A New Colonial Age of Empire?
by Lance Selfa
International Socialist Review, May-June 2002
After spending decades at the bottom of history's dustbin,
colonialism is back. The political right, feeling emboldened to
offer up its most hoary proposals to the rampaging Bush administration,
is making the case for a U.S.-run world empire. "Afghanistan
and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened
foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen
in jodhpurs and pith helmets," Max Boot, editorial features
editor for the Wall Street Journal, wrote in the Weekly Standard
a week after Bush's war in Afghanistan began last October. National
Review editor Richard Lowry joined the pro-imperial chorus with
a call to establish a U.S.-sponsored "protectorate"
over Iraq after U.S. troops oust Saddam Hussein's regime. Lowry
continued, "The entire effort would represent a return to
an enlightened paternalism toward the Third World, premised on
the idea that the Arabs have failed miserably at self-government
and need to start anew."
Another member of the neo-conservative opinion-making cabal,
Sebastian Mallaby, took to the more respectable pages of Foreign
Affairs to urge the U.S. to embrace empire:
Empires are not always planned. The original American colonies
began as the unintended byproduct of British religious strife.
The British political class was not so sure it wanted to rule
India, but commercial interests dragged it there anyway. The United
States today will be an even more reluctant imperialist. But a
new imperial moment has arrived, and by virtue of its power America
is bound to play the leading role. The question is not whether
the United States will seek to fill the void created by the demise
of European empires but whether it will acknowledge that this
is what it is doing. Only if Washington acknowledges this task
will its response be coherent.
Boot's call for a new American empire of "enlightened
foreign administration" sounds warm and fuzzy compared to
the likes of Paul Johnson. A British conservative who has found
in the U.S. neocon press a friendly forum for his pro-imperialist
ranting, Johnson has long advocated a return to colonialism. Following
the U.S. invasion of Somalia in 1992 he published a then-controversial
(and most thought wacky article called "Colonialism's Back.
And Not a Moment Too Soon") in the New York Times Magazine.
"The basic problem is obvious but is never publicly admitted:
some states are not yet fit to govern themselves. There is a moral
issue here: The civilized world has a mission to go out to these
desperate places and govern."
No doubt much of this pro-colonialist posturing reflects the
right-wing hubris to which the post-September 11 political climate
gave rise. But it's dear that at least some of these calls for
a new colonialism are finding their way into the U.S. State Department
and the British Foreign Office. The Bush administration has made
no secret of its desire to overthrow the Iraqi government-and,
possibly, other governments as well. U.S. troops are already occupying
Afghanistan, providing a bodyguard for the U.S.-backed puppet
government they installed. Obviously, the U.S. government has
no problem overriding the sovereignty of other nations and subjecting
them to its rule. This new colonialism supplies an ideological
justification for the "with us or with the terrorists"
New Colonial thinking has gone even farther in Tony Blair's
Foreign Office. Former Blair adviser Robert Cooper's "The
Post Modern State," an essay in a collection modestly titled
Reordering the World: The Long Term Implications of September
11th, called for a "new imperialism." Couched in the
rhetoric of liberal United Nations-speak and academic political
science, Cooper reveals his plans for an imperialism "acceptable
to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already
discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism,
aims to bring order and organization but which rests today on
the voluntary principle." Cooper distinguishes between the
"postmodern world," including the European Union, Canada,
Japan and possibly the U.S., and the premodern world of "failed
states" whose territory can become bases for "drug,
crime and terrorist" syndicates. Postmodern states cooperate
with each other. They don't go to war with each other. But they
have the right to "revert to 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" (So much for "voluntary"
imperialism!) Cooper holds up as examples of "voluntary imperialism"
the protectorates running Kosovo and Bosnia today. Somehow, he
neglects to mention that NATO wars imposed both of these "voluntary"
Cooper's "new" thinking is no mere academic exercise.
As Blair and Britain play loyal lapdog to Washington's warmakers,
the prospect for an aggressive Anglo-American imperialism grows.
The two countries already stand virtually alone in their support
for pummeling Iraq. "The prospect looms of Blair's passionate
moralism being seduced into making common cause with Bush's aggressive
pragmatism, in pursuit of a new doctrine of justifiable intervention
which has not been discussed anywhere outside these two countries,"
wrote an alarmed Hugo Young.
