In an article today (5.1.12) in the Manchester Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/30/imperialism-didnt-end-international-law author George Monbiot contends that international imperialism – the domination of smaller nations by larger ones, and the grand quest for territory and power – did not die in the 19th Century, but is alive and well in the 21st.
He cites the highly selective process of international justice whereby Charles Taylor is captured and convicted, but George Bush and Tony Blair, architects of the war in Iraq which, judged by Nuremburg standards would be a war crime, are untouched. He claims that international institutions, especially the powerful International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are non-representative vehicles for the exercise of world powers; and he cites the international policing efforts of the US and UK, especially extraordinary rendition, as means of securing politically and economically secure arrangements rather than for any higher purpose.
While his comments are accurate, and his observation that there continues to be an arrogation of power by and for the principal world powers, I am left feeling “So what else is new?”. Throughout history great powers have acquired, secured, protected and maintained new lands, resources, and institutions. Mesopotamia, Persia, Rome, China, Japan, the Moguls, Spain, and Britain have expanded their territories, influence and power. Maps of any one of these empires shows a dominance over most of the world. The British Empire and lesser colonial administrations were only the last expressions of an institutionalized extension of power. From the 16th to the 19th centuries no apologies were needed or expected for European conquest.
The Spaniards in America were after gold and silver, found a land of boundless natural resources and economic potential (and heathens to be converted)century, and aggressively moved through the continent(s) in successive waves to secure their bounty. The French under the banner of La Mission Civilatrice colonized Africa and fought the English, Spanish, and Americans for territory, power, and influence in the Americas. ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ was a statement of fact and a trumpeting of British civilization and power. The American national empire pushed from East to West with amazing speed and efficiency. Through wars with Indians and international powers, canny treaties with both, and an aggressive wealth-seeking entrepreneurial class, the United States fulfilled its Manifest Destiny. Germany and Japan tried and failed to become truly imperial.
Shakespeare’s Histories are a fictionalized account of external wars of conquest and internal court wars for supremacy and succession. Human nature, implied Shakespeare, was at the bottom of these ceaseless quarrels and desire for expanded protective perimeters. The strong will always dominate the weak wrote Shakespeare. The will to action and dominance, the highest expression of Nietzsche’s Superman, is in all of us; and while only few gain and maintain that absolute power, most desire it.
Therefore the conclusions of the author Monbiot seem naïve:
The conviction of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, is said to have sent an unequivocal message to current leaders: that great office confers no immunity. In fact it sent two messages: if you run a small, weak nation, you may be subject to the full force of international law; if you run a powerful nation, you have nothing to fear.
While anyone with an interest in human rights should welcome the verdict, it reminds us that no one has faced legal consequences for launching the illegal war against Iraq. This fits the Nuremberg tribunal's definition of a "crime of aggression", which it called "the supreme international crime". The charges on which, in an impartial system, George Bush, Tony Blair and their associates should have been investigated are far graver than those for which Taylor was found guilty.
Why does Monbiot stop here? America’s history in Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century was nothing less than naked aggression, and the toppling of unfriendly regimes de rigeur. Unholy alliances have been made with dictators from the Shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein (yes, he was our ally in Iraq’s war with Iran) to Pinochet and Papa Doc. Anti-communism and ‘stability’ were the rallying cry for our interventions and our support for corrupt leaders. The Arab Spring, despite American support for it, is largely a result of our former policies supporting autocratic leaders like Mubarak.
While the US did not itself commit physical atrocities in these countries such as suggested occurred in Iraq, but our complicity in supporting dictators who did has also been ignored. Who in America cared about the depredations of Iran’s notorious secret police, SAVAK? Or the ‘disappeared’ in the internal conflicts in Chile and Argentina? On whose hands are those murders?
The author goes on to indict the superpowers for an unholy arrogation and concentration of powers in international institutions:
Despite its trumpeted reforms, the International Monetary Fund remains under the control of the United States and the former colonial powers. All constitutional matters still require an 85% share of the vote. By an inexplicable oversight, the United States retains 16.7%, ensuring that it possesses a veto over subsequent reforms. Belgium still has eight times the votes of Bangladesh, Italy a bigger share than India, and the United Kingdom and France between them more voting power than the 49 African members.
The United States will fight for this preeminence or predominance until it is overwhelmed by the increasing economic and political might of India, Japan, and others; but until it is dethroned, it will continue to protect its domain and exert its influence. Yet, the author again naively argues:
The IMF, as a result, is still the means by which western financial markets project their power into the rest of the world. At the end of last year, for example, it published a paper pressing emerging economies to increase their "financial depth", which it defines as "the total financial claims and counterclaims of an economy". This, it claimed, would insulate them from crisis. As the Bretton Woods Project points out, emerging nations with large real economies and small financial sectors were the countries which best weathered the economic crisis, which was caused by advanced economies with large financial sectors. Like the modern opium wars it waged in the 1980s and 1990s – when it forced Asian countries to liberalize their currencies, permitting western financial speculators to attack them – the IMF's prescriptions are incomprehensible until they are understood as instruments of financial power.
This argument is disingenuous. Yes, the world powers pushed developing economies to liberalize, to open their financial borders, begin to borrow from the capital markets, and with this new infusion of capital to grow and mature quickly. Good successful examples of this policy were Eastern Europe and India. Up until the 90s, India labored under a Soviet-style ‘importation substitution’ policy where domestic production and investment were the only paths to economic modernization. While this policy sheltered India from debt and financial crisis, it also hobbled them and kept them in the 19th century. Once India liberalized, its GDB grew at 10 percent per annum rates. At the same time, because of financial prudence, it has not suffered from the recent recession.
Poland, under the direction of the then conservative consultant, Jeffrey Sachs, underwent a radical transformation. Its economy suffered dislocation and shock, but entered the modern world quickly and well. It has suffered because of the Euro crisis, but less from its own doings than those of more western members.
The author’s a posteriori reasoning is suspect. Yes, the West did crack and crumble in the financial crisis of the last five years, but because of excesses and distortions of the system, not because of the system itself.
More to the point, it was in the interest of the IMF and its powerful members to tout the system which made them rich – not from any principle or desire to help, but because wealthier developing nations would further enrich the powerful. Again, what else is new?
Finally, Monbiot argues that ‘extraordinary rendition’ is the supremely arrogant misuse of power and disrespect for other nations:
Like the colonial crimes the British government committed in Kenya and elsewhere, whose concealment was sustained by the Foreign Office until its secret archives were revealed last month, the rendition program was hidden from public view. Just as the colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, repeatedly lied to parliament about the detention and torture of Kikuyu people, in 2005 Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, told parliament that "there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition".
The maintenance and extension of power has always and will always be without ethics because the causes for which nations fight are considered more important than the ways of winning them. The ends always justify the means in international affairs. Nations will always use The International Court of Justice or even the Geneva Convention when it suits them, and ignore them when it does not; and will use their influence to trump these international bodies when convenient. Would the Allies have been called to an international court of justice for the firebombing of Dresden had there been one in 1945? I doubt it.
In short, while this article draws attention to the continuing concentration of power in international affairs and the dangers implicit therein, its naïveté and polemics divert attention from this important observation.