Non-Alignment Now!

We are told by The Irish Times (15 November) that Taoiseach Micheál Martin has repeatedly insisted that “Ireland’s official policy is to be militarily non-aligned. We are, however, not politically non-aligned”. This was emphasized during in a Dáil confrontation with People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett over the Irish Government’s position on State neutrality. Boyd Barrett claimed there was “furtherevidence of the Government trying to soften up public opinion to abandoning Ireland’s neutrality”.

If Ireland is “non-aligned” then why is it not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement?

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) represents, after the United Nations, the largest international organisation in the world. It accounts for about 55% of the global population. The Non-aligned Movement was formed by a number of states half a century ago that did not want to formally align themselves with or against any major power bloc, but wanted to remain militarily and politically neutral. It’s origins lie in the struggle against colonialism by countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and in the Bandung Conference in 1955, which was co-hosted and initiated by Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt, Tito of Yugoslavia, and Nehru of India. The principles and objectives adopted during the Bandung Conference still form the guiding basis for the members and their political activity in international relations. The Bandung Conference was a prelude to the First Summit Conference of Belgrade (1961), during which the Non-Aligned Movement was officially founded.

The Non-Aligned Movement was a product of the Cold War. The ending of the Cold War brought an end to the bipolar world order and introduced a new unipolar global system, dominated by the United States. The closure of West−East rivalry put the future of the NAM and its relevance in the circumstances of the new world to the test. Questions arose regarding the sustainability of NAM due to the fact that the reasons for forming the NAM had disappeared. With the “end of history” there was seemingly nothing to be non-aligned to.

However, non-alignment to the remaining world power – the USA – and its foreign adventures became a new gathering point for those opposed to its global domination.

The NAM managed to maintain its cohesion despite all the differences, diversity, and internal disputes among its member states. Non-alignment was still relevant, in the unipolar world order in which the countries of the Global South needed a stronger institutional framework for promoting and protecting their own interests against the US hegemony and Western dominance in international relations. It should be a major institution for the multi-polar world that is now developing and has been escalated since events in Ukraine.

Almost all member states of the NAM are from the Global South and share common colonial histories and socio-economic settings. However, there is a desire within the NAM to reach out to countries in the Northern Hemisphere to enhance political influence.

The NAM has no charter and no statute, unlike other international organizations. It is an informal structure of cooperation without any permanent secretariat so there is no obligation in strictly legal terms to adhere to any policies or allegiances, but only the understanding that member states should support each other within the principles of non-alignment.

The membership requirement for joining the NAM has remained almost unaltered since the movement’s inception. To become a member, a state has to respect and foster the following criteria: have an independent, non-aligned foreign policy; non-membership of multilateral military alliances; support for national liberation movements; the absence of bilateral military agreements or foreign military bases.

The NAM’s continued relevance and validity lies in its incredible size, composition, and struggle for a world order that is based on equality and equity rather than the dominance and control of a few former colonial powers. It is composed of around 120 countries and has 20 states with observer status. Nearly all South American and African states are members. Other notable members include Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Palestine, Vietnam and Iraq. Tito was first President and Nasser the second. The current President is Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. The Presidency has recently been held by Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Cuba, Malaysia and South Africa.

The Non-aligned Movement represents what independent Ireland historically stood for – anti-colonialism, independence, and neutrality.

Membership of NAM is a positive thing that puts up a real barrier to a slide toward involvement in foreign military adventures and war. It would give Irish neutrality the substance it lacks, which it has not really had since World War II. To defend something that currently lacks substance Ireland needs something that will generate a movement with something positive to defend.

Our horizons, which were formerly broad, have been narrowed in recent years. The European Union once helped Ireland open up to the world but now it threatens to do the opposite. As it once escaped from the UK into Europe, Ireland must now project itself beyond the confines of the EU into the wider world and link up with the greater part of humanity. Ireland once had global ambitions, particularly in the Third World/Global South and we need to recreate Global Ireland. Where better to link up with than with countries that have anti-colonial, anti-imperialist pasts like ourselves. Most of Europe is composed of former imperialist powers with residual interests in their former colonies. Ireland does not have these, having been anti-colonial, and an inspiration to anti-colonial peoples. It is different and virtually unique in Europe.

Membership of the Non-aligned Movement would be a big and ambitious statement in the world by Ireland – we would be the first Western Europeans to join the non-aligned nations. We would be the inspiration to the World we formerly were when peoples fought for their independence and looked on us as an example.

Neutrality has served Ireland well. However, in the last 30 years we have been lulled into a false sense of security about our position. It was not an era of peace with the wars in the Middle East and the advance of NATO to the East, threatening new wars. The geopolitical reality is now clear: two hostile blocs are forming on the lines of Cold War with a new potential for World War.

Non-alignment is not pacifism. NAM is composed of many states with formidable armies who will defend their territories with greater tenacity than many who are aligned to the big blocs. The state which currently holds the Presidency of the Non-aligned Movement has recently won a war against an aggressive neighbour occupying its sovereign territory.  

Now is the time for Ireland to reassert neutrality in a meaningful way and to give it substance.

Published as Discussion Article in Irish Political Review, December 2022

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