Forever a white man’s burden
The West must be swayed to use its powers for “good” in order to stop “evil”: this has been the key justification for empire since the 19th century, writes Robin Laycock in Socialist Alternative. Liberal voices have been crucial because they provide a left-cover to the more explicit arguments emanating from hardline neoconservatives and ideologues of imperialism.
In France, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, the Catholic Church provided the backbone for the moral side of French colonialism, with 40,000 missionaries spread throughout the world. Cardinal Lavigerie, who had become Archbishop of Algiers, reassured those below him that “no thought of self-interest or of glory spurs you on”. Rather, it would be “the honour of France to see you completing her work by carrying Christian civilisation far beyond her conquests into this unknown world”.
This argument has been shamelessly repeated, in different forms, over the years: Western intervention is necessary, though it should not be considered an imperialist adventure. Instead, so the logic goes, intervention is always for the noble and humanitarian aim of allowing the spread of superior values. The sentiments were immortalised by the British imperial poet Rudyard Kipling who in 1899 urged the US to “take up the White Man’s Burden” and colonise the Philippines. Kipling’s phrase is the epitome of a racist view that people in the under-developed world are victims, incapable of helping themselves. “Humanitarian” arguments for intervention have forever been infected with the very same outlook.
In early 20th century Britain, the Fabians (a socialist current inside the Labour Party) played an important role in developing colonial policy. After repudiating any support for imperialism, they also rejected the “selfish and insular” possibility of non-interventionism. They considered that they had special obligations “to our fellow citizens overseas” and that there were “moral claims upon us of the non-adult races”.
The Fabians wanted to believe that the biggest military bully in the world – as a global citizen – was compelled to intervene where those less fortunate found themselves in trouble. Thus, a noble, responsible-sounding argument was in fact laced with racism. National sovereignty should be no barrier to strengthening the empire.
In the last decade or so, these liberal imperialist arguments have re-surfaced in the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The humanitarian justification of the war in Afghanistan was about liberating women, and building democracy. The desire of America to build democracies in the Middle East is, of course, boundless. Some, like Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, worried that “this form of nation building once had another name: imperialism”. Unable to gloss over the record of the Belgians in the Congo and other historic crimes of empire, people like Rothstein argued that modern imperialism is different. Now, empire is associated with democratic reform, “sometimes with great satisfaction of its subjects”.
No doubt the estimated one million Iraqis and Afghans killed over the last 10 years would be duly satisfied, were they still alive.
Some can recognise the exploitative as well as the virtuous aspects of imperialism. But at best, the desperate wish for imperialism to act virtuously “this time” has the racist implication that Iraqi and Afghan people, for example, are incapable of overthrowing tyrannical dictators. (The same was said of the Egyptians.) At worst, it is a thinly disguised fig leaf for imperialist domination.
Even under the worst days of George Bush and the war on Iraq there were some – even small l liberals identifying with the left – who maintained that the US was the only available force and had to do something. So out of one side of their mouths was rhetoric about the maniac war-monger George Bush, while out of the other side were implorations for that same maniac to “deal with” Saddam Hussein. The fact that Saddam was once best friends with the US was irrelevant.
Another writer providing such liberal façade to the Iraq war was Michael Ignatieff, head of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. According to Ignatieff, imperialism used to be the white man’s burden. “But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect. Nations sometimes fail, and when they do, only outside help – imperial power – can get them back on their feet.” Ignatieff was uncomfortable about being on the same side as George Bush, but invasion by the US had become “the last hope for democracy and stability alike”.
The racist logic was impeccable: Iraqis are unable to govern their own lives and destinies. Only the civilizing force of the US is able to bring order. And discussion of the whole bloody history of imperialism brushed aside as “politically correct”!
The attempt to paint any opponent of Western interests as worse than Hitler is another important strategy for building up the case for war. In the 1950s, a group of nationalist officers overthrew the pro-British monarchy in Egypt, and then had the nerve to nationalise the Suez Canal to help fund national projects. The officers’ leader, Nasser, was vilified the Western media as a fascist.
More recently in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, leader of a country devastated by a decade of sanctions, was portrayed as the greatest threat to civilisation. There is no doubt that these tyrants who find themselves on the wrong side of Western interests have committed terrible crimes. However, the scale of crimes against humanity committed by the US in places like Africa, South-East Asia and the Middle East, makes a mockery of their supposed ability to spread peace, democracy and civilisation.
Left and liberal defenders of humanitarian interventions who continue the “white man’s burden” tradition in effect become the lawyers and marketing gurus for naked imperial domination, and for the opening of free-markets for capitalist exploitation. The sometimes well-meaning demand for the West to help African or Arab peoples reflects the acceptance of imperialist ideology. In the era of 19th century colonialism this meant accepting that “we” are civilised, and “they” are uncivilised, barbaric and incapable of self-government. Thus, colonialism was to be seen as a service to the world. In a similar way, slavery in the US was justified as having brought “absolute savages into contact with civilization and taught them to be skilled labourers”.
In the era of 21st century imperialism, this liberal acceptance manifests as paternalism for helpless victims in the third world – a place where democracy does not come naturally, and (white) tutelage is both necessary and justifiable. For this justification of empire to be made plausible, the worst atrocities of imperialism must be overlooked by either magnifying the evils of the enemy (“insert name of tin-pot dictator” is the new Hitler) or by re-imagining the reality of imperialism itself (“altruistic colonialism” or “humanitarian intervention”). In either case, both the possibility, and the right, of indigenous populations to resist and to act for themselves are denied.
Nearly a decade after the invasion of Iraq, few can find good things to say about Bush’s war. But with the Kony 2012 phenomenon, we have a new attempt to rehash, yet again, old arguments justifying the need for the “civilized” West to help the “not so civilised”. The script is painfully predictable as we watch Joseph Kony visualised alongside Hitler. When we consider the number of Kony’s followers – perhaps 300 – a more absurd comparison is hard to imagine.
Some in the media have attempted to convince us that this is a special case, and not just a racist excuse for imperialism. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristoff, a supporter of the Kony 2012 phenomenon, recently took on those arguing that Africans should be allowed to resolve their own problems, and that American intervention is merely another example of the white man’s burden. For Kristoff, these sentiments were repugnant. It is not a white man’s burden, he argued; it is a “human burden”. So the channelling of the spirits of liberal imperialists from a hundred years ago continues.
The liberal imperialist can easily claim, as Kristoff did, that “if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome” efforts by Invisible Children to get Kony. But for defenders of empire, it is hard to see past the racist view of the passive African. Perhaps it would be worth actually asking someone from the region? Mahmood Mamdani, an author and political commentator in Uganda asks whether the mobilisation of millions of Facebookers “will be subverted into yet another weapon in the hands of those who want to further militarise the region? If so, this well-intentioned but unsuspecting army of children will be responsible for magnifying the very crisis to which they claim to be the solution. Yet at its core, the LRA remains a Ugandan problem calling for a Ugandan political solution.”
The thirst of capitalist competition for ever more resources and markets – and in particular the desire of the US to circumvent the rise of China’s influence in Africa is the real problem. Despite the attempts to paint a liberal veneer over imperialism, the quest for domination in the 21st century is little different from the imperial scrambles of the 19th.