Why the Non-Aligned Movement Needs to Be Resuscitated
Nehru at the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations held in Belgrade September 1961 with Nasser and Tito.

Why the Non-Aligned Movement Needs to Be Resuscitated


The eighth annual BRICS summit that took place on October 15-16 in Goa successfully concluded with the endorsement of the so-called Goa Declaration, laying down a comprehensive vision for cooperation on several international issues. On the sidelines of this summit, India and Russia fortified their bilateral strategic partnership by entering into a number of high-value defense agreements.

Each time India forges an alliance of this sort in the military domain, especially with either of the erstwhile Cold War super powers, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) gets its due share of scholarly attention. When India and United States signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in August, thereby agreeing to share military bases for specific operations, it was largely misinterpreted that the agreement would establish India as an official ally of the United States, and that it would entangle India in Washington’s conflicts and policies. It was considered yet another blow to the NAM.

The conventional questions which prop up at such instances often include whether the relevance of NAM has faded in the current geo-political milieu; and whether India is conclusively tilting towards either of the power blocs thereby abandoning the entrenched principles of NAM.

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The NAM was conceived by the heads of states of India, Egypt, Ghana, Yugoslavia and Indonesia, and its first conference was held in Belgrade in 1961. Although way before its formal inception, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had already stated as early as in 1946 that non-alignment with power groups would be one of the pillars of India’s foreign policy. The dominant objective of the NAM was to facilitate and provide a viable platform for countries which did not want to align themselves militarily with the two Cold War era superpowers–the United States and the Soviet Union.

India was motivated by the then-prevailing circumstances to chart an independent, alternative and a middle path in global politics, and thereby co-pioneered the NAM. First, India was a newly born independent country, after a prolonged anti-colonial struggle. The newly developed idea of nationalism served as adrenaline, which had to be channeled in ways that would manifest India’s commitment to anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Second, India, having inherited the burden of colonial exploitation and blunders, had to address large scale social and economic problems. It chose to focus on these domestic issues, rather than straining its muscular power over external troubles. Third, after waging a long-drawn, and a bloody anti-colonial struggle and attaining sovereignty, it was hardly thought wise to jeopardize the same by allying with either of the power blocs, and thereby permitting intrusion in New Delhi’s sovereign decision making power. Against this backdrop, NAM seemed to best protect India’s national interests.

The question as to whether the movement is ebbing away or not can be best responded to if one understands broadly, the essence and the contours of the NAM. The term “non” in NAM is a misnomer, as it invokes a passive or a neutral connotation. It can be better appreciated in its widest sense, if one delves into the interpretation rendered by its founding fathers. Nehru expressly clarified that NAM does not imply passivism or neutralism, but has a more active and positive connotation to it. Consequently, a literal interpretation sans examining its historical underpinnings is a slippery slope, which in turn can lead to downplaying its significance in the contemporary context.

NAM has always implied right to self-determination and extensive freedom for nations to chart its independent path, without being compelled to collaborate and join restrictive factions. Moreover, NAM was never meant to be an ad-hoc and a static movement, which would terminate upon the occurrence or non-occurrence of an event, or upon attaining specific goals. It was calibrated as a dynamic movement, and it has continually re-defined its content in accordance with the evolving geopolitical order. Its dynamism is manifested in the kind of content it has embraced and endorsed ever since its inception. In its formative years in the 1960s, its primary plank was opposition to military alliances and support to disarmament. In the following decade, i.e., 1970s, NAM expressed solidarity against neocolonialism, and endorsed the New International Economic Order. In the 1980s it opposed apartheid and racism in the context of African anti-imperial struggle.

With the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, the future of NAM seemed bleak. However, at the Jakarta summit in 1992, although the original raison d’être for NAM did not exist anymore, it was agreed to re-active a constructive dialogue and strengthen the NAM. It resolved to pursue international economic issues and sustained itself.

Fast forward to 2016: The geopolitical landscape is now conspicuously transformed. Inter alia, uni-polarity is giving way to multi-polarity and western hegemony is petering out at multiple levels. Europe is still suffering from the repercussions of an economic crisis and before it could recover was befallen by a new shock–the so-called European migrant crisis. The post Cold War détente has dwindled, and the United States and Russia are at loggerheads. Climate change is posing a grave danger as never before, and accountability of those responsible is being debated thereby leading to polarization.

In this background, with the erstwhile powers unable to address issues afflicting the world at large, there is every reason for NAM to re-invent itself, re-define its content and do what it does best: to provide a platform for representation of diverse and alternate ideologies, and an opportunity for generation of an alternative line of measures, which perhaps will address the issues plaguing the world.

There are several currents challenging the extant institutional structure. Take for instance the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Only after the emerging countries put up a sustained movement for changes within the IMF, reforms in the organizational and operational structure were initiated and undertaken. Another such progressive current is the formation of G4 (comprising Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan), in order to generally endorse United Nations Security Council reforms, and to specifically support each other’s bids for permanent seats. The New Development Bank established by BRICS is another attempt to put up an alternative to the anachronistic Bretton Woods institutions.

The structure and apparatus of NAM is such that it allows for diverse ideologies to flourish within one umbrella movement thereby making it more enterprising and dynamic;  it provides the widest flexibility to its members, which are at diverse levels in terms of geopolitical interests and economic development, to pursue its national interests at a global platform;  it is a vociferous movement considering its membership of 120 countries and 15 observers. With great powers like the United States and China not being member countries, NAM is only further legitimized as it facilitates an alternative narrative to their dominance; and–to underline the movement’s resiliency– it has survived more than half a century, despite its members embroiled in a number of separate bilateral and regional tensions.

Consequently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s absence at the NAM summit last month in Venezuela sent the wrong signal to the world at large about India’s seriousness about NAM. India’s foreign policy is still largely guided by NAM principles. For instance, looking at the global problem of terrorism, while the erstwhile Cold War power blocs are embroiled in proxy wars in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, India, although a victim of terrorism, has eschewed a knee-jerk marriage of convenience with either of the two powers, and instead is strategically and proactively addressing the issue in ways best suited to her. At the international level, India proposed a draft of Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) as early as 1996, and is now striving for its ratification at the UN.  India also succeeded in getting the BRICS members to endorse a strong statement at the recently concluded summit.  The eight annual BRICS summit illustrated India’s independent foreign policy guided by NAM principles. It’s time we give NAM due credit, and ardently take positive steps to invigorate the movement.

Prarthana Kashinath is a freelance lawyer based in Mysore, Karnataka, India. 

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