Back to the 19th Century?
As Western rulers seriously discuss a "new imperialism"
and a "return to colonialism," it's worth considering
just what they propose to revive. German academic Jurgen Osterhammel's
short study Colonialism defines its subject as:
...a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or
forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders.
The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized
people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit
of interests that are often defined in a distant I metropolis.
Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population,
the colonizers are convince of their own superiority and of the
ordained mandate to rule."
Colonialism and empire-building has a long and infamous history.
In the 3~ century, Roman Empire ruled virtually all of modern-day
Europe, North Africa and the Middle East with a legion of 300,000
soldiers. The Ching Dynasty and the Mongol Empire controlled the
lives of millions and ruled vast land masses in their heydays.
Modern colonialism accompanied the rise of capitalism in the 16th
century when Spain and Portugal established their dominion over
large parts of America. England implanted its first colonies in
Ireland and America in the 1 7'h century. The international slave
trade brought all the major imperial powers into the business
of exploiting and oppressing millions of non-Europeans.
Today's new imperialists take inspiration from the period
encompassing the last quarter of the 19th century through the
end of the First World War, the period British historian Eric
Hobsbawm called "The Age of Empire." The rapid subjugation
to European powers of huge parts of the world in a scramble for
colonies set this period aside from all others that came before
it. In 1876, Africans controlled almost 90 percent of African
territory. By 1900, Europeans controlled 90 percent of African
territory. During the same period, European control of Polynesia
increased from 56.8 percent to 98.9 percent. As the Russian revolutionary
Lenin explained the phenomenon, "The characteristic feature
of this period is the final partition of the globe-not in the
sense that a new partition is impossible... but in the sense that
the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed
the seizure of unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first
time, the world is completely shared out, so that in the future
only re-division is possible." For Lenin and his generation
of revolutionary Marxists, the scramble for colonies stemmed from
the drive of the leading capitalist powers for access to markets
and raw materials and for greater investment opportunities. As
"trade followed the flag," competition for colonies
and markets spilled over into military competition and conflict.
Lenin thus described the First World War of 1914-1918 as "a
war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition
of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital."
6 Lenin and the revolutionary socialists who stood firm against
their own governments' entry into the First World War called for
freedom to the colonies. Lenin wrote:
The prolerariat must demand freedom of political separation
for the colonies and nations oppressed by "their own"
nation. Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would
be nothing but empty words. . .Socialists must not only demand
the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without
compensation... they must also render determined support to the
more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements
for national liberation in these countries and assist their uprising.'
The rich and pioneering Marxist writings on imperialism and
the right of nations to self-determination are essential reading.
But they are beyond the scope of this essay. The important point
here is the absolute opposition to colonialism that revolutionary
socialists took during the "age of empire." We should
keep this attitude of contempt for colonialism in mind when we
read today's apologists for colonialism rewrite its history. Parroting
the apologists for colonialism in its heyday, today's new imperialists
would have us believe that 19'h century colonialism brought peace
and social development to the colonies. They accept at face value
the claims of European colonialists that a mission to "uplift
the backward races"- what imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling
called "the white man's burden"-motivated them.
The experience of colonialism was anything but benign. In
the 1880s, when Belgian King Leopold II seized Congo-a country
77 times the size of his own-he won a reputation in Europe as
a great humanitarian. He decreed the end of the slave trade in
the territory and declared his intention to bring "civilization"
to the indigenous people. Meanwhile, the king's armies were impressing
thousands of Congolese into forced labor (slavery by any other
name) on rubber plantations. The Belgians subjected the indigenous
people to the most horrific tortures and brutalities, ultimately
driving down the region's population by 10 million.
The imperial powers destroyed the societies they conquered.
Because they reorganized the colonial economies solely to serve
the "mother country's" capitalists, development of colonial
economies was distorted. Britain deliberately flooded the Indian
market with factory goods from Britain's factories, destroying
Indian handicraft industries like metalworking and cloth production.
At the same time, British imposition of cash relations and huge
land taxes on the Indian peasantry led to famines or food shortages
in 20 of the 49 years between 1860 and 1908. Before conquest,
India suffered a famine only once every 50 years. British authorities,
devotees to Malthusianism, let tens of millions starve to death
rather than provide them with relief that might dull their work
ethic. Lord Salisbury, British secretary of state for India, summed
up British policy pithily when he said, "India must be bled."
