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Faux Internationalism and Really Existing Imperialism

Ellen Brun, a researcher on development issues and international relations, is a longtime activist on the Danish left. Jacques Hersh is professor emeritus of Aalborg University, Denmark and former head of its Research Center on Development and International Relations. They have worked together for many years.

If truth is the first casualty of war, military intervention in the name of humanitarian ideals should likewise be the subject of skepticism. Such an approach is called for as the discourse of the Responsibility to Protect civilian populations is becoming a doctrinal principle in the West’s foreign policy toolbox. The notion that these big powers have the right to intervene in other (weak) countries’ internal affairs threatens to transform the foundation, if not the praxis, of international law.

Simultaneously, the ideology of “humanitarian interventionism,” which stands almost uncontested, can be interpreted as legitimizing a hidden political agenda. It has the potential of blurring existing ideological and political differences between neoconservatives, liberal internationalists in the United States and Europe, and a large section of left-wing forces around the world. All these currents have found common grounds in vindicating NATO’s military violations of the principle of national sovereignty. Seen in retrospect the process began with the Cold War’s end and its promised “peace dividend.”

According to Walden Bello, the precedent of the Western intervention in the Yugoslavian conflict without regard to that country’s sovereignty provided the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan; in turn, these two interventions served to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and NATO’s war in Libya. The regime change in the latter case is being turned into a benchmark for future “humanitarian” interventions by the “international community” with Syria next on the list. Removal of the Ba’ath Party from power would make the Middle East free of Arab nationalist regimes and add to the pressure on Iran and last, but not least, enhance the regional position of Israel.

In this connection, the role of the transnational mass media (in alliance with politically motivated human rights organizations) in the mobilization of public opinion for the principle and practice of interventionism should not be underestimated. It was on the basis of an intense media campaign in support of the Western-sponsored Libyan League for Human Rights that the case found its way to the UN Security Council. In this respect, the role of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera news network was of determining importance. Qatar is a key member of the pro-U.S. Gulf Cooperation Council encompassing repressive monarchies whose alliance with the West belies NATO’s professed concerns for human rights and democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The problem with the conceptual framework of humanitarian interventionism is related to its abstraction from geoeconomics and geopolitics as well as disregard for the disparity of power and influence in the world. Notwithstanding the appeal of this discourse, the international system is not a level playing field. In a world where “might makes right,” the acceptance of Responsibility to Protect as the norm in inter-state relations gives the hegemonic powers ideological legitimization for intervening in weaker countries against noncompliant regimes.

Historical experience shows that there are good reasons to doubt the prevalence of humanitarian concerns as the foreign policy motivation of most nation-states. Not the least of which is the tendency of the big powers to cloak their foreign policy behind high-sounding moralistic discourses. The mixing of humanism and war on the part of an imperialist power is, and remains, an oxymoron. “Humanitarian” bombing and occupation are not measures to further peace, and military destruction is neither environmentally friendly nor energy saving.

The Source of Post-Second World War U.S. Strategy

Only the gullible can believe that the United States maintains military bases in about 150 countries and a “defense” budget accounting for more than two-fifths of global military spending simply in order to sustain human rights, good governance, etc. in the world. Unless of course one believes that military Full Spectrum Dominance of the United States is the necessary cost for these goods.

A more realistic position to understand the unfolding of contemporary politics is to look beyond the discourses and contextualize the practice. The guiding lines for U.S. foreign policy were established in the immediate post-Second World War period some sixty years ago. It was in 1948, in the context of the beginning Cold War and the decolonization process, that the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, under the directorship of George Kennan, formulated what was to become the gist of U.S. international strategy. There is no evidence to indicate a deviation from the document’s recommendations in the practice of American foreign policy ever since. Still today, it is instructive to focus on its basic assumptions and strategic considerations as these shed light on the present attempt to remold the world in order to preserve American “exceptionalism”:

We have about 50 per cent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to maintain this disparity. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism. We should cease to talk about vague, unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we will have to deal in straight power concepts.1

The call for “realism” does not of course mean that the emphasis on humanitarian values cannot be used to serve the same strategic interests—that is, the preservation of the unequal distribution of world resources. As the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a country is based on the assumption that such actions are per definition earmarked for Third World nations, it is essential to take the structure of the world system into consideration. In this optic, the development of the ideology and practice of the West with regard to economic, political, and military interference in non-European regions of the world can be seen as the continuation of an age-old historical relationship.

