Every time that leaders of developing countries gather at the summits of the Non-Aligned Movement, there are many who question the relevance of the forum. But there is only one thing worse than questioning the utility of the NAM — that is simply ignoring it. The 17th summit of the NAM last weekend at Margarita Island, Venezuela, appears to have come closer to that fate. The sparse attendance by heads of government or state at the 17th NAM summit over the weekend in Margarita, Venezuela, is evidence that the key developing nations have other pressing issues on their mind.
Notwithstanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s absence at the summit, Delhi insists that it takes NAM seriously. But it is no secret that NAM has long stopped being a major foreign policy priority for India. And it has little do with the NDA government’s political and ideological orientation. Consider, for example, the Indian media’s disinterest in the NAM Summit. This is explained, in part, by the fact that the PM was not there. Even if Modi was, the only point of interest for the Indian media would have been his likely meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.
At the Havana Summit in 2006, all the media attention in India was on the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and General Pervez Musharraf. Might they find a way to continue the dialogue after the terror attack on Mumbai suburban trains in July 2006? At the Sharm el-Sheikh Summit in Egypt during 2009, the joint statement issued by Singh and Pakistani premier Yusuf Reza Gilani drew much fire. The reference to Balochistan in that statement was cause enough for a week-long outrage for the Indian commentariat. At the Tehran summit during 2012, the focus was again all on Singh’s meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari. With neither the Indian nor the Pakistani PM present at the summit this time around, there seems little reason for the Indian media to cover the summit.
The irrelevance of NAM was perhaps foretold at its very founding in 1961. Contrary to the image of a cohesive movement seeking to challenge the dominance of the imperialist powers, it was hard to find agreement among the founding leaders on the purpose and objectives of NAM. Consider the first summit in Yugoslavia, the only one in which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru participated. While Nehru was solidly committed to non-alignment as a national strategy, he was none too enthusiastic about a movement in its name. He wondered if it made any sense to set up a third bloc when you are objecting to the very notion of blocs.
For many like the Indonesian leader, Sukarno, the NAM needed a radical agenda that focused on mobilising the “new emerging forces” in the world against the “old established forces”. Nehru, however, insisted that the priority of the first summit should be on ending the nuclear arms race and promoting peace between the two blocs, not joining one against the other or organising a third bloc. Nehru received much flak at home from the communists for his emphasis on peace rather than anti-imperialism. For them, Indian non-alignment between the “reactionary West” and “progressive East”, was utterly unacceptable.
The idea that NAM was a radical “anti-imperialist” project was really a product of the 1970s when four summits in quick succession in Lusaka (1970), Algiers (1973), Colombo (1976) and Havana (1979) unveiled sweeping rhetoric about constructing a “new world order”.
NAM’s radical phase peaked with the declaration in the 1979 Havana Summit that the “socialist camp” was a “natural ally” of the NAM. If Nehru prevailed over the radicals in 1961, there was no one to stop the charismatic Fidel Castro from imposing his expansive views on the NAM.
It is one thing to get a resolution approved in a large gathering and entirely another to have the members abide by it. For most countries, including India, the radicalism of 1979 was unpalatable. By the time the NAM gathered again in Delhi in 1983, the faultlines within it could no longer be hidden. The Iran-Iraq war, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, and the military support to national liberation movements in Southern Africa and Central America had deeply divided the NAM.
It was not the end of the Cold War that made the NAM irrelevant. The movement was dysfunctional well before that. It was never really possible to harmonise the economic and political interests of so many different countries. If the rhetoric of the 1970s papered over the internal contradictions, the 1980s mercilessly exposed them; the NAM has not recovered since.
Although the movement has been in coma for long, few would dare to pronounce it dead, let alone call for its burial. The triennial political ritual will therefore continue. For most countries its only diplomatic utility lies in bringing their particular national issues to the fore in a large international gathering. It’s no surprise then India was so focused on getting its concerns about cross-border terrorism from Pakistan heard at the summit.