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Getting Back Into ‘Alignment’ in Belgrade: Thinking About Non-Alignment, the Third World in the Former Yugoslavia

May 29, 2012

Where’s a good political shorthand for regions of the earth when you need one? If events continue in Greece, Spain, and Italy as it appears they will, we may soon no longer be able to refer to ‘the EU’, or ‘the Eurozone.’ Concepts of a Europe unified at all would be under danger. Hell, given tensions between the United States and its European allies over the latter’s failure to contribute enough of their budgets towards military spending and the lukewarm attitude of, for example, François Hollande, to the continuing mission in Afghanistan, the medium-term future of NATO is unsure. Could ‘the West’ as useful shorthand be gone? Throw in the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into the mix in that part of the world, and things seem remarkably fragmented.

But things get even more confusing if you look to the Global South (itself, of course, a shorthand of sorts). Should we refer to places like Pakistan and Morocco as ‘developing countries’? How about ‘the Islamic world’? Then there’s the old standby of ‘the Third World’, a term that rankles some development types. What should we call these places?

I found clarification on this and many other questions over the course of last week, when I had the chance to attend a conference on the history of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade, Serbia, generously sponsored by LSE, the Academy for Korean Studies, and the Ohio State University’s Mershon Center. It took place in 2012 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an attempt launched by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito to organize, well, countries, that were ‘non-aligned’ with either the Soviet Union or the United States. (Robert Vitalis of the University of Pennsylvania explains aspects of the more complicated and interesting story in a fine paper which can be found here.)

Glamorous Belgrade, site of your humble narrator’s latest traipsings

The trajectory and history of the NAM itself are interesting enough – I attended the conference to present a paper on how and why the Movement was in a position to become fractured by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – but the real story here, I think, is how the NAM fits into a broader story of how poor, often small post-colonial countries sought to make their voices heard internationally. Given the minimal resources many African and Asian countries were left with by the departing French, British, and other imperialists, in other words (often nothing more than a flag), how did countries like Mali, Niger, Guinea and others learn to try to coördinate their policy, or at least learn how to play the game of international relations to extract geopolitical rents from the global powers of the period, the USSR and the USA?

Thoughts and reflections embedded in multiple comments, from several of the other attendees struck me as particularly insightful, and maybe even suggestive of future interesting historical projects. One of the more established historians attending the conference, Arne Westad, commented in one plenary session how he often got funny looks, particularly from American audiences, when he openly used the term ‘Third World.’ Didn’t he, these audiences often asked him, realize how … offensive the term might be? Couldn’t he use the more PC term ‘developing countries?’ Westad argued, however, that the dispute over terminology hit at important differences between how different institutions and actors viewed the decolonized countries. ‘Non-Alignment’ in the sense that Tito and other leaders at Belgrade, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Nasser, viewed it, was one political project: establish a loose grouping of countries that sought to maintain ‘equidistance’ from the USA and USSR. It didn’t always work out (India entered a war with China in the Himalayas almost immediately after the conference, forcing Delhi to think more toughly about with whom to ally), but at least it was a framework for conceptualizing the former British and French Empires.

The ‘Third World’ – a place or a state of mind?

The ‘Third World’, Westad and other presenters at the conference argued, was a different political project. Rather than seeking ‘non-alignment’, the ‘Third World’ was a political project based on the premises that:

  • Decolonized nations needed territorial states to fulfill their aspirations as a people.
  • Those states should be organized in the United Nations as a global forum.
  • The UN could constitute a useful arena to rally world opinion against Anglo-American international institutions like GATT (now the WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
  • Alternative forms of organizing peoples (be it in the form of religiously-defined Pakistan or Israel, apartheid South Africa, or the so-called ‘Fourth World’ of peoples like Kurds and Pashtuns) was unacceptable.
  • Regardless of specific country issues, there was enough unity among decolonized countries to make this ‘Third World’ agenda a more important affiliation than, say, tilting towards the Soviet Union.

The discussion these points inspired was tremendously stimulating: this was one of the better conferences I had attended, and I really felt at home with some of whom I regard as the leading practitioners of international history. More than that, this discussion of the ‘Third World’ project made me think of all sorts of interesting projects one could pursue as a second project, or if one were a D.Phil. or PhD candidate with all the languages starting over again. I have always thought that a history of the intellectuals origins of UN Resolution 3379 – ‘Zionism is racism’, the only UN Resolution to be revoked – could be a fascinating entree into these topics. For someone with good enough Hebrew, Arabic, and possibly French (for Sub-Saharan African countries), there is probably an interesting story to be told of how the Third World project intersected with the Jewish state, anti-Zionist eliminationism, and the aftershocks of 1967 and 1973 on the Greater Middle East.

