Tully redefines imperialism

by Lizzie Norgard

“Is there a form of imperialism still in existence in the present, even though we passed through decolonization in the mid-20th century?” James Tully, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Law, Indigenous Governance and Philosophy at the University of Victoria, addressed this question in his Oct. 26 lecture “On Imperialism.”

Tully argued that contemporary imperialism does exist but that it has taken place only “informally” since Western decolonization. He traced the history of informal imperialism to well before the Cold War, when Western powers began to establish newly exploitative relationships with formerly colonized nations.

Tully pointed to several reasons explaining why many people remain unaware of contemporary imperialism. He said that “the languages we use to describe the global order…tend to obscure the imperial features of the present.”

These languages include terms such as “globalization,” “democratization,” “modernization” and “development;” all of which were used by 19th century theorists to describe and justify formal imperialism and European expansion. Lacking that context, we use these terms unaware of their imperialist implications.

Tully also said that even contemporary critics of “new” Western imperialism, who fancy themselves “anti-imperialist,” in fact advocate a version of informal imperialism.

Critics of the “new imperialism” oppose its unilateralism, disregard for international law and preemptive military intervention. Instead, they recommend multilateralism, adherence to international law and democratization.

Tully mentioned two “wings” of imperialism that mirror this opposition, originally corresponding to the policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Unlike colonial imperialism, informal imperialism “permits self-rule, and eventual self-determination, within a wider protectorate or sphere of influence, while…inducing them to open their resources, labor and markets to free trade by establishing the necessary legal and political forms themselves…. You have imperial rule, but you allow local liberty.”

Dominated nations may be formally autonomous, and their relationship to formerly colonial powers may be “interactive,” but economic and military inequalities perpetuate the imperialist relationship. Imperialism can therefore work beneath the guises of multilateralism and democracy.

Tully said that informal means of imperialism include “recognition of quasi-sovereignty, unequal treaties, economic and military aid and dependency, civilization of natives by voluntary and religious organizations and Western legal, political, economic and military experts, and finally threats of military intervention if all else fails.”

Informal imperialism has historically followed colonial rule and prolonged Western hegemony over formally sovereign nations; Tully mentioned the 19th century British domination of Latin America as an example. He said that informal imperialism has also historically been called “free trade” and “open door” imperialism.

When asked by a student if imperialism is inevitable, Tully affirmed the concrete existence of pluralism. He said that “alternative civilizations persist beyond the reach of the West,” and that moving beyond imperialism would mean supporting the actual existence of these systems.

Tully said that although people say that another world is possible, “there is a stronger sense in which another world is actual.”


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