The once-powerful Non-Aligned Movement’s struggle to remain relevant was evident in failed summit in Venezuela.
By Harsh V. Pant*
The 55-year-old Non-Aligned Movement, a once powerful bloc of independent nations, is dying and nobody is sending flowers. Interest has hit a new low with just eight heads of states showing up at Venezuela’s Margarita Island for this year’s summit. The previous summit, held in Iran in 2012, was attended by 35 heads of state from the 120-nation bloc.
The rump group appearing in Venezuela included Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas along with heads of state of Ecuador and Bolivia, regional allies of Venezuela. The most notable absence was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose august predecessor Jawaharlal Nehru was the leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The summit was a lackluster affair with less than half of the delegations attending, partly due to the domestic political troubles of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The country is on a downward spiral economically with inflation in double digits and chronic shortages of food and other basic supplies and growing demands for a referendum on removing Maduro from office before his term ends in 2019.
Yet Maduro spent more than $120 million on the summit, leading his political opponents to suggest that Venezuelans’ money was spent for the “government’s ego.” Maduro faces isolation in his own backyard as the Organization of American States has termed his government “repressive and autocratic” and members of the Southern Common Market, or Mercosur, have come together to oppose Venezuela’s assumption of the group’s presidency.
In the midst of his growing regional and global isolation, Maduro had hoped to use the summit to bolster his domestic legitimacy. Instead, he became the butt of ridicule.
Beyond Venezuela, the growing irrelevance of an ideology that had emerged during the height of the Cold War is a broader issue. Founded in 1961, in now defunct Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement was an attempt by newly independent nations to preserve their strategic autonomy by not getting entangled in the East-West rivalry shaping global politics. Co-founders were Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno; Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser; Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah; and Yugoslavia’s president, Josip Broz Tito. In theory, the idea was excellent, but in reality, the group soon developed strong anti-West orientation and statist economic policies. More often not, member nations failed to develop an action-oriented agenda. The result was that nations continued to take positions based on narrow self-interests rather than supporting other members in their times of need.
With the end of the Cold War, bloc-politics petered out, but members of NAM continued to insist on the relevance of non-alignment. The most vociferous of these voices was from India, which made the continuation of non-alignment almost an issue of national identity. Even as India grew closer to the United States on strategic issues, the Congress Party, which has ruled for the country for the better part of the last six decades and whose leader, Nehru, was among the original founders of the Non-Alignment Movement, used the bloc to take on critics accusing the party of moving the country into the American camp.
The Indian political landscape has been radically altered with Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power as prime minister in 2014. In a move of great symbolism, Modi did not attend the 17th non-alignment summit despite Venezuela’s repeated attempts to woo him. Instead, he dispatched Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Following Charan Singh in 1979, Modi was the second prime minister to miss the summit since the country had co-founded the movement.
Modi’s shift away from Nehru’s legacy is a significant departure from the traditional foreign policy approach of New Delhi. Indian policymakers’ fixation with non-alignment has remained a central component of Indian identity in global politics. Although India has had to accept help of the two global powers throughout the Cold War – notably from the United States in 1962 against China and from the Soviet Union in 1971 against Pakistan – the country has preserved a façade of non-alignment, at least in rhetoric. The dominance of the Congress Party in Indian polity and intellectual life meant that as late as 2012 Indian strategic thinkers struggled to move beyond approach with the release of Non-alignment 2.0, a policy report that pulled the post-Cold War threads of strategic autonomy into a full revival of Nehru’s non-alignment for modern times.
But New Delhi faces a new set of challenges, in particular the rise of China. Indian policymakers confront a conundrum in calculating the benefits and risks of an increasingly assertive neighbor and a network of alliances with likeminded countries.
Modi, with his center-right political inclinations, does not share ideological attachment to Nehru’s ideas. He has gradually but decisively shifted Indian foreign policy in directions which few would have dared try before. While sections of the Indian intellectual establishment still retain reflexive anti-Americanism, Modi has used his decisive mandate to carve a new partnership with the United States to harness its capital and technology for his domestic development agenda. He is not ambivalent about positioning India as a challenger to China’s growing regional might and assertiveness. With this in mind, he signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the United States for facilitating logistical support, supplies and services between the US and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis and providing a framework to govern such exchanges. Modi is also busy pursuing strong partnerships with US allies in the region including Japan, Australia and Vietnam. He has taken a strong position on the South China Sea dispute in favor of states such as Vietnam and the Philippines as well as expanded the US-India bilateral naval exercises to include Japan.
The astute politician also recognizes the domestic challenges as he pivots India closer to the United States. So he continues to invest in non-Western platforms such as the BRICS grouping – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Economically the grouping is less attractive, given economic troubles in Russia, Brazil and South Africa. Still, India will host the eighth annual BRICS summit in Goa in October with great fanfare, if only to assuage domestic critics that New Delhi does not intend to put all its eggs in one US basket.
Much like India, other countries are recognizing the diminishing returns to being non-aligned in an age when the binaries of East and West, North and South are losing salience. The internal dysfunctionalities of the movement are far too evident today than they were during the Cold War.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Venezuela summit was a big failure. Members in attendance could only agree on a statement criticizing the United States for its “interventionism” around the world. As the US continues to retreat from foreign military involvement and embraces an isolationist mood, the Non-Alignment Movement increasingly becomes a moribund organization in need of a decent burial though few member states would dare to call for it openly.
*Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow and head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a professor of international relations at King’s College London.