The road was not easy, but Kennedy achieved real successes in his short presidency. He obtained critical Indian assistance in stabilizing the fragmenting Belgian Congo, and the 1962 Sino-Indian War raised the possibility of establishing lasting military ties with New Delhi. Kennedy's meetings with nonaligned leaders forged helpful bonds that served to limit disagreements. Agricultural and developmental assistance programs were well received across Africa and Asia, as was the dispatch of Peace Corps volunteers. The response of the nonaligned world to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis gratified and encouraged the New Frontiersmen. The Kennedy administration entered its final year with a sense of having made broad strides throughout the nonaligned world.
Upon his death in November 1963, Kennedy was widely mourned in places such as India, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, and Ghana. But for a variety of reasons, including the Vietnam War, the policy of engagement came apart during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. In subsequent decades, as nonaligned states grew increasingly critical of the United States, it became easy to forget that relations with the nonaligned world had once been more cordial.
What lessons does the early American encounter with nonalignment offer today as the Obama administration struggles to contain Iran? First, this history cautions against writing the movement off: Nonalignment is not a passing fancy and its summits are not trivial events. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy, faced with conferences in Bandung and Belgrade, concluded that they could not oppose these meetings without incurring the wrath of their attendees. Broad U.S. opposition to the summit in Tehran risks the charge of attacking nonalignment itself.
Second, the White House should consider a program of outreach. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy acted in advance of nonaligned gatherings to furnish moderate attendees with information. Kennedy even issued a friendly statement to the Belgrade meeting. Constructive diplomacy of this sort kept unfriendly states from dominating the conferences. Obama can draw encouragement from the core principles behind the establishment of the NAM. Some of the movement's founders, notably India's Jawaharlal Nehru, sought to advance the values of nonviolence and toleration. These tenets can be powerful weapons against an Iranian regime that spews noxious, threatening statements toward Israel with reckless abandon.
Finally, Americans must remember that this is a diverse movement. While it shares some common principles, it brings together a remarkably wide range of states. Understanding the NAM requires not characterizing it by the most hostile states in its midst, or treating it as a kind of grand "Axis of Evil." If it has represented anything across the last 50 years, it has expressed the desire of the world's newer states to retain their political independence in an often threatening world. This should be a readily comprehensible motivation to Americans who remember the words of George Washington's farewell address. Nonalignment, in sum, cannot be wished away, and the Obama administration will repeat the errors of the past if it strays down that road again.