Last week’s unanimous decree by the 120-country non-aligned movement (NAM) supporting Iran’s development of a nuclear power capability has delegitimized the U.S. government’s claim that Iran lacks global support for its nuclear ambitions. The Tehran Declaration was unanimous in its support for Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power development and its right to develop uranium enrichment, while predictably criticizing America’s attempt to punish and isolate Iran. This is no surprise given its history and stated purpose of supporting the sovereignty and integrity of non-aligned nations while criticizing major developed countries.
Given that Iran holds the chair of the NAM through 2015, and given the contents of the Tehran Declaration, Iran’s ability to influence the course of events from a global diplomatic perspective will make it more difficult for the U.S. and West to garner additional support for ongoing sanctions, or a military strike against Iran. The strike may happen in any event, but criticism is sure to be loud from NAM members. Of course, many of the same countries who may criticize such an action publically will also likely be clapping their hands in relief, behind closed doors.
But it is important to acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear program, and the controversy surrounding it, appears to be a rallying point for the NAM, after two decades of lacking a unified purpose, since the Cold War ended. For the NAM, Iran appears to be breathing new life into the organization, coinciding with the Arab Awakening and general ‘rise of the rest.’ At the same time, the NAM is struggling for relevance in a multi-polar world with divergent and conflicting interests among its members.
It is ironic, however, that Brazil and China – two of today’s most significant players on the global economic and political stage, who in some respects represent the entrenched interests that the NAM supposedly rails against - retain observer status in the NAM. It is equally ironic that countries such as India, Indonesia and South Africa – long time members of the NAM – remain members, even as they join the ranks of the powerful and influential, and are coming to represent what the NAM supposedly stands against. It is questionable whether the NAM will ever become an effective policy making body while it embraces such inherent contradictions, which are only becoming more pronounced.
Does it matter, in the end, whether 120 countries that have historically opposed UN resolutions and big power sticks continue to raise their fist in the same manner that they did when the world was more simply a choice between capitalism and communism? The NAM has failed to adapt to the new dynamics shaping the world, just as it has failed to provide its members with a new 21st century mantra. Perhaps the reason for the unanimous support for Iran is that the nuclear issue represents an objective they recognize they will never achieve, and they are living vicariously through Iran’s achievements. It seems to me, rather than finding unity in thumbing their nose at the West and the major powers, the NAM would be smarter to focus on the Arab Awakening, its meaning, and its implications for the NAM, since many of its member countries are themselves good candidates for similar political upheaval in the future. That would be a better use of their time.
In the end, the NAM faces the same challenge for relevance that the UN faces in today’s world, but the UN has done a much better job of adapting, or at least making the appearance of adapting, to new realities. Sure – the UN has plenty of warts and bruises for its efforts, but at least it can say that it is attuned to the needs of its members and is trying to do something about it, rather than simply being a forum for venting collective frustration and in the end achieving very little.
The NAM meeting in Tehran should similarly be a wake-up call for those countries that it opposes – namely that the rise of the rest doesn’t only translate into a need for inclusiveness for the BRIC nations and the G20. Rather, the West should be doing a better job of embracing the G77, which better represents the long-term future of the world - not just the current flavors of the month. If the NAM can successfully transform its recent collaboration with the G77 into something truly meaningful, it may be able to achieve something significant in the longer term. But it will need to shake off its own Cold War-esque shackles to achieve that, which will require a 21st century mandate. For now, the NAM remains stuck in a time warp.