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Imperialism: it’s just a dirty word these days

Imperialism: it’s just a dirty word these days

Addendum: Here’s an interesting postscript to this article. If anyone’s been following the latest efforts in Texas to re-write the history books, in a not-too-subtle attempt to impose a conservative slant on history, you may be interested to know that imperialism is also on the chopping board. As far as the US is concerned, it wasn’t imperialism at all. It was “expansionism” (see point 7). Oh, and those Soviets, they practiced “aggression”. There’s something incredibly Orwellian about all of this.

What makes it acceptable for one country to choose the destiny of another?

The UN Charter, ratified in 1945, highlights the importance of “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”. Similarly, the UN Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 is littered with references to self-determination that make it clear that it is a fundamental human right of all people.

And yet, reading back over history since World War II, there is example after example of countries interfering with the destiny of another. John Pilger, in his 2003 documentary “Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror” conducted a memorable interview with William Kristol, an American neoconservative who is a frequent commentator on Fox News Channel. Kristol defended the USA’s record in intervening other countries, stating that the main problem had been that the US had become involved too late, rather than too frequently. He then continued by insisting that the number of “decent” countries that the US had intervened in was very small.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The US have been involved in 72 interventions since World War II.

What is even more troubling is the rhetoric that world leaders currently use to dress up what waspreviously outright stated as imperialism. Compare what George Kennan, US advisor and diplomat stated in 1948:

“We have 50 per cent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of it’s population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period…is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality…we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation”

To his credit, Kennan later believed that his influence had been misconstrued, and that the US should withdraw the “tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment”.

These days, political leaders are not as candid as Kennan. They use juxtapositions of “good” and “evil”, and “civilised” and “uncivilised” to justify involvement in other countries. Tony Blair, a man whose reputation seems to be crumbling as quickly as polar ice caps, was renowned for claiming that there was a “moral case” for going to war, but it is now clear that these high and mighty aspirations concealed other, decidedly greedy, aspirations.

Our own Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, uses the fear-provoking imagery of Afghanistan as a terrorist training ground in order to justify Australia’s backing of a US intervention. It is a shame that the word “terrorist” tends to conjure up images of bearded Islamic radicals when used by Western leaders and media, when in fact one of the most successful and prominent terrorist organisations is the CIA itself.

As development workers, what are we to make of all this?

Again, it has to come back to human rights. The UN International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 clearly stated that the basis for human rights is dignity. If we treat our fellow human beings with dignity, then it is morally impossible to subjugate them to imperialism, however it is dressed up.

Just as importantly, we need to be perceptive to the terms that leaders use to justify their actions. Coming from a human rights perspective means that we are able to recognise the inalienable right of dignity, which allows all people to determine their own future, regardless of whether it is in our country’s interests or not.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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4 thoughts on “Imperialism: it’s just a dirty word these days

  1. Weh Yeoh

    I think in an ideal world, these two interests wouldn’t conflict with each other, but the reality is, we don’t live in an ideal world. Nations would be interested in bettering the living situations of their fellow humans simply because that was the right thing to do. It’s a shame that we need to convince people that it is in our own country’s best interests to simply help others.
    I think another important factor to consider is the relative worth of a human life. Look at the War on Terror for example. How many Afghani civilian lives have been lost since the US’s response to 9/11? And how many American lives were lost during 9/11? It just doesn’t add up. At the crux of these decisions is the notion that a white, American life is inherently worth more than an Arab one.
    Imperialism is far from dead, it’s just been dressed up in other terms.

  2. Brendan Rigby

    I agree. Imperialism is just the word that encapsulates notions of ‘just wars’, superiority, inequality, coercion and an overall lack of respect for people’s dignity and choices. I think we can get beyond ideological arguements and deadlocks, with certain perspectives adopting ammunition such as ‘imperialism’ and others ‘socialism’, and look further up at the landscape from a geopolitical perspective – which offers rational explanations for nation’s actions in terms of making decisions which are conditioned and restrained by reality. If we look at Australia’s position in the region and in the world, and try to define what the government’s strategic aims are, we can perhaps start to rationally understand policy decisions. Despite increases in aid allocation to the African continent, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are still the largest recipients of AusAID ODA. Both nations are geographically positioned as buffer zones to Australia’s north, which have been threatened and occupied in the recent past by Japan, who according to George Friedman, will be looking agressively abroad to secure natural resources. It is strategically significant for Australia to secure Both Indonesia and PNG as buffer zones and trade routes through aid and trade (and to a lesser extent the Pacific nations).

    Is it possible to reconcile geopolitical interests with human rights and human development?

  3. Sam Porter

    Imperialism is certainly alive and kicking all over the world, not least of all in Australia. Whilst most people would strongly deny that our actions in the Pacific can be compared to the US in Afghanisatan and Iraq, a close examination reveals the similarities. Whether it is by foreign or trade policies, the power wielded by private enterprise (most notably resource and real estate companies) and the substantial AusAid budget, Australia exercises vast control over our geographic neighbourhood. As Weh points out, we need to treat our fellow human beings with dignity and allow people and nations to determine their own future. Unfortunately, Australia’s current policies fall far short of these ideals.

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