In The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Jared Diamond makes a startling statement which spoiled my relationship with a fellow student and the professor of a university course I was auditing. They were incredulous and indignant when I passed on his observation that the members of indigenous groups he interviewed were virtually unanimous in their gratitude to foreign colonizers – usually in the guise of missionaries and policemen – for the peace and everyday safety that they had brought. Diamond raises the issue because it has long been something of a truism among politically progressive people that wars between indigenous groups were inevitably caused, or at least greatly exacerbated by invading colonial powers.
While Diamond recognizes that this can sometimes be the case, as invading powers seek to divide and conquer, he does note that there is no reason to believe that traditional societies were less violent than modern ones. Indeed, he provides considerable evidence that, at least in the case of New Guinea, the mortality rate from wars, skirmishes, ambushes and revenge killings for indigenous groups was considerably higher than in even the countries that suffered the most in World War II (Russia, Germany and Japan). This is why, he reasons, a single minimally-armed official could usually maintain “order” among thousands of formerly highly combative men, belonging to more than a dozen historically constantly waring groups. Any one of them could potentially – and any group of them could easily – kill this token local representative of a distant foreign power, but all appreciated the value of the much safer everyday lives that their tacit recognition of this supervening arbitrating power provided.
Recognizing that some aspects of imperialism may actually bring some benefits in particular situations does not amount to accepting racist notions of a “white man’s burden” (the myths underlying which the same Jarred Diamond likely did as much as anyone to demolish in his bestselling Guns, Germs and Steel, by the way). As Christopher Hitchens points out in “Marx’s Journalism: The Grub Street Years” Karl Marx’s
“appreciation of the laws of unintended consequence, and his disdain for superficial moralism, also allowed him to see that there was more to the British presence in India than met the eye. No doubt the aims of the East India Company had been the subordination of Indian market and Indian labor for selfish ends, but this did not alter the fact that capitalism was transforming the subcontinent in what might be called a dynamic way.”
As Hitchens further notes, the recognition that this “globalization” had its progressive aspects “did not blind him to the cruelties of British rule”. Supporting, as I did, intervention in Libya did not blind me to the many dark motives behind it – the testing of new weapons, an attempt to get at Libyan oil, more sinister and long-range American/Nato security-state and global-domination schemes. However, what other choices was there? The prospect of a massively-armed dictator massacring yet more innocents that the poorly armed popular opposition could not possibly protect left no choice but to demand that Gaddhafi’s murderous military machine be stopped by the only powers that could do so.
There seems to be wide agreement that if there had been meaningful intervention in Syria three years ago, a popular and democratic opposition would likely have been able to eventually take power with a minimum of bloodshed. Three years later the tattered remnants of that opposition is apparently sometimes having to fight fanatical elements behind its own lines as well as well as the Assad regime and the other fundamentalist fanatics who have become its shock troops. And the starvation and mass-murder of civilians and sickening torture and murder of detainees goes on and on.
Is there any point in speculating what could or would have been done without Putin’s continual interference and the quieter but equally ruinous Chinese veto? The resulting deadlock has undermined the already minimal credibility of the United Nations yet further. Time and again its actions have been been weak and ineffective. It was even, in cases like Congo and the murder of its elected leader Lumumba likely criminally complicit. It failed in Rwanda, all but failed in ex-Yugoslavia and brought Cholera to Haiti. But what else do we have?
There are huge, pressing issues like global warming and climate change and increasing pollution of our environment to the very bottom of the oceans that urgently require international action. But we are unable to even to establish an effective, generally recognized world policeman.