March 25, 2003

The authentic temptations of interventionism

I am going to take a bit of a detour into some of the substance of my current book-in-progress. The book started as a comparative study of the individual histories of three Zimbabwean chiefs, but it has slowly grown from that foundation into a set of essays on various aspects of modern African and imperial history seen through the lens of these three men’s lives.

One of the themes that crops up in several of the essays is my feeling that we need to revisit the moral and intellectual origins of British imperialism in Africa, to rediscover the extent to which the colonial governments the British established were built through improvisation and negotiation as well as military force and coercion.

When I started drifting in this direction with my work on this book, it was early in the year 2001, and I thought that the book would be relevant largely to audiences with a particular interest in Africa, or perhaps at best a wider audience of readers interested in the role of individuals and the nature of human agency in history.

In the past year, some of my thinking has developed an uncomfortable new relevance, in an unexpected direction. Many intellectuals, from many different perspectives, now assert that the United States has taken a huge step towards ruling a formal empire, one that more than a few commentators have likened to the British Empire as it stood just prior to the 1870s. Empire and imperialism are terms loosely used and abused by many. Virginia Postrel is right to be skeptical about the word, but only up to a point. Most centrally, empires have territorial holdings in places that they do not regard as being part of their own national sovereignity--and we appear to be on the brink of that.

This is a good time to revisit the 19th Century establishment of the modern British Empire, not to for the purpose of taking cheap shots at the Iraq War via analogy but so that we can understand the authentic appeal of empire. We forget how fervently many people of goodwill and high moral character saw the spread of British power as something that would benefit all of humanity. The “civilizing mission”, for many, was not narrowly or viciously ethnocentric: it was to bring the common joys of peace to warring nations, to bring the benefits of trade and industrialization, to bring medicine and science, and even for some observers, to bring democratic values, though few Europeans saw those as pertaining to Africa or Asia in the near-term future.

Even among the most open-minded and radical thinkers of 19th Century Europe, this perception of imperialism as a progressive, emancipatory intervention in non-Western societies was checked by a fundamental, deep-seated racism. Whether this racism was a root cause or engine of imperial expansion or a parasitic accompaniment, it nevertheless had the effect of choking stillborn any possibility of imperialism as emancipation.

The historical consensus is that imperialism was not wrong merely because it was racist, but because it violated the sovereignity of innumerable peoples and cultures. This sounds like a simple claim, but it is a very complicated and important one, because sovereignity lost in this case was lost in certain respects forever. This was not a case of the simple occupation of territory and its eventual return. Much of the moral anger at colonialism and its aftermath has to do with the ways in which Europe’s expansion foreclosed the huge variety of divergent futures that non-Western societies had pointed towards before 1492, creating a human monoculture, a single condition of possibility.

This is where I think the genuine temptations of intervention present themselves. Sovereignity has become not just an important principle, but for many on the left has become the only moral value which they defend in international affairs, especially in reference to relations between the West and the developing world.

Thomas de Zengotita had a great article in Harper’s Magazine in January 2003 that argued that even those who claim to have turned their backs on the Enlightenment are profoundly dependent upon it any time they make a claim about social justice or politics, anytime they argue about how the world ought to be. Even the injunction to respect non-Western values and sovereignity over those values ultimately derives its ethical force from the Enlightenment.

When you defend sovereignity as the only moral principle in all the world, and say that all intrusions, forcible or otherwise, are wrong by their very nature, you ought at the same moment to deny yourself any and all judgements about the places and peoples you deem sovereign. If East is East and West is West, then the twain really must never meet, and humanity is sundered from itself, the globe inhabited by ten times ten thousand variants of the genus Homo. If you rise to sovereignity as the singular sacred principle, then human rights, civil liberties, democracy, and freedom are no more than local and parochial virtues.

