What’s in a NAM?
By the standard of the Nonaligned Movement, the recently-concluded summit in Tehran was relatively exciting. The United Nations chief, Ban Ki-moon, severely criticized the host country, Iran. The latter’s boss, Ayatollah Khamenei, verbally abused the UN in return. The new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, inveigled against the Syrian government, triggering a walkout by the latter’s delegation.
In all of this came the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Privately, Indian officials have been clear that the bilateral meetings were what counted as far as New Delhi was concerned. The meeting with the Pakistani president and the highly unusual one-to-one with Khamenei, the first such meeting in over a decade.
Nonetheless, the Nonaligned Movement continues to both seduce and baffle Indians. Most Indians uphold the movement. Asked, however, to explain why it matters to India they then revert to a kind of jargon-filled mumbo-jumbo that normally has the terms “post-colonial” and “independent-minded” embedded within.
The very term “nonaligned” is somewhat meaningless in a post-Cold War era in which the vast majority of NAM countries have excellent relations with the United States, including India. Many also have good ties with China, the only other country strong enough to be worth “aligning” with.
Nonetheless, the NAM has kept adding more members, including one European state (Belarus), and has actually rejected two members in the past. At 120 members it is one of the world’s largest multilateral bodies. That countries with suddenly out-sized global profiles, like Egypt, make it a point to wear the NAM badge on their sleeves give an indicator of what “nonalignment” still means.
At the core is a desire for a number of developing countries to project their independence, to been seen at home to have a foreign policy of themselves and for themselves. Morsi is a perfect example of what this means. Egypt has been an unserious member in the past given its clear alliance with the US. Today, its president steals the show.
With so many countries experiencing rising and nationalistic middle classes and a preference for a hedging strategy in a time when the international system is in flux, being “nonaligned” has a certain utility that wasn’t there before. There may not be too many superpowers, but there are a surprising plethora of medium sized countries in the world with a desire to be if not a global pole, at least a global protrusion. It’s a multibump world and nonalignment fits nicely into that.
The NAM remains largely useless in getting things done. Its members fight with each other (India vs Pakistan, Iran vs Iraq) and NAM does nothing. They can’t do much about the Syrian violence.
India shouldn’t be unhappy. When it has turned to NAM for help it hasn’t had much success. The bulk of the NAM supported China after the 1962 war and New Delhi didn’t fare much better when the movement took up the 1965 war with Pakistan. So keeping the movement all symbolic and spread out is not something India should be bothered about.
But NAM could provide an additional service. NAM has a lot of least developed nation but has surprisingly few emerging economies. China is not a member. Nor is Brazil, Mexico or Turkey.
The original anti-Americanism that inspired Krishna Menon to coin the phrase “nonalignment” is now vestigial. India isn’t part of it. Only a few Latin American nations and the odd country like Iran will burn a Stars and Stripes these days.
But it could be potentially used to provide a means to limit or slow down the expansion of Chinese interests in the world. Beijing now has extensive bilateral relations across the world, especially in Africa and increasingly Latin America. It would be too early to talk about a Sino Bloc, but something like that in the economic sphere is slowly emerging.
India has an interest in promoting multilateral fora where China is not a dominant player. China is the big star of the BRICS for example. However it is not part of IBSA, or NAM, or – for what it’s worth – the Commonwealth. It would be useful to have a clutch of acronyms where China is not automatically the prime mover.
And if NAM becomes part of an Indian hedging strategy, its importance could grow post-Cold War. If it becomes seen as a constellation that provides an alternative international roster to whatever Beijing is putting together, you could even find Washington suddenly having kind words for nonalignment.