Peacekeeping means imperialism
At the time of writing, the United Nations is engaged in a global crusade
for peace which bears an uncanny resemblance to acolonial-style war against
the third world.
In the latest stage of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Somalia,
American helicopter gunships are blasting away the heart of Mogadishu, piece
The US government is warning the Iraqis to do whatever UN missile site inspectors
say, or else prepare themselves to inspect some more American cruise missiles
at close quarters in the centre of Baghdad.
And president Bill Clinton has told the North Koreans that if they defy
the orders of the nuclear powers on the UN security council and try to develop
their own Bomb, they risk having their country 'annihilated'.
Every act of American or Western aggression in the third world today is
justified as a noble gesture on behalf of the United Nations or the 'international
community'. Somebody should ask the people digging their dead from the rubble
of Baghdad and Mogadishu what they think of the new global spirit of unity.
The picture on the front cover of this issue of Living Marxism reflects
the real world more accurately than all the fine words about an international
community. It shows two Italian soldiers from the UN contingent, wearing
rubber gloves to protect themselves, roping and blindfolding a Somali like
an animal. It is an apt symbol of a world system in which a handful of great
powers strut the globe holding the reins of power, while the rest struggle
in the dark with their hands tied behind their back. There is nothing united
about these nations.
The United Nations security council is the self-styled spokesman for the
international community. In fact it is a self-appointed committee of top
capitalist powers. The USA, Britain and France are permanent members of
the security council, with the power of veto over all UN actions; the other
permanent members, China and Russia, lack the clout to stand up to America
even if they wanted to. If and when the new proposals to make Germany and
Japan permanent members are put into practice, the UN security council will
be complete as a private club for the rich and powerful.
What the 'UN actions' in Somalia, Iraq or Korea today really represent is
the security council members dictating to the peoples of Africa, the Middle
East and Asia (they also give orders to the new third world of Eastern Europe).
Typically, the US authorities did not even bother to inform UN officials
before bombing Baghdad and Mogadishu. The UN was only whistled up afterwards,
to give a rubber stamp of legitimacy to the slaughter.
A lot has changed in world affairs during the twentieth century as many
countries have advanced through the era of decolonisation and industrial
development. Yet recent events demonstrate that the divide between the Western
powers and the rest of the world remains fundamentally as firm as a century
ago. The same relations of domination continue to characterise international
The difference is that, in the 1890s, the authoritarian exercise of global
power by the West was openly called imperialism. In the 1990s, they call
it peacekeeping on behalf of the international community.
In the early years of the twentieth century, it was Britain which carpet-bombed
the towns of Somalia and Iraq, to subdue opposition to its will. Nobody
doubted that these were acts of empire- building. Of course, the British
always claimed to be saving and civilising the natives, conquering them
for their own good. But they never tried to deny that they were colonialists.
Today the USA leads the assaults on Somalia and Iraq, while Britain is reduced
to holding its coat. There are many other contrasts between the two eras,
not least in terms of the military technology employed and size of the cities
bombed. But the economic and political essence of imperialism remains intact,
albeit in very different circumstances.
The Western powers' influence over the world economy today allows them to
starve states like Iraq or Serbia with sanctions. Their political authority
enables them to dictate who governs countries around the world, taking sides
in civil wars and annulling or endorsing election results as they see fit.
And their military might ensures that they retain the ultimate sanction
against any upstart.
The exercise of Western power around the world is arguably more open and
arrogant today than at any time since the heyday of colonialism. Yet there
is a uniquely uncritical attitude and lack of opposition towards imperialism
in the West. Instead, the UN interventions are widely accepted at face value,
as international peacekeeping operations. In this climate, policies from
the colonial past can be brought back into open usage, wrapped up in the
new language of UN interventions.
Consider, for instance, the old turn-ofthe-century concept of 'extra-territoriality'.
This meant that Western powers operating within a formally independent country
like China would ignore the sovereignty of their host, and apply their own
laws on Chinese territory. The UN security council has now established a
modern version of extra-territoriality in countries such as Iraq and Somalia.
Under these arrangements, the USA and its allies simply sidestep the UN's
own international law (which expressly forbids interference in the affairs
of another state) and impose their own regulations in Mogadishu or Baghdad.
The impression created is that the UN security council is making up new
rules as it goes along, in order to ram home its authority. So one day the
Iraqis are required to allow Western-appointed officials free access to
their military facilities, the next day they have to accede to the installation
of permanent surveillance cameras. This sort of thing used to be called
spying and subversion. Now it is called sending a mission of United Nations
observers and inspectors.
The notion that the UN security council are peacekeepers, while the Somalis,
Iraqis or North Koreans are the aggressors, turns the truth on its head.
From this perspective, the responsibility for war and suffering is shifted
on to some of the poorest and least powerful peoples on Earth, who can be
blamed for creating the world's problems. Worse still, the Western powers
themselves can be presented as the victims of the third world.
Take the US missile strike on Baghdad in June, supposedly launched in retaliation
for an alleged Iraqi plot against former US president George Bush. Behind
the highly dubious 'evidence' (suggesting that Saddam Hussein had hired
a hit squad of incompetent booze smugglers to assassinate Bush), the message
here was that America is the aggrieved party in the Gulf. The fact that
the US forces commanded by Bush slaughtered perhaps 200 000 Iraqis during
the Gulf War, and that UN sanctions have killed many more since, was quietly
forgotten as Clinton launched a hail of cruise missiles to avenge his poor
The same pattern can be seen in the way that the violence in Somalia is
blamed on the Somali 'warlord', General Aideed, accused of attacking innocent
UN peacekeepers. Aideed is a local faction leader with at most 500 men armed
with rifles. Yet the UN security council has accused Aideed of committing
Hitler-style 'crimes against humanity', and sent in the hi-tech US gunships
described as 'flying tanks' to blast civilian areas of Mogadishu on the
pretext of hunting him down. On 13 July, British newspaper headlines screamed
that four Western journalists had been 'butchered by Somali mob'. The fact
that the crowd's fury was an instant reaction to the American slaughter
of more than 20 Somali civilians was barely thought worthy of a mention.
As international relations become militarised, the effect of presenting
imperialism as peacekeeping is to locate the source of the problem over
there, in the third world or Eastern Europe. In fact, the cause of today's
conflicts involving the UN is over here, in the West.
As we have argued before in Living Marxism, Western governments are
increasingly driven to intervene abroad, under the banners of the UN, in
a bid to overcome their domestic crises. Their aim is not to save lives
in Somalia or Yugoslavia, but to salvage their own authority in the West.
At a time when every major capitalist nation, from Britain, France and Germany
to America and Japan, is experiencing a crisis of their political system,
the presidents and prime ministers are all desperate to find some easier
targets against which to demonstrate that they are still in charge. As both
Bush and Clinton have discovered, in the 1990s it is a lot simpler for an
American president to look resolute and authoritative in downtown Mogadishu
than to do so in south central Los Angeles.
If the source of the problem is located in the West, then we should seek
a solution here too, by campaigning against what our governments are doing
abroad. In Western societies today, however, anti-imperialism is out of
fashion. Many who would once have criticised the USA for its interference
in the third world now demand that the UN intervenes more and more to resolve
global problems. Whatever their intentions, they are only paving the way
for more and more missile and gunship missions.
It is high time we learned that, in the Newspeak of the New World Order,
the international community means the UN security council, peacekeeping
means imperialism, and peace means war.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993