Foreign Policy

By Rob Rakove

Iran may have hijacked this week's conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, but America shouldn't be so quick to dismiss it.

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.

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.