Haven’t we heard this somewhere before?

Article published on Jan. 19, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 19, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Liberating oppressed peoples: a new idea? Neo-conservative reasoning is not without its similarities to the ideology in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and in the years of the Third Republic in France.

“We must bring freedom and civilisation to the barbarians.” Thus the idea is launched. And this is not an idea dreamt up yesterday. But who are the barbarians, the primitives? Barbarians are everywhere. They are another version of ourselves that scares and disturbs us. In this way, the barbarian represents all that we don’t know and don’t understand. From now on, political correctness stands in the way of using an expression like, ‘bringing civilisation to barbarians.’ Instead, we talk about introducing democracy. From this perspective, the United States, the only real great power in international relations, purports to be taking up arms to achieve freedom by force. Paradoxically, this ideology is reminiscent of a way of thinking particularly widespread during the era of colonisation. If Europeans today are sceptical towards their American ‘allies’, this is hardly surprising. The explanation is found in the experience of a utopia gone bad. Let’s cast our minds back for a moment: our old Europe has known these surges of goodwill and fine words and promises, delivered in a tone imbued with the conviction of handing down great wisdom, and mixed with the notion of creating liberating utopias. Let’s beware of pre-established models, of good intentions shaped by humanism… let’s remember that sometimes it’s better to leave well alone.

That said, what were the motives that drive numerous democrats of the 1800s to embrace the colonisation process? First and foremost, the prospect of foreign conquests was backed up by economic ambitions. Soon after 1870, at a time when Italy and Germany were putting the final touches to unified statehood, colonised territory became the primary instrument of national prestige - a prestige that rested just as much on arms races as on runaway industrialisation. Bismarck, Jules Ferry, and Chamberlain were convinced. Competition between European nations was such that we can talk of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Or, as Jules Ferry put it: “Withdraw the French flag from Tonkin, and Germany and Spain will replace it within the hour.” Even today, Realpolitik à la Kissinger continues to draw its acolytes, and was to a large extent behind the first Gulf War. American intervention in Iraq followed a commercial logic of safeguarding national economic interests, embodied by oil.

Since September 11th, however, a new fear and traumatism has seized the American people. Terrorism has become enemy number one, and has swept aside old, internal ideological disputes in favour of a united front. Conservatives obsessed with the idea of national security are joined by left-wing intellectuals anxious to stress ideological motives. A line of argument therefore emerges that is propped up by the same precepts as those of the nineteenth century, a century of progress and faith in science. At the time, the first colonisers were geographers, missionaries, explorers, the archetype being the Englishman David Livingstone and Foucauld’s father. Today, aren’t we seeing identical reasoning from those defending humanitarian interference? Of course, doctors have replaced the ‘White Fathers’ and the Church Missionary Society. Leaving aside the question of faith, the missionary’s primary objective was to deliver to indigenous peoples the benefits of civilisation, Western morality cut from a Judeo-Christian template, and material progress. Europe then, just like the US today, had a mission to accomplish – ordained by Providence, even divine, according to some – and this view persuaded most schools of thought from conservative to socialist. Jules Ferry talks of ‘duty’, Rudyard Kipling even evokes ‘the white man’s burden’. Today – as yesterday – the problem stems from the starting principle. “The foreign policy of the United States has always rested on the conviction that modernisation, Westernisation and Americanisation are pure godsends, indispensable to the establishment of an acceptable social order,” writes William Pfaff in an article published in the journal Commentaire (no. 98, summer 2002). “The superiority of that country’s norms and political values is considered as going without saying.” Consequently, it is down to others to change and adopt this model which has proved its efficacy. History has, however, more or less refuted such utopian and messianic ideologies. At the time, opponents of colonialism were above all right-wingers and radicals. Following the example of Clemenceau, they denounced the costliness of the exercise. In England, liberals rallied behind the French economist, J-B Say, who considered that free trade with independent states is more profitable than colonial exploitation. Little by little, anti-colonialism becomes a pillar of the international communist ideology. The father of French socialism, Jean Jaurès, himself evolves – he at first accepts colonisation only to end up rejecting it as a major contradiction to the socialist ideal.

Wanting to bring freedom to other peoples, even if it means doing this at one’s own expense. Imposing a model of regulation and society because this has proved best in one part of the globe is not evidence that it will function as well elsewhere, nor a sufficient justification. It is tempting to oversimplify matters, to ask what exactly the difference is between colonisation and liberation. The finality, of course. The occupation of Iraq by the USA can only be temporary, and aims to restore full state sovereignty. But is military intervention and the occupation of a country oppressed by a tyrant an act of liberation, or a further enslavement? More than a century after Jules Ferry’s grand pronouncements, opinion is still divided on this question – one that ignites debate across the political spectrum, and throws the normal rules of the political game between liberals and conservatives, radicals, socialists, leftist and right-wing intellectuals, into confusion.