The History of Western Interventionism and the Libya Case

Discarding the history of Western interventions based on the Right to Plunder, the present discourse and strategy based on the Responsibility to Protect is presented as a novelty, i.e. bringing morality in international politics. This is taken at face value by large sections of the Western left with some going as far as to criticize the proto-socialist and populist governments of Latin America for their support of the Qaddafi regime against the armed intervention of NATO in what very early became a civil war in Libya.

The position of variable anti-imperialism, taken by the humanitarian-interventionist left, leads to confusion and reductionism of international politics away from an understanding of the structural and institutionalized unequal access to and division of resources on the world scale. Given the hegemony of the humanitarian mindset, much of the left in Europe supported the NATO air war in Libya as a politically correct preemptive intervention to prevent an alleged potential massacre of civilians by the Qaddafi regime. The result was an absence of anti-war opposition in Europe and North America. In the words of Walden Bello, “the Libyan case will perhaps go down as one of the worst abuses of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.”

In this relation, it is interesting to note, although Al Jazeera pushed for the international intervention in Libya, Marwan Bishara, a senior analyst and editor at the network, confirmed that the collateral price was high. He wrote that before the start of the Western military support for the anti-Qaddafi forces, the estimated number of deaths had stood at about one or two thousand. But by the time of the defeat and murder of Qaddafi, tens of thousands of Libyans had lost their lives. He also noted that while some analysts have put the figure at 20,000, other estimates are double that number! In contrast, NATO did not suffer any casualties.

For students of international political economy and for progressives in general, there are many instructive aspects of this “humanitarian” intervention which are worth taking into consideration. Much has been written on the unity of purpose behind the leading Western nations’ decision to participate in the civil war on the side of the anti-Qaddafi forces. The impression is that the initiative came from European powers, principally France and Britain. This fitted rather well with the White House in Washington who was not keen on antagonizing the African-American community by launching a military conflict against an African-Arab country. However, according to President Obama, the United States had, in fact, from the very beginning been “leading from behind”!

Whatever the decision-making process itself, the question arises: Was NATO’s war in Libya, and the subsequent regime change, a new structural development in world politics? Has an emerging bloc of Western nations—supported and encouraged by the Arab League, acting in apparent unison, and without significant opposition from other power centers—brought about a presumed virtuous regime change in a Third World country?

In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2011, President Obama implied that the Libyan case could become the ideal type for future North-South relations: “This is how the international community is supposed to work—nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.” Put into other words, “the international community is supposed to work” by “kinetic” military actions consisting of air power, along with special forces and other covert operators on the ground, which assist a rebellion against a government that had come into Washington’s crosshair.

Even though, according to the president, the victory showed that “the will of the coalition proved unbreakable,” the war in fact had not been uncontested. China and Russia, members of the Security Council, did not veto Resolution 1973, but neither did they vote for it. Misgivings were expressed by countries such as the BRICS, the African Union, and the ALBA countries in Latin America. Even Germany was not enthusiastic about imposing a no-fly zone on Libyan forces.

At the end of the day, governments representing the majority of the world’s population dissented from NATO’s war on Libya. A fundamental fault line in international politics has emerged. Having acquiesced to the no-fly zone resolution by not applying their veto, the two members of the Security Council, China and Russia, can in the future be expected to be more militantly opposed to Western attempts to use the United Nations as a legitimizing cover for intervention in the affairs of countries of the Third World. Their double vetoes to a Western resolution of sanctions against the Syrian regime in October 2011 and February 2012 is a case in point.