In the last quarter of the 19th century, as many as 61 million
people perished from famines in India, China and Brazil whose
root causes lay not in weather patterns, but in the colonial reengineering
of their societies. "What seemed from a metropolitan perspective
the nineteenth century's final blaze of imperial glory was, from
an Asian and African viewpoint, only the hideous light of a giant
Conquest and maintenance of colonial rule entailed mass slaughter
(what Kipling called "savage wars of peace"). In a forerunner
of today's U.S.-led "casualty free" wars, British troops
with automatic weapons lost 49 soldiers while killing 11,000 Sudanese
in the 1898 battle of Ombdurman. Germany organized genocide against
the Herero and Nama peoples of South West Africa (today's Namibia)
in 19041907, purposely setting out to exterminate them. The 18981902
U.S. war to subjugate the Philippines slaughtered more than 1
million people. U.S. forces fought Filipino guerrillas and employed
all the techniques of "pacification" later used in Vietnam:
concentration camps, crop destruction, scorched earth and biological
warfare. "They never rebel in Luzon anymore," said a
U.S. congressman, "because there isn't anybody left to rebel."
What of colonial education and social reforms, the colonialists'
best advertisements for their self-proclaimed civilizing mission?
Perhaps it goes without saying that colonial education systems
aimed only to train a small elite in the colonial populations
for work in the colonial bureaucracy. The colonizers viewed the
majority of the colonized population as cheap labor for whom literacy
skills were a luxury. Colonial regimes in early 20'h century Africa
spent less than 5 percent of tax receipts on education. In Portugal's
African colonies, African children bore only a 1 in 100 chance
of receiving schooling past the 3'd grade. The Belgian government
and the Catholic Church that controlled education in Congo did
not believe that Congolese had the capacity to handle education
beyond the primary level. Only in 1948 did a Belgian commission
advise creating high schools for Africans. On the eve of Congo's
independence in 1960, there were only 16 Congolese high school
graduates out of a population of 13 million!
Colonialism, like the slave trade that it ushered in, was
one of the great crimes against humanity in history. Anyone committed
to democracy, equality, and freedom should celebrate the defeat
of colonialism, not mourn its passing. In fact, the death of colonialism
and the creation of independent nations in Africa, Asia and most
recently in Central and Eastern Europe is one of the 20th century's
Decolonization: political and ideological retreat
As it turned out, the period of the "new imperialism"
notched colonialism's high water mark. As the classical Marxists
contended, the imperialist carve-up of the globe opened the way
for military conflict between the great powers. In the aftermath
of both World Wars, colonial empires collapsed-and fell to national
liberation movements. After the Second World War, "Western
capitalism entered a phase of unprecedented growth at the same
time as it dismantled its different empires.... decolonization
was conceded because the metropolitan powers were less dependent
upon their colonies, not more. The price of retaining empire steadily
exceeded the returns on empire."
Of course, the end of colonialism didn't mean the end of imperialism.
The world powers relied on "free trade," multinational
corporations and foreign direct investment to exploit the resources
and labor power of the Third World of independent states. This
was especially the case With the U.S., which-despite its late
1800s/early 1900s seizure of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines
and Guam-had always opted for the more indirect "neo-colonial"
model of domination than the European powers. In this model, the
U.S. eschewed direct political administration over a far-flung
empire of colonies in favor of penetrating their economies and
societies with U.S. trade and investment. Instead of governing
through U.S. pro-consuls and large American garrisons, the U.S.
relied on local dictators and militaries to uphold its interests.
No one doubted that postwar Latin America was the neo-colonial
"backyard" of the U.S., even though most of its countries
maintained their formal political independence won from Spain
in the 1800s.'
The post Second World War retreat of colonialism set its ideological
defenders on the run. Racism and imperialism found their most
hideous manifestations in the Third Reich and the Japan-ruled
"Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere." It became impossible to
extol the virtues of colonialism, especially for those who claimed
to fight the Second World War for democracy and the Four Freedoms.
