Card-carrying members of the “international community” who meet in places like New York, where the United Nations has its glittering HQ, and Geneva, where it has a much-frequented branch office, may squabble over a great many things, but they all agree that imperialism is bad and that anything smacking of it should be universally condemned. The consensus is that national sovereignty must be properly respected and no country has a right to interfere in another’s internal affairs.
Does this mean that an internationally recognised government, whether democratic or not, is fully entitled to do whatever it sees fit in the territory it runs, like murdering dissidents, jailing them, torturing them or massacring troublesome minorities? Though most say they are against such practices, staunch upholders of national sovereignty, among them Argentina’s current government, have been notably unwilling to criticise the human rights violations of dictatorships they regard as ideological soulmates.
Do people outside government share the views of their formal representatives about the importance of national sovereignty? While it may be assumed that, if asked for an opinion, large numbers will say that they do, many, perhaps most, of those who live in poor countries would dearly like to live in one of the capitalist, racist and imperialistic hellholes progressives delight in condemning for their crimes against humanity. They may stop short of demanding that their former imperialist masters return to their old stamping grounds, but many millions are more than willing to risk their own lives and those of their children on gruelling journeys that take them across the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and deserts in the Middle East or Mexico in an effort to reach the land of their dreams.
Their attitude can be summed up in the half-humorous slogan “Yankee go home – but take me with you,” which has been around for many decades. This is certainly what many Afghans are now thinking, what with the precipitate Yankee pullout having led immediately to an ongoing offensive by the Taliban, who no doubt will soon be slaughtering anyone suspected of having collaborated with the hated infidel and depriving women of what rights they were able to enjoy while NATO troops policed the neighbourhood. Despite Joe Biden’s reluctance to do much to help them, it would seem that at least Afghan interpreters and their families will be airlifted from their country in time, but plenty of others will be left behind to face whatever fate the grim holy warriors have in store for them.
And then there are the many Central Americans who desperately want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their more brutal compatriots and get into the United States. After Biden virtually invited them to come by saying that all the nasty restrictions which had been put in place by the loathsome Donald Trump would be scrapped, he and his “immigration czar” (apparently, calling her a “czarina” would be unacceptably sexist), Vice-President Kamala Harris, now tell them that the door has been slammed shut and they should go through the proper consular procedures which – unless they boast an imposing list of academic credentials or have plenty of money – would take even the lucky ones who make it through all the paperwork several years.
In an effort to solve the conundrum it has created for itself, the US government says it is determined to tackle the “root causes” behind the unwanted influx of people, most of them poor and some barely literate, coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. How can it do this in a non-imperialist or non-colonialist manner? Nobody knows, but to be effective, whatever it does would put it in a position much like that of the United Kingdom, France, Japan and the United States itself before, and in some cases, after World War II, when they acted as mandatory powers under the aegis of the League of Nations by being entrusted with the difficult task of preparing unruly territories, among them Syria, the Lebanon and Palestine, for full-fledged independence.
By the standards prevailing in those unenlightened days, dozens of countries which now belong to the United Nations deserve to be made wards of the international community because the individuals ruling them are incompetents, gangsters, bloodthirsty religious fanatics or a combination of all three. One such is Haiti, which is clearly incapable of governing itself, as are Somalia, the African countries that are being ravaged by warlike tribes or rampaging Islamists, with Venezuela, Nicaragua and, needless to say, Afghanistan.
However, while in prosperous and, on the whole, fairly well-governed places such as the United States and Europe it is fashionable for activists to insist that their own countries’ sovereignty is a foolish anachronism because the world faces problems – climate change, the Covid pandemic, migration on a growing scale – which demand international collaboration, few dare suggest that others should be obliged to do so.
There are two main reasons for this. One is that even proposing such a step would be met with furious protests by believers in the notion that all countries are equally worthy of respect and by the exceedingly unpleasant individuals who have a strong personal interest in leaving things as they are. Another, which is decisive, is the marked reluctance of people in rich countries to shoulder any responsibility at all for what happens in the rest of the world. After all, imperialism crumbled largely because, by the middle of the last century, the Europeans had come to the conclusion that it had long ceased to be profitable. Having a big empire might be good for prestige, but that was about it. As for Western civilisation, to pretend it was better than the folkways of any band of hunter-gatherers was shameful Eurocentric nonsense.
The United States decided to retreat from Afghanistan after both Trump and his followers and Biden and his asked themselves: what is in it for us? The answer they gave themselves was: nothing much. This is tough not just on those Afghans who thought the US was in it for the long haul but also on the many people in the Middle East and elsewhere who would like to put their trust in the world’s most powerful and richest country, but have just been reminded that it is too self-absorbed to care much for those who would like to be its friends and have come to share the values its propagandists say it stands for. They are now on their own; the conventional wisdom in Western capitals is that if they prove unable to defend themselves against the hard men with guns who are every bit as ferocious as the very worst European or, in some parts of the world, North American imperialists of former times, they will have no-one to blame but themselves.