EXCERPT | Non-Aligned Movement : The End of Ideologies?

EXCERPT | Non-Aligned Movement : The End of Ideologies?

By Dr. S.I. Keethaponcalan

Image Attribute:  The 17th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at Venezuela's Margarita Island / Source: Tasnim News Agency / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Image Attribute:  The 17th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at Venezuela's Margarita Island / Source: Tasnim News Agency / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Most of the countries that played a pivotal role in the formation of the NAM were former colonies, which gained independence through sustained campaigns against colonial control by the European states. For example, India, Indonesia, and Egypt managed to break out of colonialism after the Second World War. Therefore, they were avowedly anti-colonial and had an interest in freeing the rest of the Third World from colonial rule. Moreover, colonialism was one of the factors that unified most of these states. Meanwhile, despite the general anti-colonial sentiments that were gaining currency internationally in the immediate aftermath of the World War, many states, especially African societies, faced the prospect of perpetual colonialism. It was pointed out that “…the Colonial Office in London still believed that self-government for West Africans was decades away and that the prospect for East and Central African colonies was even more remote” [1]. Therefore, it was natural for a Third World movement to focus on the problem of colonialism and declare decolonization one of its primary objectives.

However, colonialism did not last forever. By the time the NAM came into force, all of the South Asian states and some of the Middle Eastern colonies were freed from European colonial control. African societies had to struggle hard to earn their freedom. However, they had models and successful cases to inspire them in this struggle. For example, India and Mohandas Gandhi’s strategies were adopted in several of the liberation struggles in Africa. Due to the combined effect of these difficulties and the changes that were taking place within the international community especially after the Second World War, many African societies were decolonized or liberated, one by one. For example, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia were decolonized gradually, while Zimbabwe was liberated from the White minority rule in 1980. Decolonization in Southeast Asia was accelerated in the 1960s and 70s. Brunei was one of the last to gain independence in 1984 in this region. The British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. The remaining territories are not too eager for independence as they are either too small or too poor to seek decolonization [2]. Nevertheless, one of the two primary objectives of the NAM was realized as European colonialism eventually came to an end in most of the states. Today, colonialism is not considered an issue in the Third World region.

Freeing South Africa from minority rule and apartheid was another cornerstone of the ideological basis of the NAM. It was pointed out that South Africa “has been at the core of the NAM’s efforts to uphold the principles of freedom, justice, and quality” [3]. The beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa started with the ascendency of F. W. de Klerk, as president of the country. De Klerk removed the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and released the long imprisoned Nelson Mandela from jail. The negotiations between the de Klerk administration and Mandela led to the gradual dismantling of the minority rule and apartheid. Another basic objective of the NAM was achieved with the election of a new ANC-led government, with Mandela at the helm in April 1994.

As newly independent states, many of the NAM members had to face the challenges posed by superpower rivalry and the Cold War [4] Non-alignment was the policy response to this difficult reality. The Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, which started immediately after the Second World War, continued with varying degrees of intensity and schemes of expansionist ideology by both superpowers. Most of the Third World countries were affected by this rivalry, as they turned into a target for superpower projects to expand their spheres of influence. According to Freedman (2010) [5], “as both sides searched beyond their core alliances for strategic advantage, the Cold War began to affect the trajectories of states and political movements across the globe” (p. 137). The danger of nuclear war was also looming large in this period. Therefore, many of the Third World states were keen to stay away from the superpower rivalry. This was conceived as crucial for their national interest, independence, and survival. As Willetts (1978) [6] pointed out, one of the reasons why the first summit took place in 1961 was the “sudden increase in tension” between the two superpowers in this period (p. 10). The states that came together to form an organization decided not to get involved in the Cold War rivalry and demanded the dissolution of the Cold War military alliances. It was against this backdrop that non-alignment turned into one of the primary objectives of the organization.