More importantly, the upsurge of national liberation movements
(in India, Indonesia, Congo, Ghana, etc.) demonstrated to elite
opinion that Third World people were not merely objects of history,
but history makers. Frank Furedi shows how these factors forced
colonialism's defenders to rewrite history by "minimizing
the destructive role of imperialism." As more former colonies
won their independence, the ideological target shifted. Denunciations
of newly independent states as "pro-Soviet", corrupt,
ungovernable and descriptions of leading nationalists as a succession
of "new Hitlers" (from Nasser to Saddam Hussein) replaced
futile attempts to defend colonialism. As Furedi explained, "the
suggestion seemed to be that the credibility of the West depended
on discrediting the societies of the Third World. The underlying
conviction was that through criminalizing the Third World the
West could morally rehabilitate itself."
If so many of the countries that gained their independence
in the last half-century suffer mass poverty, social breakdown
and dictatorial government, it's not because they "weren't
ready" for independence. It's because they exist in a world
economic order rigged against them from the start. The distorting
impacts of hundreds of years of colonialism on their economic,
social and educational systems can't be ignored. The continued
dependence of a large number of underdeveloped countries on commodity
exports make them vulnerable to collapsing world market prices.
The latter-day "dept cops" of the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank squeeze billions from desperately poor
countries to line the coffers of the world's leading bankers.
And imperialist maneuvering through the Cold War and beyond have
turned whole countries into exhibit halls for the global arms
The current Western obsession with "failed states"
reflects an imperialist attempt to absolve itself from creating
these disasters. Somalia fell into lawlessness after U.S.-backed
Siad Barre dictatorship collapsed in 1989. For two decades before,
the rival Cold War superpowers had treated the country as a political
football. They fueled its war with Ethiopia, and armed Siad Barre
as his regime killed 12 percent of the population and forced almost
one-quarter of its population into exile. Afghanistan's state
and society collapsed after more than 20 years of USSR military
occupation, U.S.-backed "jihad," and civil war. Massive
debt to the International Monetary Fund and Western banks impelled
the 1980s economic crisis that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia
and its descent into nationalist barbarism. Bangkok Post journalist
Martin Khor correctly explains the blame-the-victim theory of
True, a large part of the blame must be placed on the political,
commercial and intellectual elites of these countries. But the
failure can also be attributed to factors largely beyond the countries'
control, such as falling commodity export prices, the debt burden
and inadequate aid and technology transfer.
The expanded theory of the 'failed state' not only puts the
blame onto the country concerted, but opens the way to political
and even military intervention in many countries-countries that
are suspected to sponsor or tolerate 'terrorism,' and countries
that are unable to development sufficiently or in a way that would
prevent the conditions for 'terrorism.'
Humanitarian Intervention: The New White Man's Burden
Today U.S. officials speak openly and unapologetically about
intervening in countries around the world. This is quite a shift
from the early 1970s, when the U.S. defeat in Vietnam made politicians
and generals reluctant to commit U.S. forces to military adventures
around the world. Hawks in the U.S. military establishment mounted
a decades-long drive to rehabilitate militarism and to overcome
the Vietnam syndrome. During the Cold War, the traditional rationale
of fighting "communism" in Nicaragua or Afghanistan
justified U.S. intervention. As the Cold War ended, another rationale
emerged-policing the "New World Order" against so-called
"rogue states." The Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 provided
the proving ground for this new imperialist ideology. But perhaps
no rationale for imperialist intervention has been more successful
than the ideology of "humanitarian intervention." The
rise of "humanitarian intervention" coincided with the
end of the Cold War, when unparalleled U.S. military power was
seeking new justifications for its use.
The last Bush administration and its Joint Chiefs of Staff
Chairman Colin Powell staked out this ideological territory with
Operation Restore Hope, the euphemistic title for their 1992 invasion
of Somalia. But what Poppa Bush and Powell started haltingly,
liberals turned into a full-fledged case for Western intervention
to prevent humanitarian disasters in a number of countries-from
Somalia to Haiti to the Balkans. With the threat of military intervention
escalating into superpower confrontation removed, the U.S. felt
less constrained about intervening in countries across the world.
The Clinton administration dispatched U.S. troops into hostile
situations more than the previous three U.S. administrations combined.
