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Paved Intentions: Civilization and Imperialism

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. François 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. The new discipline of international law provided a useful tool for measuring that distance. A distillation of the values of the Concert of Europe, international law was designed as a mechanism to preserve order among sovereign states, and its principles were explicitly stated as applying only to civilized states, much as John Stuart Mill saw his principles of liberty as applying solely to members of “a civilized community.” In 1845, the influential American international lawyer Henry Wheaton had actually spoken in terms of the “international Law of Christianity” versus “the law used by Mohammedan Powers.” Within twenty or thirty years, such pluralism had all but vanished. According to the late-nineteenth-century legal commentator William Edward Hall, international law “is a product of the special civilization of modern Europe and forms a highly artificial system of which the principles cannot be supposed to be understood or recognized by countries differently civilized . . . Such states only can be presumed to be subject to it as are inheritors of that civilization.”

Thus conceived, international law defined the problem of global community in terms of the nature of the relationship between a civilized Christendom and the uncivilized non-European world. States could only join the magic circle through a doctrine of intervention, which occurred when “a state is brought by increasing civilization within the realm of law.” In the 1880s, Scottish legal philosopher James Lorimer suggested there were three categories of humanity—civilized, barbaric, and savage—and thus three corresponding grades of recognition—plenary political; partial political; and natural, or mere human.

The case of the Ottoman Empire exemplified this ambivalence. European states had been making treaties with the sultans since the sixteenth century. But following the Crimean War, the empire was declared as lying within the “Public Law of Europe.” In fact, despite its internal reforms, the empire was never regarded in Europe as being fully civilized: the capitulations remained in force, and throughout the nineteenth century the chief justification of the other European Powers for supporting first autonomy and then independence for the new Christian Balkan states was that removing them from Ottoman rule was the best means of civilizing them.

Western Civilization

Indeed, the spread of rights could be tied directly to a willingness to intervene and override the formal sovereignty of non-European powers. After the Franco-Prussian War, international lawyers devised the notion of belligerent occupation—a state of affairs in which an occupant interfered as little as was compatible with military necessity in the internal affairs of the occupied country. But in the case of Ottoman territory, the Powers felt no such inhibitions: the Russians in Bulgaria in 1877, the Habsburgs in Bosnia the following year, and the British in Egypt in 1882 all demonstrated through their extensive rearrangement of provincial administrations that, although they would permit the Ottoman sultan to retain a fig leaf of formal sovereignty, in truth the theory of belligerent occupation did not apply in his lands. Thirty years later, the Austrians and the British went further: on both occasions they unilaterally declared sovereignty over the Ottoman territories they were occupying, suggesting that whatever had or had not been agreed at Paris in 1856, by the early twentieth century, the Ottoman empire was regarded once again as lying outside the circle of civilization. (The fact that it was a Muslim power was certainly not irrelevant. In 1915, when the French and Russians prepared a diplomatic protest at the mass murder of Ottoman Armenians, the initial draft condemned the massacres as “crimes against Christendom.” Only when the British mentioned that they were concerned over the possible impact of such a formulation on Indian Muslim opinion was the wording changed to “crimes against humanity.”)

If the Ottoman Empire was, as it were, semi-civilized, then sub-Saharan Africa—site of the main European land-grab in the late nineteenth century—was simply savage. European and American lawyers extended the notion of the protectorate—originally employed for new European states such as Greece—to the new colonial situation, ostensibly as a way of shielding vulnerable non-European states from the depredations of European Powers, but really to avoid conflict among the Powers themselves. “Much interest attaches to legislation for protectorates, in which the touch of civilization is cautiously applied to matters barbaric,” wrote a commentator in the Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation in 1899. The treaty that followed the Berlin Colonial Conference of 1884–85, which marked the attempt to manage the Scramble for Africa diplomatically, specified the need “to initiate the indigenous populations into the advantages of civilization.” The Congo Free State was one particularly disastrous result.

