The not-so-new imperialism

The UK Foreign Policy Centre's pamphlet on Reordering the World is controversial for one reason: its use of the language of old-fashioned realpolitik instead of new human rights-speak.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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Robert Cooper, policy adviser to UK prime minister Tony Blair, has caused something of a storm with his call for a ‘new kind of imperialism’.

In the Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet Reordering the World, Cooper argues for ‘a new age of empire’ – in which Western powers won’t have to follow international law in their dealings with other states, will be able to use military force without consulting the United Nations, and will be free to impose protectorates in problematic areas.

According to Labour MP Tam Dalyell, Cooper’s comments go against the Labour Party’s long history of anti-colonialism – while fellow Labour MP Alan Simpson accuses Cooper of offering an intellectual justification for Britain and America’s bypassing of the UN. These MPs can’t have been paying much attention to international affairs over the past few years – because, in fact, Cooper does not argue for anything new or exceptional.

Some Labour MPs seem to have short memories. A number of Britain’s colonial wars have been fought while Labour governments were in power: the war with India and the Palestine conflict in the late 1940s, the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ that started in 1969.

Long before the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the UK Labour government was at the forefront of downgrading the role of the UN and creating new powers for ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’ to wage war without the sanction of international law. Indeed, Labour has shown scant need for anything as concrete as intellectual justification for bypassing the UN, instead relying on moral support for its new interventionism.

The House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia was justified ‘on moral grounds’, rather than legal grounds. Lord George Robertson, former Labour defence secretary and now NATO secretary-general, argues that Western leaders have the job of ‘balancing…law, morality and the use of force’. Of course, once the law is secondary to what NATO leaders Blair and Bush consider to be morally necessary, there can be no legal limits to intervention across the globe – so long as the cause is right. Robertson explains that ‘the only morality is to do what one has to do, when one has to do it’. In this context, the question of whether and when to intervene is purely a matter for powerful leaders’ consciences.

Claims that Cooper is a ‘maniac’ only show how out of touch his critics are. The new age of imperialism is already well established. Two years ago, the UK government’s Joint Consultative Committee called for the UN to restore the Trusteeship Council for managing the growing number of international protectorates. And Tony Blair recently helped former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown get the job of high representative (or colonial administrator) in Bosnia.

Lord Ashdown now has the power to pass laws by decree and to dismiss Bosnia’s elected presidents, prime ministers and parliamentarians if he considers them to be obstructive. The power that had always eluded Ashdown in the UK, by way of the ballot box, has now been granted him by the self-selected Peace Implementation Council – which has ‘voluntarily’ taken upon itself the duty of running Bosnia for the indefinite future.

Those who kicked up a stink about Cooper’s ‘new imperialism’ statement seem to have been more offended by his choice of words than by their political content.

Cooper is not alone in calling for an end to the UN framework of international law and respect for state sovereignty. Liberal advocates of ethical human rights policies, like Geoffrey Robertson QC, have long argued that respect for state sovereignty is the UN’s ‘systemic defect’.

And Cooper’s critics largely do not oppose his view that Western powers should have the right to intervene militarily in troublesome states. His calls for pre-emptive military actions are mild compared to those of Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Nobel Peace Prize-winning NGO Médecins Sans Frontières, later appointed by the UN as governor of Kosovo, who argues that Western powers should have the right to intervene ‘to stop wars before they start and stop murderers before they kill’. Cooper’s views of ‘voluntary’ colonial rule under a new imperial bureaucracy are wishy-washy compared to liberal commentator Michael Ignatieff’s demand for greater ‘imperial ruthlessness’ in Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia.

Cooper’s mistake was to pose these policies in the old-fashioned language of realpolitik and power, rather than relying on the moral rhetoric of the day. Many who agree with his conclusions find his straight-talking presentation of US and European superiority over the non-Western world distasteful. His aside that the new imperialism should be ‘compatible with human rights and cosmopolitan values’ only demonstrates his failure to grasp the new etiquette of what he terms ‘postmodern imperialism’.

If Cooper had stressed the ‘universally empowering’ nature of his project in contrast to the oppressive legalities of state sovereignty, he would have had fewer problems. If he had argued that military action to prevent human rights abuses should be decided by ‘international civil society’, nobody would have batted an eyelid. If he had said that what look like colonial administrations overriding popular democracy are in fact necessary for ‘empowering local voices’, he would probably have the support of even his most vocal critics.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

    Read on:

    Ripping up the Charter, by David Chandler

    When nation-building destroys, by Brendan O’Neill

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    Topics Politics


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