The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan deals a stunning blow to the 94-nation nonalighed movement. Indeed, it threatens to bring the movement to a complete standstill in the immediate future.
But in the long run, oddly enough, the Afghan invasion may well give the nonaligned movement renewed vitality as it is forced to rebuild a more balanced position between the two superpowers.
This assessment is offered by veteran nonaligned-nation diplomats who are privy to the thinking of the movement's silent majority. In the words of one leading third-world diplomat:
"The Afghan invasion has come as a shock and served as an eye-opener to many nonaligned countries not particularly close to either the West or the East, but who somehow had bought the argument that "even though the USSR is a superpower, you cannot put it in the same basket as the United States' -- the implication being that American imperialism is the main danger."
In particular, he adds, the invasion has shattered the thesis advanced by Cuba that there is a "natural alliance" between nonalignment and the communist camp.
However, several diplomats here warn that the genuine anger felt by many third-world countries against the Soviet Union could be dampened by any Western efforts to exploit it. "The fact that we now see the Soviet Union as a big bad wolf does not mean that we see the US or France as benign grandmothers," says one ambassador. "And the last thing we want to do, when we speak out against or vote against the Soviet Union, is to appear to be doing it as a favor to the West."
This ambassador also says he believes that "we are not witnessing a pro-Western shift in the movement as much as its return to true equidistance vis-a-vis those superpowers."
Nonalignment has never been a monolithic movement. But until recently the issues that united its members -- the need for economic concessions from the rich countries, the liberation of the remaining colonies, support for the Palestinian people, and opposition to South Africa -- had been more important than those dividing them.
Even before the invasion of Afghanistan, however, some members had begun to try to swing the movement away from too close an identificaton with the communist bloc.
Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, for instance, was too much for many members of the movement to swallow. It sharpened divisions within the movement to a degree previously unknown. As a result, not only did a majority of nonaligned countries vote in the just-ended 34th General Assembly more often with the West than with the East, but also the nonaligned twice forced the Soviet Union to veto Security Council resolutions condemning its Vietnamese ally.
This past week, of course, the nonaligned have done this for the third time and obliged the Soviet Union to veto a resolution condemning its own intervention in Afghanistan. Many third-world diplomats privately use strong words to express their dismay about this latest Moscow move. As one ambassador put it:
"The USSR has shown us a new face in Afghanistan. This is the first time that the Soviet Union has used military force outside the communist camp and intervened in the third world without the legitimacy of supporting a liberation movement, of lending a hand to anticolonialism."
The main danger for the nonaligned, as most of them see it, comes from the new polarization between East and West and from the end of detente. A number of nonaligned countries (Egypt and Morocco on one hand, Angola and Ethiopia on the other) would be forced or tempted to align themselves closely with one or the other bloc. This process could tear the movement apart or seriously weaken it.
The fact that the nonaligned have not even been able to meet as a group and discuss the Afghan situation indicates to what degree it is stymied for the time being. But, as one analyst here puts it:
"In the long run the present crisis will help consolidate the nonaligned movement. It was born, after all, during the cold war as an attempt by third-world leaders such as Tito, Nasser, Ben Bella, Nehru, Sukarno, Nkrumah, to resist subjugation by either superpower."
Now, he continues, "It is likely that Washington and Moscow will tell us again, as Foster Dulles used to say, 'If you are not with us, you are against us.' Nonaligned leaders will have to reassess their position, reinvent nonalignment, and stick even closer together than in the recent past, in order to preserve third-world independence in the face of Soviet expansionism and Western imperialism."
Resentment at and suspicion of the Soviet Union among the nonaligned as a result of the Afghan crisis is likely to be tempered by:
* Fear of Soviet might.
* Need of Soviet military and political support.
Africans, in particular, are still wary about openly antagonizing the Soviet Union because they want its support against South African racism. Arabs are likely to weigh the threat of Soviet imperialism in the Near East against their desire for Soviet backing of the Palestinians.
When it comes to rejecting intervention, however, especially in the form of naked aggression like that in Cambodia and Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of nonaligned nations do not hesitate to speak up and to vote against it.
The fact that Cuba, that chairman of the nonaligned, had to withdraw its candidacy to a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council after leading Colombia in all but one of 154 General assembly ballots not only was a moral blow to Fidel Castro's government but also clearly indicated that the nonaligned could muster the courage to say "nyet" to the Soviet Union. It exploded the myth of an automatic anti-Western majority at the UN.