"A tempest in a teapot." This is how one nonaligned diplomat at the United Nations describes the stir caused by US Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's letter to 60 third-world UN nations accusing them of endorsing a document "full of base lies and malicious attacks upon the good name of the United States."
The communique -- issued Sept. 28 by the group of 93 nonaligned nations -- contained the standard views of the nonaligned movement on may issues.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick took exception to the document because it criticized the US for taking an aggressive attitude toward Libya, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, but failed to name the Soviet Union and Vietnam when calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and Cambodia.
Twenty yars old this week, the nonaligned movement was not cowed by the apparent ferocity of the Kirkpatrick letter. Many moderate nonaligned diplomats shrugged of her statement as rhetoric. They believe that:
* Rhetoric is part of the political game at the UN. Were rhetoric to be forbidden, they say, one might as well shut down the UN. If nations that have been unfairly criticized here were to ask for apologies, everybody would have to apologize.
* More seriously, Ambassador Kirkpatrick's move means that the US, like the Soviet Union, has no patience with the nonaligned stance and wishes to either own or destroy the movement. This analysis, they say, is in line with the "strategic consensus" approach of the Reagan administration to foreign affiars. The nonaligned view this development as a return to the days of John Foster Dulles and V. M. Molotov, who believed "those who are not with us are against us."
There is no doubt the Sept. 28 nonaligned document is harsher toward the US than the Soviet Union. But, as one senior nonaligned diplomat believes, "Nonalignment is not the same as neutrality."
When the movement was founded 20 years ago, its purpose was to allow weaker and poorer nations to stay out of the cold war. Ever since then, the nonaligned have tried not to side with either the US or the Soviet Union.
Though there is a measure of disunity among nonaligned members, the movement has come a long way since it was founded by Nehru, Tito, Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah.
It is not an alliance nor a monolithic bloc like NATO or the Warsaw pact. Rather, "We are the sheep who band together to keep the wolves at bay," says a nonaligned diplomat.
"Mainly, we do not want to become the satellites of either superpower," says another.
They have no common ideology. They include communists and capitalists. The movement has struggled against colonialism and neocolonialism, however. Thus it has been pitched more frequently against Western that wanted to hold on to their possessions and protectorates in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, than against the USSR.
During that struggle, he nonaligned viewed the West as the main villain. US interventions in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Chile left their mark in the memory of the third world.
Soviet aggressiveness in Afghanistan and Cambodia is relatively recent. Even so, most nonaligned took strong positions at their meeting in Delhi last February, demanding that foreign troops be pulled out.