Paved Intentions: Civilization and Imperialism

By Mazower, Mark | World Affairs, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Paved Intentions: Civilization and Imperialism

Mazower, Mark, World Affairs

If there is one thing John McCain and Barack Obama seem to agree on, it is that there remains a place for morality in world affairs. Both have lent their support to the idea that America has a duty to stand up for the cause of freedom. In both cases, their advisers have called for alliances of democracies that will bypass the flailing UN--its Security Council paralyzed by the obstruction of authoritarian powers, its General Assembly packed with petty despots who have no interest in promoting human rights. Not so long ago, the ending of the Cold War stimulated hopes for the creation of a new world order in which the United Nations would be able to regain some of the luster that it had lost over the preceding decades. It was this sense of the beginning of a new historical epoch which also directed scholarly attention back toward the start of the postwar era that had just ended. But the increasingly grim spiral of events in the early 1990s--the war in the former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda--put into question the robustness of the human rights regime that had been established after the Second World War.

If today's humanitarian interventionists have lost hope that the UN can reform itself to intervene decisively in the name of civilized values--this, despite the sentiment that culminated in Kofi Annan's "Responsibility to Protect," or R2P, as the humanitarian community abbreviates it--they remain convinced that America and its partners can, or at any rate, should try to do so. If Bosnia and Rwanda are the stations of their cross, Sierra Leone--and maybe Kosovo and Iraq--offer their models for the future. Absent their guiding hands, it will not be the U.S. and its allies that define the norms of civilized international behavior, but Putin's Russia or perhaps China.

This sense of the need for moral leadership abroad has only been sharpened by 9/11 and its aftermath; witness the evangelism of Tony Blair and George W. Bush and the rhetorical appeal to an "Alliance of Civilizations." Yet before this goes much further, we might want to take a deep breath and look back. For all this talk of stomping round the world to uphold or promote civilization has a long history and cannot be divorced from the rise and fall of Europe and European values over the last two centuries. While the values implicit in the idea of civilization seemed natural and uncomplicated to most Europeans over this period, they looked much more questionable to those who were abused and colonized in its name. So let this new generation of interventionists at least take stock, lest they risk drawing on the prejudiced values of past generations and finding that their moral arsenals have been even more depleted than their real ones.

Between 1815 and the Second World War, an international system of states grew up that was based on the primacy of European power and values and the spread of European "civilization." The term civilization emerged in both Britain and France around the middle of the eighteenth century. It connoted both the process by which humanity emerged from barbarity and, by extension, the condition of a civilized society; namely, the security of person and property. Thus, what is especially striking about Europe's development after Napoleon's defeat is its political coloration. Civilization now conveyed a liberal program based on cooperation rather than conquest. Francois Guizot's History of Civilization in Modern Europe defines civilization as "the history of the progress of the human race toward realizing the idea of humanity," and highlights the key themes for the future: the "expansion of mind" and of the full and rational enjoyment of the human faculties, and the spread of rights. Guizot acknowledged that there had been other civilizations--Egypt and India, for example--in the past. But European civilization was superior because it combined cultural community with an acceptance of political diversity.

If civilization was located in Europe, then Europe's overseas expansion required deciding how far civilization could be exported. …

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