And not even that. Because once sovereignity becomes an impermeable barrier to intervention, we have to ask, “Are nations the proper unit of sovereignity?” The answer is clearly no: peoples or “cultures”, in the ethnographic sense of the world, are what assert the most meaningful claims of sovereignity, of an inalienable right to difference. Meaning that from such a perspective imposing Roe vs. Wade as the law of the land on a town of Southern Baptists in Georgia is morally little different than invading Iraq with tanks: the difference is only in scale and method of imposition. The Constitution itself is then an imposition, as is any law which intrudes a larger political power onto the scene of some bounded, well-defined practice of everyday life in the name of enforcing a larger system of rights and obligations which the smaller community refuses.

We lose also the ability even to criticize forcible imperial interventions into other cultures or sovereignities because some cultures are demonstrably imperial by their "nature". If it is the culture of Islamic societies to convert other societies to Islam, by trade or by force, or the culture of early 21st Century America to bomb and invade, then who are we to criticize? That’s just their way, and in an ethical system that vaults respect for sovereignity to the supreme position of virtue, all ways have their own legitimacy, even violations of sovereignity committed in the name of cultural authenticity.

A journey through that hall of mirrors always brings us back to interventionism. We are all interventionists now. We should be able to spare a gentle thought or three for late 19th and early 20th Century British imperialists as a result.

The question of the 21st Century is not whether interventions should happen, but how they should happen. It is a question of method and result, not of yes or no.

The reflexive protection of sovereignity is what has led us to this bad moment, where a weak and evasive leader, George Bush, can pursue an utterly destructive method of intervention and command the loyalty of many people of good will because the alternative seems to be the hypocritical defense of a corrupt network of hollow national leaderships, and the betrayal of human emancipation. The United Nations is a broken institution because it claims to represent the world, but only truly represents the will of heads of state, many of whom do not represent their own people. The Zimbabwe which sits in the General Assembly is not Zimbabwe: it is Mugabe.

The alternative to war is not isolation. It is not to render unto Hussein what is Hussein’s. The alternative to George Bush is not the United Nations: they are both contemptible in the execution of their obligations to humanity.

The British Empire failed because not because it violated sovereignities, but because it was hypocritical in its mission to civilize. It killed and imprisoned and punished those who sought no more than to defend their legitimately different ways of life, using military force where dialogic suasion was the only moral strategy. It defined the parochial and local virtues of English society as the central values of civilization. Civilization is not tea and lawn bowling. The British Empire democratized at home and constructed new autocracies abroad. It promised the rule of law and respect for citizens and then made imperial subjects into permanent subjects denied legal recourse and forever condemned to servitude. It held forth the promise of rights and snatched them back the moment that men and women walked forward eagerly to claim them. It ruled without hope or interest in understanding its subjects, and dismissed the many genuine moments of connection that presented themselves as graspable possibilities.

We are already well down the road to similar failures. The United States Constitution wisely has as its first principle that the power of government must necessarily be constrained in order to secure the blessings of liberty. Where are the constraints now on American power abroad? There are none remaining. Is our judgement so unimpeachably correct, our government so godly, that we can be trusted with such a power? The Founding Fathers did not trust their own creation with that kind of untrammeled authority. The Declaration of Independence underscores that freedom comes from below, from the determination of a people, not as a grant or gift from an overlord—and it makes clear that all peoples everywhere have a right to be represented, that decisions should not be taken in their name without their willful assent.

If we are bringing democracy to the world, then let us bring democracy, and follow the best traditions and instincts of the United States. Intervention is a double-edged sword. If we act against sovereignities in the name of human rights, then we must be open to being acted against. If humanity as a whole rejects capital punishment as a fundamental violation of human rights, for example, then the United States has no business pursuing it--not if we want the right to intervene on behalf of human rights ourselves.

That is the crystalline moment where interventionism become immoral imperialism: when the pursuit of human emancipation is not a reciprocal obligation that binds the actor as well as the acted upon, when the honest pursuit of freedom everywhere curdles into cynical oppression.