Is it colonialism?

Recently, the Cambodian National Assembly decided to expel 27 opposition members, which means not allowing them to participate in their duties, including debating and voting on new laws, and it also means denying these members their salaries. (article link)

The U.S. State Department responded to this action issuing a statement on June 8, 2013:

The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Permanent Committee of the Cambodian National Assembly, made up entirely of members of the ruling party, has expelled opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly. Such a decision starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process. 

We strongly support a political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field. Stripping the salaries and parliamentary status of opposition party legislators deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia. Full participation of all elected representatives is essential to the democratic process.

We urge the National Assembly leadership to allow all elected members to fulfill their commitment to serve the Cambodian people.

As reported by The Cambodia Daily (article), a Cambodian lawmaker said in response to the U.S. statement: “Please rethink this. I don’t want them [the U.S. State Department] to have colonial ideas anymore, telling other countries to do things.” (my emphasis)

A follow-up article expands on this: “CPP-led Assembly Tells U.S. to Stop Meddling”

While I’m admittedly not an expert in international politics, I want to explore what I think is an important question:  Is this a “colonial” move by the U.S.?  My first reaction is:  Not in the slightest.  I was under the impression that having opinions and issuing statements about other countries’ actions is part of participating in the international community.

Colonialism generally refers to an actual administrative power in the governing of another country.  Hence, the French Protectorate would be a time of colonialism.  The Vietnamese occupation as well.  Neocolonialism is generally understand as the transition from the direct control by another country to establishment (or maintenance) of elites that hold favor with a country which is able to, through these people, control the country, continuing an exploitative relationship with its people.  Imperialism, probably the most relevant in the relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia, is the ability for a strong (usually economically strong) power to control another country through economic dependence which includes cultural imperialism.  This would include teaching or somehow spreading ideas that keep one country in power, internationally speaking.  Hence, selling the logic of neoliberal capitalism might be most beneficial for the U.S. or most beneficial for various transnational corporations and the executives of those.  Other values which benefit one country over others might also be considered imperialism.  For instance, valuing secularism over religion can politically mean vilifying religious (in the current rhetoric usually Islamic) violence and more importantly justifying secular violence (against the religious violence, for instance).  This, by the way, is the main thesis of Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence.

But let’s do a very quick and rudimentary analysis.  Is the U.S. State Department’s action colonial?  Since the U.S. is not directly in control of Cambodian government, perhaps we can ask a related question: Is it paternalistic?

To command a change in policy or else (for instance, the “or else” might be implementing economic sanctions or using military force or instituting some other form of “punishment”) seems more paternalistic and depending on what we mean by “colonial” seems to be easier to argue for.  Or for the U.S. to ignore what U.S. thinks is an unjust situation because the country is undeveloped and is unworthy of attention seems also to be paternalistic, politically ignoring the country (and perhaps working in covert ways) would also be on the scale of colonial to imperialistic.  But to issue a statement using the values a country (the U.S.) claims to hold (whether this is internally consistent is a whole different, more dubious question) and make a statement regarding others’ unjust actions seems to me to be the opposite of colonial.  Is making such a statement even imperialistic?  This would take a lot more analysis of what democracy means (which is an important exercise).  But on the surface, it seems difficult to argue it’s imperialistic.

This sort of statement necessarily made from the ethical framework of one country (here, the U.S.), which seems to encourage dialogue, an attempt to hold another (here, Cambodia) accountable to its own purported values (in this case, democracy), seems to be treating another as, well, more of an equal.  It doesn’t appear to be coercion, or indoctrination, or a way to reinforce exploitation which seem to be important in imperialism.

In the article Mr. Vun says, “We took an oath to protect democracy, and they [the U.S.] tell Cambodia to do this and do that. We cannot accept it. If we tell [the U.S. Congress] what to do, will they do it? If not, don’t tell our National Assembly what to do.”  I don’t know if this is a language issue, but it seems to me that it would be appropriate for other countries to call out the U.S. in double-talk or unjust practices.  I would hope that Cambodia would make statements about injustices that it sees in the U.S. policy, for instance toward Cambodia, or even unjust practices toward its own (American) people.  In fact, also in the article, Mr. Vun does call out the U.S. for its role in the 1970 coup d’etat which seems to be a normal (not colonial) thing to do.

