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. The Cold War dominates U.S. recollections of the postwar years, making it far more difficult for Americans to understand the outlook behind the NAM. Nonaligned states did not merely declare that they wanted little part of the U.S.-Soviet conflict. Their rhetoric openly questioned whether the Cold War was the most important struggle confronting humanity. Far more relevant to these countries were ongoing battles against underdevelopment, poverty, and racism -- as well as lingering questions of empire underscored by events like the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956.
The nonaligned states posed a profound challenge to the United States. Their shared desire for rapid economic development made them receptive to the alluring promises offered by the Soviets (well before the deficiencies of communism were apparent to all). Their anti-colonial agenda also naturally pitted them against vital NATO allies of the United States. Finally, their rejection of the Cold War -- which Americans broadly perceived as a moral struggle -- was difficult for the United States to swallow. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke for many in 1956 when he deemed nonalignment in the Cold War to be "immoral." Since they believed the Cold War could be decided by these states, however, American presidents had to adapt. Over time the Eisenhower administration shifted away from its unease toward nonalignment and began courting some of the movement's most important states, notably India. As detailed in my forthcoming book, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, Kennedy built upon Eisenhower's tentative steps, making a far-reaching effort to engage the nonaligned world. This entailed promises of economic aid, meetings with nonaligned leaders, and real shifts in policy.