Academia is silent on imperialism, as German universities were during the rise of the Nazis



other day, I attended a conference at the University of Sussex on the "new

imperialism". What was extraordinary was that it took place at all. Julian

Saurin, who teaches in the school of African and Asian studies at Sussex, said

that, in ten years, he had never known an open discussion on imperialism. About

80 per cent of international relations studies in the great British universities

is concerned with the United States and Europe. Most of the rest of humanity is

often rated according to its degree of importance or usefulness to "western

interests", the euphemism for western power and imperialism.


concept of modern imperialism seldom speaks its name. It is a taboo subject,

described as "provocative" by those "liberal realists" who shunned the Sussex

conference. The issue of academic silence this raises is crucial. At times,

universities that pride themselves on a free-thinking tradition go silent.

Germany during the rise of the Nazis and the United States in the McCarthyite

period offer obvious examples.


silence these days is not as obvious, but no less complicit. For example, an

invasion and occupation that wiped out a third of a population, causing the

deaths of more people, proportionally, than died in Cambodia under Pol Pot,

provoked an academic silence that lasted for most of 24 years.


was East Timor, which Henry Kissinger once likened to an "obscure brand" of soft

drink. It was Kissinger who sent arms illegally to General Suharto’s invading

troops. Apart from John Taylor’s marvellous book, Indonesia’s Forgotten War (Zed

Books) and the work of Peter Carey, Mark Curtis and, more recently, Eric

Herring, the greatest genocide in the second half of the 20th century apparently

did not warrant a single substantial academic case study, based on primary

sources, originating in the international relations department of a British

university. Like the massacres that brought Suharto to power in the 1960s – in

which both the US and British governments played critical roles – the genocide

in East Timor was airbrushed by those whose job was to keep the scholarly record

straight. The work of Noam Chomsky, a lone voice on East Timor, was considered

too "provocative".


study of postwar international relations was invented in the United States,

largely with the sponsorship of those who designed and have policed modern

American economic power: a network that included the Ford, Carnegie and

Rockefeller foundations, the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) and the Council on

Foreign Relations, effectively an arm of government. Thus, in the great US

universities, learned voices justified the cold war and the new Washington-led



this country, with honourable exceptions, this "transatlantic" view found its

echo. There are current variations, known by their imperialist euphemisms. A

"third way" for Britain as "a good international citizen" is fashionable.

"Humanitarian intervention" is another favourite. The interventionist divides

the world into worthy and unworthy victims. The Iraqi Kurds are worthy of

Anglo-America "protection". In Turkey, the Kurds struggling against an onslaught

from the regime are unworthy. Turkey is a member of Nato.


interventionist assumes the moral inferiority of the target nation. Iraq is

Saddam Hussein. Serbia is Milosevic. However, Suharto, a mass murderer in a

league of his own, was never demonised. On the contrary, he brought "stability"

to Indonesia. Lately, prominent "third way" experts have discovered the horrors

imposed on East Timor, long after what they say can have any effect. Perhaps

they will one day discover the fraudulence of Nato’s bombing campaign in the

Balkans, and the genocidal nature of sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people.


is no conspiracy. It is the way the system works, ensuring "access" and

"credibility" in an academic hierarchy whose loyalty has shifted to a veiled "globalised"

ideology that is really rampant capitalism. Always eager to credit more ethical

intent to government policy-makers than the policy-makers themselves, the

"liberal realists" ensure that western imperialism is interpreted as crisis

management, rather than the cause of the crisis and its escalation. Behind the

fog of obfuscation and jargon, this is essentially a tabloid scholarship that

sees terrorism in groups, individuals and "rogue states", almost never in "our"

governments and arms industries, which historically are among the world’s

greatest abusers of human rights. To state such a truth is to risk being

dismissed as unscholarly.


recognition of a lethal "us" is the most enduring taboo. There was no debate on

whether to take humanitarian action against the delivery of British Hawk fighter

aircraft to the genocidists in Indonesia. There was no debate on intercepting

shipments of American and British weapons to terrorist regimes in Saudi Arabia,

Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Colombia. There is no debate about whether

western leaders ought to be indicted for crimes against humanity, for which

there is abundant prima facie evidence. Just imagine the almost immediate

improvement in humanitarian conditions around the world if "we" stopped under-

writing terrorism.


America ordaining its new enemy, China, while planning to militarise space,

these are dangerous times. Unless our experience, memory and history are to be

shaped as instruments of great power, we need independent voices in centres for

the study of imperialism, not echoes and silence.


thanks to BISA International Relations Working Group and the Centre for Global

Political Economy, University of Sussex


more Pilger check out:



Leave a comment