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The case for colonialism

Daniel Kruger says that we should not be frightened of being 'imperialist'. It is the job of the West to plant the seed of liberty in lands now ruled by despots

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

The West might be superficially divided between hawks and doves, but there is a deeper division: between foxes and hedgehogs. In a famous essay on Tolstoy, Isaiah Berlin said the division was ‘one of the deepest’ among human beings. The distinction applies just as well to politicians and governments.

Foxes, said Berlin, are sophisticated, pluralist, usually atheist, and distrustful of absolutes. Hedgehogs are anti-intellectual, single-minded, often religious, and comfortable with certainties, chief among which are ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Foxes think many small things; hedgehogs think one big thing.

The UN and the EU are fox heaven. They stand for multilateralism and the ‘post-modern’ world order, for negotiation, containment and compromise. The mood is pacific and highbrow; the instruments are protocols, charters and communiquZs. Nato, on the other hand, is hedgehog country. Its one big thing is its belief in the essential rightness of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the Anglo-Saxon political model. The mood is belligerent; the instruments are made of metal and come in grey, green and black.

The foxes of the world include the present governments of Germany, France and once plucky little Belgium, as well as a handful of malcontents including China and Russia (former hedgehogs whose one big thing was proved wrong). The hedgehogs today include the US, Britain, Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, India, Mexico, Israel and Japan. And it is worth emphasising the central point of Robert Kagan’s new book Of Paradise and Power: that the foxish ideology developed in the UN and the EU can only exist because the hedgehog exists, in the form of the US security guarantee. As Kagan puts it, by ‘manning the walls of Europe’s post-modern world order …American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important’. American power, not European multilateralism, has kept the peace, and allowed the EU and the UN to survive and prosper to the point where they now pose a challenge of moral leadership to the US itself.

We stand at a parting of the ways. The coming war with Iraq is going to decide which side goes forward to face the next great threat to the West. If it goes badly, the foxes win. If it goes well, the 1990s myth of a post-modern order – beyond power, beyond war – will be finished. The day of the hedgehog will dawn.

I hope it does, for it is a marvellous prospect. Slowly, obscurely, enunciated with difficulty in thick Texan accents, a new doctrine of international order is emerging, of which the imminent war is a crucial outing. It is the doctrine of humanitarian intervention – or, to give it its proper name, neo-colonialism. This doctrine is driven by the firm belief – uncluttered by relativist self-loathing – in the universal principles of liberty and justice. It gives expression to our sense that everyone, not just the West, has a right to live in a decent country – and that the West has a duty to help them do so. In particular, it gives substance to the vacuities of the ‘ethical foreign policy’.


The problem with Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy is that it wasn’t ethical at all. That is, it declined to assert anything so controversial as an ethical position – other than the general principle that everyone should stop being so selfish and putting their own country first. This was as flaccid and impractical, as contrary to nature and all likelihood, as much else we are used to in the New Labour philosophy. What it amounted to was the assumption of guilt and self-reproach on the part of the British, while everyone else carried on merrily practising realpolitik. Far from a new doctrine of international order, the ‘ethical foreign policy’ was merely a codification of the traditions of the Foreign Office – memorably described by Alan Clark as the habit of ‘buying off foreign disapproval by dipping into the till marked British Interests’. The only new element added by Mr Cook was the unattractive assumption of moral superiority.

It is time for a truly ethical foreign policy, based on true moral superiority. Of course, a half-century of war in Europe, followed by a half-century of peace in Europe, have entirely drained Britain’s own capacity for this sort of project. The responsibility rests with our imperial offspring, the United States. But she can take the earlier empire, which she once so rudely resiled from, as her guide.

The British empire, said Queen Victoria, existed ‘to protect the poor natives and advance civilisation’. On one level this was a practical project – the irrigation of Egypt and the Indus, the laying of railways and founding of schools. But at a deeper level the empire was a moral project. Lurid tales of imperial savagery – the dumdum bullet and the Maxim gun, and the fate of the Indian mutineers, lashed to the muzzles of fieldpieces and blown to bits to the beat of drums – rather understandably obscure the fact that the empire was essentially a humanitarian undertaking. And in no respect was this more marked than in the great driving purpose of the empire throughout the mid-19th century: the abolition of slavery.

