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
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-
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: