It is for the second time that an Indian Prime Minister is not attending the summit of the non-aligned countries. The 17th summit of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) is going on at the moment in Margarita, Venezuela. Last time an Indian Prime Minister gave the event a miss was in 1979 when caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh did not go to Havana (Cuba). The Indian delegation is being led this time by Vice President Hamid Ansari. The minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj has also skipped the event and sent instead junior minister MJ Akbar to participate in the NAM Ministerial Meeting that precedes the meeting of the heads of the government.
Predictably, Modi’s absence at the NAM summit has invited adverse reactions from the “purists”, mostly belonging to the Congress-Left establishment, for whom NAM is the eponym of Indian foreign policy. But then, the hard reality is that after the end of the Cold War in 1990s, even the Congress Prime Ministers had lost interests in the NAM as a useful tool for the Indian diplomacy. They might have physically attended the NAM summits, but their minds must have been clear that they were simply wasting their precious time in an event that has hardly got any relevance in the 21st century world politics.
What precisely is the nonalignment? People may not believe it, but the hard fact is that nonalignment has never been defined in any nonaligned forum ever since its formal birth in 1961 at Belgrade, the capital of the then Yugoslavia. As a result, as the famous Yugoslavian scholarly diplomat Leo Mates had once remarked, “there are as many definitions of nonalignment as there are nonaligned countries and possibly even more”.
At the third NAM summit at Lusaka in 1970, NAM declared its “aims” which sound like summary of the “purposes” of the United Nations. But what is the point in explaining what one “will” do without describing what one “is”?
If one scans the vast literature on nonalignment (which I had done in my university days, since NAM was then the most favourite topic in international relations for the teachers and students in Indian universities), it becomes quite clear that the concept is full of contradictions. On the one hand, one learns that NAM intends to create “one world”, so much so that Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon were never tired of saying that the movement was not “a third force” or “a third camp” ( after one camp led by the US and another under the direction of the then USSR). But this goal of “one world), say the votaries of the NAM, cannot be attained as long “power politics” exists in the world. Therefore, so runs their argument, a nonaligned country should not be in the camp of any so-called superpower, should not have a security treaty with them or allow any military base to them in its territory.
On the other hand, one is told that nonalignment is not a goal in itself but an instrument of foreign policy. But then as the goal of every country’s foreign policy is to promote and consolidate its national interests, it logically follows that a nonaligned country has got the same right to promote its national interests as anyone else. Therefore, what is wrong if by concluding a security treaty or lending a military base, a nonaligned country wants to promote its national interests?
The lesson, thus, is very clear. That is that one cannot apply uniform criteria to judge whether a country is nonaligned or not. Take the case of India, a founder member of the NAM. The nonaligned course, as understood by Indians, was the best that India could have followed then at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. There were three important reasons for this. First, by not taking sides, it could attract the economic assistance, so vital for the country’s upliftment from both the blocks.
Secondly, not being “against” any block, the policy could guarantee that there would be no security threat from either super power. And thirdly, which I consider to be the most important, at a time when there were many schools of political thought that prevailed in the country, the policy of not opting for either “imperialist” USA or “revolutionary” Soviet Union, facilitated some sort of domestic consensus.
Now the the question is: Could any other nationalist leader in place of Nehru have acted otherwise? The answer is a definite “NO”. None other than Nehru himself admitted this by saying, “ I am quite convinced that whoever might have been in charge of foreign affairs of India, they could not have deviated very much from this policy It is a policy inherent in the circumstances of India and inherent in the circumstances of the world today”. But what might not have happened without Nehru was naming this policy as nonalignment. Also, without Nehru, the internationalization of the nonalignment as a concept might not have materialised.
And it is precisely here that one finds the inherent weakness of the nonalignment as a global phenomenon. It may be noted that nonalignment of the Indian variety could be sustained due to the prevalence of certain conditions. For a start, India has adequate indigenous economic and military resources as well as technology to withstand external pressure. But how many of the 120 so-called nonaligned countries have this advantage? Therefore, it is not surprising that the movement has always been vulnerable to the pulls and pressures of the super powers and other lesser powers. We know how nonaligned Cuba worked in concert with the then Soviet Union. Similar examples mark the relations between Singapore and the United States, and Pakistan (or for that matter North Korea) with China.
The dichotomy between what countries preach at the NAM summits and what actually they practice has been evidenced by a study of the voting pattern in the United Nations. This study clearly indicates that the consensus arrived at during the NAM summits has never been reflected in the world forum. In fact, many aspects of the NAM declarations (pertaining to the new economic order, a global regime that ensures sovereignty of nations or a non-compromising battle against terrorism) undergo radical changes at the United Nations where, ironically enough, the nonaligned countries constitute an overwhelming majority.
It is obvious that while not directly participating in the Cold War, most of the nonaligned countries have always been committed to either the “East” (Moscow) or the “West” (Washington DC). And the results are there for all to see. Besides, despite the professed goal of attaining peace and disarmament, the fact remains that that in the last 50 years, there have been nearly 200 conflicts within the nonaligned world itself, in every one of which the two upper powers have been ranged on opposite sides (Russia still continues to be a super power in military-terms)
Similarly, behind the slogan in every NAM summit of “democratisation of international relations,” in which every country should be considered “free” and “equal”, is the ugly truth that the majority of the nonaligned countries are being governed by one form of despotism or the other. And notwithstanding the advocacy of the laudatory North-South cooperation, the South-South dialogue within the NAM itself remained a pipe-dream.
Considering all this, what has NAM done other than indulging in empty rhetoric summit after summit? But if the membership of the NAM has still grown — there were just 25 members in 1961 — it must be due to some sort of glamour associated with it. NAM may not have been “immoral”, as dubbed by the then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, but it has been a showy ornament that has no real use for most of the developing countries. In that sense, NAM has been nothing more than a Golden Zero.