Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei inaugurated the summit of Nonaligned Movement leaders in Tehran with a blistering attack on the “dictatorship” of Western countries at the United Nations Security Council.
The Iranians then had to listen stony-faced to Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi, the first Egyptian head of state to visit Iran since 1979, as he stressed the need for a united opposition to their ally, the murderous Syrian regime.
Over several decades NAM summits, including the previous one hosted by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheikh, have resonated with this kind of contradictory rhetoric.
Does it underline the irrelevance of the NAM, or point to its new role as a platform for emerging powers such as Egypt to balance their multiple affiliations?
Certainly, the fact that Mubarak and then Khamenei -- one pro-American, the other anti-, but both disgraced and discredited in their own countries -- should become the movement’s helmsmen in recent years argues for the dissolution of this Cold War holdover.
You only have to compare Khamenei’s rabble-rousing with the speech by Indonesia’s President Sukarno at the Indonesia city of Bandung in 1955, where Asian and African leaders first gathered on the platform that in 1961 was formalized as the Nonaligned Movement.
“For many generations,” Sukarno said, “our peoples have been the voiceless ones in the world. We have been the unregarded, the people for whom decisions were made by others whose interests were paramount, the people who lived in poverty and humiliation.”
This was more than bombast. The experience of a racist imperialism and anti-imperial struggle had shaped the Asian and African leaders who were in stalwart attendance at Bandung. Bringing together leaders such as India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Bandung highlighted their shared dilemmas and challenges: for instance, what kind of relations to have with Asia and Africa’s former colonial masters, and what kind of national economies to develop after a long period of exploitation during which the industrial North had effectively relegated the largely agrarian countries of the South to the ranks of permanent losers.
At its most idealistic (and smug), the Nonaligned Movement also aimed to project superior values into the realm of international relations. It rejected the moral grandstanding of a free world that included apartheid South Africa (and could countenance Jim Crow segregation in the American South).
Most important, it outlined a world beyond the West -- one not entirely shaped by Western interests and concerns.
As it turned out, most countries, faced with the great tasks of postcolonial self-strengthening, had their own interests to protect, and partly aligned themselves with one or the other superpower (and sometimes with both). In 1955, Pakistan, for instance, was already a member of two U.S.-led security pacts.
The Bandung meeting itself hinted at the differences to come when the prime minister of Sri Lanka insisted on including a reference to “Soviet colonialism” in the final statement issued by the conference.
Over the years, the splits widened. India and China, the earliest embodiments of the Bandung spirit of friendship and cooperation, went to war in 1962. NAM continued to reveal its inability to mediate effectively in any major wars involving its members, such as a destructive eight-year-long war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the apparent rise of the U.S. as the lone superpower, should have brought the curtains down on it. But then there is a good reason that the NAM survived for as long as it did. Despite severe internal dissensions, it provided a broad cover for pragmatic forms of strategic alignment to newly independent nations.
If anything, this role has become more important in a multipolar world where regional powers such as China, Egypt, Iran, South Africa and Turkey pursue their interests through nonexclusive alliances.
Last week, Manmohan Singh, the most pro-American Indian prime minister in history, led the biggest foreign delegation to Tehran. Bypassing U.S. sanctions, India continues to trade with Iran. It remains dependent on Iran’s crude oil; the two countries also work together in Afghanistan -- a role likely to increase as U.S. troops withdraw and Pakistan’s proxies advance.
Singh signed a momentous nuclear deal with the U.S. in 2005, but India has favored France in its recent big arms purchases. Early this year, some of India’s most respected public intellectuals and commentators on foreign affairs co-wrote a document provocatively titled Nonalignment 2.0. One of its numbered points states, “We must seek to achieve a situation where no other state is in a position to exercise undue influence on us -- or make us act against our better judgement and will.”
This also seems to be the motto of many Asian leaders who attended the NAM summit in Tehran. In practice, it means improvising unlikely new partnerships and alliances. The “contact group” for Syria proposed by the Egyptian president Mursi includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as Iran; it offers a middle path between Western interventionism and Chinese and Russian obstructionism at the UN.
None of this should come as a surprise, except to those who are still immersed in fantasies that pit a “concert of democracies” against authoritarianism -- empty words that now merely signify minds unable to understand the contemporary world except through the rephrased ideological binaries of the Cold War.
Nonalignment as an ideal never had much of a chance. The movement was never -- and couldn’t be -- a cohesive entity. But it did allow new and small countries a respite from the rivalries of big powers, and, sometimes, a way to play them off against each other. Its absurd rituals, particularly the increasingly hollow invocations of anti-imperial solidarity, were always easy to mock. But they concealed larger shifts in the balance of power and the steady process of decolonization -- the emergence from a West-dominated world that has been speeded up in our own time by the Arab Spring.
The fulminations of Iran’s leaders may again dominate the news emanating from Tehran. But, as always, it is the fresh strategic alignments of many of the 120 nations constituting the Nonaligned Movement that are truly revealing. For they outline yet again, and more enduringly this time, the shape of the post-Western world.
(Pankaj Mishra, is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India, and the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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