The Non-Aligned: Can States Structure a Fluid World Society?

The late August Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran brought together the leading representatives of some 120 States confirming the importance of the Islamic Republic of Iran as president of the non-Aligned Movement for the next three years.  Each State brought its own issues, seeking support.  This led to a 600-page final statement — a little bit of something for everyone present.  Is this more than the opening weeks of the UN General Assembly in which each state will repeat the same demands with little hope of seeing speedy action?

It will be important to analyze the speech to the UN General Assembly of President Ahmadinejad to see how he as President of the Non-Aligned is able to present a synthesis of the Non-Aligned positions that could serve as an agenda to be negotiated, or if he simply uses the occasion to repeat Iranian policy.

The Non-Aligned Movement began its life in the Cold War years when there was a two-bloc alignment.  Some of the Non-Aligned States such as India wanted to serve as a peace-maker between the two blocs; more States just wanted to be left alone or possibly to play one bloc against the other in order to receive aid. Since the 1990 end of the Cold War, political issues have not been so clearly divided, and many have questioned if the Non-Aligned Movement still had a meaningful role to play.

There is a more fundamental question which is at the heart of the possible role of the Non-Aligned Movement, and is also at the center of the work of the United Nations: Can states structure a fluid world society?  Until the end of the Cold War, world politics was focused on the conflict-prone relations between states.  The important questions of the day related to placing limits on the arms race between the two blocs and in finding compromise solutions to the wars in which one or the other of the blocs was a major player: Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, and the Middle East in general.  There were also conflicts arising from the state formation issues regarding the break-up of the European colonial empires at the end of World War II: Kashmir, Israel-Palestine, the union of the two Somalias, and Libya after the end of the Italian colonial rule.  There were even some issues related to state-formation after World War I such as Kurdish demands for statehood which had been promised in the Lausanne Conference of 1922.

During the Cold War years, the political role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those in consultative status with the UN, was to facilitate compromises between the two blocs — to present suggestions and develop support for arms control measures and to facilitate compromises in armed conflicts.  Less directly political, the 1945-1990 period saw the rise of issues concerning socio-economic development and from the 1970s on, the rise of ecological concerns on the world agenda.

The 1945-1990 period also saw the increased role of non-governmental economic agents, in particular trans-national corporations, leading today to a “globalized world” of economics, finance and migration. States have tried to control or at least orient economic actors through multilateral institutions such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. The International Labour Organization has tried to set labor-protection standards and to defend the right of workers to organize to protect their interests.

However, there are large sectors of economic activity that are outside national state control such as the “informal sector” and much food production.  On the global level, much economic activity is outside the control or even the influence of the UN and other multilateral institutions. There is a “hidden economy” of drug trade, arms selling, and trafficking in persons.  But even legitimate trans-national corporations and banking services are outside government control.

Food production and trade has become increasingly a world issue as has ecological protection.  We see efforts in Europe to regulate the financial institutions against the background of the euro-crisis, but financial regulations by states are likely to be slow and uneven.

The end of the Cold War has highlighted the fact that we live in an epoch of transition.  This transformation is not without crises and difficulties — the birth pangs of the coming age.  We are evolving out of the state-based industrial societies and headed toward an interconnected, information-based social, economic, and cultural system that covers the globe.  Therefore we need to perceive issues in their complex and fluid totality, and grasp them not only with our reason and intellect, but with all the faculties of our insight and empathy.

It is not clear that states are able or willing to face the issue of structuring a post-Cold War fluid world society.  Can non-governmental organizations be more adept than governments in responding effectively to today’s challenges?  NGOs now affect the policies, the delivery of services, and the legislative agendas of governments and intergovernmental organizations.  They advance initiatives that were previously once almost exclusively in the hands of governments and business corporations.  However, key challenges continue to exist, highlighting that NGOs have no easy answers to provide and limited power of action.

The Non-Aligned Summit and the upcoming UN General Assembly can help us to reflect on the role of states and that of non-state actors in the world society.

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens and Representative to the UN, Geneva.