Slavery was to the British in the 19th century what terrorism is to the Americans in the 21st: a blight on the earth, fostered by renegades and despots, and an affront to civilisation. Yes, yes, we were complicit in its first stirrings – establishing plantations in Virginia and Jamaica, funding Saddam against Iran – but that simply fired our resolve to stamp it out once we realised our error. The slave trade was outlawed throughout the British dominions in 1834, and it was simultaneously decided that no one else should be allowed to practise it either. For the next 30 years the prime duty of the Royal Navy was to eradicate the slave trade on the high seas.

By and large Britain did this duty alone. Overwhelmingly the most powerful nation on earth, she chafed at the restraints of international co-operation. She did lead a sort of alliance against slavery, with a handful of ships from America and France, but in reality Britain did the work, often ignoring diplomatic sensitivities by attacking slaving stations on sovereign territory, or stopping and searching ships flying neutral colours. The Americans in particular, the hypocrites of their day, were more a hindrance than a help: they bleated about British ‘unilateralism’ and protested about the need for ‘international law’, while all the time her entrepreneurs were running their own slave ships between Africa and the Southern states. One thinks of the French, urging the ‘UN route’ while Total-Fina schemes to win Iraq’s oil contracts.

Slowly, slavery was wiped out. But Britain did more than stop the trade. Tony Blair’s recent action in Sierra Leone was the fulfilment of a historic obligation of protection. For Britain created the country in the first place as a haven for liberated slaves, founding Freetown on a Georgian grid pattern and introducing the basic elements of civilisation. A black bourgeoisie was planted, took root and flourished. For half a century Sierra Leone was a vibrant mercantile entrepot and a place of relaxed liberal charm. Then came independence, and the familiar story: corruption and repression, rebellion and civil war.

Africa’s problem today is not the after-effects of colonialism but another, more pernicious Western export: socialism, and its related grievance culture. Friedrich von Hayek, in his epochal The Constitution of Liberty (1960), regretted how the African elite of the independence years came to learn the ways of government at the LSE and Oxbridge, for they simply picked up the fashionable dogmas of the day. They took back to their countries not the ideas which had made Britain great – free trade and an open society – but those which were, even then, encompassing her decline: nationalisation and big government.

The task today for Britain’s imperi
al heir is to reverse the debilitating effects of socialism and tyranny in the developing world. This does not require perpetual territorial conquest; but it does require regime change, where regimes will not change themselves. And it requires more than regime change. Sometimes, in the days of empire, the British launched purely punitive expeditions to depose a hostile ruler, departing as quickly as they arrived and leaving devastation behind – ‘butcher and bolt jobs’, the soldiers called them. There is a ‘butcher and bolt’ lobby in Washington, which must be resisted. The Americans must stay long enough in situ in order to see, as in Sierra Leone, that liberty takes root.

Let there be no talk of ‘imposing’ ‘Western’ values here. As President Bush says, the values of liberty are universal, not Western. They only seem Western because the West has applied them most successfully, and grown rich on the proceeds. Liberty might just as easily have flourished in the Korean peninsula or at the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Then it would be Koreans and Iraqis, to the dismay of limp do-gooders among them, exporting ‘Eastern’ values to us, the benighted nations of the world.

Poor countries are poor because they don’t have property rights, independent banking systems and incorruptible judiciaries; because their governments are not subject to the rule of law and don’t pay their debts. Of course, the prescription is easier to write than to fulfil: as Russia found after 1990, rebuilding a country blighted by decades of totalitarianism takes more than a team of consultants from the World Bank. De Tocqueville, in his snapshot of American democracy, described a country which had been many years in the making. But as in America, as in Sierra Leone, the seeds of liberty can be planted; the natural instincts of all people for growth and prosperity and peace will flourish of their own accord. Why should the Left get to call themselves idealists? Why, more to the point, should they get to call themselves liberals? Pray that the doctrine of the hedgehog prevails, and we will see the realisation of Thomas Jefferson’s dream: an ’empire of liberty’.


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