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Nikhil Kalla asked: How is non-alignment different from strategic autonomy? NAM talks about ‘positive neutralism’, which is similar to strategic autonomy.

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  • Ashok K. Behuria replies:  The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was conceived at a time when bipolarity was emerging as a marked feature in international politics. The world was divided between two polar ideologies, i.e., liberal democracy and communism. The United States (US) emerged as the leader of the so-called free world and the erstwhile Soviet Union as the leader of communist countries. The West European states mostly gravitated towards the US while the communist ones gravitated towards the Soviet Union. The countries in the Afro-Asian realm, many of them coming out of colonial control, were undecided about joining either of the blocks for fear of invoking the wrath of one or the other. In this context, NAM came up as a pleasant and welcome alternative. Even if many countries joining NAM had their sympathies with either of the blocks, the movement did offer them the leeway to stay neutral and maintain their ‘strategic autonomy’, so to say. In that respect, NAM was conceived as ideologically neutral, and it kept them away from the commitments to join any of the alliances especially in case of war.

    With the fall of the Soviet Union, the world witnessed a unipolar moment in the early 1990s, with the US emerging as the sole superpower, for some years until a new kind of multipolarism came to characterise international relations, even if China replaced the Soviet Union as the number two in terms of power potential on the world stage. Even if the US-China competition characterises global politics today, the polarity of the Cold War is yet to be seen in international politics. While there is an effort by the US and China to improve strategic relations with as many countries as possible, the alliance politics of the yesteryears is passé today. Strategic partnership rather than alliance is the new binding force in global politics today. This is not to deny that the alliance structures enabled by the US do remain on the ground in the shape of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) which also intervenes in different corners of the world seeking to establish peace and order, although subject to controversies.

    In these changed circumstances, while the relevance of NAM is being debated by scholars and analysts, the quest for strategic autonomy continues to remain the major focus of diplomacy of developing and under-developed states. As a corollary of the NAM experiment and an important constituent of the philosophy that defined ‘non-alignment’, the concept of strategic autonomy will continue to be used as a crutch by states to assert their sovereign independence in decision-making on strategic issues.

    Posted on June 09, 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.