"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"
-L.P. HartleyMy wife and I have been watching a BBC documentary series on the British Empire. In the mindset of its time, the British Empire was civilized, moral, powerful, and fashionable. Britain enriched itself and enriched its colonies--or at least so they thought.
From our post-imperial perspective, these views seem ignorant and immoral. How could a white, wealthy elite justify subjugating a quarter of the world? Even if they brought law and civilization, it could never justify the brutality of slavery, colonization, and the wars necessary to undergird them. The haughty British deluded themselves into thinking they were performing a service for the colonized when really all they were doing was enriching themselves. Worse yet, the elites may have known it was a facade and yet kept the facade up simply to preserve power. The elitism and racism were repugnant and rampant.
This understanding is particularly popular in the United States--an independent, democratic nation founded on throwing off the chains of empire.
Yet this story is a little too neat, too self-justifying. We have matured past our immoral imperial history. We know better now. With our climate accords and peacekeeping missions and microfinancing, we help the developing (not third and decidedly not uncivilized) world in real ways imperialism never did. We allow the peoples of the developing world to govern themselves on their own terms.
But have we really matured?
The developing world can govern itself, so long as it is liberal, sustainable, and tolerant. Criminalize homosexuality, repress women, or restrict voting rights and we might invade you. We did it in Serbia then Somalia then Afghanistan and now (to an extent) Syria. When our NGOs dig their wells or build their schools, they do so to spread the gospel of liberalism (the justice towards which history arcs). When our businesses bring McDonalds, they do so to earn money and to bring capitalism.
Admittedly, we no longer directly colonize other nations. Nor do we argue that the interests of our nation and the interests of God are aligned (at least, not as often). But the differences are smaller than we may be comfortable with. In a secular society, isn't justice the highest remaining authority? What makes spreading belief in tolerance different to spreading belief in Christianity? What makes spreading liberalism different to spreading civilization?
I am not arguing our interventions have been wrong. I am arguing that we must wrestle with the morality of imperialism if we want to jusify our modern inteventions.
We can console ourselves with an easy narrative that we have overcome an elitist, racist imperial past but we do so at our peril. Our peacekeeping operations and nation building are all too often imperialism in different garb. Economic development, liberalization, and modernization can just as easily mask elitism or racism. Our goals may be different but the underlying thesis is the same: we know better and you'd be better off like us. Imperialism's temptations remain. If the past is a foreign country, perhaps we should try to understand it before we condemn it. By understanding it we will understand, and critique ourselves, better.