Non-Aligned With Reality: How a Global Movement for Peace Became a Club for Tyrants

Countries like India founded the Non-Aligned Movement to resist American and Soviet efforts to enlist them in the Cold War, so why is it today championed by the rogue states that most undermine peace?

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North Korea's foreign minister waves during the Non-Aligned summit in Tehran. (AP)

"When we say our policy is one of non-alignment, obviously we mean non-alignment with military blocs," Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru explained in a December 1948 speech in Sri Lanka, announcing an idea that began partly in India but, by the Non-Aligned Movement's first summit in 1961, had spread across much of the non-Western world. The Cold War was rapidly dividing nations into two competing camps, enlisting them in another costly Western mission just a few years after they'd broken free of European colonialism. All of Africa and most of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East joined in the 120-state collective that Indian diplomat V.K. Krishna Menon called "not neutral" but deliberately, assertively, collectively "non-aligned."

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement is still here, now gathered for its tri-annual summit, this time in Iran, whose president is now also the movement's secretary-general. While India sent a 250-person delegation, Egypt sent their new president, and even the United Nations secretary-general is attending the summit that technically still represents 120 countries, the event is just not particularly meaningful anymore. It's mostly been an opportunity for Iran to complain about its worsening international isolation. "I've never quite understood what it is they would be nonaligned against at this point," then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sighed just after the movement's 2006 summit, in Havana. "I mean, you know, the movement came out of the Cold War."

Yes, the Non-Aligned Movement is not very meaningful today, a vestige of a bygone era. (And it was rarely what it claimed to be even during the Cold War, as a number of members took sides in the proxy conflict.) Yet the fact that it exists at all -- and that leading member India would make such a big show of its participation -- is a reminder of the degree to which the international system is still defined by the terms of the long-closed Cold War. But it also shows the degree to which those terms have changed since America's overwhelming victory in the half-century, world-shaping conflict.

Despite India's gestures at maintaining the Non-Aligned Movement, another show of stubborn independence that has not always reflected the Indian foreign policy that in actual practice is typically U.S.-aligned, the movement perhaps best represents what we today call rogue states. Prominent attendees this year include the leaders of Venezuela, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, the last of whom is wanted on international war crimes charges; North Korea's Kim Jong Un was a rumored guest but ultimately sent a high-level official in his place.

It might not be a coincidence that the once globe-encompassing, peace-embracing Non-Aligned Movement became such a focal point for the world's nastiest rogue states. In 1985, as the Soviet Union slowly declined, President Ronald Reagan gave a speech decrying what he called the "confederation of terrorist states," declaring, "we especially are not going to tolerate these attacks from outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes, and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich." He named five countries: Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Libya and Nicaragua. Those "misfits" were either among the closest allies of the Soviet Union or they were truly non-aligned states (most self-professed "non-aligned" nations had long since chosen sides). As the Cold War ended and a handful of the Soviet Union's former allies refused to join the American-led order, the gap between Soviet satellite and rogue state closed.

Nine years later, after the Cold War ended, Clinton administration national security official Anthony Lake warned in Foreign Affairs that five "rogue states" still threatened world peace. His list was almost identical to Reagan's: Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, and instead of Nicaragua, Iraq. All active, highly visible members in the Non-Aligned Movement, all states that undermine the global peace that movement was first meant to protect. As the Soviet Union declined and fell, its client states and allies had either toppled themselves -- Soviet-style communism, it turned out, makes countries poor, unhappy, and unstable -- or turned to embrace the American-style system of democracy, free markets, and cooperate diplomacy; what scholars call the liberal order.

Whether or not the world's countries wanted to line up specifically behind the U.S., they all ultimately aligned with the U.S.-led order. All except for a handful of rogue "misfits and Looney Tunes" that either cling to the long-gone Cold War tensions or hold out from the global order as self-made pariahs. They're still non-aligned. But with the post-Cold War world defined not by global conflict but by global cooperation, the movement has become about opposing rather than promoting Nehru's non-alignment ideals: "progress," "a deliberate policy of friendship," and a "positive aspect of peace." Those ideals won out, but it wasn't through non-alignment.