Somehow along the way, I became a diplomatic historian, or anyway passed a comps field in US diplomatic history and have spent a lot of time with the kind of sources diplomatic history uses. There are some real triumphs of diplomatic history out there — Alfred McCoy, Arno Mayer, etc. — but diplo can also be some of the most perversely boring historical writing you can find. A LOT of “this dude sent this memo and then that dude sent THAT memo.” The old-time “great men” historians could at least jazz things up with completely arbitrary commentary and moralizing- our contemporary historians can’t or won’t.
Radical diplomatic history is its own thing and comparatively rare, and Marxist historian Vijay Prashad has two books of it charting the Non Aligned Movement, the second of which is “The Poorer Nations.” Prashad’s diplomatic histories are written in a much more loose sort of way than most, and the subject matter is at least relatively novel- the efforts by the Third World (the leaders of which used to bear the term proudly) to create a power base for themselves in the midst of the Cold War and even perhaps a new basis for international diplomacy. Prashad does his best to make it interesting, but especially as the revolutionary fervor burns down some after the seventies, the point when “The Poorer Nations” begins, it has some unavoidable drag- this conference and then that conference and this paper and that debt negotiation, etc.
The point is reasonably important though also a bit predictable if you’re used to this genre of left writing. We go through all the attempts of developing world leadership to forge an independent path, for their countries and the developing world at large. Very smart, ambitious people with serious plans, like Julius Nyerere and Manmohan Singh, appear. Models like Japan’s state-assisted development and Venezuela’s exploitation of oil combined with bolivarian populism crop up. Numerous international organizations are started to go to bat for the developing world. And they all collapse. The US and its cronies are too strong, and, Prashad argues, real solidarity is impossible because the ruling classes in the developing world don’t believe in it. Ultimately, those classes want to advance — want money, lifestyles, and respect on the world stage — more than they want their countries to do well or for the international order to change. And so it’s the usual lesson- class society will dicker everything up and any force that wants radical change needs to do several impossible-seeming things simultaneously. True enough, probably. ****