In this way, Victorian international law divided the world according to its standard of civilization. Inside Europe—and in other areas of the world colonized by Europeans—there was the sphere of civilized life and its defining elements: property rights; the rule of law on the basis (usually) of codes or constitutions; effective administration of its territory by a state; warfare conducted by a regular army; and freedom of conscience. Outside this sphere, the charge was to define terms according to which sovereignty—full or partial—might be bestowed. It was here, in the non-European world, that the enormity of the task could best be grasped. It was here, too, that the potential costs of failing to attain the standard of civilization were most evident.

Until well after the First World War, it was axiomatic that “international law is a product of the special civilization of modern Europe itself.” Siam was admitted to the Hague conferences as a mark of respect; but in China, where the Boxer Rebellion was put down with enormous violence, the unequal treaties remained in force. It was only the Japanese who seriously challenged the nineteenth century identification of civilization with Christendom. Having adhered to several international conventions, and revised their civil and criminal codes, they managed to negotiate the repeal of the unequal treaties from 1894 onward, as well as to win back control over their tariffs, and their victory over Russia in 1905 confirmed their status as a major power. Not surprisingly, the Young Turks—desperate to repeal their own humiliating capitulations—could not hear enough of Japan’s success.

The Japanese achievement confirmed that the standard of civilization being offered by the Powers was, in fact, capable of being met by non-Christian, non-European states. But the Japanese achievement was also unique and precarious. After the ending of the Russo-Japanese War, the Second Hague Conference of 1907 talked of “the interests of humanity, and the ever-progressive needs of civilization.” But could civilization really ever be universalized? Doubts were growing. German and Italian jurists essentially ruled out any non-European power receiving full recognition. As for the empire-builders, in Africa, as well as in the Pacific, many liberals and Gladstonians came to terms with imperialism at century’s end, because they thought in terms of a kind of imperial cosmopolitanism or commonwealth in which individual peoples might preserve their own distinctive cultures. Where necessary, of course, civilized powers would have to ensure this.

Although it inherited many of these ways of imagining the relationship between empire and sovereignty, the League of Nations, established at Versailles after the First World War, finally adapted the idea of international civilization. A permanent organization whose members included Abyssinia, Siam, Iran, and Turkey was already something with a very different global reach than the old European order. That was chiefly thanks to the Americans, not the British, whose schemes for a beefed-up version of the old Concert of Europe collapsed under the weight of Wilsonian liberalism. Sovereignty was henceforth shaped explicitly by the doctrine of national self-determination in its most anti-autocratic and optimistic guise. Imperialism was suddenly a term of rebuke, and trusteeship and mandates became—in the minds at least of some idealistic or deluded British civil servants—something entirely different from prewar empire-building.

On the other hand, the new Society of Nations in Geneva still depended on the same civilizational hierarchies that had underpinned so much pre­-1914
liberal thought. The peace settlement made this perfectly clear. In Eastern Europe, the victors at Versailles bestowed sovereignty upon the so-called New States, but insisted on League oversight of the rights of their own national minorities. Should the new regime be imposed on established states such as Germany? That was not deemed necessary, still less to apply it to victor states like Britain, France, or the United States. Minority rights were, in other words, a badge of the new states’ secondary and relatively uncivilized status, evidence of their need for tutelage in the exercise of their own sovereignty.

This was bad enough for East European politicians, but it was considerably less humiliating than the fate assigned to those outside Europe. In Egypt, which was not, of course, a mandate, the British imprisoned the leading Egyptian nationalists and made it clear that Wilson’s new dawn did not apply to them. Not surprisingly, what historian Erez Manela calls “the Wilsonian moment” was greeted with demonstrations and protests from North Africa to China. Even Japanese diplomats felt rebuffed when the British and the Americans summarily dismissed their proposed racial equality clause.

The other former Ottoman lands were brought within a new mandate system that classified non-European societies on the basis of their civilized qualities. The Arab provinces of the Middle East became class A mandates—to the fury of their inhabitants—while former German colonial possessions in central Africa were placed in the B and C classes, to be administered as “a sacred trust for civilization” until such time as, in the faraway future, they might be fit to govern themselves. South African military commander and statesman Jan Smuts, a powerful influence on the mandate system as a whole, and keen to see the Dominions acquire colonial possessions themselves, thought the time was never: the B and C class colonies were “inhabited by barbarians, who not only cannot possibly govern themselves but to whom it would be impracticable to apply any ideas of political self-determination in the European sense.”

