Nonalignment in peril
As a profoundly divided world headed deeper into the nuclear age, a group of developing countries came together in 1961 to form the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It sought to prevent the rapid polarization of the world and blunt the escalating superpower confrontation during the Cold War.Today, NAM has 120 members, second only to the United Nations (UN). During the dark days of the Cold War, NAM provided a safe space for its members to break free from the domination of powerful nations, to chart their own course. It was a forum where respect for self-determination, sovereign equality of states, fundamental human rights, noninterference, and safeguarding the UN Charter, served as the foundations of a fairer, more just, and peaceful world.
Today, all that NAM stands for are in peril. At the NAM Ministerial Meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan in July, an emergent superpower and non-NAM member succeeded in blocking an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) proposal to make factual updates to paragraphs on the South China Sea (SCS), as written in the NAM Ministerial statement. This emergent superpower managed to influence a number of states to object to the Asean proposal despite the latter’s efforts to engage these states, and its willingness to be flexible and to compromise.
These states told the Asean that it should negotiate directly with the emergent superpower, which had a delegation present. The Asean delegates refused, as this would practically give that country a seat at the table, which would set a dangerous precedent.
There have always been attempts by superpowers to try to influence NAM, but mostly in terms of policy or ideology, almost never against a single NAM member or group. As a group and as individual members, Asean formally expressed on the floor its serious objections to the efforts of an emergent outside power to influence the decisions of NAM. Asean pointed out that while its region may not be free from potential conflict, it has been working as one and with others to preserve peace. With its record economic growth built on the firm foundation of peace and stability, Asean must be doing something right.
In Baku, the Philippines joined Asean in expressing its strong objections and disappointment, but took things one step further: it disassociated itself from NAM’s decision not to factually update the paragraphs on the SCS. This is something that the Philippines seldom does in multilateral fora. A few other NAM members supported Asean’s position. Though most NAM members were less articulate, there was a palpable sense of disgust and repulsion over the efforts of this emergent superpower to manipulate NAM.
These efforts clearly did not go unnoticed. Many delegations privately expressed their support to Asean members. The Asean delegates meanwhile agreed that the issue should be taken up at the next Asean Ministerial Meeting.
A week later, the following appeared in the Joint Communiqué of the 56th Asean Ministerial Meeting Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta, on July 11 to 12: “We are seriously disappointed over the failure of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to update paragraphs on the South China Sea in the Final Document of the Ministerial Meeting of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement on 5-6 July 2023 in Baku. We called on all NAM Members to respect Asean, and Asean’s unity and Centrality, especially on issues which directly affect peace and prosperity in its own immediate region. We also called on all NAM Members to uphold their commitment to the main goals and objectives of NAM as enshrined in the Bandung Principles, and to firmly uphold the principles of nonalignment while promoting peace, friendship, solidarity, and cooperation among ourselves.”
Even after the end of the Cold War, NAM remains relevant. Efforts to divide the world continue and multilateralism is under siege. Superpower confrontations remain a reality, though evolved and more complex. NAM has the potential to continue playing an important role in preventing confrontation from turning into conflict—by not allowing itself to be used by any superpower to gain the upper hand. The key to this is for its members to refuse to be used as tools by any superpower against fellow NAM members. Nonalignment is in peril and every effort must be taken to prevent any power from subverting the fundamental principles and values of NAM.
Ambassador Carlos D. Sorreta, is a career diplomat and currently the Philippine permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. He was previously foreign affairs undersecretary, ambassador to Russia, director general of the Foreign Service Institute, and assistant secretary for American affairs. He headed the Philippine delegation to the NAM Ministerial Meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 5-6, 2023.