What’s In A NAM?

By the standards of the Nonaligned Movement, the recently-concluded summit in Tehran was relatively exciting. United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon severely criticized the host country, Iran, whose boss, Ayatollah Khamenei, verbally abused the UN in return. The new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, inveigled against the Syrian government, triggering a walkout by Syria’s delegation.

Into all of this walked the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Privately, Indian officials have been clear that, as far as New Delhi was concerned, the bilateral meetings were what counted: the meeting with the president of Pakistan 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. When asked to explain why, however, they revert to a kind of jargon-filled mumbo-jumbo that normally includes the terms “post-colonial” and “independent-minded”.

The very term “nonaligned” is somewhat meaningless in a post-Cold War era in which the vast majority of NAM countries, including India, have excellent relations with the United States. Many also have good ties with China, the only other country 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 gives an indication of what “nonalignment” still means.

At its core is a desire of developing countries to project their independence, to be seen at home as having a foreign policy of themselves and for themselves. Morsi is a perfect example of this. 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 is 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 original anti-Americanism that inspired Krishna Menon to coin the phrase “nonalignment” is now vestigal. India isn’t part of it. Only a few Latin American nations and the odd outlier like Iran will burn a Stars and Stripes these days.

The NAM, however, remains largely useless in getting things done. Its members fight with each other (India vs. Pakistan, Iran vs. Iraq) and NAM does nothing. There’s not much they can do about the Syrian violence.

India shouldn’t be unhappy about this. Keeping the movement all symbolic and spread out is actually in India’s best interest, as the NAM has traditionally turned against India when it has asked for help. 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, for instance.

The NAM has a lot of least developed nations as members, but surprisingly few emerging economies; China is not a member, nor is Brazil, Mexico or Turkey. The NAM might actually be useful to India for exactly this reason: it could potentially be used to limit or slow down the global expansion of Chinese interests.

Beijing now has widespread bilateral relations worldwide, especially in Africa and increasingly in Latin America. It would be too early to talk about a Sino Bloc, but something like that in the economic sphere is indeed 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 the NAM becomes part of an Indian hedging strategy, its importance could grow post-Cold War. If it becomes a constellation that provides an alternative international roster to whatever Beijing is putting together, you might even find Washington suddenly has kind words for nonalignment.

Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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