It is time to put the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) out of its misery. It was never more than a talking shop, and there’s little to suggest anyone’s listening — not even among its 120 members.
The NAM summit last week in a Venezuelan island resort is of less consequence, if such a thing is even conceivable, than the 2012 gathering in Tehran. And nothing symbolises its irrelevance than the statement issued at the end of the proceedings: An appeal for the United Nations to be more inclusive. Plainly, the delegates could come up with nothing to discuss in Margarita Island that could not have been more usefully discussed on another island where most of them are headed this week: Manhattan, home to the UN General Assembly.
Indeed, the two most salient things about the NAM summit argue for the group’s dissolution. First, the location: Venezuela, one of the world’s most repressive states, where a corrupt and inept dictator, Nicholas Maduro, had managed to impoverish a small population, despite having access to vast petroleum resources. No self-respecting world leader would attend a $120-million party designed to aggrandise this odious man, which may explain why the most prominent head of state present was Iran’s Hassan Rouhani. (Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe kept him company.)
Which brings me to the second damning aspect of the summit: The long list of absentees. Only eight heads of state bothered to show up, down from an already embarrassing 35 in Tehran. The absentee-in-chief was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who correctly decided he had more important things to do.
If history shows Modi’s absence was the beginning of the end, it will be the more appropriate because it was an Indian prime minister’s presence that made the beginning possible. NAM was conceived in the atmosphere of excitement and possibility that characterised the 1950s, when the world was emerging out of the long, dark period of colonialism. Newly independent nations dreamed they could make their way in this new world without hewing to either of the big powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, eschewing the icy hostilities of the Cold War and bask in the warmth of Third World (as it was then known) cooperation. The co-founders were India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yugoslavia’s Josep Broz Tito, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah were all figures of international consequence, and their collective charisma attracted lesser lights from around the world.
But by the time NAM actually got off the ground, in 1961, the idea had already been undermined. Tito, host of the very first summit, was for all practical purposes aligned to the Soviets. Many members would go on to pick sides in the Cold War, including India.
Thus born under an ill omen, NAM grew into a forum where developing nations could blame all their problems on the big powers, pretending that much of the membership survived on the dole or protection of those very same powers. Long before Margarita Island, the triennial summits were exhibitions of shameless hypocrisy by American and Soviet puppets, all professing complete independence.
Worse still, NAM became a platform for some of the world’s most despicable leaders to preen and posture: The list of secretary-generals includes Fidel and Raul Castro, Mugabe, Hosni Mubarak, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This effectively denied the movement any kind of moral high ground, and rendered risible its rhetorical broadsides against the inequities of the US and the USSR. Nor could it claim, with a straight face, to represent peoples freed from colonial servitude when so many of those people found themselves enslaved by home-grown tyrants.
NAM’s reason to exist ended in 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. The world was left with a single superpower, the US, but quickly became multi-polar, with China and India emerging as strong magnetic forces in their own right. There would be new kinds of alignments, more likely to be defined by economics and geography than by ideology. To be aligned is now a virtue, a sign of good leadership. Countries, especially small ones, can and should aim for multiple alignments of their interests. There is now no country in the world that can claim to be non-aligned, not even North Korea, which is in many ways a Chinese protectorate.
The oldest joke about NAM is that it was always aligned, and never a movement. But we’ve laughed at this anachronism long enough. The vast bureaucracy that supports the institution is a waste of manpower, and most members could use those resources more gainfully elsewhere. If there are issues that unite the member nations, these would be better pursued by forming a lobbying block within the UN.
As for the pious pablum that passes for the collective statement of resolve at the end of each summit, that too can just as easily be issued from the UN.
Let Margarita Island be the last exhibition of this nonsense. NAM is dead. Let’s have a moment’s silence, not for the useless institution but for the noble idea that died at its birth, and then move on.
(Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He has spent over two decades covering international affairs, including long stints as correspondent and editor in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the US. He tweets as @ghoshworld)