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New Imperialism, Old Justifications

The old imperialism, backed up by an old set of racist justifications, is back in fashion. It's called the new imperialism, only there's nothing new about it, or the arguments used to justify it.

By Stephen Gowans
November 30, 2007

British politicians say Britons must stop apologizing, and start celebrating, their imperial past. Conservative historians say Africa was better off under British rule. Top political advisors promote renewed colonialism as a solution to Africa's problems. Journalists write nostalgically about "the lost paradise of the big white chief" (Rhodesia's Ian Smith) and point to the descent of Zimbabwe into economic chaos as a cautionary tale about what happens when enlightened white administration is ceded to benighted, corrupt natives.

"Barely a generation after the ignominious end of the British empire," observes Guardian columnist Seamus Milne, "there is now a quiet but concerted drive to rehabilitate it, by influential newspapers, conservative academics, and at the highest level of government." (1)

Why has the drive occurred?

One reason is that intervention in other countries is now more of a possibility than it was three decades ago when the Soviet Union was still around. Jonathan Powell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's longtime chief of staff, argues that Britain should not fear to intervene in Zimbabwe and Myanmar to defend "our interests" and promote "our values" because "intervening in another country no longer risks tipping the two superpowers into global war, because there is only one superpower." (2)

The other reason is because the structural compulsion to exploit other countries economically has never gone away.

With the compulsion still there, and a major deterrent to exercising it gone, an ideology is needed to justify it.

The Ideology

"In the Ancient world, order meant empire," observes Blair's foreign policy guru, Robert Cooper. "Those within the empire had order, culture and civilization. Outside it lay barbarians, chaos and disorder." (3)

Today chaos is found in what Cooper classifies as "pre-modern states" – "often former colonies - whose failures have led to a Hobbesian war of all against all." (4)

Writer Peter Godwin thinks the chaos in pre-modern states is attributable to Britain abandoning its colonies. "The disengagement from Africa was irresponsible," he writes. It was "little more than a hasty jettisoning of colonies, however ill-prepared they were for self-rule, and a virtual guarantee that they would fail as autonomous states." (5)

British historian Andrew Roberts echoes Godwin's reasoning. "Africa," he says, "has never known better times than during British rule." (6)

Top politicians also seem to agree. Gordon Brown sprang to the defense of Britain's colonial record in Africa after South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki justifiably complained about British imperialists "doing terrible things wherever they went." Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, used a trip to former British colony Tanzania to declare that "the days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over," and that "we should celebrate much of our past, rather than apologize for it." (7)

Godwin points specifically to Zimbabwe to make the case that Africa was better off under white rule. "The terrible situation in Zimbabwe," he writes, "today conforms in many ways to the worst of everything Ian Smith had feared of black majority rule, and is the very specter that inspired him to fight so hard to prevent it." (8)

The Telegraph's Graham Boynton seconds Godwin's point, arguing that Ian Smith, who said blacks could never rule themselves successfully, "has sadly been proved right." (9)

"Today, Zimbabwe is a failed state with a non-functioning economy, a once flourishing agricultural sector now moribund, and a population on the brink of starvation....So much for liberation." (10)

If Boynton and his empire-nostalgics are to be believed, the natives can't be trusted to run their own affairs. But there are many other places bedeviled by war, poverty, misery and chaos that are never pointed to as crying "out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets," as former Wall St. Journal editor, Max Boot once put it. (11)

One such troubled land is Ethiopia. Its army invaded Somalia, contrary to the UN Charter (a crime on par with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait), and is fighting an anti-insurgency war in the Ogaden region of the country that has provoked a humanitarian disaster. The country's leader, Meles Zenawi, jails political opponents, threatens them with the death sentence, limits press freedom, and has been accused of rigging elections.

Ethiopia sounds like one of Cooper's pre-modern states, complete with a Hobbesian war of all against all raging within its bosom. But Ethiopia – which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from the US and Britain – is not on the empire-nostalgics' radar screen. Could it be that the "failed" states empire-boosters say need to be brought under the wing of enlightened Western rule are simply states that aren't doing the West's bidding? Is it chaos, or independence, that's the problem?

Iraq, too, is a troubled land, one for which the idea of a Hobbesian war of all against all seems especially fitting. And yet chaos in Iraq is a product of the "enlightened" Western rule people like Max Boot call for.

The Solution

"The most logical way to deal with chaos, and the one employed most often in the past, is colonization," writes Cooper boldly. Today, colonialism needs to be practiced as "a new kind of imperialism which aims to bring order and organization." (12)

Cooper sets out his case in an article titled "Why we still need empires."

"The postmodern world has to start to get used to double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But, when dealing with old-fashioned states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert of the rougher methods of an earlier era - force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle." (13)

That the rougher methods of an earlier era have already been deployed against Zimbabwe is fairly obvious. The US, Britain and other "postmodern" states organize, fund and provide support to civil society groups within and outside Zimbabwe to bring down the Mugabe government. In place of the current government, Britain seeks a new government willing to accommodate "our values" and "our interests."

As prime minister, Tony Blair even went so far as to privately argue for an invasion of Zimbabwe, but the head of the armed forces, General Sir Charles Guthrie, counseled Blair against it. You'd lose too many African allies, he warned. (14)

The Nazi Theory of International Relations

While Cooper seeks to give a pleasing gloss to his "we still need empires" view, it is at odds with the foundations of post-war international law. More than that, it is tantamount to the Nazi's theory of international relations.

