[Burning Issue] Non-Aligned Movement

UPSC 2022 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)

This month has the birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru and the 60th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement. The concept of a country’s policy not aligning with others can be traced to Congress of Vienna (1814–15) when Switzerland’s neutrality, by which that country would stay away from the conflicts of others, was recognized.

Not attending that last few summits, had signaled India’s sudden departure away from NAM and having adopted the policy of multi-alignment. This has raised eyebrows of those who still believe in the true spirit of Non-Alignment of which India has been the champion for a long time.

What is NAM?

  • Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a forum of 120 developing world states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc.
    • After the United Nations, it is the largest grouping of states worldwide.
  • Drawing on the principles agreed at the Bandung Conference in 1955, the NAM was established in 1961 in Belgrade, SR Serbia, and Yugoslavia.
  • It was an initiative of then PM Jawaharlal Nehru, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesian President Sukarno, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito.
  • The countries of the NAM represent nearly two-thirds of the United Nations’ members and contain 55% of the world population.

Membership of NAM

  • Diverse members: Membership is particularly concentrated in countries considered to be developing or part of the Third World, though the NAM also has a number of developed nations.

The reason behind NAM creation

  • Balancing the US and USSR: Non-alignment, a policy fashioned for the Cold War, aimed to retain the autonomy of policy (not equidistance) between two politico-military blocs i.e. the US and the Soviet Union.
    • The NAM provided a platform for newly independent developing nations to join together to protect this autonomy.

Relevance TODAY

  • Changing with emerging scenarios: Since the end of the Cold War, the NAM has been forced to redefine itself and reinvent its purpose in the current world system.
  • Focus towards development: It has focused on developing multilateral ties and connections as well as unity among the developing nations of the world, especially those within the Global South.

Fading significance of the NAM

  • Loosing relevance: The policy of non-alignment lost its relevance after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of unipolar world order under the leadership of the US since 1991.
  • De-colonization was largely complete by then, the apartheid regime in South Africa was being dismantled and the campaign for universal nuclear disarmament was going nowhere.
  • Freed from the shackles of the Cold War, the NAM countries were able to diversify their network of relationships across the erstwhile east-west divide.

India and the NAM

  • Important role played by India: India played an important role in the multilateral movements of colonies and newly independent countries that wanted into the NAM.
    • India’s policy was neither negative nor positive.
  • India as a leader: Country´s place in national diplomacy, its significant size and its economic miracle turned India into one of the leaders of the NAM and upholder of the Third World solidarity.
  • The principle of ‘acting and making its own choices’ also reflected India’s goal to remain independent in foreign policy choices, although posing dilemmas and challenges between national interests on international arena and poverty alleviation.
  • Preserving the state’s security required alternative measures: Namely, the economic situation with the aim to raise the population’s living standards challenged the country’s defense capacity and vice versa.
  • Fewer choices: Wars with China and Pakistan had led India to an economically difficult situation and brought along food crisis in the mid-1960s, which made the country dependent on US food.
    • India’s position was further complicated due to agreements with the Soviet Union about military equipment.
    • This placed India again in a situation where on one hand the country had to remain consistent on the principles of NAM while on the other hand to act in a context with fewer choices.

What is meant by Strategic Autonomy?

  • Strategic autonomy for India denotes its’ ability to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without being constrained in any manner by other states.
  • In its pure form, strategic autonomy presupposes the state in question possessing overwhelmingly superior power.
  • This is what would enable that state to resist the pressures that may be exerted by other states to compel it to change its policy or moderate its interests.
  • Today’s ideation of ‘strategic autonomy’ is much different from the Nehruvian era thinking of ‘non-alignment’.
  • Strategic autonomy is today a term New Delhi’s power corridors are well-acquainted with. It is an issue & situation-based, and not ideological.

Beyond Power-Politics nexus

  • Strategic autonomy for India is both about power-politics and responsibilities.
  • India’s quest for strategic autonomy is more about justice in terms of creating the international system where all states’ voices will be heard and decisions are made on value-based consensus.
  • Such an idea is often misunderstood and confused with ‘opposing some states and allying the others.’

What dictates India’s alignment now?

India acknowledged the importance of economic growth as a factor in domestic poverty alleviation and for the realization of national interests in the international arena.

(1) National security

  • China’s rise and assertiveness as a regional and global power and the simultaneous rise of middle powers in the region mean that this balancing act is increasing in both complexity and importance, simultaneously.
  • China’s growth presents great opportunities for positive engagement, but territorial disputes and a forward policy in the region raise concerns for New Delhi, particularly in the Indian Ocean and with Pakistan.

(2) Global decision-making

  • Another distinctive feature of India’s foreign policy has been the aim to adjust international institutions consistent with changes in international system.
  • The support for strengthening and reforming the UN as a multilateral forum, restructuring the international economic system and preserving independence in its decision-making has become an integral part of India’s foreign policy.

(3) Prosperity and influence

  • India’s 21st century’s strategic partnerships with two of the biggest economies, the USA and EU rely heavily on trade and technology cooperation.
  • In addition, the partnership with the USA has touched the boundaries of strategic issues like cooperation on counter-terrorism, defence trade, joint military exercises, civil nuclear cooperation and energy dialogue.

(4) Multi-polarism

  • Another means to execute India’s foreign policy strategy of autonomy has been forming extensive partnerships with other emerging powers.
  • India has been an active G4 country speaking for the reform of the UN Security Council and having been elected seven times as a non-permanent member.
  • As a result, there is an overlap of countries in different platforms, as can be seen in cases of India’s partnership with BRICS, SAARC, etc.
  • The purpose of India is to increase the participation and share of developing countries in global policy-making.

