Like an ocean liner, a movement as large and procedure-bound as the NAM changes course only by slow degrees. Since Colombo in 1976, summits of the NAM (nonaligned movement) have struggled to reconcile essentially irreconcilable points of view among a membership running the political gamut from North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam to Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Zaire. The recent seventh summit in New Delhi, the largest gathering of heads of state and government in history, was no exception. Its final declaration is a patchwork of compromises in which individual words and phrases assume meanings lost to the outsider.
What is important about the seventh summit, however, is the process, already begun, of translating its decisions and rhetoric into majority positions at the United Nations. (Ninety-eight percent of the 101 NAM members belong to the UN and form its increasingly strident third-world lobby.) Meeting in closed session outside New York, the nona-ligned have been increasingly successful over the past decade in imposing their own agenda on the world body and translating NAM positions into resolutions of the General Assembly.
New Delhi took the process one step further. There the nonaligned proposed that all heads of state meet at the UN during October as a ''collective manifestation of political will'' to maximize pressure for disarmament and development. The initiative underscores nonaligned exploitation of the UN and the difference between power based on population, economics, or military strength and the new arithmetic of national sovereignty, deployed by the nonaligned in lieu of military divisions.
The seventh summit, March 7-12, was clearly shaped by the three-and-a-half years of Cuban leadership which preceded it. Some of the 101 nonaligned states and liberation movements attending the summit had predicted that reaction to Cuba's style of leadership would bring a swing of the pendulum toward balance and moderation. Others foresaw that reaction to Cuba would lead to a period of renewed factional differences and jockeying for power, limiting prospects for innovation at New Delhi on issues of the Middle East, southern Africa, or economic reform. Some, like Deputy Prime Minister Rajaratnan of Singapore, went so far as to predict darkly that ''the people of the world will view this summit as merely a foregathering of leaders whose pronouncements and rhetoric will not put one extra grain of rice into their near empty rice bowls. . . .''
While it is difficult for an outsider barred from closed proceedings of the NAM to fit the jigsaw puzzle together, the outcome of the seventh summit was probably influenced as much by the movement's internal procedures as by any grand design. The African, Arab, and Latin regional groups once again proved to be the work horses of the NAM. Their decisions, reached in closed caucus, were rubber stamped by heads of state, defying efforts by intermediate committees to give balance to the overall declaration. Only Asian questions like Kampuchea, not subject to a regional group within the NAM, and issues like the Indian Ocean , the next summit, or economics engaged the full plenary and resulted in agreement to disagree.
While some delegates, including Indira Gandhi, referred to the end of the colonial era and the need to find a new, more relevant ethos for the movement, the anticolonial dynamic remained a powerful force at New Del-hi. With few colonies left to rally around, the heads of state ranged further afield, endorsing Argentina's claim to the uninhabited South Sandwich Islands, several thousand miles from the Latin mainland, and laying claim to Antarctica ''for the benefit of all mankind.''
The UN is in practical terms the measure of nonaligned influence. Triennial summit meetings have had little effect on East-West relations, which have continued to fluctuate, according to their own rhythm, between cold war and detente. Equally, decolonization, disarmament, and economic reform depend in large part on action by nonmember states.
The UN thus becomes simultaneously a fulcrum for nonaligned demands, justification for the movement's existence, and a gauge of its strength. In the process the nonaligned have shaped the agenda, structure, and overall effectiveness of the world body, although UN parliamentary procedure has also reinforced the movement's strength, influence, and moderate tendencies.
Both institutions are now in a period of transition in which the continuing viability of the UN may depend as much on the nonaligned as on the superpowers. As differences persist within the movement, consensus in the UN is becoming the only proof of nonaligned unity. Yet to gain agreement an increasing level of abstraction and symbolism is required. Vacuous resolutions do not, however, appear to outsiders as a relevant response to world problems and increase Western disenchantment with the UN.
Negotiations on major world conflicts will, more and more, be channeled outside the institution. Nonaligned control of the UN agenda compounds the frustration of countries earmarked to pay the major share, 10 of whom foot 75 percent of UN bills. In the US, the growing gap between major financial support and minimal influence at the UN is evident in bitter press and public criticism and more intensive congressional review of US participation. If the process is unchecked, the UN risks falling into increasing disuse until, like the League of Nations, a world conflagration reveals it to be without power or relevance.