The newly liberated nations of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, in order to combat the growing influence of American and Soviet imperialism, moved little by little towards unification. Joining them over time were the dissident states of the Soviet Empire, such as Yugoslavia. This developed progressively, and took place because these nations were headed by some of History’s great leaders.
We begin with Nasser, the colonel president of Egypt. The plot to overthrow King Farouk and replace him with the military was devised and drawn up at the English Embassy in Cairo. Then the English withdrew and handed the operation over to the Americans, who put the finishing touches on the plan. King Farouk was overthrown, the military seized power, and soon Nasser was the idol of the Arab world. He was the first to shrug off the West, the first to speak in the name of the Third World and the Arab nations. The Americans hoped to be welcomed by the fruit of their clandestine aid. Their hopes were misplaced. Ostensibly, Nasser drew closer to the Soviets, giving them the contract for the Aswan Dam for example. He nationalized the Suez Canal, provoking an explosion of joy throughout the Third World.
Shortly thereafter, sensing a threat, Israel attacked, supported by the armies of England and France. Egypt didn’t resist and soon foreign armies occupied the Suez Canal and stood at the gates of Cairo. The Soviets protested to little effect. The United States intervened, ordering their own allies to stand down and stop their advance. In England, this was seen as a shocking betrayal, for the first time their American ally stood against them. Yet the alliance survived. Nasser, for his part, became more popular than ever.
Due to his xenophobic ideology, or his nationalism, call it whatever you want, Nasser constantly harassed the large and powerful Greek population of Egypt. He was invited to Athens for an official visit. He arrived with his family and was received with great pomp and ceremony. The military parade sent to welcome him on the runway of the airport of Tatoi was delayed for nearly an hour because Nasser’s children had locked themselves in the bathroom of the Royal Palace and refused to come out. This visit, during which he showed himself strong and cheerful, did not stop his harassment of Egyptian Greeks. So the Crown Prince Constantine was dispatched. He had very positive talks with the Egyptian leader, and returned optimistic. The following day, Nasser chased 30,000 Greeks from Egypt. He was in fact a cruel tyrant. I remember the Egypt of this time. A heavy atmosphere of fear settled upon the country. One saw trucks full of prisoners in the streets of Cairo, chained prisoners.
In Eastern Europe, Marshal Tito was one of the principal actors of this group, and took steps to distance his country from the Soviet Union. There was also Sukarno in Indonesia, one of the framers of the decolonization and independence movements. In Cuba, Fidel Castro had been put into power by the Americans only to turn against them.
One of the giants of the Third World, a venerable figure in this disparate world, was the small statured Negus of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He had experienced Italian colonization; he knew what he was talking about. In the summer of 1964, I was sent to Ethiopia on an official visit, to invite the emperor to the wedding of my cousin, King Constantine. He received me with a courtesy and grace that I have never forgotten. This short man was truly impressive; he had Semitic traits, as if he descended from King Solomon himself, and possessed an extraordinary majesty and culture. We had long conversations about the Orthodox churches of Thessaloniki.
I stayed in the villa of his favorite grandson, the Duke of Harrar. Breakfast was served on monogrammed silverware. I recognized the monogram as that of my Aunt Anne, the Duchess of Aoste, whose husband had been viceroy of Italian Abyssinia. In the insolence of my age, then 25 years old, I couldn’t help but mention this detail to the Emperor when he asked about the living arraignments. “Everything is wonderful, Sir, I was even served on the silverware of my own Aunt.” I then explained who she was. It was the Italians who had removed this same Haile Selassie. “Your aunt did a lot for my countrymen,” he replied, “When you see her, please relay to her my country’s gratitude.” My insolence was all the more spectacular before the subtle courtesy of the Negus. I would never have suspected that this cunning, perceptive man would fall victim to a coup d’état. To my great surprise, this man who knew so well how to put distance between himself and the world, and even his family early on in his career, was ultimately assassinated, his body stuffed between two mattresses. Similarly, I would never have believed that this pragmatic, rational sovereign would become the idol of Jamaican musicians, who took for their name the ancient title of Ras Tarafi.
Yet another great tenor of this movement was Nehru. This suave and smiling man, always sporting a rose button, embodied a steadfastness and rigor that belied his appearance. Nehru, his daughter, Madam Gandhi, then his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, were all among the first prime ministers of India. Nehru himself inaugurated a republican dynasty that flourished pretty much everywhere, succeeding the monarchical dynasties, decried and criticized for their heredity nature. With its billion souls, India remains the world’s largest democracy. Compared to its neighbors, with their dictators, the difference is immense. Of course there is corruption, and political scandals, and questionable elections do persist, but it is a democracy nonetheless. There is a freedom in India that is rare on that continent.
These grand tenors of History united and gathered at conferences, such as in Bandung, a clear challenge to the United States, to the West, to the Soviets. The Third World was vigorously and openly opposed to the United States, much more so than to the Soviet Union, which they rightly and justly feared. They were tasked with resisting these pressures. In reality, the united Third World made a lot of noise, but produced little concrete results. They lacked a united policy, and a united economy. These once bright lights slowly extinguished, and the Third World, like the rest of the world, found itself lacking leadership. This union didn’t just breakup, it disappeared from the pages of History. It is no longer spoken about.
The Third World has reappeared in another form. Today, the most powerful of these countries are the ones that compete economically with the West. China, India, Japan, Brazil, they have a dynamism that no longer exists in the Occident, which they are poised to surpass.
What politics failed to do during the generation of giants, economics is achieving today; the heads of state are merely along for the ride.
Photographs by Justin Creedy Smith