Cuba’s Leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement: Challenge to U.S. Hegemony?

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Cuba’s ascension to leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at its 14th meeting held September 11-16 in Havana signaled a heightening of diplomatic tensions between a growing number of assertive developing nations and their main target, an increasingly assailed United States. The gathering of more than 50 heads of states, as well as other foreign officials representing 118 nations, convened in the Cuban capital to discuss the methodology of power consolidation with the intent of counterbalancing the U.S. and the other rich nations on the world stage. With the delegates in attendance representing some 55 percent of the world’s population, and holding two-thirds of the total seats in the United Nations, NAM’s constituents mark a mounting international presence whose leverage is commensurately gaining ground.

Despite their impressive numbers, there are several factors that threaten to mitigate NAM’s effectiveness. There is no guarantee that the organization’s present solidarity will endure past the next U.S. presidential election, given that the driving force uniting the diverse group is an often undifferentiated rage against the West. As this has ultimately proved to be the foundation upon which the organization defines itself, this solidarity may collapse if the Bush-Cheney-Bolton team is replaced by a more internationally oriented administration. If NAM hopes to prove itself a formidable challenger to the U.S. during Cuba’s three-year presidency, the member-states would be wise to turn to a regime of greater discipline adhering to the organization’s main tenets, which include respect for national sovereignty, the strengthening of multilateralism through the United Nations, and denunciation of aggressive behavior within or outside of their borders, no matter what the source. Only then will NAM build the necessary credibility to sway international opinion.

Little More Than a Washington Bashing?
When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contemptuously shortchanged the movement, dismissing it because it would only be used by leaders “to get up and give fiery speeches and say all kinds of things,” she may have had a point. NAM should play a far more important role than Rice’s caricature of it would allow. The ideology behind it is nothing less than compelling. NAM’s original goal, formulated amidst the Cold War confrontation of 1961, was to create a niche for newly independent countries seeking to avoid an alliance with either superpower, while strengthening their relative economic and political position. In actuality, however, many of the group’s members had a distinct bias in favor of the Soviet Union, so it has not been surprising that many of its member-states today are all too eager to level a variety of criticisms against the United States.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, NAM member-states have revamped their mission to protect the inviolability of national sovereignty, which most see as the basis of their fundamental struggle against the prerogatives of the rich nations, led by the U.S. The freedom of smaller and weaker states to determine their fate, whether it be in the area of trade or development, has become such a priority that it is difficult to find evidence of NAM delegates discussing much else. This obsession with sovereignty is, of course, well merited and characteristically targeted at the United States. Although the colorfulness of the language may vary, the similarity of the underlying accusations remains in place.

Acting Cuban President Raúl Castro wasted no time in settling into his role as Fidel’s successor by slamming the United States for its supposed “irrational pretensions for world dominance” during his inaugural speech as the new NAM presiding official. He questioned the Bush administration’s astronomical military spending, claiming that defense funds continue to be used for imperialistic purposes long after a détente had ended the Cold War. In his opening address, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque declared that “This summit will denounce the threats of preventive wars, the proclaimed rights of the world’s only superpower to occupy countries illegally and change regimes and the existence of secret prisons for torture.” The delegations at the NAM summit gathering were so busy readying their anti-U.S. sentiments that in the end their negativity overshadowed their many broader constructive conclusions that could enhance their prospects in the current international setting.

One such misjudgment was the failure to outline a comprehensive document that could put into effect NAM’s lofty goals. What did emerge, NAM’s “Plan of Action,” provides a very weak framework, obligating its readers to question if NAM is ready to grow into the substantive status it clearly deserves. The most concrete formulation that emerged from the gathering’s confines was that the NAM summit nations should convene on the eve of any important UN General Assembly meeting, in order to coordinate and consolidate their priorities into one harmonious voice. While this measure will surely help the movement’s relevance, the document reflects the lack of focus which could hinder member-states from improving their respective standing in this or other forums, beyond aligning against the U.S.