Cooperative Imperialism versus Rivalry

The cooperation of the Western capitalist states, as represented by their political/military participation in the Libyan civil war, brings to mind the theoretical discussion concerning the structure of the capitalist inter-state system that took place at the beginning of last century within the Marxist tradition. In an article published in 1914, the theoretician Karl Kautsky had predicted the arrival of “ultra-imperialism” or “collective imperialism”—a bloc of imperialist nations acting together in relation to the colonial world. Disagreeing with this thesis, Lenin maintained that such a construction could only be of a temporary nature as contradictions between them would arise and lead to conflict. While the First and Second World Wars seemed to confirm Lenin’s understanding of imperialism as Germany, Japan, and Italy challenged the hegemonic order, the post-Second World War Western alliance system, consisting of victorious and defeated imperialist powers, appeared to support the Kautsky thesis.

The Cold War, pitting the “free world” against the Socialist camp, certainly affected the behavior of the weakened capitalist nations and their elites’ subservience to U.S. hegemony. The exception which confirms the rule was the Suez Crisis of 1956 when Anglo-French-Israeli troops acting together occupied the Suez Canal after its nationalization by the government of Gamal Nasser. The Soviet Union threatened retaliations but it was President Dwight Eisenhower who made U.S. allies withdraw their troops.

In the contemporary context, even if the leading Troika (United States, Europe, and before Japan) were supposedly able to cooperate in their relations to the developing countries, such an arrangement would nevertheless come under pressure. The reason for this is that new players, such as the so-called emerging economies of China, Russia, India, Brazil, etc., would need to be included—as their development will demand a share of the world’s market and natural resources. Under these conditions the question is how the absorption of newcomers into the core category of advanced nations can take place without infringing on the interests of the established capitalist countries resulting in a win-win situation for all.

If history is any guide it can logically be argued that the increased participation of the emerging economies will result in tensions preventing the formation of a smoothly functioning “supra-imperialism.” As things stand, signs of inter-imperialist contradictions and rivalry can be discerned. Upon becoming president of the French Republic in 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy portrayed Africa as a continent to be conquered in competition with other world powers. In a speech in Strasbourg in January 2007, he declared that “America and China have already begun the conquest of Africa. How long will Europe wait to build the Africa of tomorrow? While Europe is hesitating, others advance.”

Although both China and the United States are currently active on the African continent, Beijing’s activities in Africa are not viewed favorably by Washington. During a visit to Zambia in June 2011, U.S. Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton referred to them as a form of “new colonialism” while implicitly whitewashing U.S. motives. Here it is worth recalling the Monroe Doctrine which supposedly aimed at protecting Latin America from European imperialisms in the nineteenth century. Only now are Latin American countries in a process of liberating themselves from the domination of U.S. imperialism!

The Essence of Imperialism

The question that needs to be raised, in the context of Western (and particularly U.S.) strategy towards Third World regimes and governments, is what is the nature of the North-South relationship in our time? In this respect, history is an instructive teacher. Until a few generations ago, the world was quite different from what it has become since the Second World War. Before the middle of last century, many European nations had colonial empires, especially in Africa but also in Asia. In Latin America, the United States and England had imposed neocolonial ties to formally independent nations.

In the course of four centuries, the rise and overseas expansion of European powers laid the foundations to the creation of an asymmetric international economic and political architecture. Politically the process started with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War. The war, originating in Catholic Spain’s attempt to subjugate the Protestant Netherlands, affected most of Europe and led to the peace covenant institutionalizing the European system of inter-state relations based on the concept of national sovereignty. This is the recognition of the nation-state as a political entity on the basis of territoriality and independence, i.e. free from foreign interference. Although the practice left much to be desired, Westphalia became accepted as the rule and norm for international relations. The principle, however, was not extended to extra-European areas where societal arrangements and political sovereignty came to be discarded by the colonial powers.

