Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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The Nonaligned Movement’s Crisis

by Stewart M. Patrick
August 30, 2012

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) poses for a photo with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) upon his arrival for the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, August 29, 2012. (Arash Khamooshi/ISNA/Handout/Courtesy Reuters)


Like the West, the developing world is struggling to update global institutions to twenty-first century realities. The Nonaligned Movement (NAM), which holds its sixteenth summit in Tehran this week, is grasping for contemporary relevance. It is clinging to shopworn shibboleths and cleaving to outdated bloc mentalities within the United Nations and other global bodies. In so doing, the NAM is undermining the search for constructive solutions to today’s most pressing transnational problems.

The NAM dates from the early Cold War, when many nations, particularly newly independent states, were determined to avoid choosing between Moscow and Washington. Its early leaders—Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josef Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Kwame Nkumrah of Ghana, and Sukarno of Indonesia—were giants of the era. In 1955, Sukarno hosted a landmark Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia—the first summit not dominated by major powers. The conferees pledged to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations, embraced the equality of all nations and races, championed national liberation movements against colonial powers, and insisted on non-aggression and non-interference in international relations.

What began to emerge in Bandung was a distinctive, “Southern” vision of world order, in which the developing world would offer an independent center of gravity apart from the crumbling European empires and the colliding superpowers. Not all observers approved. The doctrine of non-alignment “pretends that a nation can best gain safety for itself by being indifferent to the fate of others,” U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles railed in 1956. “It is an immoral and short-sighted conception.”

The NAM really took shape in 1961, when Tito hosted the first “Conference of the Heads of State or Government of the Non-Aligned Countries.” For that first decade, the NAM’s substantive agenda focused on decolonization, moderating Cold War tensions, promoting nuclear disarmament, and pursuing greater equity in North-South relations. In the 1970s, the bloc increasingly attacked a world economy it perceived as fundamentally stacked against poor, developing nations. Under the influence of dependency theory, NAM members (as well as the parallel Group of 77) endorsed radical, redistributionist plans for a New International Economic Order—and the even more utopian vision of a New International Information Order. Neither scheme went anywhere, given resistance from the West, but the critique persisted, particularly as the “Washington consensus” triumphed in the 1980s. Politically, the NAM’s agenda focused on unredeemed national liberation movements, such as the anti-apartheid struggle and the Palestinian quest for statehood.

For good or ill, the NAM was an influential force in world politics during the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been a movement adrift. One possible ambition for the group, until recently, was to foil U.S. “unipolarity” and its (alleged) neoimperalist tendencies—typified by the “unilateral” invasion of Iraq and militaristic global war on terrorism. But the advent of a more conciliatory Obama administration, and the increasingly obvious diffusion of global power away from the United States, has undercut this narrative. Another NAM tack has been to rail against the inequities of a Western-dominated global economy. But these claims ring hollow in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which has seen the United States, Europe, and Japan staggering under debt and struggling to regain growth, while much of the developing world (even sub-Saharan Africa) grows at an impressive clip.

The NAM today includes some of the world’s most dynamic economies, like Chile, Malaysia, and Singapore, not to mention four members of the Group of Twenty. India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia now have a curious split identity, with one seat at the “head table” of global economic governance and another in the NAM, alongside the likes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea. The NAM’s political diversity is equally striking, combining vibrant democracies devoted to human rights like Botswana and Panama with unreconstructed autocracies like North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Given this complex make-up, it is no surprise that the NAM faces increasing problems of coherence and cohesion. Agreement on basic principles like non-intervention and global economic justice is one thing, agreement on concrete plans of action and hard-hitting resolutions quite another. Accordingly, NAM summits tend to be glorified gabfests.

So why does the NAM persist? Undoubtedly, the tenacity of post-colonial mindsets, combined with a persistent belief that the structure of global politics remains stacked in favor of major powers, contributes. These dynamics are most clearly at play at the United Nations. The NAM members object to the exorbitant privilege enjoyed by the permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the composition of which has not changed since 1945. To be sure, NAM members are deeply divided on how to reform the UNSC, but their resentment is palpable. (Similar criticisms apply to the structure of the main international financial institutions.)

