The nonaligned nations meeting in New Delhi in March have some cause for celebration: Their movement has helped emerging nations to promote their objectives despite an enormous gap in military and economic power between their ''third world'' and the two major alliance systems led by Washington and Moscow.
Avoiding the ''entangling alliances'' against which George Washington warned another young nation, countries such as Yugoslavia, India, and Indonesia have demonstrated that it can be both useful and possible to stand nonaligned, attracting economic and diplomatic support from each superpower. They have also helped to educate the Western and communist worlds to the reality that there are many valid paths to national development and many perspectives from which to assess international issues.
Despite significant achievements, the nonaligned movement falls far short of optimizing its goals of peace, national self-determination, and economic development. The movement itself needs to be realigned and reoriented.
Nonaligned nations have shown that sheer material might does not transfer easily into influence over lesser powers. But they have done little for world or regional peace except to extract lip service to these ideals. Nonalignment has not stopped India, Egypt, or Syria from making war on their more aligned neighbors, not spared Laos, Cambodia, or Afghanistan from superpower incursions; not kept Nigeria or Ethiopia from dealing savagely with national self-determination movements within their borders; not prevented military conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia or domestic interference by Libya in Chad.
The nations that have fought each other least since World War II have been the members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Their arsenals have expanded, but those of many third-world countries have surged at even steeper rates and at greater social cost. Conflicts and arms racing within the third world are more likely to trigger a major war than the superpower rivalry which the Kremlin and White House have learned to manage.
Nonaligned nations have secured important economic assistance from the Western and communist worlds, but this has also been counterproductive in many countries, contributing more to dependency than to development. Meanwhile the world economy is shaped by supply and demand - not by appeals for distributive justice.
Finally, as former Nepalese Foreign Minister Rishikesh Shaha has written, third-world leaders have failed to create ''a lasting infrastructure of unity and solidarity by encouraging greater trade and economic cooperation among themselves, and by solving problems of cross-national communication and understanding through cultural and educational exchanges.''
Whatever its shortcomings, the nonaligned movement is here to stay, at least so long as the superpower alliances create threats and opportunities for others. To promote the deepest interests of its members, the movement should turn from negativity - in concept and practice - to positive programs at home, within the movement, and in bloc politics.
First of all, individual third-world nations should be careful to keep their own houses clean and their gardens growing, resisting the temptation to ignore domestic problems to carp at faraway bloc powers. All nations might profitably evaluate their own policies against the social indicators worked out by the Overseas Development Council. What, for example, is their ''disparity reduction rate'' - the pace at which they reduce infant mortality, improve literacy, and extend average life spans?
Progress on the home front would help in a second task: achievement of international strength sufficient to deter intimidation or blandishment from outside. Domestic weakness and civil strife invite external intervention and make nonalignment more difficult, as Ethiopia and others have discovered.
Third, nonaligned nations should do more to promote conflict resolution among themselves as well as between the superpowers. Why have they made so few constructive inputs to the evolution of majority rule in Zimbabwe? To ongoing problems in southern Africa? To peace in Lebanon? If they have little to contribute, then they should not criticize those who work for constructive solutions.
Fourth, nonaligned nations should be scrupulously even-handed in addressing aggressive behavior by any state. To restore their credibility they must drop the ''hear no evil, see no evil'' stance usually taken toward violence in the third world or by the USSR within its empire.
Fifth, nonaligned nations should go beyond setting high standards and help the superpowers - not just to avoid conflict but to cultivate three-sided cooperation in the third world. If they surveyed carefully their developmental needs many third-world countries could find ways to involve both communist and Western nations in mutually advantageous transactions such as that worked out under the late Shah: Iranian gas to the USSR; Soviet gas to Europe: European credits and technology to Iran.
Professor Soedjatmoko, rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, has called not only for more North-South collaboration but also for more cooperation on a South-South basis. Similarly, Prof. U.R. Rao, director of India's space program, has called on third-world scientific establishments to direct more of their energies to meeting basic needs in developing countries.
Realignment of all nations to face common challenges based on long-term strategies of mutual aid; this is the most reliable approach to coping with the dangers and opportunities of our overlapping vulnerabilities.