16 December 2011

Uncommon Commentary #232: Imperialism Was Imperative (and Still Is)

Many readers might consider the retreat of imperialism—at least of overt imperialism; see below—a good thing, but it has had cataclysmic consequences. The rise to power of indigenous leaders, in what we used to call the Third World, produced more tyrants (which term, by the way, I do not limit to malevolent "dictators," but in which I include all politicians, elected or not, who behave tyrannically) than did probably any other process in history. Pol Pot, Saddam "Hussein," Ne Win, Mao Zedong, Masie Nguema Biyogo, Mobutu Sese Seko, Ho Chi Minh, Idi Amin, Kwame Nkrumah, Ferdinand Marcos, Plutarco Elias Calles, Gamel Abdel Nasser, François Tombalbaye, Habib Bourguiba, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, Rafael Trujillo, Manuel Noriega, Hafez Assad, Juan Peron, the Duvaliers, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Fidel Castro, Manuel Cedras, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Gaddafi, Allende, Sukarno, Samoza, Romero, Toure, Zelaya, and a host of others all held power in lands formerly within either the empires or the spheres of influence of European powers; other noteworthy criminals occupy office right now, in such places as Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, India, Sudan, and Iran. Christ gave his followers the responsibility and the privilege of preaching the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, and our ongoing fulfillment of this Great Commission was greatly facilitated by the age of European supremacy, since, for the first time, missionaries and their converts could have confidence that their efforts and their lives would be protected by the home government; even atheists ought to consider this proselytizing worthwhile, for the missions have provided not only spiritual but also tangible benefits, such as education and medical care. (The spread of Christianity would alone outweigh all other considerations, but European administration benefitted its foreign subjects in other ways, as can be seen below.) Conversely, systemic persecution of Christians, which the tin-horn strongmen and other objectionable elements of native populations could not have gotten away with in the days when Christians controlled their countries, largely owes its alarming spread and intensification to the "achievement" of political independence by true colonies (i.e., places for settlement), trust territories, and protectorates.
Few, if any, would deny that the rise of developing-country despots is a lamentable situation, but most would see it as a result—maybe an unavoidable one—of something that was necessary: the advancement of "freedom." I, on the other hand, challenge the hubristic assumption that people have a "right" to govern themselves. Nor, though, do I believe that people have a right to govern others; imperialism, self-rule, and so on, in my opinion, have nothing to do with the question of "rights," but should rather be viewed in terms of good versus bad governance. To put it another way, imperialism is neither innately bad nor innately good; what matters is whether the imperial power governs justly. Akbar the Great, the Mogul emperor of India deemed by many the model of an enlightened ruler, was of a Mongol (whence the name "Mogul") dynasty based outside the subcontinent; one of the highest-respected Kings of England, Canute the Great, was a Dane; Persian Shahs Darius and Cyrus, each also given the sobriquet "the Great," were much esteemed by the authors of the Old Testament for their compassionate policies toward the Jews within their dominions; Alexander (the Great) had a similar reputation, resulting in the tradition of giving this Macedonian conqueror's name to the third male child in a Jewish family. There are many other such illustrations.
The United Nations has proclaimed that every ethnic group has the prerogative of self-determination, but the UN is wrong. Its position is: 1) hypocritical, since nearly all its members, including all those that have permanent seats on the Security Council, have minority nationalities (for instance, American Indians and native speakers of Spanish in the USA, and Bretons and Occitans in France); and 2) totally impractical, since the ethnicities or nationalities in the world number in the thousands, and most of them are so tiny that sovereignty would be economically (as well as, of course, defensively) untenable; many don't even inhabit contiguous territories, but dwell in populations isolated from one another sometimes by hundreds of miles. Most former overseas possessions are themselves de-facto empires, as exemplified by the fact that Africa is home to only a few dozen sovereignties but to over 800 ethno-linguistic groups. Unsurprisingly, there were few significant states in Africa prior to European domination of that continent; that might still be the situation, had said domination never occurred.
Anyone who takes the Bible seriously, as I do, has further reason to disagree with the UN on this issue. Jeremiah 27-29 gives an instance of God's instructing the King of Judah, through the prophet from whom that book takes its name, not to rebel against the Babylonian overlord of the Holy Land; in the New Testament, the chief reason for the rejection of Christ by his own people is that they had expected the Messiah to be a political deliverer, who would free them from the Roman yoke. It must be borne in mind also that Moses' initial call to Pharaoh was merely to permit the Hebrews to serve Yahweh on the Sabbath (Exodus 5:1); only after the denial of this request did Moses' mission become one of ending the Egyptian bondage.
Among the nationalities that hoped to build sovereignty from the junkyard of defeated belligerents (in this case, the Turkish and the Russian), at the end of World War I, was the Armenians. At Armenia's own request, the League of Nations offered this reborn state as a mandate to the USA, meaning that it would be governed by the USA until that country deemed it fit for independence. US rejection of this offer doomed Armenia to seven decades of Soviet misrule.
Similarly, the transformation of a part of the globe into a protectorate of an European country was usually carried out in response to the proposal, or the repeated entreaty, of a local ruler or rulers. The creation and maintenance of such protected states, which commonly burdened the imperial power financially as well as militarily, played the decisive part in ending slavery and the slave trade in Africa (which, along with piracy, another of the many evils that succumbed to the imperial forces, is making a comeback in our more "enlightened" times.)
The worst irony and inanity of the notion of "independence" for formerly-European-controlled territories is the fact that most of these new states don't even survive sans economic and military (as well as humanitarian) aid, which often come from the very country that bestowed official independence.
The Hispanic countries of the New World take their "freedom" and "independence" just as seriously as does the USA, to judge from the number of their places with such names as "Liberdad." One might wonder why, minding their pathetic post-colonial record of multiple coups d'état, some of which had a felicitous effect, but most of which simply replaced one unjust caudillo with another. After all, the USA has mythologized its own history, but at least its government has had stability during that history (albeit perhaps too much stability for it to have been really effective; more on that, some other time). Are any of the polities of what's called "Latin" America really any better off than they would be had they never separated themselves from their former masters?
There are other things that I could mention, such as the fact that nearly every city, railroad, and university in Sub-Saharan Africa originated with Europeans, that those Christian overlords prohibited savage practices like infanticide, and that the political unity bestowed bythe creation of empires prevented inter-tribal warfare, but, to conclude: Today, people typically deplore the Westernizing influence that is changing traditional indigenous cultures, but this attitude is largely romanticism. It's not as if we Caucasoids live the same way that we did during, e.g., feudal times; we can recapture anything of that lost world only by visiting a castle or by attending an historical recreation such as a mock jousting-tournament. Also: I don't suggest, with a few exceptions, that former overseas possessions actually be put back under foreign control. It would be nice if this were currently a feasible option, but right now the old imperial powers (including the USA) can't even govern themselves eptly, and so how can they govern anyone else?