Vijay Vikram on America’s thinly veiled imperialist agenda and its ramifications

‘Humanity as such cannot wage war because it has no enemy, at least not on this planet… When a state fights its political enemy in the name of humanity, it is not a a war for the sake of humanity, but a war wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a universal concept against its military opponent. At the expense of its opponent, it tries to identify itself with humanity in the same way as one can misuse peace, justice, progress and civilization in order to claim these as one’s own and to deny the same to the enemy.

The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism… To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.’ –Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

Manifest Destiny, an aspiration as old as the nation itself

I find this quotation on the impossibility of humanity as a political concept to be quite meaningful. It has a strange prophetic quality in that it foreshadows the legal and political discourse surrounding the 9/11 wars. This is remarkable when one considers that the first edition of The Concept of the Political was published in 1927 and the second in 1932 – long before George Bush or Dick Cheney were even conceived. It speaks to the grasp that Carl Schmitt had of the West and its civilisation. I say this because the drive to neconservative nation-building is not an American aberration, it is one of the logical outcomes of the organic development of Western civilisation – a post-colonial avatar of the white man’s burden. The United States has sought to identify itself with “peace, justice, progress and civilization”. It has sought to become the agent of “humanity” thereby clothing itself in ethical-humanitarian garb as it attempted to transform and bring “civilization” to the Muslim world.

Understanding the ethical-humanitarian nature of America’s imperial over-stretch is critical because that is what fuelled the missionary zeal of America’s war efforts. There is little doubt that apart from the economic imperialism that Schmitt evokes, the architects of America’s imperial foray were genuinely inspired by ethical imperatives, they did think they would bring the light of civilisation to the Muslim world, educate its people, uplift its women and improve the material and spiritual quality of their lives. That a healthy supply of oil and preferential contracts for American companies would follow was of course a bonus. Hence, a cocktail of revanchism, ethical inspiration and the need to secure the American homeland from further attacks occasioned the 9/11 wars.

What I find tragic about the entirety of America’s decade-long military and intellectual expedition into the darkest recesses of the Muslim world was that it wasn’t particularly ethical. It was inspired by the dubious notion that a political culture that was the outcome of the European Enlightenment would find a happy home in a country that barely was. What is particularly infuriating is the loud proclamation of the arrogant notion that free-market liberal democracy is the logical end-point of human political evolution. Hubris, thy name is America.

Thankfully, with mounting empirical evidence of the clear failure of morphing Iraqis into doppelgangers of  self-seeking, consumer-oriented, human rights-loving liberal Westerners, post-Cold War liberal assumptions are dying a slow death. That combined with the fact that the West can no longer claim to hold the key to un-interrupted economic growth and China’s apparent success in tasting the forbidden fruit of authoritarian politics and market economics has created a situation where America in particular and the West in general is no longer sure of itself and where the cry of “bring our troops home” has become deafening.

I suppose my motivation in writing this article was to question the ethics of the dominant mode of Western politics – Democracy with its passion for the discourse of “Rights” – both in the West and the non-West. The political doctrine of democracy is posited as the highest ethical peak that any people can hope to reach. But if we take the ultimate ethic as the ethic of good government – i.e. a government that allows for the material and spiritual well-being of its people – democracy may find itself wanting. The unmatched material superiority of the West and the victory of the Allies in the Second World war has precluded any debate on sensible alternatives to democracy. It is an anathema, a blasphemy to even speak of such a thing. But with the West loosing confidence in its sense of self and with the rise of an Asian power of meaningful demography and will-power, this century may witness a renaissance in the global debate on politics which till now resembled more of a monologue dictated from Washington D.C. and London.

There is an old Chinese proverb which goes something like this: “May you live in interesting times”. It seems that we are. It is up to radical reformers in countries like India to take the debate forward and free themselves from the bonds of ossified modes of Western governance.


Vijay Vikram

Image Credit- Louis Dalrymple