Don’t Blame Everything on Imperialism

The lessons we draw from the past often do more to shape the future than the past itself, even if they are the wrong lessons. Most of our errors and exaggerations contain more than a grain of truth. We are highly capable of taking a valid insight and pushing it a bit too far, or maybe blowing it out of all sense of proportion. In these cases, an incomplete reading of history can be worse than no reading at all.

In this post, I will examine a particularly pervasive “lesson” in world history circles: the idea that almost every problem ailing the world today is the product of western imperialism. This argument has been on my radar for the last week or so as various authors look back on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that infamous document where France and Britain divided the Middle East during World War I into their respective spheres of influence, a move that would contribute to the “arbitrary” borders of Syria and Iraq. Later agreements also slighted the Kurds, leaving them without a state. To say that Sykes-Picot was a self-interested move that neglected the will of the Arabs and Kurds is obvious. To blame two diplomats – one French and one British, both trying to preserve their country’s alliance against the Central Powers – for everything that ails the Middle East today is madness.

The blame-imperialism thesis fits into the larger “blame the West” narrative that has profound consequences for our politics. There’s almost no problem some people will not pin on imperialists of yester-century.

Global inequality between the western and non-western world? Blame imperialism.

Genocide and civil war in Africa? Imperialism.

Economic collapse in Latin America? Imperialism.

Paris terror attacks? Imperialism, obviously.

When people bemoan “imperialism,” they often mean western imperialism, of the sort practiced by white guys (American or European) in non-white places (Africa, Middle East, Asia) in the relatively recent (though not directly experienced) past. Sometimes this first category is enlarged to include the non-white Japanese, but with the added explanation that they must have gotten the idea to invade other people from the Americans, or else it would have never occurred to them.

But the West no more invented imperialism than it invented slavery. To cast problems of greed and selfishness as uniquely Western, as opposed to simply human pathologies, is to employ a double standard in historical judgment.

We don’t tend to blame Russia’s present-day problems on the fact that it experienced Mongolian imperialism in the 13th century. We don’t explain the U.K.’s current crises with the fact that they have been conquered or invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans. Somehow the Russians and the English survived their experiences with imperialism in ways Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians have not.

Why is western imperialism such a popular explanation?

First, because there is a large measure of truth to it. Belgian imperialism in Central Africa certainly contributed to the ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis that exploded into genocide in the 1990s. The Sykes-Picot Agreement did help set the stage for the somewhat-illogical division of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But while it is important to recognize the influence of imperialism on more recent or ongoing tragedies, it would be a mistake to overstate the explanatory power of this argument. The Belgians were not the ones ordering bands of rage-filled Hutus to kill Tutsis. Poor Mssrs. Sykes and Picot did not draw up the plan for ISIS back in 1915, nor did they conspire to ensure that despots and tyrants would gain control of the Middle East. Nothing in history is inevitable. To blame Group A’s problems on Group B can have the unintended effect of turning Group A into passive victims of Group B’s villainy, depriving them of their agency in the past, present, and future. When people really don’t like their current borders, they act to change them. Sometimes attempt to redefine borders more “logically” can have the perverse effect of leading to more genocide and strife. Just look at South Sudan today.

Second, Western imperialism has a long history. In many ways, it has dominated the last 500 years of world history. It began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese started seizing ports in the Indian Ocean and Spain started colonizing the Caribbean. At the time, however, Europeans were still suffering under the imperialism of the Ottoman Turks, who seemed poised to extend their control across the entire continent.

Western imperialism held off the Turks, but suffered a temporary setback in the 18th and early 19th centuries as large parts of North and South America broke free from European rule (thought they remained dominated by European descendants). It reached its peak in the 19th century, when European and American adventurists achieved a level of dominance over Africa and Asia, powered by industry and motivated by a potent blend of global capitalism, nationalism, and a newfound sense of moral and cultural superiority. Imperialism suffered two more setbacks in the First and Second World Wars, after which most colonized people gained independence. However, the blame-imperialism crowd will speak today of neo-colonialism, by which they mean the continued exploitation of the Third World by western business interests, international organizations, and even humanitarian agencies.

