27 August 2012


Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi addresses the XVI Summit of NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement)

Here is a little geopolitical riddle: in what way is NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement) like NATO?

ANSWER: NAM and NATO were both products of the Cold War, and both are now relics of the Cold War that continue in existence out of institutional inertia.

I‘ve written several posts about NATO’s institutional drift since the end of the Cold War and the attempt to find a viable role for an entity constituted for the purpose of containing and confronting Soviet expansionism and adventurism during the Cold War (cf. NATO’s Gambit, inter alia). More particularly, NATO was to be the entity to direct the joint US and European response to the Warsaw Pact and the nightmare scenario of a massive conventional thrust into Western Europe. Fortunately, this scenario never occurred. I say “fortunately” because it would not have been the cakewalk for NATO forces that many assume in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact had numerical superiority in tanks and armored divisions, and as I wrote about in Revisiting Exercise Anatolian Eagle, Soviet MIGs demonstrated their efficacy against US fighters in dogfights over Viet Nam.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, many former Warsaw Pact nation-states are now members of NATO, and even the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moved back the hands on its iconic doomsday clock to symbolically recognize the greatly decreased likelihood of a global nuclear war as a result of the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War divided the world into two hostile spheres of influence, one Soviet dominated, the other American dominated. In Europe, almost every nation-state was forced to take sides. Stalin set up pro-Soviet regimes throughout those regions occupied by Soviet troops at the end of the Second World War. Seeing what appeared to be the handwriting on the wall, Western European nation-states banded together under US leadership to prevent their own countries from falling under Soviet influence.

Outside Europe there was a little more latitude for policy vis-à-vis the Cold War dyad, but from a practical point of view almost every nation-state either took sides or leaned to one side or the other — often opportunistically. A sure way to get the attention of the superpowers was the declare yourself in the Cold War. Institutionally weak nation-states who received aid and support from one side were toppled by forces that were aided and supported by the other side.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was founded in Belgrade in 1961, partly in response to the sea-sawing of influence between the two superpowers. Particularly instrumental in the founding of NAM were Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana, and Indonesia, all of them headed by powerful, charismatic, and ambitious leaders — Tito, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno — who wanted to stake out an independent course.

When it was founded during the Cold War, NAM meant something: it meant not being allied to either the US or the Soviet Union, and therefore not falling within either sphere of influence. This was a powerful idea at the time, as it represented not only a kind of power politics for ambitious third world leaders, but also a kind of ideal that implicitly (and often also explicitly) rejected the Cold War and MAD and the nuclear arms race.

With the end of the Cold War, what does NAM mean? It means as little as NATO. It is an institution without an agenda or a direction. NAM, like NATO, has entered a period of institutional drift.

Of course, the enthusiasts of NAM don’t see it like this at all, and they are no more willing to close up shop than the NATO generals who have dedicated their careers to that institution.

So how do you sell non-alignment after the Cold War? Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying, “Meddling of aliens in regional developments is not acceptable and run counter with democracy.” (Cf. Salehi: Regional nations never tolerate meddling of aliens) As Salehi frames this (and his remarks were variously quoted by several news organizations, e.g., NAM Summit Opens With Call To Resist ‘Egotistic Interference’), it is clearly an expression of what I have recently been calling the Principle of Autocracy: “…the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory.”

The Iranian Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported Ali Reza Mosaferi, apparently the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s representative on Kish Island (though I was unable to confirm this independently, but since he was quoted as an authority by IRNA they obviously know more about it than I do), saying NAM was about “non-alignment to the global imperialism” and “fighting monopolistic world and bullying powers’ unilateralism.” This is a slightly different spin than that of Ali-Akbar Salehi. The latter was concerned that non-aligned nation-states would not be the object of outside interference; Mosaferi seems concerned that non-aligned nation-states not be forced into a de facto global monopoly on power. Both of these criticisms of the contemporary international order have legs, and we can expect to see them time and again in the coming decades, but the fact that two officials gave very different theoretical justifications for the existence of NAM is a clear indication of post-Cold War institutional drift.

During the Cold War, no one would have hesitated to say that the mission of NATO was to oppose the Warsaw Pact, that the mission of the Warsaw Pact was to oppose NATO, and that the mission of NAM was to opt out of the Cold War to the extent possible. Now the idea of a NATO or a NAM mission is as clouded as the diverse motives of protesters carrying signs and chanting slogans in the streets of any major city.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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