“Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”
In our day the mere mention of imperialism is enough to provoke paroxysms of moral outrage. Except in derision, no one any longer dares to speak of the white man’s burden, and few possess the courage to say that it was Europeans who created the greatest civilization yet known to man. It is, therefore, to the credit of Hedley Bull and Adam Watson that they acknowledge the fact that “the global international society of today is in large part the consequence of Europe’s impact on the rest of the world over the last five centuries.” Nevertheless, they leave no doubt that their own, highly qualified approval of Western expansion extends principally to the period 1500 to 1800, centuries during which the European powers made efforts to deal with non-Western states on a basis of “moral and legal equality.”
In their judgment, the idea of European superiority that began to take firm hold during the more rapid expansion of the ensuing hundred years is “unfounded.” They do not say why it is unfounded, on the assumption, I suppose, that only those who have not yet outgrown ethnocentrism would advance such a claim. On their own showing, however, it was the self-confident conviction of cultural preeminence that made possible the transformation of a loose international system into what they hail as a more integral international society.
But not all of the co-contributors share Bull and Watson’s perspective. The specialists who have been given the task of describing the entry of non-Western states into the European world system are far from being persuaded that an international society has ever existed. Thomas Naff, for instance, offers a lucid account of the Ottoman Empire’s step-by-step acceptance of European diplomatic protocol, but emphasizes that Turkish values, outlooks on life, and behavior patterns remained largely what they had been. Much the same could be said with respect to Japan. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the “secluded” Empire did indeed signal its intention to act in accord with European standards and in that way achieve equality and Great Power status. Once having succeeded, however, Japan turned on the West and launched a martial campaign to win “Asia for the Asians” that culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Only a few years later, the communists seized power in China, where, following the Opium War of 1839, Western powers had attempted to impose their conceptions of law and diplomacy. Forced to submit, the Chinese were never converted—witness outbreaks of xenophobia such as the Boxer Rebellion and, more recently, the “Cultural Revolution.” Nor were the British able to exercise a transforming influence on India, as Gopal Krishna’s defiantly anti-British essay indicates. There he takes Jawaharlal Nehru to task because the Indian leader’s alleged hatred of war had its “source not in Gandhian influence but in the British tradition of radical rationalism.” And although James Piscatori is eager to reassure us that Muslims are sincerely committed to Western principles of international conduct, he cites numerous reservations of the kind that served to alienate Iranians from a Westernizing Shah.
In retrospect, it is difficult to see how all of this could have been otherwise, for as Bull and Watson point out, the “European-dominated international society presupposed a Latin and Christian culture from which its rules and institutions derived and with the help of which they were reinforced.” Except for some members of the elites, most of whom were educated in the West, few non-Westerners proved willing or able to adopt Christian-European culture; they had their own historically rooted religions, ways of thinking, and standards of behavior. As Watson himself observes in an admirable essay on Russia and Europe, Peter the Great’s herculean efforts to Westernize his country met with only limited success. By the 19th century, Russia had become a member of the Concert of Europe, but the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution soon changed that. The wartime government of Nicholas II renamed Sankt Petersburg “Petrograd” and, after 1917, “the deep feelings of the Russian soldiers and peasants who [overthrew] the Romanov regime . . . rejected the West.” To be sure, Russia too boasted a Christian culture, but its faith was of the East and it inspired an insistently anti-Western “Slavophilism” to which even Alexander Herzen, that remarkable 19th-century “Westernizer,” eventually paid tribute. And so, in his own way, did Lenin, despite his debt to Marx and Engels. His Marxism was profoundly anti-Western and peculiarly compatible with oriental forms of despotism.
Nor did the Bolshevik challenge to Western dominance remain an isolated phenomenon. The catastrophic war undermined European self-confidence and opened the door to an anticolonial revolution that exploded in full fury after World War II, when Europe lay in physical and spiritual ruins. In the space of only two decades most of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East gained their independence, with, it is well to remind ourselves, relatively little European opposition. Out of this hasty decolonization there emerged what Elie Kedourie, in one of the most intelligent essays in the book, calls the “new international disorder.” Bull and Watson, while conceding that Kedourie has a point, do not accept his pessimistic conclusions. They insist that international society, whatever its troubles, continues to exist and that a “cosmopolitan culture of modernity” is in the making. Unless, however, they have in mind a culture rooted in some vague form of pantheism, they can only be referring to secular culture. And even if we entertain the unlikely possibility that a great culture may be established on nonreligious foundations, it is still not obvious that secularization will prevail universally. In any event, the willing abandonment of Western, Christian culture is too high a price to pay for the mere appearance of international society.
For appearance is precisely what remains of the old European order. This must be evident to readers of Paul Sieghart’s breathtakingly ingenuous book on “human rights.” Beginning in 1945, when memories of Nazi inhumanity were still fresh, the United Nations and other international organizations, promulgated nine “instruments”—declarations, covenants, conventions, and charters—that, taken together with some 20 treaties, constitute what Sieghart, “an international arbitrator and consultant,” describes as an international legal code of human rights. Like the several instruments themselves, he appeals for philosophic support to the problematic theory of natural right, having learned nothing from Maurice Cranston’s What Are Human Rights?, an insightful work he cites in his bibliography.