International Players
Upon assessing the leadership that headlined the NAM summit, it becomes painfully obvious that the dominant powers had the most to gain from pressing efforts at solidarity. Venezuelan, Cuban and Iranian issues have all garnered attention in world news in recent weeks, and so it was at the NAM summit. President Hugo Chávez most successfully used the summit to advance his transformative ideas while vilifying the Bush administration, to the cheers of many and disappointment among some, due to the harshness of the rhetoric. He was supported by a number of his colleagues who extolled Venezuela’s effort to secure the open seat on the UN Security Council. Cuba wielded its considerable heft as the host nation to signal that a transfer of power had occurred on the island and that the country remained stable with its new leadership in place. Lastly, Iran found a sympathetic audience for its fight to develop an enriching process in order to fuel its nuclear plans.

The Middle East attracted an inordinate amount of attention at the summit, since member-states criticized the Bush administration’s close relationship with Israel as their main source of anti-American ammunition. The importance of the Middle East to the NAM summit’s affairs was made evident by the fact that two of the five documents produced at the summit focus on the area. In stark contrast to the less assuming themes, as with the aforementioned “Plan of Action,” these documents, entitled “Statement on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Issue” and “Declaration on Palestine,” eliminate any pretension of impartiality that the organization may hold. It is obvious that NAM member-states, unnerved by the current U.S. presence in the Middle East, have sought to use the summit to give voice to their outrage, although this has not necessarily brought a solution any closer. For example, both Syria and Venezuela drew on the Israel-Lebanon War to lash out at American support for Israel, given their insistence that the Israelis were ultimately responsible for the majority of the 1,500 Lebanese fatalities and the additional displacement of thousands of Lebanese families. Pérez Roque also observed at the summit that, “we meet after the brutal aggression against our brothers in Lebanon and we indignantly watch the daily genocide to which the Palestinian people are subjected.” There was no recognition of Hezbollah’s belligerent involvement in the fighting or its unrestricted warfare against Israeli citizens, which unfortunately further damaged the balanced reputation of any number of NAM participants.

U.S. Retaliation
On the surface, the United States has largely turned a blind eye to the Non-Aligned Movement, not even sending a low-level representative to it with observer status as they have with previous summits. The U.S. also issued an accompanying public statement implying that little should be expected from the meeting. However, this façade of detachment has been eclipsed by the Bush administration’s recent actions that are sure to impact the NAM summit’s new chairman, Raúl Castro. The State Department has created five interagency groups – covering the areas of immigration, diplomatic actions, humanitarian aid, strategic communications and democracy promotion – that all meet behind closed doors with the sole assignment of monitoring the island nation. Also, highly controversial John Negroponte, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, recently selected longtime CIA employee Patrick Maher to assume the post of Acting Mission Manager for both Venezuela and Cuba, a position that has never before existed. This is no ordinary assignation, as the only other countries warranting such special watches are Iran and North Korea. Negroponte’s move explicitly underlines the depth of the Bush administration’s hostility towards the leftist strongholds, despite its longstanding pledge that it will not trifle with Cuba’s sovereignty.

Cuba Takes the Reins
Cuba is uniquely positioned to gather strength from the NAM summit. Since rumors of Fidel’s imminent death and subsequent transfer of power took the world by surprise over a month ago, the Cuban leader has had no trouble making headlines whenever he wishes to be heard. His clout has been temporarily ceded to his brother Raul, who exercised it over the course of the Havana gathering. The convenient timing of Cuba being awarded the NAM summit leadership provided senior island officials with a boot to stomp its anti-U.S. credal belief.

However, the movement’s unique role is at stake if the leaders continue to use it merely as a platform for fiery, long-winded, anti-Washington diatribes. Not only does this behavior drain significant energy away from the movement, it also implies that the NAM summit will back any horse so long as it bears anti-American colors (which many of its critics contend is the case already). If the movement desires international recognition and the opportunity to project its influence, its member-states must ensure they do not compromise their lofty aims by getting bogged down in pyrrhic victories. So long as the leaders of the NAM summit focus on strengthening the movement’s credibility, there is no reason to doubt that it could someday rival its sibling Cold-War organizations as a legitimate partner in dialogue.