The Margarita mirror

This week, for only the second time, India will not be represented by its Prime Minister at a NAM Summit, highlighting the organisation’s challenges and the country’s missed opportunities .

September 13, 2016 12:48 am | Updated September 22, 2016 06:56 pm IST

Jawaharlal Nehru flanked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslav President Josef Tito, founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Jawaharlal Nehru flanked by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslav President Josef Tito, founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The 17th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) will be held between September 13-18 in Margarita, Venezuela. Heads of government of 120 member states will descend on this Venezuelan island, which sits at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. NAM >was formed in 1961 , at the initiative of Egypt, India and Yugoslavia. It is telling that of these three, one no longer exists (Yugoslavia), one no longer has the kind of magnetic sway it had in the 1950s and 1960s (Egypt), and the third seems disinclined to favour the idea of non-alignment (India).

Indeed, India will not be represented by its head of government — Prime Minister Narendra Modi — but by its Vice President. Only once before has the Indian Prime Minister not been to the NAM Summit, and that was in 1979 when caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh did not go to Havana (Cuba). >Is NAM now irrelevant , so much so that India’s head of government no longer feels the need to attend its meetings?

From Brijuni to Baku In July 1956, Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito met at the island retreat of Brijuni on the Adriatic Sea to discuss the state of the world. The previous year, in Bandung (Indonesia), newly independents states of Africa and Asia gathered to inaugurate a new approach to inter-state relations: non-alignment. Fresh out of the darkness of colonial rule, these new states, they felt, should not be sucked into alignments with the West or the East. These camps would suborn the independence of the new states, drawing them into military obligations and economic entanglements. But sovereign foreign policies could not be sustained by these individual states. They needed to shelter together, to forge an alternative, to fight to build a peaceful world order where the obligations of the UN Charter could be met.

In 1961, Tito hosted the first NAM meeting in Belgrade, where 29 states gathered to lay out this new order. Their bravura was sneered at in Washington, where the government suggested that non-alignment was merely capitulation to the Soviet Union. The Soviets, meanwhile, saw an opportunity in the NAM, where a newly free Cuba, with close ties to the Soviets, had begun to assert its leadership despite its tiny size. NAM announced that it would push for an alternative economic order and that it would campaign against the arms race that had put the fear of nuclear annihilation across the planet. These were halcyon days for NAM, asserting its moral authority against war and poverty.

Over the course of the past 60 years, the NAM has seen an erosion of its authority. The Third World debt crisis of the 1980s crushed the economic ambitions of these NAM states. By the time NAM gathered in Delhi in 1983, it was a shadow of its origins. In NAM they had wished the centuries away, but now, awash in debt, they had to settle for the present. The Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. bombed Panama and Iraq, and history seemed to end with American ascendency. Proud nations queued up to curry favour with Washington, settle accounts at the International Monetary Fund and begin to sniff their noses at platforms such as NAM.

By the early 1990s, several important powers of NAM began to back away (Argentina left in 1991). Yugoslavia crumbled, with war tearing apart its promise. India went to the IMF and gestured to the U.S. that its days of non-alignment had gradually come to a close. Over the past few years, countries with a more sceptical attitude towards American power have held the mantle of NAM — South Africa (1998), Malaysia (2003), Cuba (2006), Iran (2012) and now Venezuela (Egypt, which presided over NAM from 2009, was convulsed in the Arab Spring during its presidency). NAM oscillated between suspicion of U.S. motives and attempts to regenerate the economic engines of its members. The next president of NAM after Venezuela will be Azerbaijan, which is a newcomer to NAM and one that does not have a presence on the world stage.

Turmoil in Venezuela Venezuela has been eager to make this NAM summit a success, a showcase for the resilience of its social revolution. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro argues against the view that the ‘NAM has lost its raison d’être upon the end of the Cold War’. Indeed, he suggests, using language that is resonant of the earlier NAM and alien to the Modi government, “we are convinced that neo-colonial dominance can be seen nowadays in both an aggressive and brutal manner”. Mr. Maduro points to the wars of aggression and the deep social and economic inequalities that plague the planet. The emergence of multi-polarity, he stresses, needs to be shaped by the Global South, whose instrument is NAM. Venezuela’s socialist government does indeed face steep challenges. Steve Ellner, who teaches at the Universidad de Oriente, identifies the three issues as “declining oil prices, economic war, and the exchange rate distortions”. The decline in oil prices has certainly struck this oil-exporting state. This crisis has been magnified by an economic war by the business elites in Venezuela who have on several occasions sought to overthrow this government. Poor policy decisions by the government to handle inflation and currency manipulation have further weakened its hand. When Mr. Maduro travelled to Margarita Island, where the summit will be held, a crowd banging pots and pans jeered at him. Mr. Maduro and the socialist movement are fighting to regain the trust of the people against both genuine problems facing the government and exaggerations from the U.S.-backed opposition.

NAM will be one of the largest gatherings in Venezuela in recent years. It is hoped by the government in Caracas that this would help the country by shoring up an alternative bloc to the West. But such an alternative will require a visionary leadership. What should be the contours of the emerging multipolar world? How would the new poles tackle the difficult problem of poverty and joblessness? It is not sufficient to point fingers at the West. An alternative has to be developed. At the 1973 NAM meeting in Algiers, the member states laid out the New International Economic Order (NIEO), a charter for a different way to manage political disagreements and trade across states. The NIEO proposed a new path. It had an electric effect, but it died in the rubble of the debt crisis. A new charter for a 21st century NAM is needed. If the NAM is to be relevant, it needs to develop such a visionary document.

Vijay Prashad is Professor of International Studies at Trinity College.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.