Colonialism in the 21st Century
In modern history courses, it is implied the age of colonialism ended after the decolonization of Africa in the years after WW2. After the mass exploitation of indigenous persons, the destruction of their cultures, and the genocide of their peoples – the Western powers are sorry for what they’ve done, and they’ve shown their gratitude by leaving them to their own. The “White Man’s Burden” is over; we’ve changed.
But what do we make of the humanitarian wars and the imposed economic globalization through international institutions? Is this something to embrace, or is it rather neocolonialism “with a human face?”
If there is one thing we can learn from the tragedy of 19th and 20th century colonialism is that the interests are seldom explicitly stated. It is illustrated as the noblest of causes; it was the duty of ‘civilized’ to help those less fortunate and rid them of their immoral cultures. It is this relationship between the colony and the colonizers that is seemingly most dangerous, and established cultural hegemony [a term borrowed from Anton Gramsci’s writings] on those under occupation, making them disillusioned of what the future held. In of itself, this creates an atmosphere of implied prejudice and dependence that severely dismantles the cultural balance and solidarity among the peoples of that area. On a tangible level it strips them of their natural resources, impoverishing them, and leaving them to wallow in their suffering.
On the topic of the noble portrayal of colonialism – each Empire had their own distinct form of doublespeak used for garnering support. For the French and Portuguese it was the “civilizing mission,” all in effort to tame the ‘backward people’ in order to forcibly assimilate them into the social mores of the respective empire. For the Americans, and the British also, it was predominately the “White Man’s Burden” based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling which portrayed the imperialism as a noble enterprise and seemingly divinely sanctioned. For other empires, their reasons were almost explicitly nationalistic with little ‘noble’ justification. The German and Italian Empires both wanted their “place in the sun,” especially Germany after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s rise to power and his doctrine of Weltpolitk. The Japanese empire was the only non-western imperialistic power and they based their doctrine on anti-western ideals and nationalism; the foreign policy of the Shōwa period was dominated by the concept of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which attempted to create a domineering Japanese presence in Eastern Asia. It’s underlying motive was similar to that of the American ideology of “Manifest Destiny” and many Japanese felt it was self-evident they would expand after the many wars Japan engaged in, particularly with China and Russia.
Not surprisingly so, much of the language used during the apex of what I call ‘classical modern colonialism’ is still prevalent today, albeit in a different more obscure context. The public reasons for militarization and dominance have changed and the functions of a physical empire have exhausted their use; however, the motivations for a commercial one are still very present in policy – and the reasoning may very well be very much the same; It is the public admission that we’re “civilizing” them, but not with culture this time [as least not directly], but rather with “democracy” and “liberal capitalism.” This was the justification for American-backed coups d’état of the 20th century, to eliminate any threat to American hegemony on the global stage, which was then communism. It was driven by fear and perhaps even more fundamentally ‘American Exceptionalism’ of which is staple of any imperialistic power. The reality of the Iraq War, the United States’ current occupation of Afghanistan, and the drone strikes all over the Middle East only enforces that this concept is still very fresh in the minds of American policymakers. It seems Americans have already forgot the tragedy of Vietnam, which they swore they would never allow to happen again. Noam Chomsky described the danger of this anomaly as such:
“Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral & intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead..”
And in this respect, I cannot agree more. Historical amnesia and an ignorant public is always benefit to the policymakers – it is institutionalized ignorance and a product of exactly how the system was created to function in an effort to engineer a passive social order, and the assumed ‘benevolence’ of today’s major powers is only the tip of the iceberg sadly enough.
Aside from the United States, Western Europe is engaging in very similar neo-imperial activity to maintain at least some form of economic, political, or military control on the former colonies. France’s policy of Françafrique, which was once hailed to be a mutually beneficial relationship, is inherently exploitative. France’s supporting, and subtle funding, of resource-rich dictatorships such as that of the Democratic Republic of Congo [dictatorship until 1997] and Gabon [whose dictator died in 2009, but his son is now in power] are dissuading and rendering it near impossible for the native people there to establish their own system. This populist disconnect from policy and reality is a feature created by the former colonizers and was mostly promulgated during the Cold War, with the establishment of anti-Communist dictatorships, but is still very much a systemic staple of Western foreign policy today; all done in the name of safety, democracy, and ‘moral doctrines.‘
Although current French President Sarkozy has attempted to distance himself from Françafrique, it’s implications are still felt and still being pursued. France has been in more military operations in the past few years than it has been in the last 50; its intervention in its former colony Ivory Coast, its intervention in the Libyan Civil War (which it conducted before the emergency meeting of Western powers in Paris), its co-opting [with the U.S primarily] of the 2004 Haitian coup d’état of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, its troop deployment into the former French colony of Chad, and its military involvement in the Afghanistan War. All of these, claimed to be purely humanitarian wars, have much of the criteria of a neo-colonial mentality – and aims at establishing French (or Western) dominance in these regions of the world.
And perhaps equally commercially imperialistic is the World Bank and the WTO, where the World Bank gives loans to autocratic regimes in the Third World, only to see that money go to waste and then asking the WTO to demand repayments; which always comes in the form of severe cuts for programs necessary for those not in power. It is this dynamic that is exploitative and ultimately prevents these nations from ever reaching real global status, among other things.
Seemingly so, ignorance always benefits the state – and that certainly holds true in this case. The disillusionment of the public on foreign policy is rather frightening, and the imperial trends will continue to be cyclic and unbroken until it is realized. I take an anti-imperialist stance from an ethical, philosophical, and morally-pragmatic perspective; because the self-determination of peoples in realizing their own destinies cannot be undermined, no matter how elusively humble the cause or how great the safety that is promised thereafter.