“Colonial past – Neo-colonial present? International Relations in the Light of War, Sanctions and International Law”
It is an honour to have the opportunity to speak before you today. For me personally, coming into conversation with you is one of the highlights of my trip. My visit to Namibia is taking place under the cloud of the current debate about the so-called “Reconciliation Agreement” between the German and Namibian governments. As spokesperson for the opposition Left Party on the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, and spokesperson for international policy, I have been working for many years to get the German government to recognise the genocide committed against the Herero and Nama peoples and for reparations to be paid for the crimes of German colonialism.
In my opinion, the negotiations about the so-called “Reconciliation Agreement” are an example of the continuity of colonial power imbalances and dependencies in international relations. In refusing to properly recognise the Herero and Nama genocide and ruling out real reparations from the very beginning, the German government is exploiting the position of power that it has in relation to Namibia as a result of the colonial era. What is behind the refusal to engage in fresh negotiations on the “Joint Declaration” in that spirit is the lack of political will to look sincerely at Germany’s many other colonial and war crimes and, above all, to face up to the consequences resulting from its historical responsibility.
These unequal relationships between former colonies and colonial powers, along with the neo-colonial, hegemonic behaviour of the West, are a central structural principle of today’s world order. That was the backdrop to my choice of subject for this speech: “Colonial Past – Neo-colonial Present? International Relations in the Light of War, Sanctions and International Law”.
I want to go into several questions at this point. In what ways does colonialism persist, to this day, in relations between the Global North and the Global South? How is Western neo-colonialism expressed in times of war and escalating bloc-based confrontation? With what means can we counter that neo-colonial hegemony – and what might a fairer world order look like that seeks a balance and cooperation, beyond the bounds of capitalist exploitation? These questions may sound abstract at first. Nevertheless, I want to venture to outline answers to them with concrete examples from current international politics.
Before we come to the neo-colonial continuities persisting today, we must first take a look at the past. There is no doubt that European colonialism can be considered a structurally formative phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium. Although the period of active German colonial policy, from the 1880s to the First World War, was short compared to other colonial powers – essentially limited to what British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “age of empire”– colonialism as a wider European phenomenon always involved Germany too. We need only refer to the slave trade or the scientific exploration of the world.
Moreover, the assertion is made to this day, in part quite stubbornly, that Germany was an insignificant and harmless colonial power compared to others like Britain, France, Spain or Portugal. And yet German colonialism was just as brutal as that of other colonial states and had similar consequences. That brutality was exemplified in the famous “Hun speech” given by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the troop ships were being sent off to put down the Boxer Rebellion in Imperial China in 1900, he charged the German soldiers to be as brutal as possible, saying, “No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken!” That order was executed to the letter a few years later, in the Herero and Nama genocide. The brutal war of extermination conducted by German troops claimed the lives of up to 80% of the Herero people and more than half of the Nama people.
The renowned socialist Karl Liebknecht found fitting words for the atrocity of the German empire’s crimes in what was then German South West Africa and other colonies in his book “Militarism and Anti-Militarism”. Written in late February 1907, it decries a colonial policy which, “– under the deceptive mask of spreading Christianity and civilization or of defending the national honour – profits and deceives with pious gaze in the service of the colonial interests of the capitalists, murders and assaults the defenceless, burns up their property, robs and plunders their goods and possessions, and scorns and shames Christianity and civilization.”
Even today, the genocidal crimes committed during the colonial wars are made light of time and again. Some people, like former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Personal Representative for Africa, Günther Nooke, have even seen Germany portrayed as a colonial power that was primarily positive in its effect, allegedly helping Africa to “free itself from archaic structures”. Such voices even suggest that colonial rule ultimately did play a part in “civilising” and “developing” the subjugated societies. This poles apart thinking that differentiates between supposed superiority and inferiority, development and underdevelopment, helped shape the mind set of modern imperialism. These patterns of thought are still imposing themselves, and not only in the case of the former German Personal Representative for Africa. As we will subsequently see, they often function as means to legitimize the expansion efforts of an hegemonic neo-colonialism seeking to serve specific geopolitical and economic interests.
Alongside such cases of proactive romanticising and denial of history, there is far-reaching colonial amnesia among broad strata of the German public. You can see this, for example, in the fact that colonialism in general and Germany’s colonial past in particular hardly appear in curricula for teaching history in schools. What features especially rarely in school textbooks as well as the public consciousness is the historical relationship between the exploitation of Africa, industrialisation and the current prosperity of Europe and North America.