All of this was, for British liberal imperialists at least, entirely in harmony with the idea of spreading civilization around the world. They hailed victory over the Germans in 1918 as confirmation of the fundamental harmony between empire—at least in its British incarnation—and the spread of civilized values. The Round Table (an early twentieth-century group of colonial administrators) offered Britain as a moral example for the world and saw empire as a way of defending the weak against the unscrupulous. Imperialism was, essentially, an exercise in altruism. In his 1917 The Expansion of Europe, Ramsay Muir, the “forgotten giant” of interwar British liberalism, described the empire as the “supreme expression of the very spirit of Liberalism,” and thought the British victory would allow “the victory of Western civilization” by cementing the “extension of the influence of European civilization over the whole world” that had been such a feature of the previous centuries. People wrongly dismissed this process, he went on, as “imperialism”—a term suggesting “brute force, regardless of the rights of conquered peoples.” In fact, it was all for the best: “the civilization of Europe has been made into the civilization of the world.”

Who Get Next

Such confidence did not last long beyond Hitler’s triumph. But even before then, others, less wedded to empire, were driven to doubt. Some followed Freud’s diagnosis: civilization was a fragile crust covering harsher instincts shared by Europeans and non-Europeans alike. For others, the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of socialism not only threatened bourgeois values, but could also be seen as the spearhead of an Asiatic threat to Europe. Meanwhile, Europe was tearing itself apart through political polarization, as the constitutional regimes established across the continent after 1919 gave way to varieties of authoritarianism. The crisis of democracy in Europe made liberals conscious that their own values and hierarchies of rights required extensive revaluation. To be civilized, in the old liberal sense, was not necessarily to be modern. Quite the contrary: it was to prioritize a set of civil liberties that many Marxist and fascist political theorists dismissed as antiquated and self-serving.

The First World War had also accentuated long-standing criticisms by Muslim, Chinese, and Japanese intellectuals of the pretensions of Western claims to civilizational supremacy; in the immediate aftermath of the “Wilsonian moment,” many talked about Asia as an alternative civilizational force, one which—unlike the Europeans—would fight naturally for the “rights of nations” around the globe. Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore, for one, described the European conflict as suicidal, the product of excessive competitiveness and a love of violence fed by an addiction to industry and science.

In any case, most European liberals were sublimely indifferent to extra-European critiques of this kind. What did give these latter-day Victorians pause for reflection was not Indian or Japanese criticism, or even the rise of the USSR, but the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. The First World War dented confidence in the idea of civilization, but it was, above all, the rise of Nazism that spelled its doom. It was this that concerned the British historian H. A. L. Fisher as he completed his best-selling history of Europe. His concluding plea that Europeans remember they were “trustees for the civilization of the world” sounded halfhearted and unconvinced. He was keenly aware that the peoples of the continent had already once allowed their divisions to lead to conflict and that this had a dramatic impact on the “place of Europe in the world” and destroyed its “moral unity.” Nevertheless, he wrote in 1935, Europe faced a choice: a new war that would lay “civilization in ruins,” or work toward a permanent organization of the peace and a new period of plenty and well-being.

The latter meant continuing to have confidence in the experiment of the League of Nations. But the expansion of the League itself made it less acceptable to use the old civilizational language. In 1929, Sir John Fischer Williams confessed that “the concept of ‘civilized society’ as a community of nations or States distinct from the rest of the world no longer corresponds with the main facts of contemporary life.” Writing in The Listener, H. A. Smith of London University drew attention to some of the consequences; the age of what we might call humanitarian interventionism was over: “In practice, we no longer insist that States shall conform to any common standards of justice, religious toleration and internal government. Whatever atrocities may be committed in foreign countries, we now say that they are no concern of ours . . .”

