Would you like some NAM with that?


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?


2 comments on “Would you like some NAM with that?

  1. aidangnoth says:

    Iran’s leadership of NAM surprises me. Not because I don’t think the State doesn’t fit the role perfectly in terms of being clearly one of the least ‘Western’ states in the world, but rather because such a leadership will automatically put Western states on the defensive and further diminish the institutions image (within Western states eyes). With so many Western states wary and somewhat frightened of Iran at the moment, while its leadership of NAM could greatly increase the organisations position in world affairs, it could also emphasise and heighten differences (perceived or otherwise) between its members and non-members. The fact that Ban ki Moon was criticised for popping his head in shows that Western states are very much thinking about this in zero-sum terms, and are taking the actions of NAM as an affront to their attempts to rule (control? help?) the world. Not that I believe Western states are in the right, I just think that NAM is being slightly antagonistic in how they are carrying out their affairs. Perhaps they have a right to be.

    Theoretically I don’t see a problem with Iran’s leadership of NAM. But then again, I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment that Iran should not be entitled to nuclear energy either (or weapons as the case could be). I feel Western States continually fail to learn from their past mistakes, the Colonial blow backs and struggles that have consumed many of the world’s poorest regions for the past 50 or so years should have taught us to rethink our diplomatic efforts with these countries. Rather than seek to isolate Iran for is ‘bad’ behaviour we should have sought to incorporate it in normal day to day discussions about world affairs. What happened to the Cold War policies of engaging with states by flooding them with Western culture and products so that citizens desired our goods and way of life? I watched this video clip on Chatham house a couple of months ago where Jon Snow (some media elite from the UK) argued that we need to ‘Rethink Iran’ and our engagement with it. I found it a compelling argument and believe in the points he raises (which mainly comprise of how we’ve reaped what we’ve sowed in the region and need to completely overhaul how we deal with the Country).

    In terms of NAM being a security kind of complex Andrew I’m not sure how well that will work considering (as you mention) the size of its membership. But it does provide a necessary forum where those regional organisations (security oriented or otherwise) from around the world can discuss concerns. I think it is inevitable that the institutions (and those others like it) power and importance will continue to grow, especially as developing states become more and more powerful. Hopefully those Western powers will seek to engage these movements constructively (as they keep saying they are doing with China) to ensure that anti-Western sentiment does not esculate.

    If you are bored and want to watch the video I was talking about (its only half an hour long I think) you can do so here (http://www.chathamhouse.org/events/view/182925).

  2. adslater says:

    I agree that it is certainly a bold move by NAM members to press ahead and pass the chair onto Iran in the context of current world events/ opinion… It is similar in a way to when Myanmar, in the face of EU and US objections and a possible boycott, relinquished its place in line and passed the ASEAN chair over to the Philippines in 2006. However, in the case of NAM, by its very definition it is resolutely non-aligned and therefore the last thing on its mind would be to acquiesce to outside (read Western) pressures… I think in a way it reveals the strength of the institution, in that it is able to remain cohesive and coherent in its leadership structure and underlying principles, notwithstanding the internal divisions and criticisms of Iran and the question of Syria etc. that did occur.

    I also agree that rather than marginalising Iran, and creating a new ‘Islam Curtain’, what is needed is to bring the ‘pariah’ into the global fold and to engender dialogue, support and mutual cooperation – “keep your friends close and your enemies even closer”?

    However, I think that this growth of regional institutions is an important feature of contemporary international relations. This role can been seen in the increasing role that the African Union has had to play in African affairs (the UN relying on its legitimacy in addressing the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire for example), and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and ASEAN to name but a few, in not only regional but also global affairs. It appears likely that rather than the UN remaining (if it ever was?) the pivotal ‘number one’ in global governance, it will be the influence and responsibility of regional bodies to secure dialogue, peace and cooperation…

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