by Tanzil Chowdhury
Even at its height, European colonialism had to be rationalised and reified in all manner of different ways to ‘make sense’. Indeed, its contemporary reproductions, which here will collectively and generously be called ‘interventions’, are similarly ‘marketed’ in what we may call the shifting justificatory discourse of colonialism. This describes the ability of colonialism to regenerate and attach itself to the current zeitgeist in order to successfully manufacture consent. In addition, belying this shifting discourse is a reductive binary logic which States attempt to naturalise, pretending that alternatives to intervention, other than non-intervention, simply do not exist. The combination of the two begin to illustrate how States have managed to legitimize their expansionist and destabilising wars through the ages, in an effort to (in-)directly exercise influence over regions and help illustrate a lineage from contemporary military interventions to historic colonialism.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, a former British colonial statesman and historian demarcated the ‘known world’ into the ‘civilised’ and ‘barbarians’, with the British at the apex of this imaginary intelligentsia spectrum. In his Minute on Indian Education, he stated, ‘it is…no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England.’ It was this demarcation or binary, arguably pre-empting Samuel Huntingdon’s now dismissed ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis, that garnered substantial support at home for the British Empire’s ironically barbaric ‘civilising mission’ (what the French called la mission civilistatrice), painting the rapaciousness of colonialism with a palatable altruistic overlay.
From the civilising mission came the doctrine of ‘Containment’ in the Cold War, (for the French, cordon sanitaire) which employed much the same strategy. According to the former US diplomat George Kennan, containment was the US foreign policy to extinguish the ‘Communist threat’, leading to the infamous Truman Doctrine and the formation of NATO. A direct line can be drawn from Macaulay’s demarcation to Truman’s doctrine which he shaped as a fight between ‘totalitarian regimes’ and ‘free peoples’.
‘Democratisation’, underlined by a spirit of universalism was the rationalisation in Iraq’s apocalypse. The US-led invasion of the former intellectual capital of the world, was tied to the categorical imperative of ‘bringing in’ democracy to awaken a dormant Iraqi populace. The only effect was to ‘return’ the country (and similarly Libya) to a ‘state of nature’ where life is now ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Around about the same time, emerged the popular policy of humanitarian intervention. Its success lay in an impenetrably altruistic guard of human rights rhetoric. Such types of intervention were tough to respond to but was in effect no different from the antiquated ‘civilising’ lines, only the barbarians were now reduced to the Heads of State. Retrospective labelling of interventions of the French in Syria or the US occupation of Haiti are interesting given their clear colonial undertones, but modern day invocations of HI included the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the British military campaign in Sierra Leone. Of course the often convincing rationalisations of HI have been easily undone by commentators and academics who highlight the fundamental contradictions that blights an intervening nation’s ignorance and unwillingness to intervene in other, more destructive areas of the world. Honesty here is the key.
The most recent reproduction of the shift and binary has been for Empire to ‘support revolutions’ (spearheaded from the academy by the likes of Bernard-Henri Levi). Indeed, legitimate grievances in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the ME have resulted in societies in flux and fluidity that are often exploited by imperial forces with the aim of creating vacuums to establish proxy or direct power. Thus, revolutions have become the new front of imperial wars.
A line can arguably be traced therefore, from modern day interventions to colonialism. From civilising to containment, humanitarianism to democratisation and assisting revolutions, the marketing discourse has shifted to reflect current popular sentiments and tie itself to a particular historical moment (anti-Communism, human rights etc). In addition, wars and ‘imposed binaries’, which present conflict as either-or choices, supplement this shifting discourse. For us to emerge from this requires breaking the simple binaries that characterise this discourse so that that the contradictions are exposed.
Tanzil Chowdhury is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Law, University of Manchester, interested in Critical Legal Studies. His current research looks at using temporality as a novel way to distinguish between different forms of adjudication and subjectivity. Twitter: @tchowdhury88