Rob Rakove: Taking Nonalignment Seriously

Roundup: Media's Take

Rob Rakove is a lecturer in International Relations at Stanford University. His first book, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, will be published by Cambridge University Press in October.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he will attend the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which began Sunday in Tehran. The announcement came in spite of protestations from Washington and openly flouts American efforts to keep the Iranian regime diplomatically isolated. But efforts to dissuade Ban from attending the summit -- as well as more general attempts to marginalize the NAM -- are actually significant tactical errors by the United States. They are based, moreover, on longstanding American misconceptions about nonalignment itself.
Ever since nonalignment emerged in the 1950s, Americans have struggled to comprehend the phenomenon. At that time, in the early years of the Cold War, nonalignment seemed an ominous new development because of its apparent susceptibility to communist influence. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, in particular, thought that the nonaligned states, which included pivotal nations such as India, Egypt, and Indonesia, could play a decisive role in the Cold War.
Then, as now, Americans tended to understand nonalignment as something akin to neutrality. Neutrality, however, was not a particularly helpful lens through which to view the movement. Although the NAM has eschewed direct alliances with the major powers, this was never the movement's sole defining attribute. A broad gap exists between the classical neutrality of a state like Sweden, on the one hand, and the outlook of a nonaligned state on the other. Nonaligned states have historically been defined by several common traits: They were recently decolonized, generally remain mired in poverty, and their economies are overwhelmingly based on the export of raw materials. These common experiences and problems have driven nonaligned states toward an assertive stance on the world stage, rather than the reticent neutrality expected of them. As such, Americans have often found the actions of the NAM baffling or hypocritical. Asked about the direction of the movement in the wake of its September 2006 meeting in Havana, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mused, "I've never quite understood what it is they would be nonaligned against at this point. I mean, you know, the movement came out of the Cold War."
It was a classic misreading of nonalignment...

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