Vacuum at the heart of the Non-Aligned Movement

What’s in a NAM? This was answered even before the so-called non-aligned countries, which constitute the Non-Aligned Movement, began their summit in Kuala Lumpur on February 24. For many heads of state who attended, it was a short holiday in the tropics. They are aware of the irrelevance of NAM, particularly to the impending attack on Iraq, which it pretended to be addressing. Even Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, NAM’s current chairman, shrugged off Iraq’s request that NAM officials visit Iraq to investigate the allegations against it. “I am quite sure that even if we say we found nothing in Iraq, nobody is going to take us seriously,” he said. When its chairman is not taking NAM seriously, why should anybody else?

Being the second-largest international body after the UN also means being the second most irrelevant body. The voice of the ‘South’ is heard nowhere. Likewise the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) meets regularly, only to go back to fighting the same wars afterwards. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) also exists on paper, with member-states all eager to please Uncle Sam in its ‘war on terror’.

The last time Malaysia hosted a multinational event, things went ill; the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and the APEC conference in 1999 took place while the country was in chaos because of the Anwar Ibrahim affair. This time, in the year of Mahathir’s retirement, the summit was exploited to promote Malaysia’s tourism industry and domestic products. This is understandable because it is good for the Malaysian economy: the Malaysians pulled out all the stops to promote their country to the thousands of delegates and journalists, spending about RM1 billion (US$270 million) on an extravaganza such as is rarely seen here. The fact that the summit was to be a meeting of many countries that are worried about superpower hegemony, and about western capitalism, did not stop the host from purchasing brand-new luxury cars to ferry the delegates around.

In the end, everybody returned contented with a well-attended summit in which Mahathir delivered the usual rhetoric. He knows that none of the members of NAM are really non-aligned. He milked the summit for all it was worth, to cheers from other leaders, who could not have spoken as eloquently as he did.

Mahathir called on the international community to ban war and work towards a world order in which power is shared: a world “free from the age-old belief that killing people is right.” Such calls might impress, but for the fact that NAM has no idea how to do anything to achieve what it claims to aspire to.

NAM is a far cry from what the first conference (1955) envisaged. It was formed by newly independent countries that did not want to be aligned with either the US-led ‘free world’ or the Moscow-led communist bloc. Yugoslavia, Egypt, Indonesia and India launched the movement in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, and were later joined by Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Guinea, Algeria, Tunisia and Cuba. Thus NAM was formed as the ‘middle ground’ between the US and the Soviet Union during the ‘cold war’. It lost its role when these ‘middle grounders’ began to align with one or other of the ‘superpowers’. After the demise of the Soviet Union, which also meant the end of the cold war, these aligned nations joined NAM, which now has 116 members.

NAM member-states would not dare to confront the US. The ‘no-war declaration’ endorsed by NAM countries proves nothing. Like the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference), NAM is happy to condemn Washington, but individually, as the Malaysian prime minister hints in his speeches, most governments go along with US; some are even supporting the American military build-up in the Middle East.

Even a cursory glance at the list of member-states of NAM reveals that, with the exception of Iran and North Korea, none is really non-aligned, either in foreign or in military policy. Most of them report to masters in Washington, Paris or London; even Malaysia was recently granted military training worth about US$1.2 million from the US. Six members of NAM are in the UN Security Council, most of whom could probably be bribed to vote for any US motion to bomb Iraq, despite NAM’s declaration against war.

That said, even issuing a simple declaration of displeasure at US war plans and unilateralism was not easy, with puppet-states like the Arab sheikhdoms and Afghanistan, as well as staunch US allies such as Singapore, Pakistan, India and the Philippines, showing discomfort about any direct condemnation of Washington’s war plans. Similarly, a North Korean proposal to show NAM’s strong displeasure of Washington’s unilateralism and bully-tactics also failed. As one observer puts it, NAM has grown from a movement led by a handful of giants to “an amorphous, irrelevant body of non-entities, another talking-shop out of which no useful solution or voice could emerge. NAM has become an organisation of poachers turned gamekeepers with no idea… but the status that comes with it is too important to throw away.”