Even though the European inter-state system did not abolish wars on the continent, the rise of industrial capitalism transposed some of the rivalry between European nation-states to Africa. According to Marxian international political economic analysis, both the First and Second World Wars were struggles for the re-division of colonies between firstcomers and latecomers. The fundamental reason for this competition was related to the mode of functioning of these socio-economic formations. The expansion of European national capitalisms had very early on become dependent on the accumulation of wealth from other regions of the world. This had already started under the mercantilism of Spanish feudalism, but became even more systematic with the growth of industrial capitalism and the doctrine of free trade as formulated by British political economy.

The ensuing contest for resources and markets led to classical imperialism. On the one hand this signified the rivalry between developed capitalist countries for the control of extra-territorial possessions and, on the other hand, the exploitation of the colonies in the promotion of the so-called national interest of the imperialist metropoles. The unequal relationship which arose between colonial powers and their colonies alleviated the internal social costs and societal tensions connected to the development of industrial capitalism in Western countries. The British proponent of colonialism, Cecil Rhodes had, in Lenin’s words, recognized “the economic and political-social roots of modern imperialism.” According to Rhodes, in order to avoid civil war and revolution in their own country, the British had to be imperialists!

The benefits of the relationship did not reach the non-European societies. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith showed foresight and empathy for the non-European populations who came into contact with the Europeans after the “discovery” of the New World. Indeed, tens of millions of indigenous people in the Americas were decimated by the intruding Europeans. It is estimated that more than eleven million African slaves were sold in the the Americas, while the number of deaths resulting from the slave trade ran into the tens of millions. On the other side of the ledger, however, the triangular trans-Atlantic trade contributed immensely to the accumulation process and the growth of manufacturing industries in the development of Western capitalism.

While there was competition for the acquisition of colonies among imperialist countries, there were also attempts at regulating the scramble for colonies. At the Berlin Conference (1884–85), convened by the latecomer Germany, thirteen European nations carved up the African continent. While agreeing to abolish slavery they were aware of the strategic and economic objectives of imperialism, such as protecting old markets and gaining access to new ones. Consequently the quest for colonies went on unabated. In Asia, the emergence of the United States on the scene forced the Open Door Policy on European imperialist powers. The result was the division and establishment of imperialist spheres of influence and extra-territorial rights in China which also included the newcomer Imperial Japan. After the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of the Philippines and then suppressed the Philippine struggle for independence at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Learning from the Past

The reason for bringing the political economy of classical imperialism in the present discussion of humanitarian interventionism is that its supporters tend to be ahistorical and non-contextual. During the colonial era, the dominating ideological discourse—the notion of Western superiority and missionary destiny—was explicitly Eurocentric. The message was and still is that the “rest” should accept the dominance of the West and respect its rules for its own sake.

According to the English missionary-explorer David Livingston, the only viable liberation of Africa laid in the introduction of the three C’s: commerce, Christianity, and civilization. In the modern version, this has become part of the discourse propagated by the so-called Washington Consensus—only with Christianity replaced by democracy. The crunch of the matter is that only European settler colonialism in North America and Australia/New Zealand successfully built developed capitalist societies. In the case of the United States, this was done by cutting the ties to the British Empire.

In the agelong implementation of the Right to Plunder imperialism has used both soft and hard power to win the hearts and minds in order to have colonized people accept economic exploitation by the European metropoles. The colonial powers were good at divide and rule with the strategic aim of finding local allies in the colonies to further their objectives.

In search of a moral mandate to legitimize colonialism at home, ostensible ideological humanitarian slogans such as White Man’s Burden were used by British and U.S. imperialism or Mission Civilisatrice by the French empire. As a matter of fact the political establishments were rather successful in mobilizing support for the empire in their societies. Even apparent anti-capitalist political forces such as Communist parties in Western Europe often supported their respective nations’ colonialism in the twentieth century.