And yet the economic exploitation of both natural and human resources was crucial to Europe’s ability to cement its imperial expansion at Africa’s expense. Karl Marx characterised these processes as “the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production” and the “chief thrusts” of capitalist accumulation. In a similar vein, Frantz Fanon notes in his anti-colonialist manifesto “The Wretched of the Earth” that Europe’s prosperity, “has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves and it comes directly from the soil and subsoil of that underdeveloped world”.
In German historiography, that link is usually ignored. After all, for the German empire as for other powers too, colonialism took the form not just of genocide, but of economic exploitation. It is almost forgotten that there was a veritable diamond rush in the then colony of German South West Africa starting in 1908, after diamonds were found and the German empire established a restricted diamond area. By 1914, the colonial mining company founded by August Stauch, the Koloniale Bergbaugesellschaft, had extracted 4.7 million carats in diamonds, with a value of 150 million Reichsmarks. To this day, no reparations have been made for the looting of those diamonds.
The systematic plundering during the colonial era continues to this day in many forms, in the conduct, sponsored by Western states and international organisations, of multinational firms. Looking at the global exploitation of raw materials, land grabs and the direct or indirect exercise of political dominance over other countries, we see shocking parallels with the colonial age that is often thought to have been consigned to the past.
The neo-colonialist efforts essentially seek to undermine the formal sovereignty that colonies gained via the struggle waged by independence movements, with the aim of appropriating their mineral resources. First and foremost, these include resources crucial to the maintenance of fossil capitalism, like crude oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, precious metals and phosphates. The politico-institutional structures for this kind of “accumulation by dispossession”, as the Marxist academic David Harvey describes it in allusion to Rosa Luxemburg, and the associated redistribution from poor countries to the centres of capitalism, were created by international financial-capital institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. With the liberalisation and privatisation measures they have imposed, these institutions, dominated by the US, the UK, and the major EU member states, France and Germany, have laid the foundations for the neo-colonial exploitation of land.
But exploitation and appropriation efforts are also increasingly targeting water, wind and solar power – that is, resources and natural properties intended to aid the implementation of a green and technological energy transition in Western countries. Germany’s federal government is planning, through a “National Hydrogen Strategy”, to become a global market leader for green hydrogen technology. The task allocated to African countries within the framework of this plan is to provide space and natural resources. Thus, German companies are currently involved in implementing mega-projects in Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, like dams and wind or solar farms to produce green hydrogen for export. In the case of Western Sahara, the German government is even prepared to grant de facto recognition of Morocco’s illegal occupation and ignore the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination in order to use that location’s potential for renewable energy to serve its own interests.
As in classic forms of resource exploitation, this green colonialism reserves what is a communal asset – the environment – for the growth and profits of Western industrial firms. Meanwhile, this makes a local, democratic energy transition in those countries more difficult, with one in two households in West Africa not having even an electricity supply. It is also clear that one effect will be transnational companies, international organisations, Western governments and national segments of capital exerting growing control and influence over political life, territories and work in the affected regions. In the process, the question of ownership is to be answered in favour of Western businesses, to make the dispossession and appropriation of natural resources irreversible.
In this connection, we should remember the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and his formidable 1971 book, “Open Veins of Latin America”. In it, considering the effects of centuries of conquest and pillage of the people and natural world in Latin America as the basis of prosperity for Europe and a small national elite, he describes “mankind’s poverty as a consequence of the wealth of the land”. To this day, that fundamental principle of colonial exploitation of resources has not changed a bit.
Imperialist colonialism, for that reason, never really ended. On the contrary, after the end of bloc-based confrontation during the Cold War, it continued in the form of a neo-colonialism under the auspices of a unipolar world order and a globalisation whose effects, especially in the former colonies, have been negative. In this process, the US more than any other relied on comprador bourgeoisies, particularly in Europe as well as in periphery countries, which shored up imperialist globalisation to the benefit of US companies. The anti-colonialist independence movements in the Global South have had to keep putting up new defences against these take-over attempts and protecting their countries’ democratic sovereignty. The perfidious thing about US hegemony is that, unlike the imperialism of the past, it has stitched the propagation of freedom and democracy onto its flag.