So, philosophically, I think that such a statement by the U.S. State Department whether I agree with it or not, does not seem to be “colonial.”  I must admit that underneath such statements there may be a lot of other things going on.  Perhaps those practices are more “colonial.”  And perhaps my hope that other countries would call out the U.S. is unrealistic because of the actual imperialistic power that it holds.  If so, this, then, is a problem.

But as for the U.S. State Department’s statement, I so no colonialism.  What do you see?

4 comments on “Is it colonialism?

  1. Alan England says:

    If expressing a concern about the fragility of a democratic process is colonialism, we’re in deep doo-doo. The US has lots of colonial stains on its apron, but this one doesn’t count.

  2. Tobias says:

    Hi Katie, I stumbled across your blog and just want to give my two cents on this interesting entry.

    I would like to start by decoupling for a moment the statement by the US government from the very real and evident injustices perpetuated by the Cambodian government and just focus on the question about the statement’s colonial nature.

    What is evident from a first glance is that the statement is an expression of Western values of how a democratic electoral process should look like: free, fair and equal. In the sense that the statement is directed at the Cambodian government with the intention to influence and change its politics, it has imperialistic or neocolonial bearings, whichever you want to call it.

    The values inherent in the statement are rooted in Western Enlightenment and are dragging behind them a bloody history of colonial exploitation and imperialism. They are not innocent values that are inherently right and good and can be unproblematically applied universally.

    So my point is that the heritages of colonialism are in fact detectable in this statement. First because the West is in a position to even give such statements in the first place and couple them with material threats of, in this case, cutting aid. And second because the portrayal of Western values as universal values is deeply intertwined with (neo)colonial history.

    While this is a very theoretical point, I want to give a note on the realpolitik side of it:

    The support of the US for fair, democratic elections in Cambodia stems from their own geopolitical interests. With the prime minister turning to China for political support and the big capital inflow, the US is losing its political weight in the region and US investors are having to write off their profits.
    On the other side, the Cambodian government uses the argument of colonial heritage and cultural relativism in their favor to guard against criticism, securing its power and perpetuating their evils.

    In my opinion, there needs to be indeed some basic values in the international community according to which governments can be held accountable. However in contemporary power-asymmetrical international relations that have been shaped by and are still being shaped by the history of (neo)colonial exploitation, the international order in fact bears the mark of colonialism and imperialism perpetuated by Western powers.

  3. LKS says:

    Tobias, thanks for engaging in this and for your important contributions.

    Your move to decouple the instrumental use of colonial rhetoric with the question of what is colonialism is very helpful so that we can analyze whether it should be named colonialism without condoning the conclusions or actions of those who have named it so.

    Further, in your analysis you delve into the questions that I only hinted at in my passing comment “This would take a lot more analysis of what democracy means (which is an important exercise).”

    I cannot deny the history of colonialism within which the current world order is built. But I wonder in spite of this, and in spite of existing power differentials, can actors (or countries in this case) who have privilege participate in the international community? Or are their actions necessarily imperialistic? This is reminiscent of questions of identity politics within liberation thought, for instance.

    Also, do terms, ideas, and values that were articulated in a Western (colonial) context remain imperialistic forever? Such a question has been raised with respect to human rights. Some have suggested that the concept of human rights has moral currency because of the power of the West, whereas if China was the historically dominant power we might be talking globally about the Chinese word for “humanity” ren, instead of human rights. Others critique the claim that the West has a monopoly on values such as human rights (or democracy, free, fair and equal electoral process, etc.) and placing them as only Western is an essentialist move (so it limits subjectivity and agency of non-Western people). (See Uma Narayan’s piece, “Essence of a Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism,” for instance.)

    While in my work clearly I want to question values like these and their use and usefulness, I also find it important to make sense of being able to participate in discussions that cross borders and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how and if I personally can participate, given my privileged position in with respect to history of colonialism and current imperialism and my part in exploitation in the current economic order. Similarly, I would like to try to determine what actions or statements can be made by a pretty powerful country, the U.S., without being dismissed as imperialistic.

    While I support an ever-reflexive questioning of one’s power and privilege (or a country’s power and privilege), taken the Cambodian government’s claim of democracy, I think that other countries like the U.S. do have a place in engaging in discussion and challenging inconsistencies within Cambodia’s own purported values (especially a system of governance) and its actions with respect to these values.

