The Limits of Liberal Anti-Imperialism
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
January 2009, volume 33, No 1

‘We have been so long accustomed to dictate to the world’ that it was ‘rather galling now that we find ourselves playing second fiddle to the autocratic ruler of the United States.’ Which British politician wrote thus: Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair in one of his private self-critical moments, or none of the above? It was actually the British cabinet minister administering the Indian Empire, Secretary of State for India Montague in 1919. That resentful lament from the inner recesses of the India Office was fairly typical of the reaction of old imperial hands in many parts of the world to a situation they faced at the end of World War I. Their attempts to reassert and restore colonial hegemonies in the post-War world were to some extent and for a while circumscribed by the lines laid down by a somewhat unusual person at the head of the new super-power in global politics, President Wilson.

The liberal anti-colonialism in Wilson’s rhetoric on the one hand created this reaction and on the other hand it raised expectations among the nationalist intelligentsia in Asia and North Africa. This is what the author of this excellent work calls ‘the Wilsonian moment.’ And to his credit the author also very ably documents the success of old imperialism to get around the temporary hurdle in their path, and the disillusionment of the nationalists in the Afro-Asian colonies when they realized the inefficacy of the liberal rhetoric of self-determination and subject peoples’ rights. This is what this book is about.

There can be no doubt that President Wilson started off the post-War negotiations with lofty statements of good liberal vintage. Even earlier, in his second Inaugural Address of 2 March 1917, he had declared his faith in, as he put it, the ‘principles of equality of all nations’ and the principle that ‘governments derive all their powers from the consent of the governed.’ (p.35) As the tide turned in favour of the Allied Powers, in his Fourth of July in 1918 address, Wilson invoked the founding fathers of the United States, their resolve to stand by ‘the rights and privileges of free men’ in 1776, and went on to speak of the peoples of the world who ‘suffer under mastery.’ He saw ranged on the other side ‘the masters of many armies’ who claimed an ‘authority of an age that is altogether alien and hostile to our own.’ (p. 45) He looked forward to a post-War settlement which would take into account ‘the consent of the governed’ and their ‘free acceptance’ of that settlement’. At the Paris Peace Conference, however, the voice of such people was not to be heard since they were not allowed to join the conference to sit at the table with the victorious Powers and their allies. Moreover, in any event major issues were settled not at that table but elsewhere by the ‘Big Three’, Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Hemmed in by the veteran European diplomats and political managers assembled in Paris, Wilson was slowly and steadily persuaded to talk the diplomatic language of the victorious Powers’ political legitimacy as distinct from the principle of legitimation through the consent of the governed. At the end, the words ‘right of self-determination’ which were so often mouthed by the Allied leaders and Wilson during the War were not to be found in the founding statement Wilson made on 14 February 1919 on the League of Nations.

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