In the late 1990s, when India faced international sanctions following the Pokharan II nuclear tests, BJP leader Jaswant Singh, a delightful raconteur, explained the cynical mechanics of ‘big power’ geopolitics with an earthy metaphor. Gaining admittance to the league of big powers was, he said, like jostling with a crowd to get into an unreserved railway compartment. You have to do whatever it takes to get in, whereas those who are inside want to keep you out; but once you make it inside, your best interests are in ensuring that no one else — not even your erstwhile peers outside — gets in!
Only such a realpolitik consideration can account for the withering away of the alphabet soup of many multilateral organisations and platforms that ambitiously set out to fashion a brave new world. For instance, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was laughably unfaithful to its name, unabashedly operated as a proxy for the erstwhile Soviet Union in the Cold War era; it found itself washed aside by tidal force of history when the Communist superpower disintegrated. Other such agglomerations — from the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) to the Group of 77 developing countries in the UN (G-77, which has since expanded to 134 countries) — rendered themselves irrelevant over time. A few others, such as the South-South Cooperation platform, formed to promote technical cooperation among “developing countries” that are primarily located in the southern hemisphere, soldier on in spirit. September 12 was observed as ‘International Day for South-South Cooperation’ with a typical ‘talking shop’ ritual that was high on ennobling rhetoric but had little to show by way of meaningful action. It is easy to get a measure of the centrifugal force that propels such dispersions. There is no stronger binding force than economic muscle, and in the absence of such heft, the centre cannot hold. Even the BRICS grouping, which briefly enjoyed its moment in the sun, is now a mere shadow of its former self. Today, China’s projection of its economic might may momentarily draw satellite states into its orbit through its Belt and Road Initiative, but since the enterprise has its moorings in Chinese mercantilism, the limits of its influence are being tested.
Geo-economics teaches us that ideological rigidity, and affiliations based on perceived geographical or economic correlations, can only take countries so far. There is no substitute for pragmatism in the pursuit of development: as Deng Xiaoping said, it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. Today, there is far more collaboration between countries of the ‘South’ and the ‘North’ than within themselves. In that sense, geography is well and truly history.