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'New populists' vs. the West

Can the leaders of Iran and Venezuela forge a political counterweight to US power?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 2006


Some might call it the axle of anti-American populism.

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With linchpins in Tehran on one end and Caracas on the other, a new brand of international populism is rising by fanning flames of division between Western powers and the "powerless" of the developing world.

Leaders, from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, are winning points at home by striking a nationalist and anti-American pose. Their method: Use the international stage to rail against what they see as a disconnect between the values espoused by the world's sole superpower and its actions.

• Mr. Ahmadinejad consolidates his domestic political power and wins support among several countries caught in America's cross hairs by pointing out that Washington accepts the nuclear status of Pakistan - which it needs on its side in the war on terror - while opposing Iran's program, which Iran insists is for power-generation only.

• Mr. Chávez, espousing a philosophy of "democratic socialism" in any international forum that will listen, accuses the United States of trying to overthrow his own democratically elected government. He fires up sympathetic crowds by branding "US imperialism [as] our real enemy."

Yet for all their heated rhetoric, the two leaders have a vision for the world, one that seeks to end the "sole superpower" reality. Beyond simply opposing America's robust exercise of power - a sentiment increasingly found in the developing world, especially - their aim is to join political forces to provide a significant counterweight in the international arena.

"There is no great level of love between Venezuela and Iran, but they both are seeking a multipolar world, and that's where the two of them find a point of intersection," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, a Latin America and US foreign-policy expert at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

The two leaders, though, are impelled by different motives. Chávez is motivated by an antiglobalization stance that vilifies Washington as the epicenter of market- oriented economics, says Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy and rule of law at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ahmadinejad's wrath, he says, is more focused on the Bush administration's agenda for secular democracy in the Middle East.

Russia's Vladimir Putin also belongs on the list, says Mr. Carothers, for his challenge to the West over its promotion of democracy in Russia and in the former Soviet neighboring countries.

"We're seeing on different fronts different leaders who are pushing back," he says, "with the idea of resisting the West." It is "no coincidence" that all three countries are "flush with oil money" that allows their leaders the luxury of promoting their causes, he adds.

A risk of overreaction by the West

The West's response to the populists' challenge need not - indeed, should not - be uniform, some analysts say. Each presents a different challenge.

"The Latin American populists like Chávez have a very limited capacity to do anything that threatens substantial harm to our interests, so it's key in those cases not to overreact," says Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University.