorial security and economic prosperity,” he added.

Such Nations, he argued, cannot and need not suffer disadvantages or sanctions arising from perceptions about their being on the ‘wrong side’ of a given power rivalry, as they want to derive economic benefits from ‘all sides’.

“Non-alignment is not about distancing and meek diplomacy. It is about engagement and robust diplomacy”.

“The utility of this thinking comes into sharper focus in the context of the already ongoing power rivalry and looming confrontation that can lead to conflict in the ‘Indo-Pacific’, potentially endangering the abundance of prosperity Asia has registered and aggravating the paucity of security the continent has begun to perceive,” said Palihakkara, a former Foreign Secretary at the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry.

Arul Louis, a UN correspondent for Indo-Asian News Service and a nonresident senior fellow with the New Delhi-based think tank, Society for Policy Studies, told IDN that India has spoken about issues like debt or low growth, which affect a significant number of countries of the South, it does not face a debt problem, and its economy is the fastest growing major economy according to the UN last month, at 6.7 per cent and the IMF at 6.1 per cent.

“It is, therefore, amplifying those issues to bolster its leadership position in the South. This gives it a certain credibility in the Global Voice of the South initiative as it will not appear to be speaking for its interests.”

He pointed out that NAM tended to be political with a tilt towards Russia, with countries like Cuba playing a leading role.

As recently as 2019, Venezuela was the head of NAM and hosted the 2016 summit, which failed to get much participation at the heads of government or state levels.

“With the end of the Cold War, nonalignment lost its meaning in a unipolar world,” he pointed out.

Currently under the leadership of Azerbaijan, it hasn’t had a resurgence, and it will be the turn of Uganda in December to try for a revival, which would be based on economic and development interests, he noted.

Here again, he said, old-style polemics are unlikely to work, especially at a time when the developed countries are themselves facing economic stress.

“India, one of the founders of the NAM, is making a parallel effort through its Global Voice of the South model, focusing on immediate economic, health and other development issues, where the countries of the South can work together with as much emphasis on finding solutions among themselves as on expecting developed countries to reverse structural problems,” declared Louis.

As a general rule, all 116 countries voted in unison on General Assembly resolutions rarely breaking ranks, back in the 1960s and 70s,

In most instances, the various regional groups and coalitions—including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Group of 77, the Latin American and Caribbean States, the African Union (AU) and the Western European and Others (WEOG)—took decisions behind closed doors ahead of voting.

But even though the “herd mentality” continues in most UN voting, there are rare occasions of an unscheduled vote taking delegates by surprise.

A Sri Lankan ambassador once recounted a message transmitted from his Foreign Ministry in Colombo—primarily directed at newly-arrived delegates which read—“If you are faced with an unscheduled surprise vote, and do not have any instructions from the Foreign Ministry, look to the right to see how Yugoslavia is voting and look to the left to see how India is voting. If both ambassadors are seen bolting from their seats, just follow them to the toilet” (“absent” from the seat being a political tactic to escape from an embarrassing recorded vote).

In September 1979, when Sri Lanka handed over the chairmanship of NAM to Cuba at a summit meeting in Havana, the Western world and the mainstream media never accepted the fact that a strong pro-Soviet ally like Havana could ever be a “non-aligned” country.

As a result, right throughout Cuba’s chairmanship of NAM (1979-1983), the New York Times, perhaps as part of its editorial policy, never wavered in describing NAM as a “so-called Non-Aligned Movement” in every news story published in the paper. The “so-called” label was dropped only when India took over the chairmanship of NAM in 1983.

Meanwhile, long after the end of the Cold War, some of NAM’s political mandate remained valid, including nuclear disarmament, the right to self-determination, the protection of national sovereignty, and the elusive goal a Palestinian homeland.

Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told a NAM summit meeting in Colombia in 1995: “At Bandung in 1955, the birth of non-alignment was an act of stunning, world-transfixing boldness. International politics were fundamentally and forever transformed.”