Sieghart refrains from commenting on the important distinction Cranston makes between positive law and moral aspiration. He is, however, outspoken in his refusal to rest content with such familiar inalienable rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because he has persuaded himself that all of us have an inborn “right” to satisfy our appetites, material as well as moral. Non-Western states, he asserts with confidence, possess a “right to development” just as all men—and, need I say, all women—have a right to an “adequate” standard of living and “periodic holidays with pay.” Toward one claim only does this rights peddler evince any skepticism—Locke’s right to property. The assertion of such a right would embarrass socialist countries, and so, in the spirit of give and take, Sieghart suggests that property be treated as a qualified “regional human right,” an absurd notion that could be advanced only by someone undisturbed by contradictions in terms.
The documents that Sieghart has appended to his mercifully brief text are replete with articles and provisions that bear little relationship to reality anywhere but in the West—where they are superfluous. According to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for example, “no one [Sakharov?] shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.” With a perfectly straight face, Sieghart informs us that the USSR “thought it prudent to abstain” from voting for or against the Declaration. But in a less guarded moment, or perhaps I should say a more contemptuous mood, the Soviets did initial the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), according to which “no one [Solzhenitsyn?] shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” Still worse, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976), which was designed to accommodate socialist countries, identifies “the right of everyone [the Poles?] to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice.” Even in this respect, then, the record of the United States is superior to that of any communist or non-Western country, although, as Sieghart indignantly reports, it has not ratified any of the global or regional human rights treaties.
The U.S. has displayed good judgment in its refusal to ratify these treaties, as well as an awareness that each new document is more cynical than the last. This is so, I think, because the emphasis has begun to shift from Wilsonianism to Leninism, non- European ideologies both. Sieghart notes with satisfaction that the Wilsonian principle of the self-determination of all peoples has triumphed almost everywhere, at least on the surface; it does not occur to him, as it does to Kedourie, that “to upset all existing arrangements in order to make national self-determination the sole and overriding aim of all political action is a recipe for perpetual war.”
Leninism, unfortunately, is at least as mischievous as Wilsonianism and now serves to define the anti-Western agenda. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, the Bolshevik leader wrote that “capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries.” Emboldened by these inflammatory words, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) speaks menacingly of the need to eliminate colonialism, neocolonialism, apartheid, and Zionism, and of the “duty to achieve the total liberation of Africa” by “any means recognized by the international community.” This liberation, we are instructed, will entail the creation of a “New International Economic Order” that will be summoned into being by the massive transfer of resources from Western to non- Western countries. Such a transfer, many Africans and Asians insist, is justified because colonialism was and is responsible for the poverty of the former colonies. It is only, Ali Mazrui complains, because Africans live in a worldwide “capitalist prison” that their socialist experiments have all ended in failure.
Now this, as the excellent P.T. Bauer has demonstrated repeatedly, is simply not true. On the contrary, colonial rule promoted material progress, however much it eroded local values and customs in the process. What is more, the European empire, alone among world empires, was not by nature despotic. In fact, Europeans brought with them moral imperatives that inspired successful efforts to improve the well-being of the native peoples. Among other things, colonial governments established effective systems of law and order, modernized health services, and introduced new agricultural methods. As Adda Bozeman observes in her superb essay, the West may well be said “to have invented progress and reform.”
But no matter. Most non-Western leaders earn what political capital they possess by clothing their actions in the ritualistic language of anti-colonialism. And Soviet leaders nod publicly in agreement, notwithstanding the USSR’s own, far less humane imperial record and its continuing war against the Afghans. Richard Lowenthal suggests that the belief in a basic anti-imperialist affinity between the Soviet Union and the former colonies may not survive that war, but thus far non-Western leaders have embraced the Soviets as allies not merely in the quest for economic advantage, and hence internal political power, but in the assault on Western values. That is one reason why Hindus and Islamic fundamentalists have often seen fit to make common cause with Moscow.
Even more alarming than the war presently being waged against the West by non-Western states and the Soviet Union is the eagerness with which so many Western intellectuals have joined in the attack. In the spirit of E.M. Forster, whose A Passage to India accused the British and flattered the Indians, significant numbers of our clews are prepared to defend any non-Western demagogue, including Libya’s treacherous dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, who vilifies the West. As Bozeman rightly observes, such seemingly inexplicable behavior is rooted in a profound sense of guilt, itself a product of a Christian conscience. In their longing for absolution, secularized intellectuals have made of politics a religion; they have convinced themselves that forgiveness can be had only by identifying with the Chosen People—not the proletariat of a single nation but all of those whom the late Frantz Fanon called the wretched of the earth.
If the West is to survive, its peoples will have to accept the fact that the fragile and short-lived international system of the 19th century is no longer in working order. The world is once again an anarchy of religions, cultures, and political orders, a place, as Kedourie puts it, in which “power is checked neither by law nor by scruple.” Uppermost in his mind, no doubt, are the fanatical and cowardly terrorists for whom hatred of the West sanctifies any deed, however despicable. These barbarians pose a direct threat to a civilization that offers them access to the media and protection under the law.
Yet the peoples of the West will face a still greater danger if they fail to heed the warning Jose Ortega y Gasset issued more than 50 years ago: “Civilization is not ‘just there,’ it is not self-supporting. It is artificial and requires the artist or the artisan. If you want to make use of the advantages of civilization, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilization—you are done. In a trice you find yourself without civilization.”
[The Expansion of International Society, edited by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (Oxford: Clarendon Press) $39.95]
[The Lawful Rights of Mankind: An Introduction to the International Legal Code of Human Rights, by Paul Sieghart (Oxford: Oxford University Press) $15.95]