By Daniel Vernet
Le Monde | Analysis
Thursday 24 April 2003
To understand the new American policy just demonstrated in Iraq, one is strongly tempted to plunge into those works which extol classical colonialism.
At random: in ``The Principles of Colonization and Colonial Legislation" (1927), Arthur Girault cites the speech ``On Colonial Duty" delivered in 1897 by a certain Mr. Gide (no relation to the famous writer).
There one reads: ``Colonization is not a question of profit, but a question of duty. Colonization is necessary because there is a moral obligation incumbent upon peoples, as upon individuals, to use the powers and advantages they have received from Providence for the general good of humanity. Colonization is necessary because colonization is numbered among those duties incumbent upon great nations which they may not escape without failing at their mission and without incurring a real moral downfall."
The same accents may be heard among George W. Bush and his neo-conservative animators. The messianic propagation of political and economic liberalism is among the duties of the greatest democratic power of the twenty-first century, and, like nineteenth century colonization, it aims toward ``the general good" of humanity.
Beyond this generalization, the differences outweigh the similarities. The nineteenth century powers, who transferred at least some of their rivalries to the colonized peoples, were primarily European, the United States participating in the formation of these empires only on their fringes.
After the Second World War, the Americans would, moreover, support anti-colonial movements, both for ideological reasons-peoples' right to self-determination- and strategic reasons-the loss of their overseas possessions signaled the definitive enfeeblement of the great European powers, especially of France and Great Britain.
Contemporary imperialism, of which Americans are the primary if not the sole practitioners, aims neither at the conquest of territories to be colonized -in the strict sense of the term-i.e. to be inhabited by colonists from the mother country, nor at the direct exploitation of natural resources. Globalization of the economy no longer requires direct political control of the periphery by the center.
This imperialism is essentially ideological. It aims at spreading democracy as the best form of political organization. American neo-conservatives are convinced that the development of democracy serves the security interests of the United States and international peace, because democratic nations are naturally less aggressive than authoritarian regimes.
This liberal imperialism is not entirely new. In recent history, its first manifestations date to the nineties. At the time of the war in Kosovo, Tony Blair defended the idea of a ``new internationalism" based on the defense of human rights. The British Prime Minister took up on this score by enlarging the right of humanitarian interference to make it a doctrine of the west's new left, which tried to regroup around Bill Clinton and European Social Democrats.
The American right was then still more self-absorbed. What difference did it make what kind of regimes were in power as long as they were friends with the United States. This axiom was notably valid for the Middle East. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, it no longer guides George W. Bush's policy.
At a seminar in Granada last autumn organized by New York University, Arab students were already up in arms against the crusading spirit they detect in American policy post- September 11. They reject western "patronization" of the democratization of their countries, democratization for which a number of them have personally fought and been imprisoned. They warn against the perverse effects of a democratization imported from and invented elsewhere. They are outraged that Americans ``insist today on democracy in the Middle East as emphatically as they insisted on forgetting it for years".
Arab intellectuals were not the only ones to question the legitimacy of the premisses of liberal imperialism. At the same time, in an interview with the leftist weekly, ``The New Statesman", British Foreign Affairs Minister Jack Straw, acknowledged that in the Middle East, ``many problems we are dealing with today are a consequence of our colonial past. We, the British, designed the strange borders of Iraq... an interesting, but not necessarily honorable history", he concluded.
It would be simplistic, however, to stick a nineteenth century paradigm, even a 1920's one, onto today's American policies. George W. Bush's liberal imperialism is situated in a postmodern framework, well described a year ago by the British diplomat, Robert Cooper, while he was still a consultant to Tony Blair and before he became a colleague of Javier Solana, the Head of European Foreign Policy.
After reviewing the different forms of international organization since the empires, the Westphalian Order, and the division into two blocs until just after the Cold War, Robert Cooper characterized three types of nation: pre-modern nations, often former colonies, which have not succeeded in establishing internal order and are ravaged by internecine warfare; postmodern nations, which perceive their security neither in terms of conquest nor of relations of power, but which have accepted the transfer of a part of their sovereignty to supra-national bodies; and in-between the two: classic nations, which continue to think in terms of strictly national interest and reasons of state.
According to Robert Cooper, the best example of a postmodern structure is the European Union, a sort of ``cooperative empire" which organizes a space of common freedom and security without any ethnic group or a center dominating, as was the case in the classic empires. This postmodern imperialism is multilateral and is only expansionist to the extent it must assure the stability of its immediate neighborhood. However this expansionism is based on desire and the attractiveness of the model, not on constraint. This principle is illustrated by the enlargement of the European Union to incorporate the nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
The postmodern empire must, however, confront disturbances from pre-modern nations and challenges posed by classic nations. In his essay entitled, ``Restoring Order to the World; Long-term Implications of September 11" (Foreign Policy Center), Robert Cooper primarily studied Europe, but his reflections could be applied to the United States.
``The postmodern world", he wrote, ``must be ready to use the method of 'two weights, two measures': Among ourselves, we act according to the rule of law and the principles of cooperative security. However, faced with more traditional kinds of nation, we have to revert to the more brutal methods of the past- use of force, pre-emptive attacks, deception, all that may be necessary to confront those who still live in a nineteenth century world of every nation for itself. Among ourselves, we respect the law, but when we operate in the jungle, we need to apply the laws of the jungle."
Contemporary American Imperialism may be qualified as ``liberal": it aims at the installation of representative governments in law-based nations in conquered territories it does not intend to occupy on a permanent basis. Nevertheless, in other respects, it is more comparable to classical than to the ``postmodern" imperialism described by Robert Cooper.
Not satisfied to operate preemptively and willfully only against those who won't play the game, George W. Bush and his associates refuse to play the game with those nations which concentrate on establishing ``cooperative security" (rejection of the Kyoto agreement, of the International Criminal Court, of the Prohibition Against Chemical Weapons, or Against Anti-personnel mines, etc.). As if the status of hyper-power could not adapt itself to postmodernism.