The world seemed to be sliding inexorably toward violent confrontation, if not nuclear disaster, that day in 1961 when the leaders of Egypt, Yugoslavia and India declared themselves officially out of the running of the Cold War, laying the groundwork for a network of nations that would be neither of the East nor of the West.
The Berlin Crisis threatened superpower confrontation in the middle of Europe; an ill-fated U.S.-backed attempt to topple the Marxist regime in Cuba foundered near the United States’ southern shores; disputes broke out over nuclear testing around the globe; superpowers still extended their military and colonial influence into large areas of Africa and Asia.
Today, the Non-Aligned Movement created by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru convenes here for its 11th Council of Ministers in a dramatically changed world.
Not only is there no longer any East-West axis with which to be non-aligned, but Yugoslavia, host of the first meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade, has for the first time been refused an invitation.
The new world’s confrontations are erupting along religious and nationalistic frontiers, and the new Yugoslavia will find itself competing for a chance to debate foreign ministers of breakaway Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina over an appropriate response to the long-running Balkans civil war.
Iran, embroiled in mounting disputes with the Arab world over its support of Islamic fundamentalist militants, will send its foreign minister here for the movement meeting for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
South Africa, one of whose first actions as a new black-led government was to join the Non-Aligned Movement, will sit at the table with nations that spent decades reviling apartheid.
For the 108 disenfranchised, non-aligned countries that represent two-thirds of the world’s people, the battles this week are more likely to shape up over trade policy than over national liberation--the widely loathed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade pact, economic relief for debt-ridden nations and access for Third World goods to the world’s major markets.
“There is really a different agenda coming. Well over half of the active members are concerned about getting northern markets open to their products. They’re concerned about being shut out. They’re concerned about changing the terms of credit,” said Tim Sullivan, a political analyst who has studied the Non-Aligned Movement.
Egypt has pushed since the last summit of movement leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1992 to merge the Non-Aligned Movement with the Group of 77 developing nations, effectively undercutting its political role and focusing squarely on the economic frontier between developed countries and the Third World.
“When you consider the new economic realities of the world, it is important to try to identify certain commercial interests and formulate government positions which put us in a better negotiating position when dealing with the West or developed countries,” said Nagui Ghatrify, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of Egypt, which for years capitalized on its non-aligned status by playing off the Soviet Union against the United States.
The Third World, he said, can avert economic disaster today only by developing a new strategy of self-help on issues such as technology transfer, economic development and environmental planning.
Officials of the Non-Aligned Movement say the political crises that have been bungled or ignored by the world’s superpowers--such as the chaos in Rwanda, Somalia and Liberia--can perhaps best be addressed closer to home.
Several nations at this week’s meeting propose to discuss a new peacemaking and peacekeeping role for non-aligned nations, similar to plans under discussion by the Organization of African Unity.
Non-aligned nations also are almost certain to continue the push for a greater voice for the Third World in the United Nations, with the most popular proposal being a permanent seat on the Security Council for a developing regional power like Egypt, Brazil or India.
The dispute over Yugoslavia’s membership in the movement has dominated diplomatic activity in the days leading up to the meeting.
Indonesia holds the three-year chairmanship of the movement. But host nation Egypt ruled that the remaining rump Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro were not to be automatically granted the status of successor state to the former Yugoslav federation. Hence, Yugoslavia received no invitation to the movement meeting but the door was left open for appeal when the session convenes.
Belgrade, outraged that Croatia’s foreign minister will attend as an observer and Bosnia’s as a guest--particularly since the Bosnian civil war will be near the top of the agenda--insists that only a summit of leaders can legally expel a Non-Aligned Movement founder.
“This is unprecedented,” said Yugoslav diplomat Danilo Vucetic, who notes the movement may be trying to expel the rump Yugoslavia because half of its members come from Islamic nations that support Bosnia’s Muslim-led government.
The rump Yugoslavia, he said, has sought to avoid a confrontation for two years by voluntarily refraining from most movement activities, but it feels compelled to participate when Bosnia is on the agenda.
Ironically, Belgrade will look to at least two Muslim nations for potential support: Iraq and Libya, both also isolated and embittered by U.N. economic sanctions. They could emerge as backers of a fellow international renegade, though they have not yet weighed in on the issue.
One of the biggest challenges of the session, officials and analysts say, will be to redefine the role of a Non-Aligned Movement whose very title has become an anachronism.
“The movement is the coalition of the weak in international politics, and as such it is still relevant,” said Egyptian political scientist Mustafa Kamel Sayed.
He noted that the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the tumult that has ensued there, along with a seeming lack of American global engagement and U.S. economic woes, have left a “post-Cold War world (that) is not a peaceful place to live.”
“Moreover, the basic problem of poverty in the world has not been resolved,” he said. “For all these reasons, it is important for the weak of the world to get together, and at least to demonstrate solidarity and support with each other, but also to debate how they will find solutions to their own problems, relying on their own efforts.”