And the political instability left over from the collapse of the
bipolar Cold War world invited a huge expansion of United Nations
sponsored "peacekeeping," with nearly 40 such operations
authorized in the 1990s alone. This new interventionism also coincided
with the rise to power in the main Western countries of the center-left
governments (e.g., Clinton, Blair, Schroder) adept at using moralistic
rhetoric, laced with references to human rights, to cloak their
Another key factor was the increased influence of non-governmental
organizations, increasingly collaborating with leading Western
governments, to drum up support for intervention on the grounds
that "something must be done" to help civilians in crisis
spots. The test case for this kind of intervention was the U.S.-led
Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1992. Two leading human rights
advocates described the close relationship that developed between
famine-relief NGOs and the Pentagon:
The extremely close relations between the United States military
and some of the United States relief agencies, particularly CARE
and the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps, has worried
Somalis and a number of foreign observers. During the two decades
when Mohammed Siad Barre laid Somalia to waste, the relief groups
kept silent, arguing they could not "meddle" in politics.
Now, without consulting Somalis, hey prompted and then welcomed
a foreign invasion. Many Somalis are asking whether the American
relief agencies are the representatives of the "humanitarian
international," or the vanguard of the United States military.
Today, the Somalia invasion, memorialized in the film "Black
Hawk Down," is remembered as a failure. But in its initial
stages, the Wall Street Journal hailed it for restoring the U.S.
military's "moral credibility." The Journal added, "There
is a word for this: colonialism." The Somalia invasion provided
a template for the U.S. and its European allies to justify unilateral
intervention in Bosnia (to set up "safe havens") and
in Kosovo (to justify the 1999 war). Taking a page from the Kosovo
playbook, U.S. forces adopted a "bomb them with butter"
strategy in Afghanistan-until media sources revealed that the
cluster bombs the U.S. dropped could be easily mistaken for food
packets. Despite this blatant Pentagon attempt at "humanitarian''
propaganda, only a courageous few famine-relief and refugee-aid
NGOs criticized it. Most remained silent.
This magazine has devoted many articles to exposing the underlying
geopolitical aims of these apparently "humanitarian"
endeavors. I won't repeat them here. But even neoconservative
ideologues grudgingly acknowledge the liberals' trailblazing role.
Boot, for example, urges action "for the good of the natives,'
a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may
be taken more seriously after the left's conversion (or rather,
reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of 'humanitarian' interventions."
Of course, the liberal champions of humanitarian intervention
don't call what they advocate "colonialism." Rather,
they invent euphemisms like "the responsibility to protect,"
the term of choice for a Canadian government-appointed International
Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) that
drew up procedures the "international community" might
invoke to intervene to prevent genocide or other human rights
abuses. The ICISS's report, released in December 2001, attempts
to enunciate a new definition of state "sovereignty"
(i.e. the right of a state to control affairs within its borders):
...sovereignty implies a dual responsibility: externally-to
respect the sovereignty of other states, and internally, to respect
the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.
In international human rights covenants, in UN practice, and in
state practice itself, sovereignty is now understood as embracing
this dual responsibility. Sovereignty as responsibility has become
the minimum content of good international citizenship.
This kind of rhetoric has a lofty-sounding appeal intended
to warm the hearts of liberals everywhere. But when one takes
it from the realm of rhetoric into the realm of reality, a few
obvious questions come up. The ICISS views state sovereignty on
a sliding scale, so that states that violate the human rights
of their citizens forfeit their right to be free from intervention-
even military intervention-from other states. But how would this
work in reality? With a few powerful states dominating the world,
can there be any doubt that they will determine whose human rights
abuses will be punished and whose will be excused? Noam Chomsky
shows that U.S.-allied regimes regularly commit atrocities as
bad as or worse than the ones NATO's war was supposed to stop
in Kosovo. Stacks of United Nations resolutions condemn Israel's
atrocities against the Palestinians. But there will be no "humanitarian
intervention" against Israel as long as the U.S. can veto
it. What is more, can anyone seriously accept the idea that the
most powerful nations in the world will agree to be held to the
same standards that they hold the rest of the world? In 1994,
the United States invaded Haiti, deposed its government and reinstalled
President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Yet the idea, say, of Haiti
invading the U.S. in defense of Haitian Americans robbed of their
vote in Florida in the 2000 presidential election exists only
in the realm of fantasy. Yet "humanitarian intervention"
continues to have a powerful appeal. Even as harsh a critic of
U.S. foreign policy as British journalist Robert Fisk accepts
this rationale. Fisk, who regularly denounces Israel's invasion
of the Occupied Territories as "the last colonial war,"
recently urged the West to
... close down the Middle East war. With Russian and EU and
UN support, there will, eventually, be American and NATO troops
in Jerusalem. There will be a Western protection force in the
West Bank and Gaza - and in Israel. The Israeli and Palestinian
armies will have to return to barracks. Jerusalem will be an international
city. The Palestinians will have security. So will the Israelis.