Under that banner, even the openly aggressive, bellicose side of colonialism is enjoying a resurgence in its old form. Since the turn of the millennium, under cover of waging its so-called “war on terror”, the US with the support of its NATO allies has increasingly deployed military means to expand its economic and strategic dominion over the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. The most striking examples of this neo-colonial hegemony are without a doubt the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Waged with the most horrific abuses of human rights, the wars – which would serve as blueprints for subsequent interventions in Libya and Syria – each cost several hundred thousand human lives and laid the foundations for the rise of Islamic terrorism. In their professed objectives – democratisation and emancipation – they have failed completely. In view of the drastic consequences of the United States’ illegal wars in the Middle East, US intellectual Noam Chomsky called the US “the world’s leading terrorist state”.
Under the cloak of anti-terrorism, France – another former colonial power – also has a military presence in the Sahel. A particular focus is the military protection of uranium exports from the desperately poor Niger by the French energy company Areva, Niger being the main supplier for France’s nuclear power plants. The people of Niger, which is one of the poorest and least safe countries in the world, do not benefit from this. Quite the opposite.
The German armed forces (Bundeswehr) likewise has a presence in the Sahel. Despite the evident failure of its military interference in Mali, whose security situation has deteriorated significantly since the start of the MINUSMA military operation, and increasing differences with the Malian transitional government, the German government is insisting on keeping German troops stationed there. A central argument in the German debate is that the region mustn’t be left to the growing influence of Russia. That thinking in terms of spheres of influence reveals a colonialist attitude that is an example of the disregard for the sovereignty of African states.
That democratic sovereignty of the countries of the South is also a thorn in the eye for the West when it comes to dealing with the war in Ukraine. This is exposed in the neo-colonialist attempts by the US and the EU to involve those countries, against their own interests, in the West’s economic war against Russia. There is great incomprehension at the fact that, at the UN General Assembly in March, 17 African states abstained from voting for the resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And yet it makes perfect sense that the countries of the South do not want to be dragged onto the side of the West in the proxy war in Ukraine. Unlike the public in the West, many parts of the world predominantly take a neutral view of the history behind the war and of its geopolitical dimensions. Representatives of the Global South, for all that they criticise Russia’s violation of international law, correctly point the finger of responsibility at NATO’s eastward expansion as a key cause of the escalation of the conflict. Understandably, they point to the West’s double standards policy and the innumerable illegal wars of aggression waged by the US and its allies which did not elicit similar responses.
In contrast, there is ignorance in the West as to the African and Southern states’ interest in a swift end to the war by diplomatic negotiation. Their wish for peace makes complete sense. After all, many of them are the countries that are suffering most from the effects of the war in the form of skyrocketing energy and food prices. The UN grain deal negotiated with mediation from Turkey – welcome though it is – has not been able to fundamentally change that. The fact that the UN grain deal includes provisions to limit the restrictive effects of Western sanctions on Russian food and fertiliser exports – a promise which is still slow to be implemented – is routinely ignored in the West. And yet unhindered access to global markets for Russian foodstuffs and fertilisers would be hugely important. After all, Russia is the world’s largest supplier of wheat and fertiliser.
Voices like those of African Union Chair Macky Sall, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and newly elected Brazilian President Lula da Silva, calling for a diplomatic solution and peace for Ukraine, are not heard in the West. Instead, the West is pursuing the goal declared by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, to weaken Russia for the long term. The promising ceasefire negotiations held between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul in March were rejected by the US and Britain. Unprecedented weapons deliveries and economic sanctions are imposed to bring Russia to its knees and open up the prospect of regime change or even the disintegration of the country, parcelled up along ethnic lines.
This strategy is deluded and irresponsible for two reasons. Firstly, the nuclear-power Russia will hardly be prepared to unconditionally give up in a conflict it is engaged in, from its point of view, to protect its very existence. Every passing day and every additional weapons delivery therefore increases the danger of the conflict expanding into a Third World War and the nuclear destruction of Europe. Secondly, it is cynical to want to drive Ukraine into a protracted proxy war and sacrifice its people on the battlefield for our own geopolitical interests. Wise observers like prominent US economist Jeffrey Sachs were already vehemently warning against this in early April 2022.
