Alternate Histories: A Study of Nonalignment

 /  May 16, 2016, 1:45 p.m.



In 1979, in a speech given during the 6th Summit Conference of Heads of State or Government of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, Fidel Castro stated that the raison d’etre of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was a “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, apartheid, racism, including Zionism, and any form of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony, as well as the struggle against the policies of big powers or blocs.” This moment occurred 16 years after the establishment of the NAM; it took place after the NAM had witnessed both dizzying successes and crushing failures. However, Castro’s 1979 speech best captured everything that the movement hoped to be in the future and hoped it had accomplished in the past. In order to assess its success in meeting these goals, one must look at the entire history of the Non-Aligned Movement—and pay close attention to the ways the movement changed over the years.

In the fall of 1961, the city of Belgrade hosted the first Non-Aligned Movement summit. Formally known as the “Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries,” the summit brought together 25 different countries, all of whom opposed the two blocs they saw forming across the world. This attitude was captured in the summit’s minutes, which, according to Raja Mehrotra in Nehru: Man Among Men, stated not only that the non-aligned nations “do not wish to form a new bloc,” but that they “cannot be a bloc.” The act of standing in opposition to blocs—and yet refusing to become one—brought an interesting complexity to the movement. How could these nations stand against US- and Soviet-led alliances without becoming a bloc themselves?

As Jeffrey Elliot and Robert Reginald mention in The Arms Control, Disarmament, and Military Security Dictionary, leaders would answer by “not [becoming] part of any military bloc; [supporting] liberation and independence movements; [and pursuing] an independent policy based on peaceful coexistence.” Even as far back as the preliminary Bandung Conference in 1955, “coexistence” and “cooperation” were hallmarks of the movement’s rhetoric, being interspersed throughout the movement’s official documents and paperwork. At first glance, these concepts seem hopelessly abstract and dreamy—after all, what sort of metric is there for a movement’s success if its goal is something as fleeting as “coexistence?” But despite the superficial idealism of their press releases, the nations that championed these tenets were driven by pragmatic concerns—namely, the economic shortcomings and dependencies that followed their hard-won independence from colonial powers. Of the 25 countries that attended the Belgrade conference—among them, Algeria, Mali, Cuba, Indonesia, Iraq, and India—almost all were newly independent.

As Jawaharlal Nehru, an early non-alignment advocate and India’s first prime minister, remarked in 1941, “[independence] consists fundamentally and basically of foreign relations… all else is local autonomy. Once foreign relations go out of your hands into the charge of somebody else, to that extent and in that measure you are not independent.” Nehru’s remarks captured the reality that, in the postcolonial landscape, non-aligned nations shared a common concern of gaining the freedom to self-govern by securing freedom from their former rulers.

Shortly after the NAM’s founding, its member nations took a major interest in securing control over their economies and natural resources. To critics, the Non-Aligned Movement’s shift from dreamy ideology to economic realpolitik was a disingenuous side-step–but for many non-aligned nations, it quickly became clear that economic self-actualization was a form of self-defense: in other words, true independence could not be won so long as subaltern nations were hitched to the economies of their former rulers.

In this spirit, the 1972 New International Economic Order (NIEO) report was proposed at a United Nations Council on Trade and Government. The proposal, designed and cosigned by several non-aligned nations, had a stated intent to give “Least Developed Countries” (LDCs) control over natural resources, access to Western markets, and heightened influence in international economic institutions. Yet NIEO was dead on arrival: the disorganized coalition of weak economies backing the proposal could not overcome the developed nations that opposed it. The dream vanished. And so, underdeveloped economies continued to be subordinated in the international economy.

It’s hard not to see the New International Economic Order as a failure, at least when it comes to the movement’s stated aim of restructuring “hard power” on a global level. But for the proponents of the Non-Aligned Movement, a silver lining existed in NIEO’s contributions to the “soft power” of of underdeveloped nations. The “third world,” as the West referred to it, was more subordinate than ever in terms of economic power—but between NIEO and NAM, it was finally beginning to realize the “cooperation” between non-NATO and non-Warsaw Pact countries it had promised so many years ago.


