Relevance of the Non-Alignment Movement: The ‘Idea’ and The ‘Collective’

Tejusvi Shukla is a second year student of International Studies at Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru, India. Her areas of interest include National Security, International Organizations, and Information Warfare.

Although the origins of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as an ‘idea’ date back to the late 1940s, the fundamental principles of NAM took shape in 1955 at the Bandung Conference, Indonesia. Six years later, in 1961 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, State Heads from over 25 newly independent countries participated in a conference. They were then formally called the Non-Aligned Movement as a ‘collective’ for the first time. It has been over seven decades since the formation of the grouping, and roughly three decades since the end of the Cold War, which was considered as the immediate cause of its formation. In these years, the world has dramatically evolved, and so have international politics and international relations at large. Moreover, through this process of evolution, the distinction between NAM as an idea and therefore a foreign policy tool, and NAM as comprising a group of nations that claim to derive their foreign policy from this idea, has also widened. It is in this context that the relevance of NAM has been consistently questioned – both in terms of an ‘idea’ and a ‘collective’. 

Cold War ended three decades back. Did it?

As World War II came to an end in 1945, apart from the victory of the Allied forces, the following four decades experienced a continuous struggle for ideological influence and political dominance between two power blocs: the capitalists under the United States of America (the First World), and the communists under the Soviet Union (the Second World). While no direct war was fought between the two blocs, continuous proxy wars, interference in the internal affairs of other nations and acts of subversion, formations of rival military alliances (NATO, CENTO, SEATO led by the US and the Warsaw Pact led by the USSR), psychological warfare, and much more, was undertaken at a war footing. In the absence of any real ‘hot conflict’, this era was termed as the era of the ‘Cold War.’

A third event that immediately followed the end of WWII, was the decolonisation and consequent birth of newly independent nations in Asia and Africa (thus, referred to as the Third World). Naturally, these countries were looked at as ready battlefields for proxy wars in the ongoing power struggle. Apprehensions surrounding the devastating impacts of this power struggle pushed for the inception of NAM. 

When looking at the world today, it is evident that the Cold War has ended. The USSR has collapsed, and a much weaker yet relevant Russian Federation remains. Despite the US having also witnessed a comparative decline, it remains the largest military, political, and economic global superpower. Apart from the remnants of the Cold War, a new power centre in China has emerged – being the second largest economy, the third strongest military, and most importantly, an expansionist world power which is determined to take over the US militarily and economically by the 2040s. And, most importantly, unlike the Soviet-era, the strength of the Chinese rise is robustly backed by its economic might. Bringing back the memories of the Cold War, this has led to a situation where underdeveloped and developing nations in Asia and Africa are facing the threat of a compromised strategic autonomy. 

For instance, the overwhelming economic dependence and huge liabilities from Chinese infrastructure projects under its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) on one hand, and their tariff-free trade agreements with the United States on the other, have raised tough choices for most countries in Africa. Similar dilemmas are being faced by ASEAN countries which form a part of the contested South China Sea (facing territorial and economic aggression from Beijing), that in turn, forms a part of the larger Indo-Pacific (facing constant pressures for permanent military presence and alliances by the US). Smaller nations indeed are getting increasingly wary of “big powers offering promises of security in return for alliances and loyalty.” Siding with any one of the two invites the wrath of the other.

Moreover, apart from the Cold War-era nuclear umbrella, the technological advancement of military capabilities of both the US and China, the growth of Artificial Intelligence, and the use of dual-use technologies (big data and sabotage of critical infrastructure of target countries) is resulting in the evolving character of warfare, making it much more lethal and anonymous, as well as reducing the power differential between the two rivals. Apprehensions surrounding data harvesting activities by China through its mobile applications, Huawei’s 5G project, and commercial projects related to the development of critical infrastructure among others have raised complex dilemmas for countries – with only some managing to make independent choices in the national interest, while others helplessly trading off their sovereignty for economic development and security.

Each of these threats, when looked at in the Indian context, appear extremely relevant, for three reasons in particular: its geography, the wide diaspora, and energy dependence. Whilst the threats and interests in the Indo-Pacific converge with the US, and therefore the QUAD (US, India, Japan, and Australia), Central Asia being under the sphere of influence of Russia, finds Indian interests converging with Russia that is currently a close ally of China. Towards the West, due to a wide diaspora and energy dependence, Indian interests are secured by a careful balancing of relations between three regional power centres – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel – with each of these backed by different power blocs at the global level. 

Map depicting regionally varying convergences of Indian interests (Annotated by author, map not to scale) 

Nam: Partly Relevant, Partly Not 

To judge the relevance of NAM, as an idea, two facts must be acknowledged. One, that the threats and dilemmas that existed during NAM’s inception, as an idea, have only evolved and become more intense in the contemporary world. Two, that non-alignment has historically never been about the lack of alliances, but rather, about offering countries of the Third World the autonomy of choosing the course of their nations’ foreign policy in accordance with their national interests. In fact, it would be overly simplistic to say that countries that identify their foreign policies with NAM have never maintained any relationship with other countries, including the power blocs.

A brief departure from this was witnessed following the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh and the Indian Ocean Region in 2020 which was marked by New Delhi’s distancing from Russia and Iran in order to side with the US in the Indo-Pacific. But, amidst US withdrawal from Afghanistan that has security implications for India in Af-Pak Region and Central Asia, New Delhi’s outreach to Moscow and Tehran has increased – reaffirming the contemporary importance of non-alignment, especially in the Indian context.

On the flip side of it, the relevance of NAM as a collective appears limited. With 120 member nations and 17 observer states, the NAM is the largest group of countries after the United Nations and therefore holds a formidable weightage in the United Nations General Assembly. However, a deeper look at their voting autonomy presents a different picture.

Debt liability as percentage of GDP of countries for Chinese investments (Note: The map of India is incorrectly depicted.)

A majority of these nations are already under considerable Chinese debt and do not, enjoy complete autonomy in their foreign policy as well as internal affairs as a consequence. Additionally, in the Indian context, New Delhi’s experience with NAM has historically been unfavourable. NAM as an institution, has failed to offer its support through the three wars fought by India in 1962, 1965, and 1971. In fact, members have gone to the extent of explicitly taking pro-China and pro-Pakistan stances, even when neither country were members of the NAM. A departure from this line was witnessed during the 1999 Kargil conflict, but that primarily originated from the risen individual stature of India instead of a NAM solidarity.  So far, India had continued to be an active member of NAM for wanting globally visible multilateral platform. Although the UN reforms are still a distant dream, after having joined relevant groups including the QUAD, G20, BRICS, RIC, SCO, among others, NAM has become irrelevant for India. This is reflected by the absence of the Indian Prime Minister from the NAM summits since 2012, with an exception of the virtual 2019-summit held for want of better outreach of India’s soft power.

As for the overall strength, the total number of State Heads have remained just over 30 (of 120 members) for the past three summits held across a decade. But, the biggest paradox about NAM as a collective, lies in the recent admission of both China and Russia as its observer states, thereby the delegitimising the very idea of NAM. 

It can be  established that the threats that led to the formation of the NAM have only evolved.  Although the relevance of maintaining the strategic autonomy of countries holds, thus keeping NAM relevant as an idea and a foreign policy tool, the paradoxes that the 120-member group is facing as a collective, makes it largely irrelevant.

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