by Joshua Pritchard
The sixteenth meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which concluded in late August 2012 in Tehran, earned mention in the Western media for procuring RSVPs from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi. Yet the involvement of the UN and Egypt in the NAM summit is nothing new. In 2009, Ban addressed the organization’s fifteenth summit, which took place in Egypt. Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, spoke at the 2006 NAM summit in Cuba. As Sri Lankan ambassador and journalist Ernest Corea states in a report on the Tehran meeting, Ban’s attendance followed tradition, and served to reaffirm “the interlinked relationship between the UN and NAM.” The location of the August summit should not have surprised anyone, either. Tehran’s turn as host city, which rotates between NAM members, was known at the conclusion of the 2009 meeting.
Nevertheless, much about the sixteenth meeting of the NAM was different. Changes made to NAM’s standard guest list, engendered by the Arab Awakening, affected the atmosphere and purpose of the 2012 meeting. (Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi were not in attendance.) In addition, the ongoing dispute between Iran and the West over its development of nuclear technology informed the event proceedings and the media coverage surrounding it. Although it is undoubtedly a talk shop and a stage for political theater, the modern day NAM has attempted to evolve its purpose and mission. The West’s dismissal of the NAM as a Cold War relic speaks to how geopolitics continues to inform macro-level policy related to global development.
NAM: Organizational History
The first NAM meeting took place in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. Guests included Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, Indonesian President Sukarno (Kusno Sosrodihardjo), and China’s Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. As Phillip McMichael notes in Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective (2011), the aim of the NAM was to serve as something of a bunker from the geopolitical rivalry between the US and Russia. In order to counter the spread of communism and expand their access to natural resources and commodities, Western leaders were enlisting countries of the Third World into the development project. Meanwhile, Russia and China were working to spread their own political ideals and influence, and foment pre-existing skepticism regarding the aims and intentions of the West. “Cold War rivalry,” writes McMichael, “governed much of the political geography of the development project. So long as the Third World was under threat from a political alternative, First World security was at stake.” According to McMichael, the NAM was established to counter “the model of development embedded in the multi-institutional world order.”
Since the end of the Cold War, the purpose and mission of the NAM has been widely debated, both by observers and its member states. In addition, globalization in its modern form, augmented by technological advancements in communication, production, and transportation, have caused the conversation about global politics to move beyond Cold War-era constructs such as territorial sovereignty and economic nationalism.
The US and Europe leveraged the resources and human capital of developing countries in their creation of the global market system, and both readily welcome the consumer dollars of Asian countries that have successfully ascended the development ladder. Nevertheless, regional political relationships, even if formed in congruence with the development initiatives delineated by, for example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), are ignored if they are not otherwise in sync with the West’s larger geopolitical agenda. As Sally Morphet writes in the journal Global Governance, “neither the Western media nor Western scholars pay much attention to the multilateral policies and practices of the states variously described as the South, the third world, or developing countries. In particular, patterns of cooperation among these states in pursuit of common interests at the UN are often ignored or dismissed as of little consequence.”
Indeed, far from being a principle of cooperation, development aid has routinely been used by the West as an implement of statecraft and a tool to achieve the best possible outcome from otherwise treacherous or complicated political conundrums. Writing about development in his native Burma in his book Where China Meets India, Thant Myint-U writes, “As part of an official sanctions regime [against the ruling junta], all development aid was denied, making any moves toward greater economic reform much more difficult.”
“Heads of government expressed particular concern over the economic situation in LDCs, the majority of which were still located in Africa. They noted further that economic underdevelopment, poverty, and social injustice constituted a source of frustration and a cause of new conflicts, and that stability, security, democracy and peace could not be consolidate without rectifying growing international inequalities.”
The above statement is not a description of the 2000 Millennium Summit that established the MDGs, it is an excerpt from official documents published after the NAM Summit in Durban, South Africa in September 1998.
The West is right to endorse improvements in human rights in China, and right to stand against absurd comments made by Iranian officials questioning the historical legitimacy of the Holocaust. Moreover, Western officials should be judicious in their offering of military and development assistance to places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (an NAM member), which is enduring a civil conflict involving unabashedly brutal warlords.
Questions posed by the traditions and agendas of geopolitics are at play when considering the range of challenges facing global development, which include poverty, hunger, and disease. Nonetheless, the mission of UN development organizations and Western aid groups would be better served through increased cooperation with the NAM’s working groups and committees. NAM criticisms regarding the implementation of the MDGs should be considered, not least because every country in Africa (with the exception of South Sudan) is an NAM member states. Commonalities of purpose regarding human development are as good a reason as any to move beyond the dictates of an outmoded world order, and a good pretext to foster cooperation where none exists.
Joshua Pritchard is a graduate student in the International Relations Program at UMass Boston.