Looking just at its membership statistics, NAM appears to be a success. In the decades that followed the Belgrade summit, the movement’s membership ballooned from 25 to more than 120. But, in blunt terms, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. After the failure of the NIEO, the movement was increasingly defined not by what it was, but what it was not (i.e. aligned with NATO or Warsaw powers). In the late twentieth century, as the threats of the Cold War waned and the realities of the post-NIEO global economy settled in, how would NAM members self-identify—and, for that matter, who would these members be? Like countless organizations before it, NAM faced an identity crisis—and one that it would fail to resolve. Even as the movement’s membership expanded, the ideological discontinuity of its members deepened. Thus, as the movement lost the ability to present a unified political front, it similarly lost its ability to project power and strength.

And now, in a strange twist of fate, NAM has come full circle. In 2012, with the conflict in Syria sparking new heights of discontent and division, the sixteenth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was held in Tehran—but, as a commentator from the Atlantic remarked, the movement was simply “non-aligned with reality.” Some five decades on from its inception, the Non-Aligned Movement had become the one thing it had set out to avoid: a third bloc, albeit one with no meaningful place in international relations. But if NAM has finally lost its original purpose, what does it survive as?


The Wikipedia entry for the Non-Aligned Movement is phrased in the present tense—the movement “is,” the nations “are.” Like much of the writing concerning NAM, this presupposition feels like an act of wishful thinking. And yet, present tense mentality falls closely in line with the narrative that continues today in countries such as India, which used (and uses) non-alignment to help define its relation to the international sphere. Today, the country’s prevalent narrative—something disseminated via classroom history textbooks and the like—is that while NAM may have lost its relevance, its ideals are still key. But why would this commitment hold true in a country that has changed radically since the onset of NAM? Perhaps because the core ideas that the movement was based on—fraternity amongst decolonized nations, independent foreign policies, and the democratization of the international order—remain relevant in today’s world.

The importance of non-alignment appears frequently in India’s media—whether in the broadly-read and widely-syndicated cartoons of RK Laxman, or in the political messages featured on the labels of Amul butter. Even in something as mundane as a Laxman cartoon, one might see pointed commentary on Western opposition to non-alignment—and even on something as banal as the label on a stick of butter, one might see depictions of Indian heads of state that champion independence and non-alignment.

On the other hand, within Western nations such as the United States of America, the Non-Aligned Movement is often ignored. The few times it is spoken of, it is in a manner that would be perceived as ‘objective’ by some but as ‘derogatory’ by others. The potential for these two interpretations was made perfectly clear in the headline of a snide New York Times op-ed from 1992: “Non-Aligned Movement Decides It Is Still Relevant.”

From even a cursory comparison of media sources from aligned and Non-Aligned countries , it is clear that most media from the two places aim to achieve entirely different, and often opposing, missions. In Non-Aligned countries, there seems to be a ‘need’ to aggrandize Non-Alignment as something greater than it actually was– in fact, this aggrandizement includes converting the movement into something that ‘is’ in the present. In contrast, in countries that the movement traditionally opposed, there is a condescending big-brother attitude that dismisses the movement as a mere ‘show’- one without any real impact.

The real impact of the Non-Aligned Movement on world politics lies somewhere between these two extremes- of not mattering at all and continuing to matter enormously. The Non-Aligned Movement succeeded on some fronts, such as promoting peace and allowing for independent foreign policies, and failed on others, such as promoting economic equity for small, developing nations. The long-term impact of the movement, which one witnesses today, is in terms of soft power. The Non-Aligned Movement undoubtedly played a pivotal role in bringing issues of colonialism and racism into the mainstream of international politics and uniting nations affected by these issues. And thus, even if NAM is ‘dead,’ it is survived by both the crises it fought against and the political movements it inspired.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Angad Singh and Christopher Good