Yes, it will be a form of international colonialism. Yes,
it will mean foreign occupation for both sides. But it will put
an end to this filthy war.
Conservatives have merely taken these "humanitarian"
justifications for intervention and attached the "war on
terrorism" to them. Consider this recent statement from Richard
Haass, the State Department's number two man, representing the
most conservative administration in decades:
What you're seeing from this administration is the emergence
of a new principle or body of ideas. I'm not sure it constitutes
a doctrine [on] sovereignty. Sovereignty entails obligations.
One is not to massacre your own people. Another is not to support
terrorism in any way. If a government fails to meet these obligations,
then it forfeits some of the normal advantages of sovereignty,
including the right to be left alone inside your own territory.
Other governments, including the United Stares, gain the right
to intervene. In the case of terrorism, this can even lead to
a right of preventive, or peremptory self-defense. You essentially
can act in anticipation if you have grounds to think it's a question
of when, and not if, you're going to be attacked."
If the liberal ICISS can justify intervention against genocide,
then conservatives can argue that invading and occupying Iraq
will prevent Saddam Hussein from committing genocide with its
weapons of mass destruction.
Bosnia and Kosovo
Whatever the rhetorical justification, the end result is the
same: the forcible (and usually uninvited) entry of Western military
forces into a weaker country, the deposing of its government,
and the setting up of a Western-backed caretaker regime. The difference
between these imperial ventures and their 1 9th century cousins
is one of degree, not of kind. A look at the regimes currently
running the Western protectorates in Bosnia and Kosovo proves
The Bosnian statelet, a forced marriage of the Bosnian Serb
Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation, formed under the aegis
of the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the Bosnian civil war. Under
the occupation of 35,000 NATO troops and another army of United
Nations and NGO "nation building" specialists, the statelet
remains a ward of the "international community." A UN-appointed
High Representative, currently the American diplomat Jacques Klein,
runs the statelet as a dictator who can decide when local elections
happen, who can participate in them, and what the media will say
about them. In 1999, Klein's predecessor, Carlos Westendorp, unilaterally
fired Nikola Poplasen, the Bosnian Serb president chosen in Western-run
"free" elections. Poplasen's crime? Criticizing the
Dayton Accords. The Office of High Representative (OHR) can impose
legislation on the two ethnically dominated enclaves. Westendorp
went so far as to decide on the statelet's flag design and the
content of its school textbooks. By 1999, employees of the massive
foreign bureaucracy accounted for one-third of the area's gross
The Western nation builders feel their high-handedness is
justified because they're preventing a renewal of civil war and
ethnic cleansing. In one sense they're right, because that is
the way they set up the colony. The Dayton Accords' dirty secret
is that the military occupation enforces a partition between the
national groups. This partition, then, reinforces nationalist
politicians and ethnic economic mafias' control over each ethnic
enclave. These mafias have no interest in helping war refugees
return to their original homes in ethically mixed regions. Instead,
they encourage the resettlement of their "own" ethnicity
inside their ethnic enclaves and intimidate refugees from other
ethnicities to flee to other enclaves. "The leaders of the
nationalist parties have themselves pocketed large amounts of
aid money, while ordinary workers go homeless and jobless by the
thousands." The NATO military occupation may have put a lid
on the military conflict, but it is setting back any hope for
the people of the region to determine their own destiny. That's
all right with Western colonial administrators- and their cheerleaders
in the Western liberal media-because they assume the people of
the region are "ill at ease with the most basic principles
of democracy," as the OHR once put it. "Once the capacity
of the Bosnian people as rational political actors is negated,"
writes one of the protectorate's chief critics, "there is
no reason, in principle for international administration to be
seen as merely temporary or transitional, nor for democracy to
be seen as preferable."
