The power of non-alignment


  • The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and its precursor, the Bandung Afro-Asian conference in 1955, were examples of soft balancing by weaker states towards great powers engaged in intense rivalry and conflict. 
  • It was adopted a soft balancing strategy aimed at challenging the superpower excesses in a normative manner, hoping for preventing the global order from sliding into war.
  • The founders of the NAM, if alive today, could have taken solace in the fact that in the long run some of their goals were achieved due to a radical change in the policies of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Understanding a movement

  • The NAM is often not given credit for what it deserves, because by the 1970s, some of the key players, including India, began to lose interest in the movement as they formed coalitions with one or the other superpower to wage their conflicts with their neighbours.
  • It is also not theorised by scholars properly.
  • The Western countries often portrayed non-alignment as pro-Soviet or ineffective and the general intellectual opposition was the result of the Western scholarly bias against a coalitional move by the weaker states of the international system.
  • This is very similar to how upper classes or castes respond to protest movements by subaltern groups in highly unequal and hierarchical societies.

NAM and the Afro-Asian grouping

  • Despite its shortcomings, the NAM and the Afro-Asian grouping acted as a limited soft balancing mechanism.
  • It attempted to delegitimise the threatening behaviour of the superpowers.
  • It was particularly through their activism at the UN and other such forums including that on Disarmament.
  • The non-aligned declarations on nuclear testing and nuclear non-proliferation helped concretise the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.
  • They also helped create several nuclear weapon free zones as well as formulate the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
  • The tradition of ‘non-use of nuclear weapons’ was strengthened partially due to non-aligned countries’ activism at the UN.
  • Also, the UNGA declared decolonisation as a key objective in 1960.
  • It was practised, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, in Africa, parts of Asia and the Caribbean.
  • NAM definitely deserves partial credit for ending colonialism through their activism at the UN General Assembly.

Impact on N-tests

  • The great powers are once again launching a new round of nuclear arms race, territorial expansion and militarisation of the oceans.
  • The freedom of navigation activities of the U.S. is generating hostile responses from China.
  • In turn, China is building artificial islets and military bases in the South China Sea and expanding its naval interests into the Indian Ocean.
  • The U.S. as the reigning hegemon will find the Chinese takeover threatening and try different methods to dislodge it.
  • If the present trends continue, a military conflict in the South China Sea is likely and the naval competition will take another decade or so to become intense.
  • Smaller states would be the first to suffer if there is a war in the Asia-Pacific or an intense Cold War develops between the U.S. and China.

The Way Forward:

  • A renewed activism by leading global south countries may be necessary to delegitimise the new imperial ventures.
  • These states must play a balancing role to avoid the international order from deteriorating and to prevent any new forms of cold and hot wars.
  • China, the U.S. and Russia need to be balanced and restrained.
  • Some countries are already showing some elements of strategic autonomy favoured by the NAM.
  • Developing countries can engage more with China and India and restrain the U.S. and Russia from aggravating military conflict in Asia-Pacific.
  • More concrete initiatives are needed by the emerging states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping.
  • The soft balancing by non-superpower states has a key role to play in this.
  • The alternative is to leave it to the great powers to engage in mindless arms race and debilitating interventions, which rarely create order in the regions. Restraining the established and rising powers through institutional and normative soft balancing may emerge as an option for developing countries in the years to come. 


Leave a Reply