Imperial inheritance still dominates international relations

Paul Gillespie: ASEAN nations seek to protect their consensual, informal and respectful diplomacy

President Higgins: “while it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations”. Photograph: Getty Images

President Higgins: “while it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations”. Photograph: Getty Images

 

‘I am struck by a disinclination in both academic and journalistic accounts to critique empire and imperialism. Openness to, and engagement in, a critique of nationalism has seemed greater.”

This remark by President Higgins in an article setting the scene for his latest Machnamh memorial discussion on imperialism has succeeded in stimulating public debate on the subject in Ireland, Britain and internationally.

As Higgins adds, “while it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations”.

That significance applies to the theory and practice of international relations as much as to the other aspects of imperialism he mentions.

The history of international politics for much of the 20th century concerns the efforts to decolonise that imperial inheritance

Domination and discrimination are central to the imperial mindset in its account of unequal entitlements to modernity. European conquests of African, Asian and American territories from the 15th century on came with a “standard of civilisation” narrative privileging white Europeans and othering the colonised.

Built into that is a case for hierarchy and hegemony seen in the superiority and inferiority of cultures. Those colonised’s capacity for self-rule was measured against Western norms, law, institutions and economic models.

As the Indian scholar and notable advocate of an alternative non-Western and more universal approach to international relations, Amitav Acharya puts it: “This standard essentially implied that non-European countries must develop a certain type of legal and governance system which would ensure the protection of European investments, and citizens meeting their economic obligations to Europeans, in order to be considered part of the ‘civilised’ modern world.

“In reality this was a self-serving, exclusionary idea to keep much of the non-European or non-Western world colonised or marginalised.”

Legal frameworks

The history of international politics for much of the 20th century concerns the efforts to decolonise that imperial inheritance.

Many of these economic models remain intact in neocolonial structures. So do many of the norms, legal frameworks and institutions taken from Westphalian state formation in Europe – international law, state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs.

These have been turned against the liberal world of the Western powers as new geographical centres and powers emerge in the global south to challenge the United States-led system of international relations, Acharya argues. The Trump period was a turning point for the communitarian and radical opponents of liberal order in China, Asia and Latin America – as it was for the liberal consensus itself.

He says the liberal order is itself fractured, and the international system is one of multiple modernities. It is better described as a “multiplex” order including powerful multinational corporations and neoliberal, social democratic and state varieties of capitalism than as a multipolar one echoing or reproducing imperial inter-state relations.

“Instead of pining for the return of the international liberal order, it is important to embrace this reality of a modern decentred world.”

Acharya makes his case in a forthcoming volume on Asia and Europe in the 21st Century edited from the Asia-Europe Institute in the University of Malaya. Many of the authors concentrate on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its 10 members – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Their regionalism arises from the experience of decolonising from the 1950s in a world overshadowed by the Cold War between the US and the USSR. Its strategic imperatives left little space for their state and nation-building priorities.

Those drew strongly on their own nationalisms as well as on their varying styles of authoritarian, communist or democratic government.

They want to protect these values of consensual, informal and respectful diplomacy against post-imperial alignment or participation in the new strategic rivalry between the US and China through the developing Indo-Pacific strategic doctrine.

Anti-imperial

Their nationalisms, like the Irish one, are largely anti-imperial and therefore more universal than the exclusionary imperial nationalisms that gave us two world wars. This is an important part of the significance Higgins refers to.

As a contributor to the volume I argue these post-imperial values in ASEAN share several characteristics with the European Union since both are security communities making the transition from battlefield to marketplace – notwithstanding the large differences between them.

There is an opportunity to deepen the EU’s relations with individual states in ASEAN and with the regional organisation to help develop the greater inter-regional ties that can mitigate a new round of great power rivalry.

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