NATO-occupied Kosovo has in many ways replicated the Bosnian
experience. More than 40,000 NATO troops patrol the province.
Nevertheless, NATO stood by while Albanian extremists harassed
and murdered ethnic Serbs. As a result, almost all Serbs who lived
in the Kosovo have fled to Serbia or live in a northern Kosovo
enclave effectively partitioned from the rest of the province
by Western troops. Thousands of UN and NGO nation builders provide
the only stable source of employment in the province. Because
the only major economic activity flows from NGO-dominated Pristina,
the capital's population has doubled since the war. This has placed
great strain on all public services and led to an epidemic of
corruption in house construction permits. An estimated 10,000
people are squatting in empty government buildings. While thousands
of Kosovars remain homeless, the U.S. military finished building
its permanent Camp Bondsteel headquarters in 2000. Instead of
addressing these crises, the UN Administrative Mission in Kosovo
(UNMIK) is readying a massive privatization program that will
make economic life for ordinary Kosovars-who already face a 50
percent unemployment rate-even more difficult.
Elections in February 2002 produced the hoped-for "moderate"
parliament, but UN High Representative Michael Steiner intervened
heavily to win the necessary two-thirds parliamentary vote to
make moderate nationalist Ibrahim Rugova Kosovo's president. Just
what Rugova's government can accomplish is anyone's guess, as
Steiner remains the ultimate decision-maker in the province. The
Kosovo government cannot declare independence from Serbia because
NATO and the UN oppose it. The government has no control over
the defense, interior, justice or foreign affairs ministries-all
of which Western officials occupy. At the same time, the Serb
minority in Kosovo distrusts the UN/NATO colonial regime, which
they see rightly as favoring the Kosovar Albanians. Serb nationalists
in Mitrovica attacked UN forces in April 2002, leading to fears
of an increase in ethnic conflict there. As the UN and NATO attempt
to maintain an unsustainable status quo, the Kosovo colony will
lurch from crisis to crisis. And the "international community's"
occupation will extend far into the future.
The experience with colonialism in Bosnia and Kosovo is hardly
the success its proponents advertise. "These colonial administrations
deny self-determination to the people they are supposed to be
helping. Rather than helping the oppressed "get on their
feet," they have evolved into permanent occupations. As in
all colonial administrations, the colonizers' needs for "stability"
and investment trump the social needs of the colonized population.
These protectorates remain a throwback to an earlier era of League
of Nations mandates and UN trusteeships. Ironically, they became
a model for a new colonialism during the 1990s, the decade the
UN declared the "International Decade for the Eradication
Colonialism of a different type?
So far, colonial administrations have been confined to discreet
global "hot spots" where interventionists made the case
on "humanitarian" grounds. But now that colonialism
has been rehabilitated in humanitarian clothes, its proponents
will have no scruples about extending it wherever they can impose
it. The Bush administration openly talks of overthrowing governments,
such as Iraq's, without any "humanitarian" pretext.
After charging the government of Afghanistan with "harboring
terrorists," it invaded, killed thousands of Afghanis and
overthrew the Taliban regime. A shaky colonial protectorate in
Afghanistan is emerging from the ruins of the war. The U.S. dearly
hopes to replace the "failed state" that played host
to Al Quaeda with a pro-U.S. government eager to sign natural
gas pipeline deals with Western petrochemical companies.
Because the definition of a "failed state" deserving
of colonial rule remains elastic in the hands of the Bushs and
Blairs of the world, it can be used to justify intervention in
virtually any state the U.S. opposes. The U.S. military moved
to step up its intervention in Colombia in 1999 after the U.S.
national security apparatus began describing the country as undergoing
"Balkanization" and "the eventuality of a total
collapse of the Colombian state.'' The Bangkok Post's Khor recounted
his shock at hearing a "senior official'' appearing at a
conference on "global governance" describe evolving
thinking in the U.S.:
... [W]hat was really frightening was when the senior official
elaborated that the definition of "failed states" was
not confined to the countries that had already been often accused
of being 'terrorist,' such as Iraq, North Korea or those in a
state of anarchy like Somalia.
The 'failed states' would include countries such as Iran,
Egypt and Nigeria, which are unable to provide jobs, education
and development for their own people.