For the Russian history nerds among us, I also left the conference thinking that a project on what I might call the Soviet Third and Fourth Worlds could be cool. Even though the USSR sponsored aspects of the Third World project, the Soviet system for organizing peoples (into SSRs, ASSRs, autonomous oblast’s, and so forth) was clearly different than the premise that, basically, every one who wanted a nation-state with representation in the UN got one. While the Ukrainian and Belarusian SSRs had representation in the UN (an early Soviet demand to ensure more Soviet-aligned members), places like Tajikistan or Armenia didn’t – something that didn’t really make sense if, say, the Gambia got a seat. I am unsure of what the source base for such a project would be, but I would be really interested to learn more about how, for example, nationalists in places like Nagorno-Karabagh, South Ossetia, or Transdniester framed their claims for self-determination within a Soviet system in the 1980s – even though once the Soviet system dissolved, the Third World project proved too exhausted to mobilize support to give Transdniester a seat in the UN.

Transdniester: The Soviet Union’s ‘Fourth World’, or Pakistan to Moldova’s India?

There were plenty of other themes that came up at the conference that also merit attention, too. Many of the most interesting conversations centered around the issue of why the state as such became such a coveted object for Third World élites during the Cold War, as well as why it was so difficult for said national élites to form any other conception of sovereignty than one based on physical territory. Put in more concrete terms, the institutional arrangement of having your own state with closed borders and sovereignty over, say, tariff rates on European or American agriculture that (if traded freely) would flood your ports with cheap wheat and destroy your agricultural sector. This system worked pretty well from, roughly about the 1930s to the 1970s.

But in the latter years of that period, something changed. Development projects led by groups like the Ford Foundation in poor countries failed to solve poverty as comprehensively as they had claimed. Economic and communications globalization made it more attractive to open up your economy to multi-national corporations which extracted resources to export to the global economy – it was giving up sovereignty in some sense, but what else was going to work? Closed-system state projects like those of Libya or Zimbabwe – countries that the anti-globalization Left fringe sometimes liked to trumpet as examples of a path of ‘true’ national sovereignty – or, worse, North Korea, were also not working to lift countries out of poverty. Today, even those African and Asian countries which have jumped most quickly into bed with Western foundations and internatonal financial institutions find themselves still impoverished and having sold out their sovereignty.

This is a big topic, but what interests me – and I hope, some of the other historians who attended the conference – is how and why the concept of having your own state became really important to the Third World project, the concept of sovereignty that went along with this, and what productive concepts we might find to think about development and self-determination in this post-colonial Afro-Asian world. Few, I suspect, in remote and poor countries like Mali or Niger, want to deliver their countries and their treasures into the hands of Western firms and institutions. Still fewer in capitals like Washington, London, Berlin, or Beijing are eager to take over political sovereignty of these ‘failed states’. American, British, German, and Chinese firms would prefer to do resource extraction business in these economies and have what some might call economic sovereignty. But it seems highly unlikely that any rich country would wish to take over the institutions of such countries.

Libya: defending Africa from ‘imperialism’ since the Cold War

All of this, to bring us full circle, leaves us with a United Nations General Assembly populated by dozens of barely-functioning, corrupt states. Say what you will about Third World solidarity and the need for Sub-Saharan Africa, or Southeast Asia, to stand up against American ‘imperialism’, but this cycle of obsession with national states, poor institutions in Africa and Asia, and the framework of the UN breeds a cycle where countries remain poor, and the UN declines more and more in prestige thanks to actions like appointing Roberto Mugabe of the aforementioned Zimbabwe as an envoy for tourism.

I’m eager to blog with some of my reflections on my other big conference trip this month – a wonderful journey to the Lahore School of Economics in Lahore, Pakistan – but for the moment there are other obligations, such as, you know, actually writing my dissertation. I’m bearing down hard in the next two weeks on revising some chapters I wrote long ago, before returning home for a spell to the United States, before heading off to Tajikistan a few days after the Fourth of July to study Persian and conduct interviews for my dissertation. Here’s hoping your humble narrator finds time between this all to continue blogging!

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