Meanwhile, in the nuclear field, NAM members criticize the discriminatory nature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That treaty rests on a bargain between the nuclear haves and have-nots. In return for foreswearing such weapons, non-nuclear weapons states were assured under Article 6 of the NPT that nuclear weapons states would move steadily toward disarmament. That has not happened.

In this context, the unfortunate coincidence that Iran happens to be hosting this week’s NAM summit takes on grave significance. Many NAM members appear to buy Tehran’s argument that it is pursuing peaceful nuclear energy, as permitted under the NPT. Others may suspect Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions, but are annoyed at a Western (and particularly U.S.) double standard that sanctions Iran while ignoring Israel’s own nuclear program.

Iran, of course, is showcasing the event as evidence that—despite the best efforts of the United States and the West—it is not isolated diplomatically. The Iranians have set out an ambitious agenda, with sessions devoted to topics ranging from nuclear disarmament to UN reform, sustainable development, Palestinian statehood, human rights, and opposition to “unilateral” sanctions. But many attendees, particularly from the Arab world, have few illusions about Iran’s intentions and ambitions. This includes President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, which lacks formal relations with Tehran.

Both the United States and Israel have criticized the decision by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to attend the Tehran summit, arguing that his presence will hand a priceless propaganda victory to the Iranian regime and reduce the perception (and reality) of Iran’s diplomatic isolation. Ban’s determination to go is understandable, if unfortunate. Comprised of nearly two-thirds of UN member states, the NAM represents a huge constituency for the secretary-general. By declining to go, Ban no doubt fears, he would reinforce widespread perceptions that he is a tool of the West. But in choosing to attend, Ban has an obligation to hold the Iranian government to account for its behavior, by pointedly condemning its atrocious human rights record and its failure to cooperate with the IAEA and come clean about its clandestine nuclear weapons program. By failing to do so, he will make himself a useful idiot for the mullahs in Tehran.

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  • Posted by Hossein

    The South in Tehran: Much ado about nothing?

    The Iranian capital, Tehran these days hosts the 16th summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which is an international organization comprised of 120 member states. The summit itself and month-long security preparations for holding the meetings of some 145 delegations on Aug. 26-31 were of paramount significance for the Islamic Republic at a time when the country is seen as an international pariah.
    But, is it much ado for nothing? What will Iran earn from holding the powwow both politically and economically? Will the summit be deliberately projected as a festival of indignation against Israel or a true venue for dealing with the trials and tribulations facing the developing world? What’s the salience of the summit for Iran and the developing world?
    The capital of Iran has an estimated population of 8.5 million. All government offices, banks, schools and even Tehran Stock Exchange are closed during five days of the conference, and citizens also are advised by the state media to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan city and head on trips to other cities. Almost all news agencies as well as State TV channels are hectically and hyperbolically involved in a minute by minute coverage of the arrival of foreign delegates and boisterous tête-à-têtes on the sideline of the conference. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will attend the summit on Thursday, despite Tel Aviv’s attempts to dissuade him from giving Iran such high-profile attention, and most importantly from meeting with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has recently said: Israel’s existence is an “insult to all humanity”. The acerbic philippic against the Jewish state of Israel comes as Iran’s efforts to exonerate itself from the charge of pursuing nuclear weapons have foundered, and a yawing difference between The United Nations nuclear watchdog and Iran remains unresolved. “Some progress” was made, but differences remained, said Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh. But not even the slightest beam of hope was visible on the faces of Herman Nackaerts, Deputy Director General for Safeguards, and Rafael Mariano Grossi, Assistant Director General for Policy, who met Soltanieh last Friday in Vienna as part of marathon talks to end the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West.

