Academia is silent on imperialism, as German universities were during the rise of the Nazis
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
This 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".
The 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 imperialism.
In 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.
The 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.
There 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.
This 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.
With 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.
With thanks to BISA International Relations Working Group and the Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex
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