There were differences in the implementation of colonial administration and policies, but the outcome was generally the same. The scope of the disastrous results of European colonialism became visible upon decolonization and independence in the post-Second World War era. It was in this context that Frantz Fanon remarked sarcastically in The Wretched of the Earth about the duplicity of the discourse of colonialism: “This Europe which never ceases to talk of ‘man,’ never stops proclaiming that ‘man’ is all it is worried about, we know today the suffering of humanity that exists in every country where this European spirit reigns.”2

Imperialism: A Force of Humanitarian Progress?

Given the track record of the relationship between the developed Western capitalist nations and their non-European colonies, there are more than enough reasons to be critical of the ideology and policies that emanate from within core capitalist countries. This is especially true when they attempt to legitimize their overt or covert interference in the politics of Third World nations.

Skepticism concerning the rationale for humanitarian interventionism or the Responsibility to Protect need not, however, be exclusively based on a historical narrative of the development of the international system and the North-South asymmetric relationship. Even if the principle of protection is accepted at face value, its implementation leaves much to be desired. This is connected to the selectivity and the inconsistency with which the triumvirate—the United States, the European Union, and NATO, i.e. the Foreign Legion of the Western alliance—make use of the notion. In addition, where do they derive the authority for carrying out these violations of other countries’ national sovereignty?

The short 1996 booklet The Post-Modern State and the World Order by Robert Cooper, the ex-diplomat and personal adviser to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, rationalized the use of double standards in international relations. Cooper said that on the one hand, you have the postmodern Western states that have a monopoly on values and weaponry; and on the other hand, you have entities that still live in the nineteenth century world of power-seeking states with little regard to values. Consequently, according to Cooper, “Among ourselves we operate on the basis of laws and open co-operative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of state we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era—force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary.”3 In other words, blaming the victim!

The logic of deceit and lying was exemplified in the latest case of humanitarian interventionism. Although often overlooked, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 only authorized NATO to enforce a no fly-zone on Libyan forces after the anti-Qaddafi insurrection had started. Nonetheless, without further mandate from the Security Council, the mission almost immediately morphed into an aggressive air war in violation of the UN Charter itself. As a result, a regime—that had cooperated in the fight against al Qaeda, renounced the attempt to build an atomic bomb, collaborated on controlling the flow of African refugees to Europe, moved in the direction of implementing a neoliberal economic policy, and cultivated good personal relationships with democratically elected Western statesmen—was suddenly demonized as tyrannical, which it may well have been!

Yet, in counterpoint to this demonization, Qaddafi, in the eyes of many, was seen as a nationalist and as a pan-Africanist leader who had done much to modernize Libya and help African countries emancipate from the stronghold of Western dominance.

The question of “interventionism of choice” is important to the critique of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect: Why is there so-called Western humanitarian intervention and regime change in some countries, while the same Western democracies maintain excellent relations with other tyrannical regimes such as those of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, or refrain from military intervention in countries that are accused of violating human rights and of being undemocratic—even the Congo, where a virtual genocide is taking place?

Connected to the selectivity argumentation other fundamental questions arise: Why does the Western alliance under the leadership of the United States accept the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the suppression of that people’s national aspirations? Considered to be the “only democracy in the Middle East,” Israel gets economic, political, and military support from the United States and the European Union without consideration of its oppressive policies and occupation being in contravention to international law! The double standard is crying out loud for those willing to listen.

Without concern for the question of sovereignty and of international law, an entire list of potential regimes in the Third World are targeted for overthrow with the West sponsoring and supporting internal anti-government political forces in these countries. The “sin” of these regimes is their refusal to follow the hegemonic dictate from Washington. Covert and overt interventions have been a component of U.S. foreign policy for a long time; seen in this context, regime change is not an innovation. During the Cold War period the United States directly or indirectly stage-managed the overthrow of numerous democratically elected socialist or nationalist states, including Lumumba in the Congo, Mossadeq in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Allende in Chile. These governments were seen as threatening to American “exceptionalism” and therefore had to be removed.