    I continuously resist the conclusion that because of power differential and political history, there is nothing that the nations of unearned privilege, so to speak, can do. Instead, perhaps a country might engage on the terms set by others. As you have set out in your response, and we must carefully consider of what are the real motivations of the rhetoric for the U.S. and for Cambodia so that we can keep in sight the material consequences of this discourse.

    I’m interested to hear what you think…Are these values necessarily imperialistic? Is there a place for the countries to make statements regarding others’ behavior? Is any action by a country who has ‘unearned privilege’ imperialistic?

  4. Tobias says:

    Very important questions, indeed. I agree to the need and benefit of cross cultural dialogue about important values, such as human rights. I think it’s practically impossible and also undesirable to turn back globalization in a way that would make everyone crawl back into their tightly sealed off nation-state containers. And so, instead I would advocate some kind of cosmopolitanism that has to be based on shared values.

    To start out I agree with your assessment on the problematics of situating the notion of human rights in exclusively Western thought. It is something also common on the left, that human rights are depicted as this static notion, inextricably bound up with Western domination. There are some scholars of non-Western history and political thought who write about notions of human rights elsewhere in the world. I remember reading something about human rights in the history of Islamic countries but I forgot the central points and by whom it was.

    While I am more optimistic on the prospects of self-reflexive individuals transcending, altough within limits, their own narrow mind-set in taking part in cross cultural discussions, I am more pessimistic when it comes to international politics. And I could come up with three points.

    First, arguments are always bound up with history. I already talked about this previously, so I won’t repeat myself here. Just so much that I don’t see it possible to unroot arguments from their history and justify them instead with reference to.. what? Universal moral values? The existence of universal values is an ontological question in philosophy itself. And didn’t the insistence on univeral values also evolve along the path of Enlightenment?

    I think that realizing and admitting the aforementioned is already an important part in making statements that are more reflexive of one’s own position of power. Well, this is only a lukewarm conclusion. I’m too much a materialist here that I would think leaders must only realize this and become more reflexive to enable a true cross-cultural dialogue. So my second point is, and I also already mentioned this previously that power relations can also not be bracketed. Before material power relations become equal, a truly cross-cultural dialogue on equal terms is impossible. Here, I see the need to prioritize political science’s concern with power and domination before cultural studies’ concern with mutual understanding of cultures.

    Third, when talking about cross cultural criticism,in my opinion we also need to talk about global capitalism. Not only in the sense that the West expanded its power through capitalism. But more generally, my thesis is that capitalism as it went global carried along with it and spread Western values, at times violently disrupting local customs and values, at other times it became enmashed with local practices and customs. Now, this is a simple point. I would like to go one step further and claim that while capitalism emerged out of the West, it can be easily detached from Western Enlighenment values of freedom, democracy, etc. For instance, capitalism also works in China, and arguably even better under an authoritarian regime, without irritating constraints such as lengthy deliberation processes or social safety nets. My point is that capitalism itself is a universal force that transcends particulars wherever it finds them and integrates or demolishes them.

    Now coming back to cross cultural dialogue, I would say that this is a threat to cross cultural dialogue everywhere, as it severely limits the frame and content of what will be talked about. As local customs and practices around the world are subordinated to the logic of capital accumulation, also in the West Enlightenment values are kept as empty signifiers, empty shells with their meaning obliterated. So what do we mean if we defend freedom and democracy in this dialogue? What do we tell other people that we mean by these signifiers? Do we mean by freedom the freedom to consume and go on a two-week all-inclusive holiday to Italy or Mexico once a year? Do we mean by democracy a down-sized Schumpeterian democracy that limits the influence of the people while allowing the invisible hand of the market to take the lead?

    So while cross cultural dialogue is important in the pursuit of a desirable, egalitarian cosmopolitan order, there are some important obstacles. And without considering them, any attempt in this direction will likely fail or lead to new forms of domination. In my view, the obstacles are: first, the history of Western colonial exploitation that has shaped contemporary power relations and dominant ways of thinking, second the existing asymmetrical power relations that do not allow for a dialogue on equal footing, and third the emptying out of the meaning of signifiers of non-Western and Western values that we hold so dear due to the ongoing domination and expansion of capitalism around the world.

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