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Relevance of NAM in the Contemporary World

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The main concern of NAM is not related to superpower rivalry, rather it is to give voice, and address concerns of third world countries.

PV Narsimha Rao

Founding fathers of NAM
Founding fathers of NAM

Non-Alignment vs Non Aligned Movement (NAM)

Non-Alignment’ is a principle of foreign policy which lays emphasis on strategic independence and autonomy.

‘Non-Aligned Movement’ (NAM), on the other hand is a movement of the third world countries which emerged after 2nd WW. These are the states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power block and seeks to take a collective position on challenges faced by the developing world.

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Today, the relevance of NAM is questioned on the following grounds:

The conditions which precipitated the movement i.e. conflict and rivalry between two superpowers and the division of the world into opposing camps – no longer exist. Thus, its raison d’etre (purpose for existence) is gone.

The post-colonial identity which brought the founding nations together in the 1950s has taken a backseat in the 21st century. Now, nations find common ground on economic, regional and strategic grounds – as can be witnessed from the various plurilateral and multilateral groupings.

The declining significance is also evident from the fact that out of the total of 120 countries, less than 20 were represented by senior leadership of Presidents, Vice Presidents and Prime Ministers of their countries in the recent Summits. The current PM of India has not attended either the 2016 Venezuela Summit nor the 2019 Azerbaijan Summit.

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India’s own experience of the Non-Aligned Movement has not been all good as the group decided to take an equidistant position in India’s 1962 war with China, in the 1965 war with Pakistan and in India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion.

Apart from this, several members of the grouping including India have been strengthening their engagement with the developed world to invite capital, technology etc. to improve the economic conditions of their citizens.

The developed world has thus criticized the policy of NAM as eating your cake and having it too. The US has seen NAM as India being reflexively anti-American.

Thus, as Harsh V. Pant states ‘there was a time for non-alignment. India has been there and done that’.

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Does this mean that NAM has lost relevance?

After disintegration of USSR, the then Indian PM PV Narasimha Rao had laid out the vision for NAM – the main concern of NAM is not related to superpower rivalry, rather it is to give voice and address concerns of third world countries.

The strained US China relationship resembles the Thucydides trap in play. In such a scenario, the concept of NAM which is ‘not taking sides and having your own voice’ is pertinent. India is forging an ever closer strategic, economic, ideological relationship with the United States. At the same time, it needs to cooperatively engage with the Middle Kingdom with whom it has historical, cultural, economic linkages and all the more, borders. Non-alignment can help in such delicate balancing. 

Additionally, considering China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, NAM allows an opportunity for India to have a leadership role in the continent, consolidate the third world voice and spearhead the narrative of multipolar Asia.

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The increasing significance of NAM as a movement in the context of the pandemic can be seen from the fact the current PM of India addressed the NAM virtual summit for the first time since assuming office in 2014.

Calling COVID-19 the “most serious crisis” humanity has faced in decades and underlining the need for NAM to help promote global solidarity, he argued that ‘NAM has often been the world’s moral voice’ and in order ‘to retain this role, NAM must remain inclusive’.

Arguing that COVID-19 has shown limitations of the existing international system, he made a case for a new template of globalisation, based on international institutions which are more representative of today’s world.

This participation shows a marked departure from the earlier ideological shunning of summits to a pragmatic foreign policy which envisions NAM as a vehicle of Indian leadership in the global arena.

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Non-alignment as a philosophy

Prof TD Paul states that non-alignment as a philosophy does not get due credit. Non-alignment is soft-balancing by weaker states through normative power as these states cannot engage in the Great Games. In the broader context, NAM delegitimizes the aggressive behaviour of superpowers by ‘naming and shaming’. Thus, it helps preserve peace and rules-based world order.

Most importantly, NAM allows for strategic autonomy and independence. By its very essence, it supports multipolarity, prevents division of countries into rival camps and controls escalation of a cold war into a hot war. It aids a state in the enunciation of its own identity — which is what the Bandung spirit is.

When formed in the 50s, it presented a novel and innovative way for post-colonial countries to resist the strong-arming by super-powers. Thus, it became a unique contribution of third world countries to world politics; and an example of Indian exceptionalism.

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NAM itself, as an expression of Indian foreign policy, has evolved. Non-alignment had given way to multi-alignment. However, multi-alignment has not found universal favour, since it may convey the impression of opportunism, whereas India seeks strategic convergences.

Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has stated that India is ideologically non-aligned, but can seek issue-based alignment. That gives it the capacity to be flexible and maintain decisional autonomy. He adds that hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods, or multiple engagements of the future. But there is no getting away from it in a multipolar world.

Thus, the relevance of NAM depends on the prism through which we look at it. India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, said recently that non-alignment was a concept of relevance in a specific era and a particular context, though the independence of action enshrined in it remains a factor of continuity in India’s foreign policy. Thus, non-alignment as a philosophy will continue to be relevant in the balancing of alliances and autonomy.

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