The calendar tells me that today is United Nations Day: a fitting day for this post (for reasons that will become clear).
In Cosmopolitanism (Norton pb., 2007), Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:
The independence movements of the post-1945 world that led to the end of Europe’s African and Asian empires were driven by the rhetoric that had guided the Allies’ own struggle against Germany and Japan: democracy, freedom, equality. This [i.e., the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements] wasn’t a conflict between values. It was a conflict of interests couched in terms of the same values. (p. 80)
According to this view, the colonizers and the colonized framed their positions in the same language: both sides argued that they were upholding liberal principles. If so, did the colonizers genuinely believe that they were acting on behalf of such principles? No doubt some of them did, but that issue is beyond the scope of this post. The above-quoted passage from Appiah does, however, raise questions about the relation of words to concepts. Someone’s use of a word such as “freedom” does not necessarily indicate a commitment to anything that most people would recognize as freedom. A slaveholder in the act of beating a slave does not become a promoter of freedom simply by uttering the words “I am doing this because I believe in freedom.”
Admittedly this example is an exaggeration. In the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements, rhetoric was used in somewhat, but only somewhat, more subtle ways. The career of Jan Smuts (1870-1950) is instructive in this connection. In No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009), Mark Mazower devotes a lot of attention to Smuts, who was the leading South African politician of the first half of the twentieth century. Smuts viewed membership in the British Empire as a means to ensure the preservation and spread of white rule in southern Africa. During the first of his two terms as prime minister of South Africa (1919-1924), “the foundations of the future apartheid regime were being laid by eroding the last remnants of the native suffrage and introducing segregationist settlement restrictions.” (p. 51)
Smuts was also a believer in international organization. Among other things, he was a main drafter of the preamble to the UN Charter, which listed among the organization’s purposes the reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, …the dignity and worth of the human person, …the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small….” Mazower asks: “How could the new world body’s commitment to universal rights owe more than a little to the participation of a man whose segregationist policies back home paved the way for the apartheid state?” (No Enchanted Palace, p. 19) The answer – or at least an answer – is that for Smuts, and for some others involved in the UN’s founding, “fundamental human rights” did not in fact mean universal rights. Adhering to an “evolutionist paradigm of cosmic harmony under beneficent white guidance” (p. 57), Smuts saw “differential degrees of freedom and differential treatment of groups by the state [as] not merely reasonable but necessary for human progress.” (p. 64) As a young man, Smuts “had talked easily about the mission of ‘half a million whites’ to lift up ‘the vast dead weight of immemorial barbarism and animal savagery to the light and blessing of ordered civilisation,’” and he hoped the UN would be “a force for world order, under whose umbrella the British Empire – with South Africa as its principal dynamic agent on the continent – could continue to carry out its civilizing work.” (p. 65)
The UN Charter itself, as Mazower observes, did not specifically condemn colonialism, and few people of any prominence, except for W.E.B. Du Bois, objected to this omission at the time. Indeed an African journalist predicted that a new “scramble for coloured territories and spheres of influence” was in the offing, adding that “new life has been infused into predatory imperialism.” (quoted, p. 63)
However, the UN did not, as things turned out, conform to Smuts’s vision, nor did a new scramble for colonies occur. On the contrary, what Harold Macmillan called a wind of change (in his famous 1960 speech) was running strongly against the continuation of formal empire. This soon became evident within the UN itself. A complaint to the General Assembly about the treatment of Indians in South Africa, spearheaded by Nehru and first brought in 1946, presaged “the emergence in the General Assembly of an entirely new conception of world order – one premised on the breakup of empire rather than its continuation.” (Mazower, p. 185) The General Assembly’s December 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples called for quick independence for the remaining colonies, rejecting the argument that an alleged lack of readiness for self-government could justify delay.
The end of colonialism, an epochal change in world politics, represented an unusual case of a modern international institution becoming obsolete (cf. K.J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics [Cambridge U.P., 2004], p. 274). But although the institution became obsolete, the rhetoric associated with it has proven to be longer lived. Although virtually no one in authority extols, in Smutsian fashion, the superior wisdom of the “white race,” more nuanced versions of what Mazower calls imperial internationalism are still extant. In the context of the “war on terror,” references to “civilization” and “barbarism” have become common (see Mark Salter’s work on this); these words have overtones, whether intended or not, that cannot be fully grasped unless one remembers the once-widespread view that colonized peoples were “uncivilized.” The trope (to use a fashionable word) of civilization versus barbarism should not have been resurrected in recent years, no matter that the context is different. These words carry too many reminders of the old rhetorics of empire.
Note: For more on Smuts, see the sources listed in Mazower's notes. Also, Richard Toye's Churchill's Empire (Henry Holt, 2010) contains a couple of references to Smuts from a somewhat different perspective.