Intervention or Imperialism?

Martin Jacques informs us that the key to economic development is national sovereignty.

The most important factor that constrained the development of vast tracts of the planet was colonialism. By the same token the most important factor in transforming their possibilities was freedom from colonial rule.

I think he’s right to castigate colonialism in the article. No-one today can view the typical modus operandi of the old-fashioned imperialist with admiration. Marching into others’ countries with the aim of staying for good, turfing the natives off the land without compensation to make room for your own kind and sucking profits out of the colony without a by your leave from the displaced population is wrong. It’s no excuse that this sort of behaviour has been going on since time immemorial carried out by Europeans, Africans, Asians and unnamed others It’s poor manners, morally wrong, and the midwife of long-lasting strife: it should be strongly discouraged, by force if necessary.

Jacques and I part company here though:

Notwithstanding the present attempt in the west to rehabilitate colonialism and articulate a new imperialist project, it is the defeat of imperialism in the middle of the last century, that will shape our global future.

If by making the statement that colonialism is being rehabilitated and coining the phrase “new imperialist project” he’s trying to make out that the allied intervention in Iraq in 2003 is the same as the colonisation of Algeria by the French state in the 19th Century or the earlier seizing of India by the East India Company he’s committing an important category error.

The coalition do not intend to stay in Iraq for good, waves of pale-skinned settlers building bungalows are conspicuous by their absence in Basra and Baghdad, and the flow of money is into Iraq not out of it. Is it still colonialism or imperialism in circumstances where the occupiers foster democracy and set up national political institutions with the ultimate aim of letting these institutions run the country? I would argue it is not. Intervention in another country’s affairs is one thing, imperialism is quite another.

The only support I can see Jacques has left for his “new imperialism” thesis is the presence of uninvited foreign troops in Iraq. But the question then becomes this – does the presence of thousands of gum-chewing, country-music humming GI’s on your soil really mess up your economic development as Jacques’ article seeks to imply?

Let’s look at GDP rankings collated by the World Bank for 2004:

1. USA
2. Germany
3. Japan
4. United Kingdom
5. France
6. Italy
7. China
8. Spain
9. Canada
10. India

What’s immediately noticeable is that the four most successful economies in the world are currently hosting US troops in one way or another. Two of these (Germany and Japan) were occupied at the end of World War Two very much against their will – and still retain a US armed presence today by the way. It’s worth noting that France and Italy were also liberated with the help of US troops during the same war – again very much against the wishes of the sovereign governments of both countries – fascist in the case of Italy and collaborationist in the case of Vichy France. Food for thought for those who worship the principle of national sovereignty.

It’s Japan I want to consider in a little more detail here though because I suspect Jacques is thinking more of what used to be called the developing world for the purposes of the point he wants to make. As everyone knows Japan was part of this poor world until some point in the Twentieth Century when it became part of club of rich nations.

An independent nation-state remains the most important means by which peoples can exercise control over their own destiny. Without it, they are rendered impotent. With it, as east Asia has shown most clearly, an extraordinary transformation is possible. Much is made of the importance and virtues of democracy, but for developing countries, the most important form of democracy – whether their regime is authoritarian or democratic – is the right to control their own destiny.


I agree that controlling one’s own destiny is, in principle, a good thing but what does Jacques mean by an independent nation state being the most important means by which peoples can exercise control over their own destiny? Saddam Hussein’s regime was an independent state (rather too much so in the opinion of the UN) but how much control did the Iraqi people exercise under it? And one-party ruled China? Do the people control their destiny there? How about that doughty fighter for national independence North Korea? Do the inhabitants of North Korean gulags take comfort that the hegemonic monster of US imperialism is unable to stick its beak into the criminal justice system they were sentenced under.

What about Japan where Jacques currently lives? This country is the most successful example of national, social and economic development I can think of. In the late Nineteenth Century it was an still an isolationist feudal basket case where millions of nutritionally-challenged peasants were ruled over by a caste of warriors whose idea of fun was lopping their subjects in half with swords. Anyone who has been to Japan recently can’t help but be hugely impressed with the distance travelled since that time. Did they do it on their own without outside intervention? Should the Japanese view Commodore Perry as an interfering Yank with no business sailing into forbidden waters or an agent of modernity whose ‘illegal’ presence kick-started a process which ended with Japan as the world’s third most industrialised economy with a commensurate standard of living?

It’s worth noting that after the Second World War the US drafted the present constitution of Japan, set up all the major political and economic institutions and today retains a very sizeable military presence in the archipelago. The questions Jacques needs to answer are these – do ordinary Japanese people have a greater or lesser control over their own destiny than their neighbours in North Korea whose unelected government elevates national independence and the autarchic Juche philosophy to the status of a state religion? Has Japanese economic and social development benefited from or been held back by US intervention?

These aren’t straightforward questions with palatable answers to those of us who aren’t comfortable with foreign interference in a countries affairs but they do need to be considered honestly rather than avoided. I don’t think things are as straightforward as Jacques implies in his article for the reason that he fails to consider the real, concrete achievments of the actually-existing most succesful Asian country to speculate about potential future Asian success stories. He does this because that speculation fits more comfortably into his pre-existing narrative. But that’s crystal-ball gazing not serious analysis.

Neither Jacques or I are in favour of colonialism or imperialism but to simplify the argument about national and economic development so that it fits into the cookie-cutter template of what passes for ‘anti-imperialist’ discourse these days doesn’t help any of us attempt to grapple with the new contours of world politics.