    The IAEA appears to be at its wits end over Iran’s nuclear dossier, and in the meantime Israel is stirring up waters to catch fish by launching a fresh round of saber-rattling against Iran, aimed at pitchforking the US administration into going to war with the Islamic state. However, US President Barak Obama has frequently tried to dissuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from taking unilateral action, adding that Washington still favors diplomacy and negotiations backed up by a string of tightening international sanctions against the Iranian theocratic regime. Iran’s economy has been hard-hit by international sanctions levied against the country by the UN, EU, and numerous countries. Now that Iranians are feeling the pinch of sanctions, and that the regime is more isolated than ever thanks to an incessant inundation of unwise and undiplomatic comments made by Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic takes every opportunity to extricate itself from this political and economic debacle by demonstrating that Tehran, which hosts such large meeting of heads of states is genuinely not internationally isolated as it has been rendered by the Western media. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to mention that irrespective of all the ballyhoo surrounding the XVI Non-Aligned Movement Summit, and all lavish welcoming ceremonies held by the Iranian officials for visiting authorities of over 100 states, one thing is irrefutable: By dint of holding such conference, Iran seeks to muster NAM’s support for its nuclear drive, and in addition to that, it endeavors to sign trade deals or at least canvas such economic cooperation from remaining friends in Asia, Latin America and Africa in an apparent bid to circumvent international sanctions.
    Blowing hot and cold
    But here’s a caveat worth pondering: the NAM is an international organization deeply divided over a string of major issues, ranging from combating poverty to monitoring member states’ compliance with non-proliferation provisions. As an organization dedicated to promoting the needs of the developing world, the NAM has traditionally allocated its energy to ensuring that the inequalities of the international political order are addressed. To that effect, NAM representatives in the UN General Assembly, the Conference on Disarmament, the IAEA Board of Governors, and the NPT Review Conferences are engaged in diplomatic efforts to ensure that disarmament obligations are fulfilled by both nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states. It is interesting to indicate that in 2003 and 2004, the NAM member states hailed Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA, and later on threw their weight behind Iran over its nuclear enrichment plans. But it is much more intriguing to know that, much to the consternation of Iranian diplomats, the very same NAM states voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council in 2006, a move that shocked Iran and profoundly exposed fissures within the organization.
    To conclude, pundits observing the trends concerning the ongoing meetings in Tehran should be cognizant of three important factors: First, some key NAM member states such as India, are realistically fixated on maximizing their own countries’ trade and economic benefits, and barely fond of supporting Iran’s nuclear program whatsoever. The article argues that there is no long-term and reliable NAM solidarity with Iran over its security and strategic concerns in the region: This is a chilling fact to which the clerical regime is oblivious. Secondly, the NAM conference risks being molded into an exclusive venue for dealing with Iran’s nuclear plight at the cost of neglecting some of the most essential threats and concerns posing humanity such as poverty and human rights. Thirdly, if Iran is willing to come clean about its nuclear intentions, it should (a) actively pursue comprehensive negotiations with the P5+1, (b) refrain from delivering malicious hate-mongering speeches against Israel and other entities, (c) respect the human rights of all its citizens and political prisoners. It is also incumbent upon the European Union to flex its soft power by mediating rather than jumping on the Israeli’s bandwagon in its tricky campaign to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. As Winston Churchill once commented, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” At any rate, it remains to be seen whether the ongoing jaw-jaw in Tehran will yield significant results in resolving the differences that hound the Non-Aligned Movement itself.

    Ogilvie-White, Tanya. 2007, ‘International Responses to Iranian Nuclear Defiance: The Non-Aligned Movement and the Issue of Non-Compliance’, The European Journal of International Law, Vol. 18 No. 3, 453−476.

  • Posted by labado

    The countries you labelled autocracies (Zimbabwe and Noth Korea) begs the question. What is Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Equitorial Guinea and Gabon? It seems autocracy has gotten a new meanin: that nations that do not succumb to USA dictates.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    While I consider Ahmadinajad as the stupidest leader (what I really want to write about him will not be published) in the world, NAM is still required because it is still ok for UN Secretary General to be a ‘useful idiot’ for the US/Western interests. We have to change that. Please compare his tone when he was talking to Israelis in February and his tone in Tehran recently. Both countries follow policies which are dangerous for world peace but attitude of the world bodies (like UN) and international media toward them are completely different.

  • Posted by Edna Bowser

    Democracy may yet hold sway!

    This article is an eye-opener for those of us, myself included, who have had little exposure to the NAM phenom.

    The vitality of NAM is reflected in it’s early involvement with issues that eventually came to pass.

    If the point be about Ban Ki-moon’s attendance, it seems he did the right thing on the basis of democratic values, with a majority of the world’s people being within NAM.

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