Then, too, Nazism’s rise was particularly worrying because the Germans were among the most “highly civilized” peoples of Europe. The implications, therefore, of the Nazi rejection of the premises of international law were acute: the very foundations of the old system were being thrown into question from within Europe itself. “European civilization has shaped modern International Law,” noted a London University professor in 1938. “But is European civilization still what it was, and if not, how do the changes affect international law?”
It was not just Nazi indifference to the premises of interwar liberal jurisprudence that was so fatal to a continued faith in the power of international law; it was the way Hitler subverted the traditional division of the world between (civilized) Europe and the (non-civilized) rest. By creating a protectorate out of much of prewar Czechoslovakia, the Germans brought a colonial institution to Europe itself, and made it clear that they would treat their racial inferiors as colonial subjects. Churchill and others pretended that what was happening in Europe had no obvious relevance to the fate of the empires; others knew better. Europeans, wrote Martinique-born author and politician Aimé Césaire, were learning what it was like to be treated as colonial subjects. Suddenly they were discovering the value of human rights. But could they seriously maintain the old dichotomy between the defense of rights at home and the deprivation of rights abroad?

The short answer: they could try. After the war, the United Nations committed itself to fighting for human rights, but it made no formal commitment to force imperial powers to disgorge their colonies. On the contrary, at San Francisco, U.S. delegate Harold Stassen stated that it would be better for colonial peoples not to force the issue of freedom: better to think about interdependence than independence. African and Asian journalists and commentators were deeply dismayed by what emerged. As they understood it, the founders of the UN were trying their hardest to keep the civilizational concept intact.

But by this point it had largely lost all credibility. Few talked any longer as though there was a single civilization, let alone a single standard. International law, which had elaborated this, was in disarray. The UN was the very opposite of what a latter-day Victorian like international lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht had predicted or wanted; in his 1943 paper on the rights of man, he had argued that recognition of the fundamental rights of man had become a general constitutional principle of the law of “civilized states.” But the rights regime that he called for never came into existence. He and others had hoped to see the new international organization defending human rights against tyrannical nation-states. Instead, what they got was a body committed even more than its predecessor to the sanctity of state sovereignty—and this was hardly compatible with the sort of civilizational intervention that had been routine before 1914. The 1948 Declaration on Human Rights, as Lauterpacht despondently noted, was little more than decoration—a substitute for a legally binding commitment and a retreat from the rights regime of the interwar era.


The rise of a new order after 1945, then, was based on new, or at least substantially adapted, principles. For perhaps the first time, the question of rights was less than umbilically attached to the notion of civilization. The world wars had put an end to the concept as an ordering principle for international politics, a principle bound up with the ideas of freedom, humanity, and rights, and one whose demise could not but affect the projection and political significance of those values. Some commentators, such as Ian Brownlie, have recognized that the collapse of the standard of civilization created a normative vacuum at the UN—for states were no longer united by virtue of regarding one another as members of the same moral community. In fact, the term civilization in its original usage was denounced as insulting, and UN General Assembly resolutions specified that claims about the level of civilizational backwardness could not be allowed to delay grants of independence. Indeed, the drafting of the Universal Declaration segued neatly from one norm to the other, arguing that “civilized states” were to be equated with respect for “fundamental human rights.”

To be sure, Western civilization—a phrase that asserted America’s role as heir to a fading Europe—became part of a beleaguered liberal tradition’s struggle against totalitarianism. American intellectuals were prone, naturally, to such a view, especially as they tended to worry about what one might call a spirituality deficit in a culture defined by its technological and especially industrial character. The United States could preserve European values and save its soul in the process. In 1941, perhaps the most prominent exponent of this view, University of Chicago professor John Nef, founded the Committee on the Study of Civilization (note the singular). Nef had long argued that the United States had to save civilization as it collapsed in Europe, and that American universities in particular needed to act as agents of spiritual transformation, preaching truth and the universal values embodied in the Western canon. (Nef was eventually persuaded to change the title to the more neutral Committee on Social Thought, in which form it survives to this day.)

But others found this kind of moral absolutism anachronistic and parochial. The dominant paradigm in American international relations thought in the 1950s moved in an entirely different direction, toward the cult of national interest, of realism as propounded by Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and others. In realist thought there was little or no space for civilizational aspirations and the moral certainty that accompanied them. And even those who did take the idea of civilization seriously saw the postwar globalization of the idea of humanity—the extension of the idea of the Family of Man into the colonial Third World—as something that necessitated a much greater modesty about the pretensions of Western civilization. Inside the universities, meanwhile, the rise of anthropology fed into the development of area studies and courses on “non-Western civilizations,” while the moral certainties that had underpinned the old Victorian standard of civilization were now decried as unscientific idealism by a new generation of social scientists. Civilization met social science and dissolved increasingly into the more comfortable language of culture.

