The West knows best - and don't forget it

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The Independent Online
ON 30 January 1892, Captain Frederick Lugard led a small troop of British soldiers to a village on the shores of Lake Victoria, in what is now Uganda. Two years earlier an international congress in Brussels had empowered Britain to end the slave trade in that part of Africa. The congress had been hailed as a milestone in international co-operation. Never before, observed the Belgian delegate, had all the Great Powers come together so single-mindedly set on so generous and disinterested a purpose as saving the 'oppressed and decimated' races of Africa.

Britain entrusted to Lugard the humanitarian mission agreed in Brussels. Lugard decided he could carry out his duties only by stripping local African chiefs of their powers and imposing the three Cs - Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation - by force. When one local chief, Mwanga, challenged Britain's authority by refusing to turn over a man suspected of murder, Lugard decided to teach him a lesson. He hunted down Mwanga and his followers to a village on Lake Victoria and turned his machine- guns on them. 'What shrieks]' one French observer later wrote of the scene. 'What a fusillade] What deaths]'

I was reminded of Lugard's actions as I watched the scenes of bloodshed in Mogadishu. Here was another military force, acting under an international mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and in hot pursuit of a recalcitrant local leader, once more spilling blood on African soil. From the shores of Lake Victoria to the streets of Mogadishu, the people of Africa have a long history of paying the price for Western humanity.

Humanitarianism, of course, has become the new buzz word of international relations. There is barely a diplomatic move or military manoeuvre today that is not justified on altruistic grounds. And none more so than Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. As the New York Times observed of the US Marines' landing in Mogadishu last December: 'For the first time American troops are entering a country uninvited, not to shore up an anti-Communist regime, protect American wealth, or stifle a strategic threat, but simply to feed a starving people.'

A century ago Rudyard Kipling urged: 'Take up the White Man's Burden/ The savage wars of peace/ Fill full the mouth of famine/ And bid the sickness cease.' This idea, that the West has a moral duty to sort out the affairs of the rest of the world, has again become fashionable, overriding other considerations that until recently were dearly valued: the right to sovereignty, for example, or self-government. Even those who might have marched against the Vietnam war or denounced the US invasion of Grenada now find themselves in sympathy with the mission of Western forces in the New World Order.

'There is,' observed the Wall Street Journal, 'a word for this: colonialism.' Present-day colonialism, it continued, 'would be vastly different from 19th-century colonialism . . . But something like it may be the only policy that can prevent more tragedies in Somalia and maybe elsewhere in Africa.'

It is this belief that has led many to support, indeed call for, the kind of operation the US launched in Somalia. But the idea that colonial-

style Western rule could benefit the Third World is no more plausible today than it was in the 19th century. In some ways it may be less so.

In Capt Lugard's day there was no contradiction between humanitarian and imperial aims. To the Victorian mind the imperial ideal expressed the highest sense of moral duty. It was widely accepted that the Great Powers had a duty to introduce the rule of law to foreign parts, to suppress the slave trade, to put down piracy, to convert heathens to Christianity and, through the development of trade, uplift Africans and Asians from what was considered to be degrading idleness.

No doubt many Victorians were sincere in the belief that theirs was a mission of humanity. But the repercussions of their actions were anything but humane. The establishment of empire and the subjugation of vast areas of the world led to the carve-up among the Great Powers of Africa, Asia and the Middle East (all for good humanitarian reasons, of course) and the denial of freedom and decency to the majority of the world's population. Even as staunch an imperialist as Winston Churchill was forced to concede that the 'wonderful cloudland of (imperial) aspiration' contrasted savagely with the 'ugly scaffolding of attempt and achievement'.

Nevertheless, Victorian society accepted this as a price worth paying to bring the 'three Cs' to Africa and Asia. The moral superiority of the West justified any blood that might be spilt.

Gradually, through the 20th century, that position became morally and politically less acceptable. In the post-war years the imperial ideal was all but extinguished. The searing experience of Nazism and the Holocaust discredited the idea that the West could set standards of civilised behaviour. Anti-colonial struggles challenged the European claim to superiority. The Cold War forced the West - fearful that the nations of Africa and Asia would become part of the Soviet sphere - to accept the ideas of racial equality and national self-determination.

The world came to recognise that humanitarianism could not be imposed from above. The legacy of Western rule was not enlightenment and uplift but poverty, conflict and degradation. For the societies of Africa and Asia to develop economically and politically required not Western dominion but freedom from it.

Today we are returning to the idea that the West knows best and that the rest of the world would benefit from its civilising mission. The corrupt and despotic ways of many Third World rulers, the poverty and misery into which parts of Africa and Asia have sunk, have led many to question whether such states are capable of ruling themselves. The collapse of many Third World societies, the seemingly endless run of disasters from the Bangladesh flood to the Somali famine, and conflicts from the Kurdish tragedy to the war in the Balkans have encouraged the view that the West is best placed to sort out the world's problems. The West, Ronald Reagan told students at Oxford earlier this year, must 'impose civilised standards of behaviour on those who flout every measure of human decency'.

Yet there is no reason to suppose that the new humanitarianism will be any less barbaric or destructive than the old imperial ideal. Somali warlords may have replaced Arab slavers, and the UN, rather than the Brussels congress, may sanction military action. But, as the people of Mogadishu have discovered, the consequences are little different. The people of Somalia will, I fear, pay the same price for the 'restoration of civilised standards of behaviour' as those villagers on Lake Victoria did for the coming of Christanity, Commerce and Civilisation.

The writer's book, 'From Cold War to Race War', will be published next year.