. . . Many if not most, developing countries, can be categorized
as having failed to generate growth or development of the type
or rate to satisfy the basic food, employment, housing and education
needs of the majority of people.
Boot lists Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia,
Iraq, Palestine, Iran and Pakistan ("the same lands where
generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns")
as the most likely targets for a U.S-led new colonialism. It's
no coincidence that most of these places have some relation to
the oil-rich Middle East and Caspian Sea regions.
Unlike 19th century India or Congo, Bosnia and Kosovo have
little economic value to their colonial masters. The U.S. intervened
in Bosnia and Kosovo to enforce "stability" that would
protect Western Europe's economy and sustain the Western incorporation
of chunks of the USSR's former empire. This geopolitical urge
to empire is most likely paramount in U.S. plans. In an amazingly
candid article, right-wing Harvard military analyst Stephen Peter
Rosen explained this imperial logic.
A political unit has overwhelming superiority in military
power, and uses that power to influence the internal behavior
of other states, is called an empire. Because the United States
does not seek to control territory or govern the overseas citizens
of the empire, we are an indirect empire, to be sure, but an empire
nonetheless. If this is correct, our goal is not combating a rival
[i.e. as in the Cold War-LS], but maintaining our imperial position,
and maintaining imperial order.
....Now we are in the business of bringing down hostile governments
and creating governments favorable to us. Conventional international
wars end and troops are brought back home. Imperial wars end,
but imperial garrisons must be left in place for decades to ensure
order and stability. This is, in fact, what we are beginning to
see, first in the Balkans and now in Central Asia.
This mean economic exploitation of colonies isn't only a thing
of the past. When imperialist ideologues start talking about colonial
administrations in oil- and gas-rich regions their analogies to
the British Raj don't sound like rhetorical excess anymore. Bush's
vaunted energy plan assumes greater U.S. dependence on overseas
sources of oil and gas in the 21st century. Foreign affairs analyst
Michael Klare draws out the implications: The United States cannot
increase its intake of foreign oil by 50 percent, as called for
under the Bush energy plan, without involving itself in the political,
economic, and military affairs of the states from which all this
petroleum is expected to flow. This involvement may take the financial
and diplomatic forms in most cases, but will also often entail
military action." If this accurately describes the future
of U.S. policy, then the new colonialism will take on aspects
of the old colonialism.
Yet there is still quite a distance to be traveled between
right-wing ideologues' hankering for the "glories" of
the British Raj and Washington's direct rule over countries around
the world. At present, the arguments for new colonialism seem
calculated to supply a transcendent ideological purpose to the
Bush administration's grab bag of warmongering policies. The new
colonialism or Cooper's "new imperialism" may be little
more than publicists' briefs for the naked use of U.S. military
might to target U.S. enemies ("rogue states") and to
overthrow their governments ("regime change").
What of the other key component of the old colonialism: the
scramble for colonies among major world powers opening the way
to war between them? Certainly talk of war and preparations for
war are the order of today. But it will be some time before a
clear military conflict between the major powers emerges. Nevertheless,
our early 21st century vantage point shouldn't blind us to the
possibilities. The projection of U.S. power into Central Asia
under the cover of the "war on terrorism" makes the
U.S. a major player in that region of conflict over the area's
oil and gas. War and peace in the region will hinge on the relations
between emerging (India, Iran, Turkey) and major (Russia, China,
U.S.) powers. "Small" wars between the main powers (the
Russo-Japanese War of 1905) and their proxies (the Balkan Wars
of the 1910s) preceded-and stoked-the all-out dash of titans in
the First World War.
For decades, many on the left dismissed talk of "imperialism"
and "colonialism" as Marxist jargon of yesteryear. But
today's new colonialists confidently declare themselves imperialists
and colonialists. They are looking to prepare the ideological
ground for a vast expansion of U.S. and Western power around the
world-and for the wars that will enforce it. They believe that
the unassailed position of the U.S. as the world's only military
superpower affords them the opportunity to win back much of what
they lost to national liberation struggles and anti-imperialist
movements in Western metropoles. A left that rejects this return
to the 19th century must proudly take up the banner of anti-imperialism
and champion self-determination for all the world's oppressed
Lance Selfa is the editor of the forthcoming book, The Struggle
for Palestine, and a regular contributor to the International