Changing contexts and relevance of Non-alignment

Developing a Culture of Peace: A History of the Non-Aligned Movement
World leaders Shri Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia at the Bandung Conference in 1955 —

By Dr. Rakmuar Singh 28 March 2020

India’s policy of non-alignment in any case did not mean only to refuge joining any power bloc but a lot more than that. The main objectives of the policy are the pursuit of peace not through alignment with any major group of powers but through an independent approach to each controversial and disputed issue; the liberation of subjected peoples; the elimination of social discrimination; and the elimination of wants, disease and ignorance. India was the first nation to design and articulate a new non-aligned foreign policy framework and was one of the three leading nations, along with Egypt and Yugoslavia, to conceive and project the policy of non-alignment as a transnational subsystem. As it was an attractive model for most developing nations very soon it became a major plank of the foreign policies of third world countries.

Origin and meaning of Non-alignment

This is the true origin of the concept of non-alignment which germinated in the hells of the United Nations in 1946 and 1947. Hence it is not merely a reaction to the cold war but it has a much wider basis. It was the heartfelt response to the aspiration of the people of newly born democracy of India which was eager to attain the status of equality with other nations of the world. However, Non-alignment does not mean non-involvement in any and every matters. Military pacts and alliances are to be avoided only to maintain peace in the world. It even does not mean passivity or neutrality, when crucial issues are before. In other words it means judging an issue on its merit as made it more clear by Jawaharlal Nehru himself, ‘we want to maintain independent opinions, to decide freely and to act as we deem proper. We do not want to be in a position where we should be forced to any decision because of the compulsion of our relationship with other countries’.

As a result of its suitability the policy of non-alignment in foreign sphere became a popular plank of newly independent countries at the close of 1950s and thereafter. Soon it was transformed into a movement and it was created out of the desire to orient India’s foreign policy towards the group of newly decolonised states, hoping to create a larger area of peace by fighting common dangers of imperialism and racialism together. Nehru wanted India to be the leader of the developing world, in this way carving out a global role for the country. He also believed that these idealistic broad concepts used in global policy formulation could be used at the micro-level, subject to some minor adjustments. However, the principle of India’s leadership was to be based on moral rather than economic power.

Implementation and further change

A significant milestone in the development of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) was the 1955 Bandung Conference, a conference of Asian and African states hosted by Indonesian President Sukarno, who gave a significant contribution to promote this movement. The attending nations declared their desire not to become involved in the cold war and adopted a “declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation”, which included Nehru’s five principles. His five principles, also called Panchsheel were: i. mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; ii. mutual non-aggression; iii. mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; iv. equality and mutual benefit; and v. peaceful co-existence. These principles, later served as the basis of the Non-aligned Movement whose first Conference of Heads of State or Government was held in September 1961 in Belgrade.

With the end of cold war the old framework of India’s foreign policy collapsed and further the disintegration of Soviet Union in the following year, signified the cessation of existing world order. The formal end of cold war was announced at Malta by US President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1989. The new world order had not really emerged at once but the old world order, created after the end of second World War was now no more. It heralded a new era characterised by a highly uncertain world order. The world faced a new situation and so did India. The country had to think afresh and a new.  In the changed circumstances, the Nehru’s framework of staying away from bloc politics, of non-alignment, of the quest for world peace, of the struggle against colonialism and racialism, of the maintenance of the autonomy of judgement, of independent development, of cooperation with all the big powers but subject to the preservation of India’s interests, security and independence, of unity of action to the extent possible of the non-aligned and developing countries, all this was the conceptual framework answering to the objective situation prevailing in cold war period. And new directions were needed for India’s foreign policy.

Re-setting of perceptions

No doubt, the foreign policy that India formulated, and the international prestige that she rapidly acquired, opened great possibilities for her to obtain concessionary aid from the two competing and opposed blocs that dominated the international system. Undoubtedly, this was a major achievement for India’s economic and political diplomacy, since she was the first developing country to benefit from a cold war situation, obtaining meaningful assistance when the other developing countries, who had allied to one bloc or the other, should have been logically the greater beneficiaries of the bipolar system.

At the juncture, the world was in transition from the old order that was dead and gone to a new order that was yet struggling to be born. International relations have frequently been marked by contradictory trends, but rarely was this complexity more evident, demanding more careful examination and analysis as today. However, the change must relate to the actual situation, to the prospects opening before the world, to the geopolitical situation faced by the country, not just to distant rumblings in a far off region, and to the deeper undercurrents of international politics of a particular period.

As the old parameters had to be supplemented with new ones, it was felt that in the new situation foreign policy must advance the economic interests of India. The economic imperative, no less than the security imperative, must govern India’s policies. Except in an emergency, like the imminent threat of war, international economic relations must now share the pride of place with the more traditional geopolitical considerations. The regional situation, the threats to India’s security, the nuclearisation around India’s borders, the state-sponsored terrorism from across the frontiers, all these factors must continue to engage India’s concern and prompt India’s vigil. The basic characteristic of the new international phase is the urge for cooperation, mitigating and eliminating conflicts and enmities, regional economic integration and economic development of each country. We have seen that the regional scenes are not alike and artificial transplantation does not work, but trends in the world today interpenetrate in different parts of the planet much more rapidly than ever before.