Tue, 25 Feb 2003

Is NAM still relevance in post-Clod War world?

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, Asia News Network, Bangkok

Since its establishment in 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has never enjoyed high expectations from its 114 members and the world at large. Being the world's largest gathering after the United Nations, the NAM has to take its multiple roles seriously.

Disturbing questions arise about the movement. Will it be able to stop the pending war in Iraq? Is it in a better position now to shape the future world? What can the NAM do to curb terrorism? How can its members help each other in more tangible ways? Can the grouping influence the process of globalization to ensure it would be beneficial to less-developed countries?

During the Cold War, the NAM was created as an alternative to the Eastern and Western blocs fighting for domination. The NAM's more than four-decade history has stood the test of time and adverse international political currents. The movement could prosper if it were not so divisive and dwelled more on actions rather than verbal attacks.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, as the host of the NAM summit beginning today, has personally wrangled with these issues and come out on top. So, it will not surprise anyone if he is more assertive at the gathering, trying to steer and shape up the NAM's future. As a moderate and developed Muslim nation, Malaysia has an edge in dealing with the NAM as almost half of the members belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The host stands out because it has successfully defied all conventional wisdom. Malaysia refuses to conform to foreign pressure and continues to stick to its own agenda. None can stop Mahathir from doing what he wants to do. Many less-developed countries are looking at the Malaysian model since they want to be more independent and self-reliance.

Given Malaysia's pragmatism, its chairmanship could help turn the NAM into a more a practical movement that can help poor nations cope better with the impact of globalization. That is a big question mark. Other difficult issues the NAM must address with realism are an equitable balance between the rights and the obligations of investors (especially multinational corporations), the extraterritorial application of domestic laws, and the opening up of national economies tied to the grant of aid and trade concessions.

The NAM's relevancy will be judged this week by how the members handle the above-mentioned questions since they are major concerns of member countries in the post-Cold War era. If history is any judge, the NAM can rise to the occasion only if its members -- which comprise all ideologies and political orientations -- can forge a common stand and plan of action.

At the ministerial meeting over the weekend, the NAM went through extremes similar to those exhibited in past summits. Iraq's call on the NAM countries to ban U.S. troops from using their territories and North Korea's insistence to play but its rule on nuclear-related issues were just two examples. These predispositions reflect self-interest without taking into consideration the NAM as a whole.

Certainly, Mahathir will ensure that the NAM comes out opposing the U.S. threat against Iraq, but he will not push it to go as far as condemning the U.S. and call on North Korea not to take the nuclearized path. A revitalized NAM must serve as a balancing wheel which can engage the superpower as well as lesser powers, not turn it off.

To strengthen the NAM, one of the host's original ideas is to establish a secretariat to coordinate members and policies. Apart from Malaysia, the plan faces difficulties because other NAM members are not that enthusiatics. Otherwise, it could be a snub for ASEAN as it comes after Malaysia's proposal to host the secretariat of ASEAN plus three (Japan, South Korea and China) was repeatedly turned down by its ASEAN colleagues.

Malaysia might alternatively push for the ASEAN model by empowering the NAM chair and setting up the NAM Troika. As such, Malaysia can still take the lead.

Thailand's role at the summit is marginal. It was a latecomer as the last ASEAN country to join the movement in 1993 following years of a wait-and-see attitude.

The decision came amid the country's desire to expand external relations with countries from afar which shared the same economic and social outlooks.

A decade ago, Thailand was a humble nation going through a democratic transition without any regional ambitions. It was searching for an appropriate role within regional and international frameworks. Apart from the United Nations, ASEAN and existing regional economic groupings, NAM membership gave the Kingdom some added rapport and solidarity.

At the time, Thailand was presented as an open and democratic society. Its hopes were modest that its democratic experience and economic management could be useful to NAM members.

It remains to be seen how Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra can steer Thailand to fit in at the NAM.