Away from the U.S. Conventions, a New World Order Takes Shape

Though you wouldn't guess it in an election year, the rest of the world increasingly does not need American leadership to guide the way.

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Manish Swarup / AP

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie walks after inspecting a guard of honor in New Delhi, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. Liang is holding talks with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony amid Beijing's growing tensions with its neighbors over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has almost ground to a halt with the pageantry and pomp of its party conventions, spectacles that, while theatrical,  carry with them a particular hubris about the stature and pre-eminence of the world’s oldest democracy. The election is, as it’s often described, an exercise in selecting the “leader of the free world.” But as the rest of the planet hums along, paying little notice to what went on in Tampa and Charlotte, that sobriquet has never felt more hollow. For a snapshot of what actually shapes the global order, look no further than India, that other “exceptional” democracy, and its past week of rather unsurprising, unexciting geopoliticking.

In New Delhi, Indian and Chinese defense officials met this week in a bid to reinvigorate ties and restart joint military exercises, which have not taken place since 2008. The world’s two most populous countries, with two rapidly modernizing armies, have sparred diplomatically in recent years over long-standing territorial disputes along their vast, mountainous border. There remains a profound trust deficit on both sides — with nationalist camps in either country wary of, if not openly hostile to, the other — but the talks are encouraging, indicative of the realization both in Beijing and New Delhi that the two rising powers must find avenues of cooperation rather than return to old animosities that saw them clash briefly but bitterly in the Himalayas in 1962.

Meanwhile, the Indian capital also played host to top-ranking officials from a number of Southeast Asian countries — Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — in what’s been dubbed the Ganga-Mekong summit (the main rivers in northern India and Indochina, respectively). Ostensibly, it’s aimed at boosting Indian trade links with a region that was once tightly woven into the Indian economy in the days of the British Raj. But it’s also a forum for India to offer a riposte to China, which has spent the better part of a decade expanding its political and economic footprint in India’s South Asian backyard. There was no contradiction in India seeking to improve its relations with China while also, in a certain view, trying to counteract Beijing’s influence elsewhere in the region. For now and into the foreseeable future — beyond the occasional dangers of hot-headed nationalism — the contours of Asian geopolitics will be sculpted by the complex, sometimes divergent, sometimes overlapping interests of governments, all pursued with a clear-eyed pragmatism.

While some strategists in Washington seem to think India, as a pluralist democracy rivaling authoritarian China, ought to be firmly in the American camp, few in New Delhi — and, indeed, anywhere else in the developing world — have much interest in ideological agendas. In the Sept. 10 issue of TIME International, I used the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran last week to trace the disappearance of moral sentiment from Indian foreign policy.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) — a bloc of countries trying to chart a path free from the influence of both the U.S. and USSR — was founded in 1961 on that spirit of independence. At NAM’s peak, its members ranged from Indonesia to Yugoslavia to Argentina. Its pro-poor, antiwar politics would lead to the bolstering of institutions such as the U.N.’s atomic agency and its development program. Few statesmen stood taller in this project than [first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru — a suave, Cambridge-educated lawyer who, as India won its liberty in 1947, spoke famously of that moment when “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” He went on to inspire fellow third worldists from Africa to Latin America.

But that was then. In the last week of August, as heads of state and dignitaries from some 120 nations gathered under NAM’s umbrella in Tehran, there was little room for nostalgia. With the Cold War over, NAM is almost always dismissed as a fusty, pointless relic. The bloc is, in some respects, a failure; as a body representing the global south, it was too weak and fractured to stave off the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the U.S.’s first Persian Gulf intervention in 1990. After spending decades calling for peace and disarmament, NAM’s core members now rank among the world’s leading weapons purchasers. The socialist bonhomie of NAM’s founders has given way to the cold-blooded imperatives of the BRICS. Even in India, some of New Delhi’s elites speak of Nehru’s internationalist moralism as a naive, self-defeating embarrassment.

Indeed, when a number of prominent Indian strategists and academics unveiled earlier this year a vision for New Delhi’s foreign policy titled “Non-Alignment 2.0,” it drew rounds of criticism. Sadanand Dhume, an Indian writer and journalist affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, branded the idea “Failure 2.0.” Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an adviser to the Romney campaign, shook his head at India’s seeming desire to “[run] away from preferential partnerships in a quest for strategic autonomy” — the “preferential partnership” in question being chiefly a deeper Indo-U.S. alliance.

Yet India’s unwillingness to close ranks behind the Americans on a number of key global issues — most recently, Washington’s attempts to punish Iran for its nuclear program — is not a product of adolescent petulance on the world stage but of its own strategic interests. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s delegation to Tehran last week was the largest of all the dozens of heads of state and government that arrived and for good reason: between vital energy ties and a shared headache in stabilizing war-ravaged Afghanistan, the two countries have much to discuss. While the principle of nonalignment may seem an anachronism, its ethos is as relevant as ever. “It offers a middle path,” writes Pankaj Mishra, a left-of-center Indian author, referring to NAM’s potential role in resolving the crisis in Syria, “between Western interventionism and Chinese and Russian obstructionism at the U.N.” Mishra goes on:

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.

The need for an ideological binary, of course, is something that has long animated American politics and the rhetoric of many aspiring Presidents. Much of the West’s impatience with NAM now, says Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and author of the The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, echoes the frustrations of John Foster Dulles, who decried the movement’s “neutralism” — a term intended to be pejorative, likening the decolonizing world’s refusal to take sides in the Cold War with the “appeasement” shown to Nazi Germany by Western Europe. That’s a historical analogy ever on the tip of neoconservative tongues in Washington, but history, it seems, is against them. “NAM is just a name for regionalism now,” says Prasad. “And the future of world politics lies in this regional thinking, not the U.S. State Department.”