As he pointed out, non-alignment derived its political force from a new principle: the principle of solidarity.

But US Ambassador to the UN, the late Richard Holbrooke (1999-2001) tried an old tactic to break that solidarity: divide and rule.

In one of his farewell addresses to the African Group at the UN, Holbrooke said: “I respectfully ask the African countries to reconsider their association with the Non-Aligned Movement. The Non-Aligned Movement is not Africa’s friend at this point. Your goals and NAMs are not synonymous.” 

Holbrooke argued that Africa’s voice was weakened because of its association with NAM. “I have not seen a single issue in which NAM positions actually benefited the African Group.”

The US envoy also said that NAM, the largest single political group at the United Nations, should either cease to exist as a separate caucus or merge with the Group of 77 (G-77) developing nations. The G-77, the largest single economic group at the United Nations, consists of 134 members—and most developing nations are members of both groups.

Holbrooke said that African nations “should consider distancing themselves from NAM”. “So that you can protect African interests and not allow yourself to be pushed by less than 10 radicalized States into positions that you don’t need.”

Even after Holbrooke ceased to be the US ambassador, the US Mission to the UN decided to circulate his speech as a UN document of the General Assembly, giving it official credence

But NAM counter-attacked.

By coincidence, the chair at that time was from Africa. So, it was left to the South African ambassador, in his capacity as chairman of NAM, to respond.

Holbrooke’s proposal, he said, was an insult to the entire membership of the Movement. “This attempt by a non-NAM member to prescribe to the African members of the Movement is, at best uninformed, or at worst, misguided, misleading and constitutes an affront to NAM members as a whole.”

“The decision by the US Mission to publish the statement under the General Assembly agenda can only be seen as an attempt to question the legitimacy of NAM,” South African Ambassador Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo said.

In a letter to NAM members, Kumalo said: “For our people, NAM will always be remembered for having stood steadfast in support of our struggle against apartheid whilst many outside NAM were either complacent or supportive of the racist regime of our past,” he declared.

Meanwhile, in a speech last November (2022), Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan provided a new perspective when he said that “one possible way for the rest of us is to try to conceive a world in which we can have a more open, inclusive, multilateral network of science, technology, and supply chains.”

He said: “You may recall during the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement came about, basically to counterbalance the rapid bi-polarization of the globe at that point in time. Perhaps today, we are finding ourselves in a similar moment in history and a similar dynamic of geostrategic forces as we stare down the abyss into bifurcation, with profoundly damaging consequences for all of us.”

But what does a non-aligned movement for science, technology, and supply chains look like? “I think these are still very early days, but the attributes are: it has to be multipolar, open, and rules-based”.

“There has to be a commitment to open science, the fair sharing and harvesting of intellectual property, and a system in which we will compete to be most innovative, reliable, and trustworthy, rather than be judged simply by which side or the other we have taken”.

Particularly in Asia, he said, “when we look now at what is happening in Europe, there was a line. It used to be the iron curtain. Even today’s fight in Ukraine is, in a sense, about where the line is. In Asia we are not interested in bifurcation lines across Asia. Our paradigm that we are offering is overlapping circles of friends”.

“Every country—and there is great diversity in Asia – if you were to line all of us up in terms of proximity of economic and political comfort levels with America and China, we would all be on slightly different points of that spectrum”.

“But I do not believe any self-respecting Asian country wants to be trapped or to be a vassal, or worse to be a theatre for proxy battles. So, I am trying to make the argument for what the rest of the world wants. Whether we will actually achieve this? Only time will tell. Because, as I said, the ideal scenario still remains that America and China work out their modus vivendi” the Foreign Minister declared.

This article contains excerpts from a recently-released book* on the United Nations titled “No Comment–and Don’t Quote Me on that”, available on Amazon:

* Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA). [InDepthNews]

Image: Belgrade Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement marking on 11 October 2021, the 60th anniversary of the first NAM conference. Source: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s Facebook page.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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