Belgrade is gearing up for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which held its first summit meeting there in 1961. According to Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković, the Serbian capital will be hosting 35 heads of state and 130 foreign ministers for the upcoming event on 11-12 October. But is this movement still important today given the sweeping international changes that have taken place over the past 60 years?
Selaković visited most of the countries on the guest list and found great enthusiasm for the forthcoming summit, the movement’s 20th. This, he said, was a clear sign that Third World countries still saw value in the movement, regardless of those that say its time has come.
But do these countries still find in their membership of the movement some affirmation of their independence given the polarisations in an international order that is no longer characterised by the bipolar superpower rivalry of the Cold War? Does the movement still have a role to play in a multilateral world in which China’s star is rising in the international arena, the EU is gradually differentiating itself from the US, and other emergent poles, such as Japan, are staking out their ground?
The peoples of the 120 nations and 20 observer states that are members of the Non-Aligned Movement attached high hopes to the movement when it was formed to advance their national hopes and aspirations. It was founded to promote such principles and causes as self-determination, national autonomy and sovereignty, regional peace, the end of apartheid, the rejection of subordination to imperialist military alliances, the anti-colonialist struggle, resistance to foreign occupation, nuclear disarmament, the rejection of the recourse to force or coercion in international relations, the democratisation of the international order and a more equitable international economic order supportive of the social and economic development of the movement’s member states.
The NAM emerged from the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference, or Bandung Conference, which was attended by the movement’s founding fathers, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. The “Bandung Principles” defined the goals of the movement and the commitment to their realisation as the chief eligibility criterion for membership.
The NAM received a powerful boost during the UN’s 15th general conference in 1960 when 17 newly independent nations from Africa and Asia became members of the movement. The following year, the first summit of the Non-Aligned Nations was held in what was then the Yugoslav capital Belgrade. The preparatory conference for the summit was held in Cairo.
Perhaps the most significant change that has occurred since the NAM was founded is the disappearance of the East-West ideological conflict that drove the Cold War and that the movement was founded to confront. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world’s economies have become increasingly intertwined as the world has shifted to the free-market system. Perhaps the best example of this is the trade relationship between China and the US.
However, that said, great power conflict continues despite the end of this ideological dimension, and part of that conflict involves the attempts by rival powers to assert their hegemony over Third World countries. Particularly worrisome in this regard has been the rise of the military factor over recent decades, a factor that had been largely removed from equations during the Cold War era.
The result has been some very hot wars, sometimes by proxy as in the case of Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and at other times directly, as was the case with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The world powers are racing to expand their military presence abroad by building bases and sometimes by flexing their military muscle, and the global environment has become tenser and more violent. It thus seems more urgent than ever that the NAM and its outlooks and activities opposed to such trends should be activated.
Two-thirds of the world’s nations are members of the NAM. Egypt, which played a pioneering role in founding the movement, hosted the last summit meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2009. In the light of the stability it enjoys in a region teeming with anarchy and turmoil, Egypt could also play a pioneering role in steering the movement to new horizons shaped by the developing world’s contemporary needs and aspirations.
Belgrade is looking forward to resuming its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement by hosting the summit meeting next month. India, the second member of the movement’s founding triumvirate, is enjoying an increasingly influential international profile. Surely it is time for Egypt to regain the international role it is best suited to perform by resuming its leading position within the Non-Aligned Movement, the largest international bloc after the UN.
The Belgrade summit meeting next month presents Egypt with an opportunity to resume a role we have neglected for decades, for which we have paid a price both in Africa and Asia.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.