Benefits out of strategic alignment

  • India needs investments, technology, a manufacturing ecosystem to employ millions of its young population and improve its living standards.
  • It requires advanced weapons and technologies for its military. India is ambitious and wants to be a great power and the US and the Western world recognise this and are willing to partner India.
  • US along with France, are India’s principal backers in the UN Security Council and also support its membership in it.
  • The Quad of India, US, Japan and Australia is also slowly institutionalizing the multilateral partnership that is committed to an open, secure, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.

China’s “not-peaceful rise”

  • India is a long term rival for China, which does not want India’s rise. It wants to keep India boxed into South Asia, and tries to keep it off balance using Pakistan which it arms and supports.
  • It has made inroads into the region using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It continues to block India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and continues to needle in the UNSC over Kashmir.
  • We all know the recent heat up after Ladakh standoff. It occupies parts of Indian Territory and also claims the entire state of Arunachal.

Hence, the Non-alignment is difficult because,

  • We have to safeguard ourselves from a power which has trampled upon all her neighbours most blatantly and the whole world has seen and withstood them with deafening silence.
  • China has kept our territory since 1962 violating all international norms and we could do nothing with this diplomatic tool called Non- Alignment.
  • Any policy formulation has to serve the national interest.
  • The US prefers its partners to pay for and manage their own security, but collaborate in all possible ways — weapons sale, sharing civil and military arsenals, diplomatic support, intelligence sharing etc.
  • It will be pragmatic to take advantage of the great power rivalry by suitably aligning with a power that India can derive maximum benefit from.

But Wait, NAM still matters!

(1) Global perception of India

  • India’s image abroad has suffered as a result of allegations that creep into our secular polity and a need arises to actively network and break out of isolation.
  • India’s partnership with America faces an uncertain future in the post-pandemic period ahead of the regime change under Joe Biden.
  • Indeed, India is overtly keen to upgrade a quadrilateral alliance with the US, Japan and Australia — but there too, we’re all dressed up and nowhere to go. There is no concrete commitment yet.
  • We can sense the growing proximity between the NAM member countries and China.
  • As it is, one-half of NAM comprises members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which remains highly critical of the plight of Indian Muslims.

(2) For the Impulsive U.S.

  • For India complete dependence on the U.S. to counter China would be an error.
  • As the U.S. confronts the challenge to its dominance from China, the classical balance of power considerations would dictate accommodation with Russia.
  • A strong stake in India’s relations with the US could reinforce Russia’s affinity for China.
  • Russia, these days looks less pragmatic to see Indian ties with its rivals as a joint venture, not an alliance in which they could pursue shared objectives to mutual benefit.

Importance of NAM: As a power booster for multilateralism

The NAM  can never lose its relevance because-

  • Cold War has revitalized with time: Critics of NAM who term it as an outcome of the Cold War must also acknowledge that a new Cold War is beginning to unfold, this time between the US and China, which if reflected in Trade War, Protectionism, Indo-Pacific narrative, etc.
  • NAM provides a much bigger platform:  NAM becomes relevant to mobilize international public opinion against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), nuclear proliferation, ecological imbalance, safeguarding interests of developing countries in WTO (World Trade Organization) etc.
  • NAM as a tool for autonomy: NAM’s total strength comprises 120 developing countries and most of them are members of the UN General Assembly. Thus, NAM members act as an important group in support of India’s candidature as a permanent member in UNSC.
  • A podium for India’s leadership: India is widely perceived as a leader of the developing world. Thus, India’s engagement with NAM will further help in the rise of India’s stature as the voice of the developing world or global south.
  • NAM for multilateralism:  Though globalization is facing an existential crisis, it is not possible to return to isolation. In the world of complex interdependence, countries are linked to each other one way or another. With rising threats such as climate change, terrorism, and receding multilateralism, the global south and NAM countries find themselves in a precarious condition.
  • NAM as a source for soft power: India can use its historic ties to bring together the NAM countries. India’s strength lies in soft power rather than hard power. Therefore, NAM cannot be based on the current political structure where military and economic power is often used to coerce countries.
  • NAM as a tool for institutional reforms: Global institutions such as WTO and the UN are facing an existential crisis because only a few nations dictate their functions. India can use the NAM platform to push for reforms in these institutions for a more equal and democratic world order.

Way Forward

In the post-COVID-19 world, India will have to make a disruptive choice — of alignment.

  • In the threat environment marked by a pushy China, India should aim to have both- American support and stay as an independent power centre by cooperation with middle powers in Asia and around the world.
  • Complete dependence would be detrimental to India’s national interest such as its ties with Iran and Russia and efforts to speed up indigenous defence modernization.
  • Rather than proclaiming non-alignment as an end in itself, India needs deeper engagement with its friends and partners if it is to develop leverage in its dealings with its adversaries and competitors.
  • A wide and diverse range of strategic partners, including the U.S. as a major partner is the only viable diplomatic way forward in the current emerging multipolar world order.


Though sections of the Indian establishment still want to reinvent non-alignment under ever new guises, India is showing signs of pursuing strategic autonomy separately from non-alignment.

  • India continues to practice a policy of non-alignment in an attempt to maintain sovereignty and oppose imperialism.
  • Indo-US ties are complementary, and a formal alliance will only help realize the full potential of these relations.
  • India, thus, emphasizes the relations with the region and emerging powers not only in terms of economic development but also as actors with similar understandings and expectations of the world system.
  • In some way, the relations can be described as expectations without expectations. States interact with each other in expectations to change the international system, but without expectations to ‘ally or oppose.’
  • India believes in making value-based decisions and maintains its coherent foreign policy. As it is familiar with the phrase ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy, it is high time to maximise its potential.

UPSC 2022 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Join us across Social Media platforms.

💥Mentorship New Batch Launch
💥Mentorship New Batch Launch