CARTEGENA, COLOMBIA — THE 113-nation Nonaligned Movement (NAM) meets this week here, unabashed by its anachronistic name in the meltwaters of the cold war.
Although the international balance of power has flopped to one side, NAM's leaders say the basic ideals envisaged by its founders in 1961 remain unchanged.
With an ambitious agenda covering human rights, the environment, international trade, and reform of the United Nations, the NAM aims to stamp its mark in a world where the US is the only superpower.
But the group is clearly weakened in a world where it can no longer play East against West to obtain economic concessions. Gone are the heady days when the Arab-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) brought the developed countries to their knees by dramatically hiking oil prices overnight in the 1970s.
NAM's member countries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America have little leverage in a world where they contain 51 percent of the world's population, but share only 7 percent of global wealth.
But NAM is filled with a sense of belief in its vital role in future international relations.
"When the Nonaligned Movement began, it was inspired by one motive - that developing countries could take decisions and positions in international politics depending on their own interests and not according to the interests of one or other of the superpowers," says Colombian Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo Garcia-Pena.
"This continues to be valid today," he adds.
No more playoffs
For NAM, the competition between the US and the Soviet Union allowed them to seek favors from both entities. The conclusion of the cold war simply signaled the need for a change in strategy.
"The North-South divide has always been the important one and still is," points out Socorro Ramirez, an international-relations professor at the National University in Bogota.
"We hope that the Nonaligned Movement will emerge from this summit renovated," Foreign Minister Pardo says. NAM has to shake off its confrontational, anti-American image and start bargaining with the richer, northern nations, experts say.
"To do this, the Nonaligned Movement is forced to deal with topics that are important to the North - basically human rights, the environment, and trade," says Andres Franco Vasco, a professor of political science at Javeriana University in Bogota.
Many academics in the South are suggesting "swaps," where developing countries make environmental and human rights improvements in exchange for access to markets in the north.
The movement can also count on the increased prosperity of some of its members to add weight to its bargaining power. Several Asian countries with dynamic economies are members of NAM, and India is one of the largest potential markets in the world.
With a huge majority in the 185-member UN General Assembly, NAM looks likely to continue dominating UN resolutions.
"The Nonaligned Movement, on occasion, brought countries together in a way ... that provided a voice so that the developed countries didn't always dominate every gathering and every forum," says William Clark, senior adviser on Asia at the Center for International Strategic Studies in Washington.
But NAM's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. "It is a group that is almost impossible to coalesce around a single position," Mr. Clark says.
Getting to 'yes' not easy
Consensus has never been easy to accomplish with 113 countries of different sizes and representing different religions, political beliefs, and races.
In 1979, Cuba's Fidel Castro split the movement by declaring the Soviet Union as "the natural ally of the nonaligned," infuriating the more moderate members, especially the anti-Soviet Yugoslavia.
And even when NAM is able to act as a block in the General Assembly, it tends to be overruled by the Security Council on issues of substance.
Democratization of the UN remains one of the group's key aims.
One goal is to have a permanent seat on the Security Council for a NAM member. But agreement on just who this should be is almost impossible to achieve. Failing that, NAM seeks an end to the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council as a second-best alternative.
But a more democratic UN is unlikely to emerge. "When it comes down to it, if what they want is going to require any sort of expenditure, or significant military action, the only way something will happen is if one of the major powers has the same interests at stake," says Barbara Conry, a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.
NAM's attempts to revamp its image could also diminish as Colombia takes over the group's presidency. Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano is under investigation for accepting drug money during his 1994 election campaign.
President Samper is already a lame duck, and with the threat of economic sanctions looming, he is a weak negotiator with the United States. "Samper has little international legitimacy and lacks leadership. His crisis could affect the efficacy of the Nonaligned Movement in the next three years," predicts Professor Franco.