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Empire States: On Pankaj Mishra | The Nation

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Empire States: On Pankaj Mishra

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In the fun-house mirror of the present, the contours of the twentieth century have assumed a strange symmetry. It begins and ends with imperialism. The century opens with the West plundering the Rest, until one Asian nation, Japan, joins the action and becomes an empire itself. In the century’s last decade, the pattern repeats: the forces of liberal capitalism are again as dominant as ever, only this time China is the apt pupil of Western rapacity. The way historians speak of the present in terms of “imperialism,” ”anti-imperialism” and “the rise of Asia” makes the burst of decolonization after World War II seem like an interlude in a perpetual age of empire. The temptation to see Western colonials still lording it over hapless subalterns continues to guide our understanding of the relations between the “North” and “South” since the end of formal imperialism in the 1960s. But this perspective passes over the major structural changes in the history of the postwar decades, when the United States reconceived its mission in the world and new nations were no longer willing to support it on the same terms. Without grasping how this new configuration of forces reshaped the world order, we will continue to misidentify ways to change it.

After Empires
European Integration, Decolonization, and the Challenge From the Global South 1957–1986.
By Giuliano Garavini.
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The Poorer Nations
A Possible History of the Global South.
By Vijay Prashad.
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From the Ruins of Empire
The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.
By Pankaj Mishra.
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The Impossible Indian
Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence.
By Faisal Devji.
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About the Author

Thomas Meaney
Thomas Meaney, a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, is co-editor of The Utopian.

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It does not help that the best-known attempt in the twentieth century to forge a more equitable international arrangement without the blessing of the West remains mired in nostalgia. In 1955, a group of Asian and African leaders met in the city of Bandung in West Java, with the aim of strengthening economic and cultural cooperation. Though many of the participating states were aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union, their leaders made a show of rejecting the polarities of the Cold War and ending colonialism and racism. They declared their right to have their voices heard in the UN Security Council and to pursue collective defense.

But there was another agenda at Bandung, less publicized and less savory. Anti-colonial lions like Jawaharlal Nehru, Achmed Sukarno, Zhou Enlai and Gamal Abdel Nasser were also intent on licensing each other’s expansionary initiatives within and around their rapidly modernizing states. Nehru was determined to crush the peoples of highland Southeast Asia and absorb them into India; Nasser sought to extend the influence of Egypt into Syria and Yemen; Zhou Enlai wanted all parties to accept that Tibet, conquered six years before Bandung, was Chinese; and everyone agreed that West Papua belonged to Sukarno, who later declared that Greater Indonesia would “gobble Malaysia raw.” But the third world’s designs for internal harmony faltered quickly. Less than a decade after Bandung, China was fighting India in the Himalayas, while Nasser had Egypt on an uneasy footing with Algeria and Ghana. In retrospect, Bandung was not the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement founded in Belgrade six years later, but rather, as the anthropologist John Kelly has argued, the point where the third world accelerated its long march into the US-designed global system predicated on the consolidated nation-state. What remains of the Non-Aligned Movement’s public ideals is today in tatters. Last year, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi embarrassed Iran by using his speech at the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran to point to Syria’s growing isolation. In March, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upset his own clerics by embracing Hugo Chávez’s grieving mother in public, as if it needed to be underscored that Venezuela and Iran do not make good partners.

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For an alternative to globalization under Anglo-American auspices, there is a less mystical place to look than Bandung. In 1964, the United Nations General Assembly established its Conference on Trade and Development, which was determined to revise Bretton Woods through the official channels of the UN. Led by the Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch and including many members of the Non-Aligned Movement, UNCTAD sought to renegotiate debt, change development policies, reclaim sovereignty over natural resources, and reduce the barriers of entry for third world goods on the Western market. In 1973, the organization announced plans for the “New International Economic Order,” taking a stand against the industrialized world’s protectionism and the austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund of countries to whom it made loans. UNCTAD was meant to be, in the words of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, “a trade union of the poor”—one which understood that, to negotiate effectively with the West, it would have to bargain collectively. 

The New International Economic Order had a very short day in the sun. The United States and West Germany angled to break the alliance between OPEC countries and poorer nations that wanted to create similar cartels for raw materials. The oil crises of the 1970s ended up doing that work for them. By the time the Reagan administration went to war against domestic inflation in the early 1980s, debtor nations, which also had to pay higher prices for crude oil, were choking on stratospheric borrowing costs. (“The highest rates of interest since the birth of Jesus Christ,” as the West German chancellor put it at the time.) Meanwhile, OPEC countries, which might have channeled some of their cash surpluses into poorer countries or built up burgeoning Islamic banks, instead funneled their dollars through New York and London, in effect handing back the keys of the global economy to the United States.

In After Empires, his granular new history of UNCTAD, Giuliano Garavini, a historian at the University of Padua, recovers a golden opportunity in this ill-fated attempt by the third world to recalibrate world trade. In the 1970s, European officials, emboldened by their first steps toward economic integration, started looking to the Global South as a “most favored [trading] partner” in an effort to reorient the global economy in a new direction, against Anglo-American wishes. Two Dutch socialists—Sicco Mansholt, the president of the European Commission, and Jan Tinbergen, the Nobel Prize–winning economist—led the charge to pin the political identity of the European Union on improving the lot of its southern neighbors. Their program was swept away by the oil crisis, but Garavini’s superbly researched history shows how determined Europeans were in honoring the interests of the South—to the point of considering radical plans for the nationalization of Western industries and global financial redistribution.

Nixon and Kissinger may have fretted, but few American economists viewed the New International Economic Order as a threat to the basic structure of the liberal world order. If anything, it signaled that the third world was prepared to accept the benefits of mutual trade and foreign investment and put aside dreams of world revolution. When a socialist like Nyerere called for the third world to develop its own multinational corporations and insurance firms, these economists could only smile with approval. There is an additional phenomenon that has thwarted any revision of the world order: the push for economic liberalization that began in the early 1970s, first in Chile under Pinochet, followed by Anwar el-Sadat’s and Hafez al-Assad’s programs of Infitah in Egypt and Syria. By the end of the decade, China under Deng Xiaoping and Pakistan under Mohammad Zia ul-Haq were experimenting with foreign investment—not exactly an incentive for Western leaders to sit down with the band of intransigents gathered around Algeria’s Houari Boumediene and El Jefe. As Vijay Prashad shows in The Poorer Nations, which covers the same territory as Garavini in a polemical key, the real turning point came when Western-trained economists in the Global South started calling for austerity in the place of Nyerere’s “growth with equity.” From the same quarters that gave rise to the New International Economic Order came third world technocrats willing to draft their own structural adjustment programs.

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