The Nuremberg Tribunal's affirmation "of national sovereignty as the cornerstone of the international system...stood in marked contrast to the political philosophy of the Nazis, who had treated the concept of state sovereignty with contempt," explains John Laughland.

Any state that intends to intervene in the affairs of other states for the purpose of dominating them will, naturally, express contempt for national sovereignty. This, NATO, and other "postmodern" states, began to do in the run up to the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia - and have been doing since.

"One can say," adds Laughland, "that the commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of an attempt to institutionalize an anti-fascist theory of international relations." (15) By the same token, an attempt to establish a justification for forcibly re-imposing colonial domination on independent Third World countries is an attempt to revivify a Nazi theory.

If you're going to knock down the doors of other countries, you have to find some pretty reasons for doing so. People like Cooper, Roberts, Max Boot in the US, and liberals like Michael Ignatieff, are only too happy to supply the justification.

Our Interests and Values?

The imperial ideologues always eventually get around to pinning the necessity of the new imperialism on the pursuit of "our interests" and "our values," implying that the interests of everyone in the West are common and that our values (also assumed to be homogeneous) have something vaguely to do with human rights. But are the interests of a bus driver in Liverpool the same as those of a London investment banker who collects board appointments? Which of these two has the greatest chance of shaping British foreign policy?

In a certain sense it is true that we all share interests in common. We share an interest in being free from violence. Pro-imperial ideologues cite this interest to justify the unapologetic resurrection of open imperialism. Unless we bring the war to them, they'll bring the war to us. Unless we impose order, chaos will spread.

This is a good argument, if you're trying to sell a Nazi theory of international relations. But it's more likely that "our interests" and "our values" refer to the interests and values of the economic class that has a firm grip on the media and state. It's not our interests and values that are being pursued, but theirs.

Investors, financial houses and corporations - tied to the media, universities and state in a thousand different ways – suck mountains of profits out of Third World countries. They have an interest in a muscular foreign policy to safeguard their investments and to open doors that have been closed by communist, socialist and economic nationalist governments that pursue social improvement, rather than foreign investment-friendly, objectives. Is it any surprise, then, that the media, conservative academics and state officials are rehabilitating colonialism?

In an article on Ian Smith in the Sunday Times, RW Johnson draws an invidious comparison between Smith's Rhodesia and Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Smith, he tells us, had "run the country and economy surprisingly well in the face of tough international sanctions," unlike Mugabe, who has presided over an economy that has faltered under the weight of sanctions.

When "Mugabe gained power in 1980, Smith...rolled up every day at Government House to offer his help" and "Mugabe was delighted to accept" it. Significantly, "the two men worked happily together for some time, until one day Mugabe announced plans for sweeping nationalization. Smith told him bluntly he thought this a mistake. Their cooperation ended on the spot." (16) And Zimbabwe, we're to believe, from that point forward, began its descent into economic chaos.

In a certain respect, this is true. Britain, which still dominated Zimbabwe's economy, had no truck for Mugabe's nationalizations, and nor for his refusal to follow IMF prescriptions or his expropriation of farm land. These sins against private property – which Smith would have steered clear of – set off Britain's resort to the rougher methods of an earlier era to push Mugabe aside. Along with its imperialist senior partner, the United States, Britain schemed to make Zimbabwe's economy scream, hoping to galvanize Zimbabweans to throw Mugabe out of office, either at the polls or in the streets. Drought and region-wide energy shortages helped crank up the misery.

But what was the real problem? That Mugabe, as a black man, was too stupid to know how to run the country? Or that Mugabe took on white economic interests?


Politicians, journalists and academics, have launched an ideological assault to justify a new imperialism – an aggressive and expansionary foreign policy whose aim is to bring to heel countries resisting integration into the Anglo-American orbit.

Under the "enlightened" domination of the US and Britain these countries will be expected to open their doors to foreign investment, privatize state-owned enterprises, tear down tariff walls, and rescind performance requirements on foreign firms. Above all, they'll be expected to respect private property.

The assault is based on two deceptions.

The first is that that Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets once provided enlightened administration. The second is that we need (an American-led) empire to impose organization and order on chaos.

But much of the chaos in the Third World is a product of, not a reason for, Western intervention. Iraq was once a thriving modern secular state, until Anglo-American imperialism visited upon it chaos of unprecedented scope.

"We hear a lot about the rule of law, incorruptible government and economic progress, but the reality was tyranny, oppression, poverty and the unnecessary deaths of countless millions of human beings," points out Cambridge historian Richard Drayton. (17)


1. Seamus Milne, "New Labour, Old Britain," Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2005
2. Jonathan Powell, "Why the West should not fear to intervene," Observer, November 18, 2007
3. Robert Cooper, "Why we still need empires," The Observer, April 7, 2002
4. Cooper
5. Peter Godwin, "If only Ian Smith had shown some imagination, then more of his people might live at peace," The Observer, November 25, 2007
6. Quoted in Milne
7. Daily Mail, January 15, 2005
8. Godwin
9. Graham Boynton, "Ian Smith has sadly been proved right," Telegraph, November 25, 2007
10. Ibid
11. Max Boot, "The case for American empire," The Weekly Standard, October 15, 2001
12. Cooper
13. Ibid
14. Milne; Agence France Presse, November 21, 2007
15. John Laughland, Travesty: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice, Pluto Press, 2007, p. 66
16. RW Johnson, "Lost paradise of the big white chief", The Sunday Times, November 25, 2007
17. Quoted in Milne


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