Weak nations will succumb to American ambition unless we insist on respecting sovereignty

It has become fashionable to denigrate national sovereignty. The arguments are well versed: sovereignty is no absolute; it should not be used to excuse the abuse of human rights; the needs of justice should override the principle of sovereignty. It is suggested that this represents some profound shift in thinking, a reversal of centuries of history. This would be true if we were talking about the charmed circle of the developed world – Britain, France, the United States and the rest. But of course we are not. The sovereignty at issue is that of countries in the developing world which, until the second half of the 20th century, for the most part did not enjoy national sovereignty anyway. For them, the taste of self-rule, the possibility of not being governed by a race and culture from far away, is, historically speaking, an extremely recent experience. And now it is again under serious assault.

Many things came to an end in 1989, even though it was not until after 9/11 that we could begin to understand what many of them were. Nineteen eighty-nine was about the defeat of communism. With 9/11 we saw the emergence of a unipolar world. The invasion of Iraq began to define the nature of American interest and the parameters of that unipolar world, as well as bringing into question many post-1945 arrangements, norms and institutions. It is now clear that the latter included one profound change that has been barely commented upon. American hyperpower marks the end of the post-colonial era, little more than 50 years after it started.

It takes the loss of one era and the emergence of a new one to properly understand the dynamics and merits of the former. Tony Blair may fear that we are re-entering a bipolar world – in reality there is no possibility of this for at least two decades, probably longer, and the only candidate on the horizon is China – but in truth bipolarity offered possibilities that unipolarity denies. Competition between the two superpowers served to constrain their respective behaviour, especially beyond their agreed spheres of influence. It may not be “politically correct” to speak of the merits of a bipolar world, but it gave space and opportunity to people in the former colonies where now, in a world where there is just one master, there is much less. The anti-colonial moment was shaped, and in part enabled, by the emergence of the bipolar world after the second world war.

The undermining of the sanctity of sovereignty has taken little more than a decade. It should be remembered that at the time of the first Gulf war, “regime change” was an entirely unacceptable proposition, breaching as it did the accepted conventions concerning sovereignty: the first Bush administration recognised this by not taking Baghdad. There followed a slow erosion, with the western intervention in Kosovo – the benefits of which remain dubious – proving to be the most important violation of the principle before the invasion of Iraq. This is not to suggest that the world was not replete with breaches of sovereignty during the cold war: the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the successive attempts by the Americans to unseat Castro, for example. But until now, since the era of decolonisation was ushered in, there has been no serious attempt to challenge sovereignty as a sacrosanct principle of state relations.

The argument over Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction acted as a convenient (and seemingly fictitious) bridge between the last Gulf war and this one. In reality, the American invasion was about something completely different: the assertion of American power in this most sensitive of regions, with the added perk of control of the country’s oil. Perversely, while the first Gulf war was fought in defence of the principle of sovereignty – Kuwait’s – the second was about precisely the opposite, the rape of Iraq’s.

A handful of left commentators have sought to justify the American invasion on the grounds that it would bring to an end the human rights violations of the Saddam regime. This may prove to be a by-product of the American invasion – though at a huge and far greater cost than non-intervention – but it was never the main intent, simply one of the pretexts. To major on this possibility betrayed a failure to comprehend the big picture, namely the emergence of a unipolar world and the transformation of the United States into a new kind of political animal. This is a moment of a huge historical regression. The rise of imperial America has seen not only the destruction of Iraq’s sovereignty, it also brings into question the sovereignty of those countries deemed to be part of the “axis of evil”, and in due course no doubt others as well. That is how imperial powers behave when they try and bend the world to their own will and interest.

Such attitudes are infectious, not least in a country like ours, where old colonial instincts remain strong. Not long before the invasion of Iraq, a well-known Labour MP, in a TV interview, described Zimbabwe as a rogue state. According to some accounts, Tony Blair would, given a free hand, like to sort out Zimbabwe’s problems using the same methods as in Iraq. One would have thought that Britain’s historical role in screwing up Zimbabwe might have taught a little humility, but none of it. Or take another example. During the course of an item on Newsnight examining the likely attitudes of the developing countries towards the second, aborted, UN security council resolution, Jeremy Paxman scoffed at the very idea that a country like Guinea should be in a position to exercise any influence on a matter of such global significance.

I would not argue that sovereignty is always sacrosanct. There was clearly a powerful case for intervention in Rwanda, more powerful than any recent example I can think of, but in any case this would not necessarily have undermined sovereignty. Some critics would argue that my position puts sovereignty before human rights, and condones genocide, torture and ethnic cleansing. But to oppose intervention is not to condone the behaviour of Saddam, Mugabe, Kim Jong-Il or whoever. It is to assert that western intervention that violates sovereignty is the wrong way to solve these problems.

As Iraq demonstrates so eloquently, intervention is never simply or mainly an altruistic enterprise. It is about might and interest: and never has this been more true than today. Moreover, many of the problems of these societies are bound up with the colonial legacy. This is not to deny the abject failure or worse of some of these regimes (though many more have done extremely well: the case of east Asia springs to mind), but to insist on the historical responsibility of the former colonial powers for many of their present problems. Ethnic cleansing in Africa is directly linked to the behaviour of the former colonial powers and the way they drew the borders. Malaysia is ethnically so diverse because the British brought in indentured labour on a huge scale from China and India. The fact that it has been so successful as a multi-ethnic society is a tribute, far too little acknowledged, to post-independence Malaysia. Humility rather than hubris would be the appropriate western response to the problems and challenges these countries face.

Plus respect. There is a widespread view in the west that our values are the right values, that we know best, that every country will sooner or later take our road, that everyone will end up, at some point in the future, looking like a variant of ourselves. Such a mindset denies difference and betrays a lack of understanding of the specificity of history and culture. It is misconceived and chauvinistic. The non-western world will certainly share some things with the west, but in many respects they will remain, in their various ways, quite different. One only has to look at the attempts to impose democracy and the free market on Russia to see how western values are culturally specific and not a universally applicable panacea. Does anyone seriously believe that Iraq will become a western-style, free-market liberal democracy – in five years or indeed 50?

Embedded in this lack of respect for other cultures is a barely concealed racism. To this day, the racist legacy of the British empire is little considered and hugely underestimated. The new imperialism carries its own racial charge, in some respects greater than before. The new global fault line – the struggle between “good” and “evil”, between “civilisation” and “barbarity” – is terrorism; and the agents of terror are, in this discourse, usually brown, sometimes black, never white. In the heyday of European colonialism, expansionism was in part a by-product of imperial competition. This time the divide is constituted as that between the developed and a very large part of the developing world. At the heart of the new imperial politics, in other words, lies race.