Wed, Oct 12, 2016
The most dangerous part of a rich foreigner helping poor locals "develop" is how they inadvertently mention how certain "universal" values and ideologies are the basis for people to get richer and more civilized. This is neocolonialism at its finest.
In a world where political labelling is rife, it is not easy to precisely define a set of values that constitute a political ideology. "Liberalism" is a particularly tough one at that. People speak of certain values being universal, especially when it comes to the field of human rights. For such people, those who dare to oppose such values are not only barbaric and uncivilized, but also on the right side of history, sure to be perceived in the negative light in the history books of the future. To them, it is simply unfortunate that these barbarians do not see their own barbarism and make self-motivated efforts to correct themselves.
But these people, most of the Western origin, are also good-hearted. They cannot simply watch people remain barbaric out of their ignorance. They feel compelled to help these people understand the moral imperatives of adopting these universal values, allowing themselves to catch up with the West at least in terms of moral authority. It is the continued presence of these "liberal internationalists" that drive almost missionary-like preaching of "universal values" around the world. Despite increasing schism at home, the American (and the Western world's) enthusiasm for pushing liberal values on the rest of the world remain strong.
Yet, the moral preaching of liberal internationalists can be much more heavy-handed than religious missionaries. Missionaries, in their efforts to spread religious tenets, make concrete attempts to make foreign religious concepts more locally understandable by combining them with existing local traditions and beliefs. This allows for emergence of new denominations and sects within the same religion across different geographies. The core beliefs may be the same, but the expression of those core beliefs as well as any supporting corollaries are adjusted to be acceptable in the local culture.
In contrast, liberal internationalists does not show nearly as much flexibility. In many issues, their "universal values boil down to a binary choice, with a clear right answer that they support and a wrong one they condemn. On issues such as gay marriage, abortion, freedom of speech, gender equality, and free elections, there is practically no wiggle room that allows compromise between existing cultural beliefs and those universal values. To go with the positions of the liberal internationalist would mean that the new adherent will inevitably have to abandon the "normal" identity of his cultural background.
The liberal internationalist will flatly deny this is the case, but in reality, what is happening here is that the liberal internationalist is pushing for completely overhaul of the local culture and social structure in a veiled way that only emphasizes dissemination of certain moral ideals. By making the argument that certain universal values are universally good, the liberal internationalist is essentially telling residents of their target societies that the local population needs to change so they become more like certain foreign societies that hold liberal values to heart.
Does this sound familiar? Absolutely. It is exactly the same pretext that colonialists used to interfere in the governance of native societies around the world as they absolved local rulers of their sovereignty. Colonial rule, based on enlightened principles of European progress, evidenced by widespread use of technology and better standards of living, are argued to be fundamentally better as the ideological basis for developing non-European societies. The locals, the colonialists argued, just needed a little bit of a push, so that they can exit their age of darkness much faster.
Sure, there is no denying that the colonialism of yesteryears was much more mean-spirited than high-principled liberal internationalism of today. Modern-day globetrotting liberals are not using their strong beliefs in moral superiority as a way to extract resources on the cheap and exploit local labor with impunity. They tend to be less hypocritical about the beliefs they hold, preaching certain values that are held dear back home, but not practicing with the local populations they preach to elsewhere. They improved slightly by decoupling economic invasion with the moral/ideological kind.
But the biggest damage of colonialism was not economic exploitation, it was the loss of moral compass that colonialists sowed in local societies. Unfair economic structures can be righted with the right policies and incentives, but change in attitudes that deny the value of traditional beliefs and empower those who believe in "progress" ones tend to linger much longer. It creates an elite that justify their oppressive rule of the masses based on the belief that they are the "progressive" in a colonial-like sense and the masses are ignorant and unable to comprehend the positives of those same enlightened values bestowed by kind foreigners.
The fear is that modern-day liberal internationalists are inadvertently continuing this tradition from the colonial days. By arguing that their beliefs are good and universal, they intensify the sense of self-loathing local populations have of themselves and their traditional cultures. By denying that there is any sort of confluence between their "universal values" and local beliefs, they are basically telling locals to give up their beliefs for sake of becoming more civilized human beings. Ultimately, the locals will lose so much trust in themselves that the foreigners with the great ideas will be forced to build their societies from the ground up for them.
Xiaochen Su is a Chinese-American hailing from San Diego, CA. He holds a Master's degree in International Political Economy from the LSE.