March 25, 2003
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 mens 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
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
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
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 Europes 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 Harpers 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? Thats 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
to war is not isolation. It is not to render unto Hussein what is Husseins.
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 overlordand 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.