Again, there is some measure of truth to this. When the U.S. and U.N. try to impose a population control agenda on developing countries, this is neo-colonialism. When the U.S. criticizes African countries for failing to conform to the LGBT or abortion agendas, this is cultural imperialism of a particularly noxious variety.

But once again, there are limits to this argument, especially when explaining the origins of global inequality.

Why does the West still dominate “the rest” on many indicators of wealth and health? Why have China, Japan, and Russia imported far more elements of western civilization than we have borrowed from theirs? The blame-imperialism crowd would have us believe that this global imbalance in wealth and power is the cumulative effect of five centuries of plunder, while defenders of the West credit superior institutions. It’s probably not all one or the other, but what is the right combination?

If one believes the West predominates because it stole from the non-West, then the solution is for the western nations to “give back” the wealth they unjustly stole through some form of reparations, as some Caribbean nations have suggested. At the very least, westerners should feel very guilty for their ill-gotten advantage and non-Westerners should seethe with resentment. However, if one believes the success of the West is due to its superior institutions of private property and intellectual property protections, human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic process, then the non-West should be encouraged to emulate the West, to “westernize.”

But there is a certain degree of arrogance among the blame-imperialism crowd. No matter how distant the injustice, the West is always to blame. “It has to be our fault for their problems!” they insist. As if African and Asian societies did not have their own problems before the first white men arrived with their treaties or guns.

The truth is, imperialism has a complicated legacy. Some members of indigenous societies actually benefited from European colonization. Just ask the Native Americans not subjected to human sacrifice, or the Indian women not forced to commit sati. Several sources from Indians themselves attest to both the benefits and drawbacks of their experience with British colonization. On a big-picture scale, imperialism resulted in the diffusion of modern science and technology to peoples eager to exploit them. India and China once fell victim to European capitalist expansion. Today, they use the global free market and many western innovations to increase the standards of living for their people.

In the history of humanity, one would be hard-pressed to find a group that has never suffered injustice, never been defeated in battle, never been encroached upon by territorial rivals. The fact that we are all alive today can be viewed as a sort of historical “privilege,” to use the popular buzzword. We all descend from the people who did not die before they could reproduce. But we likewise descend from a mixture of conquered and conquerors, invaders and invaded. The Peruvian mestiza may have a hard time determining whether to blame or praise their European ancestors on behalf of their Native American ones, as might the Brazilian mulatto. The Spanish conquistadors who subjugated the Americans likely carried the blood of Moorish invaders who once subjugated Iberia.

But the blame-imperialism crowd suffers from a pervasive double standard. Somehow, everything must be the fault of the lighter-shaded group, while darker-shaded people must remain blameless. In this paradigm, the Crusades were a terrible case of Europeans trying to take over lands that didn’t belong to them, but little is said of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries that devastated the earliest Christian communities. Israel is loathed as an illegitimate state built on the theft of Palestinian land and culture, while the ancient claims of the Jews are dismissed. The Atlantic Slave Trade is rightly criticized, but the Muslim-dominated trade that predated and out-lived it is ignored.

A more complete and honest reading of history would acknowledge the challenges imposed by past imperialism without laying all the blame at the feet of long-dead colonizers. We should be able to acknowledge the damage the slave trade and imperialism did to Africa, while also examining the roles of indigenous slavery, lack of women’s rights, and cruel dictators like Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. We can acknowledge that Sykes-Picot did little to help the Middle East, while also examining the problem of extremist violence within Islam.

By blaming the West for everything, we let off the hook many of those directly responsible for present-day atrocities. It is an odd reality that much of the rhetoric of extremist groups like ISIS is virtually indistinguishable from left-wing accounts of history. Young Muslim radicals in Europe gush over the film-making of Michael Moore, while left-wing intellectuals seem to argue that if non-Western groups hate us, we must have done something to deserve it.

It’s a cliché that “those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” A less-acknowledged truth may be that those who draw the wrong lessons from the past are doomed to never move beyond it. If someone were to confess to an unhappy or even abusive childhood, we would not look at them and say “what a pity you will never get ahead.” Instead, we would encourage them to not let their past define them, to seek out new opportunities, and to accept personal responsibility for their future. The same should be the case for peoples with unhappy histories, as most histories at some point are.