I am intrigued by the ‘Non Aligned-Movement’ that kept popping up in the news late last month… how did this grouping of states come to present itself onto the smorgasbord of international institutions… and how prominent a role do they play in the great shufflings at play in the international arena – long the ostensible playpen of Western interests?
The Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, is the name given the participant members of the Conference of Non-Aligned Heads of State, first convened in Belgrade in September 1961, and which has met roughly every three years since. The so-called ‘founding fathers’ of the Non Aligned-Movement were President Sukarno of Indonesia, Jawahrlal Nehru of India, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, who together formed ‘The Initiative of Five’. (Sounds a bit like the disturbing initiation ceremony of some darkly secretive and subversive sect. But it wasn’t.)
NAM emerged from the sentiments of the earlier 1955 Bandung Conference (a highly significant gathering of 29 African and Asian states), during which members agreed to remain non-partisan in the finger-pointing puzzle of the bi-polarised Cold War. The founding ‘Bandung Principles‘ stressed the importance of economic and cultural cooperation, human rights, non-aggression and self-determination, and condemned “alien subjugation, domination and exploitation” of peoples through colonialism and external domination. (These Principles, based on Nehru’s Five Pillars, foreshadowed what we all have come to know and love – ASEAN’s Bangkok Declaration just over a decade later, which strongly emphasised sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-intervention/ interference.)
At the Seventh Summit in 1983, NAM referred to itself as “history’s biggest peace movement“. In addition to the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes and abstention from big power politics that were encapsulated in Bandung, the movement also sought demilitarisation, and opposed nuclear weapons and stationing military bases in foreign countries.
Currently, NAM includes some 120 members and 17 observer countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, Singapore, the DPRK, South Africa… the list goes on… as well as observer organisations including the Organisation of African Unity, The Arab League and the UN… A veritable who’s who of the who isn’t or who other people are scared of. (The kind of list that George W. Bush dreams of and wakes up screaming about covered in sweat.)
So why all this excitement Andrew, I hear you ask. Well, as can be seen, NAM was, and remains, a large collective of ‘outsider’ players, who embody some of the greatest development and security needs of the new millennium, and (despite the great darkened clouds of beating ashen wings and sharpened talons that some would proclaim heralds certain member’s arrival to tea), together make-up a hugely powerful body that seeks regional cooperation, economic growth and the negation of great power (read Western) influence in international affairs. NAM encapsulates almost two-thirds of the UN, and 55% of the world’s population – including some of the most dissatisfied, underdeveloped, conflict prone and chronically irritable, and yet also resource rich and strategically powerful states on the international stage.
And when the 16th NAM Summit took place from the 26 to 31 August 2012, we saw the position of revolving chair pass from Egypt to Iran for the 2012-2015 period.
oh yes. Iran.
As was noted in the press at the time (but as per usual was then passed over far too quickly for immodest pictures of famous people doing silly things), the summit was also attended by Ban Ki-Moon, who was criticised by the US and Isreal for publicly engaging with Tehran in what was called “a blow to western attempts to isolate the Islamic republic“. Yet the meeting presented a rare opportunity, outside of more western-dominated mechanisms (at the summit Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Khamenei called the UN ‘outmoded’ and ‘controlled by the US’), for not only Iran to shake its tail feathers and show to the world its nested position and influence in the region, but also for other players to come together and discuss how best to foster cooperation, growth and the resolution of continuing deadlock and instability across the Middle East.
Of course, high on the topics of conversation list was Syria, with Iran proposing a three-month ceasefire in the latest attempt to bring an end to the violence. Yet as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran is in an interesting position – needing to act as the regional leader it aspires to be, yet increasingly criticised for its continued alignment with Syria’s brutal regime. What is more, the meeting saw Mohamed Mursi in the first visit by an Egyptian president to Tehran since 1979. While Mursi attended the meeting in part to hand over the NAM leadership, the meeting has fueled much debate, with the predominantly Sunni Egypt seen by many as a regional Sherlock to Shia-ruled Iran’s Moriarty, the stalwart in a religious front against the latter’s regional influence.
Is this latest formulation of the NAM summit a sign of things to come – a rising, vital banner of regional cooperation and a unified Islamic brotherhood, which will wield increasing bilateral, regional, and then dare it be said, global influence? Or is it, like its ASEAN counterpart, a vital mechanism for cohesion, having a chin-wag and saying (notwithstanding the latest China Sea debacle and failed summit), generally nice things about each other, securing economic cooperation, integration and growth, and which yet remains an ineffective tool in enacting regional security? And if it does continue to grow in strategic influence, how will the US, Israel and other concerned ‘western’ powers act to oppose or influence its agenda? Is there actually such a thing as a non-aligned state?