Whither Non Alignment
Shortly before the start of last month’s Sixteenth Summit of Heads of Non Aligned countries in Tehran, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird issued a robust statement urging United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to turn down the invitation to attend the meeting in the Iranian capital.
Mr. Baird’s terse statement pronounced on Iran’s “egregious human rights record” and fear that Tehran might use the presence of the UN Secretary General at the Non Aligned summit to “further legitimize their own purposes.” Such a visit, the Canadian Foreign Minister said, “would only serve to legitimize and condone the record of this regime which Canada views as the single most significant risk to global peace and security today.”
These are uncharacteristically tough words on an international political issue from a Canadian Minister of Government though it seemed that what Mr. Baird had to say failed to impact on the UN Secretary General’s decision. He travelled to Iran anyway.
The Non Aligned Movement (NAM) has never in the half a century of its existence been far away from controversy linked to challenges to the legitimacy of its claim that its sole purpose is to allow member states to assert their independence from the competing spheres of influence of the two superpowers. That is not surprising. Membership of the movement has always included a generous helping of both hard-line, communist countries and countries espousing socialism as a national ideology
The end of the Cold War coincided with the NAM losing much of the attention that it had gained in the ‘60‘s and ‘70’s, as economically challenged member states rushed to secure bilateral and multilateral financial support from both Washington and US-backed multilateral financial entities including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The changed economic outlook of several member countries resulted in a widespread perception that Non Alignment had lost its relevance. Some writers even ventured to describe the movement as an anachronism, the justification for that description being that in the absence of what used to be known during the Cold War era as spheres of influence or otherwise had become a non-issue.
As it happens, however, the Non Aligned Movement as a formal organization has not only outlived the Cold War – a fact which has surprised many students of international relations – but has also managed to retain a membership that ranges from such implacable enemies of Washington as Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela to such staunch allies of the US as India, Pakistan, The Philippines and Kenya.
Last month’s Sixteenth Summit of Heads of Non Aligned nations may not have attracted the kind of attention which the NAM gained during the heady days of the 1970’s though its significance was underscored by the presence in Tehran of Heads of Government from countries like Egypt and India, both long-standing allies of the United States. More than that the very location of the recent Non Aligned Summit in Tehran would have sent a discomfiting message to Washington that the west’s efforts to present Iran as an international pariah is only gaining limited ground in the international community.
If the Canadian Foreign Minister’s criticism of Ban Ki-moon’s decision to attend the Iran Non Aligned Summit is perhaps understandable given Canada’s outspoken position on what it perceives as the danger which a nuclear armed Iran might pose to world peace, it is not difficult to see why the UN Secretary General would have chosen to make the journey. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, all long-standing members of the NAM, have all been profoundly affected by the “Arab Spring,” which, incidentally, has resulted in differences between Washington and Moscow at the level of the UN. Syria, another member of the NAM is in the throes of a grave internal crisis which, again, has global implications. Some of the NAM member countries that are close allies of Washington are likely to be less comfortable with the political rhetoric of the movement though they are far more likely to embrace the economic discourses at a time when what some developing countries are describing as predatory global capitalism has come in for widespread criticism. While several NAM member countries have become decidedly more receptive to western economic policies in the post Cold War era, the NAM, nonetheless, continues to embody the desire of many developing countries to chart their own courses on some important global issues including energy and climate change.
The NAM may have lost the aura of political attractiveness which drew developing countries to both the message and the movement, particularly, during the 1970’s. Nonetheless, in the same manner the events in the Middle East have conspired to draw a measure of international attention to the sixteenth summit of the NAM, so too might the movement persist and, in the process, make meaningful if occasional contributions to the fabric of international relations.