However, the Cold War rivalry was not permanent. Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, introduced a series of unilateral measures to reduce tension emanating from the Cold War rivalry, especially in the areas of disarmament and arms reduction. Many believe that Gorbachev’s actions were influenced by domestic socioeconomic compulsions. The reform programs the new leader introduced culminated in the dismantling of the socialist bloc states and eventually the Soviet Union itself bringing the Cold War to an end [7].

The end of the Cold War had an inescapable impact on the NAM. As its nomenclature suggested, the existence of the NAM was justified by the Cold War rivalry. Critics contended that without the Cold War, there was no need for the NAM to continue. Justifiably, the relevance of this Third World Movement was questioned. One critic asked whether the movement is a “relic” [3]. Others asked “non-aligned against what?” [8]. Another captioned his analysis, “Farewell Non-Alignment?” [9]. Critics in the post-Cold War era overwhelmingly used negative terminology to describe the movement. For example, such terms as “anachronistic,” “irrelevant,” “emasculated,” and “substantially redundant” were commonly used [10]. One of the primary arguments that emanate especially from the West is that the movement has no rationality to continue, hence it should be disbanded. A keen observer of the NAM, in 1989, maintained that the organization “now has little or nothing to do with nonalignment as such” [11].

It is true that the end of the Cold War has dealt a major blow to the NAM, but NAM’s major problems, for example, colonialism and apartheid, were also terminated one by one. Conscious of this fact, the movement was moving goalposts in every major meeting. For example, self-determination for the Palestinians was endorsed later. It is cumbersome to keep track of all the goal statements which were made in the later part of its history. The point is that some of the original goals of the organization have clearly become irrelevant progressively. Unlike many of the Western commentators and political leaders, the Third World leaders do not believe in disbanding the organization just because its original goals have become irrelevant. This is one reason why the NAM summits and ministerial meetings continue unhindered even after the end of the Cold War. However, almost everyone who matters within the organization and in the Third World region agrees that the movement cannot continue in its present form. The consensus is that reform must take place. This paper endorses this view. The NAM must be revamped and reshaped to deliver better results in the future.

About the Author:

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution Department at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly he was Professor of Political Science and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Publication Details:

This article is an excerpt taken from a research paper, titled - "Reshaping the Non-Aligned Movement: challenges and vision" by S. I. Keethaponcalan Bandung: Journal of the Global South 20163:4 DOI: 10.1186/s40728-016-0032-3 / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License 


[1] 2010. Babou, Cheikh Anta. 2010. Decolonization or National liberation: debating the end of British Colonial Rule in Africa. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 632: 41–54.

[2] 2001. Springhall, John. 2001. Decolonization since 1945. New York: Palgrave.

[4] 1966. Jansen, G.H. 1966. Non-Alignment and the Afro-Asian states. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.

[5] 2010. Freedman, Lawrence D. 2010. Review: frostbitten: decoding the Cold War, 20 years later. Foreign Affairs 89(2): 136–144.

[6]  1978. Willetts, Peter. 1978. The Non-Aligned Movement, the origins of a Third World alliance. London: Frances Pinter Ltd.

[7]  1998. Collins, Alan R. 1998. GRIT, Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War. Review of International Studies 24(2): 201–219.

[8] 1998. Handley, Antoinette. 1998. Non-Aligned against what? South Africa and the future of the Non-Aligned Movement. Johannesburg: The South African Institute of International Affairs.

[9] 2008. Rauch, Carsten. 2008. Farewell Non-Alignment? Constancy and change of foreign policy in post-colonial India. Frankfurt: Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

[10] 1998. Handley, Antoinette. 1998. Non-Aligned against what? South Africa and the future of the Non-Aligned Movement. Johannesburg: The South African Institute of International Affairs.

[11] 1989. Jansen, G. H. 1989. Save Non-alignment from its Cumbrous “Movement.” Los Angeles Times. http://www.articles.latimes.com/1989-09-17/opinion/op-385_1_nonaligned-nations. Accessed 25 Apr 2015.
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment