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.
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.