The white Western compulsion to blunder across the globe to save people from themselves is nothing new, it was just rebranded.
The decades following the end of the Cold War were good ones for interventionists. With the spectre of thermonuclear Armageddon now a memory, the world could be remoulded, re-ordered in the West’s image. Dictators previously shielded by the Soviet Bear were now left defenceless in the face of the US military Leviathan. Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, all fell before a triumphant West convinced it had history on its side.
The intellectual justification for this new crusading spirit came from people like Roger Cooper, Thomas P Barnett, and Francis Fukuyama. To them and their supporters, Western style free market liberal democracy was the final stage of the human journey. All nations would eventually succumb. It was human nature. And if force had to be used to nudge some along the way, well that was the price we paid for the greater good of humanity.
And for those not interested in what tweedy intellectuals had to say, history provided all the justification required. Nazism, Fascism, militarism had been smashed during the Second World War. Soviet tyranny over Eastern Europe had been faced down during the Cold War. And now despots everywhere were rushing to make themselves more respectable, ditching the uniforms for suits, and making all the right noises about reform.
Because Americans and Western Europeans kept telling ourselves that we had saved the world, improving it at every juncture, we began to weave a narrative into our collective national identities. Because we had been the first to reach the apex of human development, it was our duty to ‘assist’ the rest of humanity.
Students of history will have no difficulty seeing parallels with the last period of Western economic and military dominance; the era of colonial empires. During the 19th and early 20th centuries white, Christian Europeans used their overwhelming military, industrial and economic supremacy to take control of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The justification for this rampant imperialism was, in the minds of the practioners, self evident; Western Europe was the apex of civilisation. It was thus the good and decent thing to do to lift the wretched souls of less fortunate lands up to our level. Under our tutelage, they’ll eventually enjoy the benefits of the age.
Even the US got in on the act. Not content annexing a continent in its own version of Lebensraum, the US liberated Cuba and The Philippines from Spain, only to install its own brand of patronising cultural imperialism, or as one US historian phrased it ‘benevolent supremacy’.
Even the very phrase ‘White Man’s Burden’ tells us a great deal. This was not empire for our benefit, but rather an obligation, almost a chore. We genuinely believed that our causal racism was in fact a Christian philanthropic service. If the natives didn’t see it like that, well too bad.
Today we have a new names; Colonialism has become liberal interventionism. The Dark Continent has become the Failed State. We’ve replaced pith helmets with cruise missiles, but the over arching mentality remains the same; too many nations in Africa and the Middle East are in desperate need of a Western big brother to come to their aid. Being less advanced than we, they simply aren’t able to resolve their problems themselves. It’s all so wretched. Somebody should do something. And matters not if the locals didn’t ask for our help; they don’t know what’s good for them.
It is telling also the compulsion to intervene for the ‘right reasons’ still remains a middle class peculiarity. Patriotism tends to be most evident among the Working Class, but a sense of civic responsibility and global obligations is, as was in the days of empire, a common trait in the Chattering Classes and Dinner Party sets. Then as now, there was a sincere belief that Britain had an obligation to be the world’s social worker and policeman.
Just as the interventionists of the 19th century called for the Royal Navy to hunt down slave traders because it was morally right to do so (a task that involved landing forces and deposing African kings engaged in the trade), today’s influential members of the politically connected elite are calling for action to be taken in Syria. Like the slave trade between African and Arab kingdoms, Syria threatens no British interests. Indeed, there is a case to be argued that Assad winning the civil war would be a preferable outcome for Britain. But still, we seem destined to expend blood and treasure we can ill afford slaying yet another monster far from Britain’s shores.
One could ask why the Arab League, India, Japan, South America or China don’t seem to feel the same interventionist urges as Western powers do. They have at least as much money as we do, and their militaries could topple an exhausted Assad regime. Some are liberal democracies to boot. One obvious answer is that they were themselves victims (or beneficiaries) or Western enlightened meddling. But another, if not alternative then at least complimentary answer, is that the ruling elites of the Western powers continue to believe it is our right and our duty to act. And although they would never dream of using such loaded language, it’s difficult not to see historic parallels with the White Man’s Burden of old.