After 1945, therefore, claims to civilization were made in a very different, and much less propitious context for interventionist policies than had been the case previously. The old standard of civilization had made being civilized the precondition for being independent. Now, during the Cold War, independence was granted in the context of a struggle between rival superpowers and civilization—parsed in less morally loaded terms as simply being modern—and was something to be attained with the help of technical and social scientific expertise and by means of state policy and external assistance. But what did civilization in the new Cold War sense actually mean? Rationality, the defense of property rights, to be sure. And liberty? Initially yes, but as modernization theorists came to entertain doubts about the capacity of Third World countries to modernize under democratic leadership, the spread of freedom came to be equated with the defense of property, the leadership of army generals, and just about anything that suited its proponents.


In this postwar world, law and claims of ethical superiority no longer offered justifications for intervention, least of all to defend rights. As international organizations like the UN backtracked from earlier, more interventionist regimes where sovereignty was concerned, it was NGOs like Amnesty International that acted as the chief defenders of individuals and collective groups against their own governments. But this was a much weaker kind of defense than the imperatives of civilization itself. In short, the collapse of the old civilizational certainties fostered a more global sense of international community even as it weakened the system’s capacity to force through observation of rights of various kinds. A combination of NGOs and rhetorical exhortation made little headway with the sovereign states of the former colonial world. Neither the UN nor regional organizations produced enforceable rights regimes. Perhaps this helps explain why, in the 1990s, with the re-emergence of genocide as an international problem, frustration with the UN’s paralysis generated calls for a new basis for intervention, new criticisms of the doctrine of sovereign sanctity, and calls for some kind of return to an idealized version of nineteenth-century liberal imperialism.

In 2005, after much prodding from Kofi Annan, and guided by advisers who had anguished over inaction in the Balkans and Africa a decade earlier, UN members recognized for the first time their so-called “Responsibility to Protect” populations from their own governments in the case of egregious human rights violations. But because this new responsibility required Security Council backing, it ignored the way the organization was actually organized. American frustration at Security Council paralysis has led in turn to demands to replace—or supplement—the UN with a “League of Democracies” that can act when state leaders forfeit their right to rule by causing humanitarian crises. Here, too, the sovereignty criterion is under challenge.

But that is not so surprising as the way proponents of such arrangements unproblematically return to the language of civilization in the name of defending rights. Even before 9/11, Kofi Annan had identified the UN with this, talking about one “global civilization based on shared values of tolerance and freedom. It is a civilization defined by its tolerance of dissent, its celebration of cultural diversity, its insistence on fundamental, universal human rights, and its belief in the right of people everywhere to have a say in how they are governed.” Now, as before, paternalism and the language of humanity fuse so deeply as to be inextricable. As a result, it is difficult to avoid seeing such moves, for all their self-proclaimed practicality, as exercises in nostalgia for a world centered on Europe and “European values,” at the very moment when the world is moving in a different direction.

Mark Mazower


"In short, the collapse of the old civilizational certainties fostered a more global sense of international community even as it weakened the system’s capacity to force through observation of rights of various kinds." Yes and no. Since "rights" were often sacrificed by Western ('civilized states') to the pragmatic needs of geopolitics and access to natural resources. So democratic ideals went out the window if the wrong kind of Socialist was elected to power, in which case colonial era style manipulation would be used to ensure conformism. Mazower's essay fails to note the continuities between the era of colonialism and neocolonialism. And the NGOs like Amnesty etc. are not really part of the bigger equation in any effective way, at least not outside the minds of well meaning western liberals. Consider what's happening in Gaza right now as evidence.


Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

Mazower's insight highlights the glaring dichotomy of values the western governments seem to have been suffering from or deviously advocating for.The alliance of civilzations- the gateway to world peace and secuirty and the harbinger of global humanism can only succeed if the west seems truly committed to exorcising the political evils that have undermined the international community's agenda of war free world under the umbrella of the UN.


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