In the case of Libya, although the question of oil may have played a role in the decision making behind the promotion of the rebel cause, other aspects also need to be taken into consideration. There is the geopolitical and geoeconomic rivalry with China for access to and control of sources of energy, as well as other raw materials not only in Libya but in the whole of Africa. And as the situation now stands, Libya is certain to become headquarter of the U.S. military project of Africa Command (AFRICOM)—which Qaddafi had rejected.

Internationalism at a Crossroad

The ideological mindset that legitimizes Western interference and intervention in the affairs of non-European countries assumes that the values of the West are and should be accepted as universal. This became a mantra since the meltdown of the Soviet empire and the adoption of liberal capitalism by the former socialist East European countries. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama popularized the old liberal concept of “the end of history,” meaning that humanity was arriving at the end station of its societal development. However, what we have been experiencing since the defeat of state socialism is perhaps the most turbulent period of human history with the prospect of open-ended outcomes. Not many futurologists dare offer a rosy picture of things to come!

The German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas raised a question which demands serious reflection on the part of the cheerleaders of humanitarian interventionism: “Does the claim to universality that we connect with human rights merely conceal a particularly subtle and deceitful instrument of Western domination?” The coherent answer is that it is imperative to disconnect the struggle for human rights from the violations of the principle of national sovereignty by leading powers in the world system. In this respect, it is worth recalling the uproar which greeted the Brezhnev doctrine of “limited sovereignty” for socialist countries that was used to legitimize the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1967.

In the contemporary state of the world, it is questionable whether the mixing of idealism with power politics is a roadmap to the emergence of a more virtuous international community. The American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who propagated the Clash of Civilizations thesis in the early 1990s, offered a critique of Western utopianism and practice based on the refutation of the political use of universalism. As an antidote to the feel-good atmosphere that prevailed after NATO’s victory in Libya, it has special relevance now: “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous. Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism.”4

The history of capitalist imperialism shows, of course, that the subjugation of people and nations has not been driven by humanitarian considerations. It is in this context that leftist support for humanitarian interventionism ought to be discussed. Can it be anything other than an ideological construct legitimizing actually existing imperialism?

The task confronting the process of rebuilding a progressive political culture that takes internationalism seriously is to come to grips with the dichotomy between human values and imperialism. In his valuable book Humanitarian Imperialism, Jean Bricmont distinguishes two attitudes which have framed the response of the contemporary left to Western interventions. One is based on the idea of the supremacy of “universal values” which gives the right—and even the duty—of military intervention to Western powers. As a consequence of this way of conceptualizing international politics, the opposition to imperialist wars is either reduced or it disappears completely. The second viewpoint is that of cultural relativism which opposes the idea of one moral position having universal value that can be used to objectively judge other societies and cultures.

The third position, favored by Jean Bricmont, rejects both “humanitarian imperialism” and “cultural relativism.” This worldview recognizes that there is an objective or universal standard which allows us to criticize societies and regimes perpetrating barbarous customs without giving Western governments the right to interfere and to violate the sovereignty of these countries.

The challenge for progressives is consequently to avoid becoming “useful idiots” of imperialism and learn to navigate between support for the democratic aspirations of peoples in all nations, while at the same time oppose the meddling of imperialist powers in the affairs of sovereign states. This entails a degree of reflective skepticism toward the mainstream media and Western-funded NGOs and foundations in Third World countries.


  1. George Kennan, “Review of Current Trends, U.S. Foreign Policy, Policy Planning Staff, PPS No. 23. Top Secret.,” February 28, 1948, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, volume 1, part 2 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976), 524-25.
  2. The Fanon translation follows Mireille Fanon Mendès’s version in “Frantz Fanon and the Current Multiple Crises,” Al-Akhbar, December 7, 2011, See also Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 311.
  3. Robert Cooper, The Post-Modern State and the World Order (London: Demos, 1996), 42.
  4. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 310.
2012, Volume 63, Issue 11 (April)
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