Germany’s federal government is submitting itself to this confrontational course and participating with massive sanctions in the unprecedented economic war underway against Russia. While German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock hopes they will allow her to “ruin Russia”, the sanctions are having a boomerang effect. Even the German government had to admit a few days ago, in response to a parliamentary question I posed, that it had no knowledge at all about whether the sanctions were achieving their objective of hampering Russia’s war economy. Instead, the state-controlled energy firm Gazprom has declared record profits equivalent to 41.63 billion euros for the first six months of this year, thanks to the price increases that the sanctions have caused.
For Germany, in contrast, the consequences of the economic war against what was its most important energy supplier are dire. Inflation has reached record levels of more than 10%, one in four companies are having to cut jobs because of skyrocketing energy prices, whole sectors are on the brink of ruin or planning to move production abroad. In short, Germany is facing de-industrialisation, with millions of jobs and Germany’s entire prosperity model is at stake and social harmony in jeopardy.
In these conditions, it would be suicidal for Germany to proceed even further and join the United States’ economic war against China, as elements in the German government want it to. The debate being conducted to that end in the West, about a supposed “systemic rivalry” between “liberal democracies” and “authoritarian states”, is given the lie by the former’s neo-colonialist dominance of the world alone. Decoupling ourselves from Germany’s most important trading partner would moreover have dire consequences for people in Germany, of which the economic war against Russia would presumably prove a mere foretaste.
The neo-colonialist attempts by the US-led West to exert influence on the countries of the South on the issue of the war in Ukraine, just like the confrontation that the US is seeking with China, demonstrate that the US, with the support of its European subordinate allies, is trying at any cost to avoid losing its position as the sole global hegemonic power. At the same time, the hope is to halt the rise of China, which has recorded impressive development in recent decades and advanced from being one of the poorest countries to the second-largest economy in the world and one of the most important drivers of technology and innovation.
For the countries of the South, a multipolar world order represents a major opportunity to escape the neo-colonialist yoke. After all, states around the world don’t have many choices available in the unipolar era of unipolarity that has prevailed since the collapse of the Soviet Union: they either submit to the interests of the US, or they have to accept the risk of falling victim to invasions, coups and far-reaching sanctions.
Just take Cuba as an example, which has followed its own, socialist development path since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and, as a result, has been confronting an inhumane and illegal US trade embargo for more than sixty years. This is not changed in the slightest by the fact that, just a few days ago, the vast majority – 185 states – at the United Nations again voted for the embargo to be lifted, with the US and Israel voting against and Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Ukraine abstaining. The United States is evidently determined to make an example of the little Caribbean island and deter other countries of the South from achieving any development beyond the bounds of capitalist exploitation and free from neo-colonialist subjugation.
Cuba’s achievements in establishing outstanding education and healthcare systems and showing solidarity with other countries of the South, in spite of all the resistance and difficulties, are a great success and demonstrate that alternative development is possible.
On matters of neo-colonialist dominance over large swathes of the Global South, good relations between those countries and China, Russia or India and Brazil are a thorn in the West’s eye. After all, they offer a means of defending democratic sovereignty by opening up a third option next to compliance or resistance, namely neutrality. What this can mean has been put into words by Pierre Sané, President of the Imagine Africa Institute and former Secretary General of Amnesty International, in connection with the vote at the UN on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “Neutrality does not mean indifference. Neutrality means continuously calling for the respect of international laws; neutrality means that our hearts still go to the victims of military invasions and arbitrary sanctions never imposed on NATO countries.”
On a similar note, the Foreign Minister of South Africa, Naledi Pandor, has set out her view of the war in Ukraine that is entirely different from that of the West: “The issues that lie at the heart of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia have been discussed around the world for more than ten years. Africa was never invited to the table to discuss these issues. You can’t say at this point: ‘Choose one side or the other!’ We were not involved in all these factors that led to the current situation. […] Our position is: The world has a responsibility to seek and strive for peace […]. We are appalled to see that in this conflict, where thousands are losing their lives, where infrastructure is being destroyed, those responsible are unable to do what South Africa did: we sat down at the table, negotiated and found a solution, thanks to which the war [was ended].”
Where the causes of war and destruction lie was once aptly put by French socialist Jean Jaurès. “Capitalism,” he said, “carries war within itself like a cloud carries rain.” In other words, war and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. As the capitalist economic system is built on the principle of competition and maximisation of profits, exploitation and expansion are inherent to capitalism. The use of military means to maximise profits is for that reason a consequence of capitalism’s logic.
So what can we do to counteract these imperialist tendencies and neo-colonialist hegemony which is trying economically or militarily to bring vast swathes of the Global South under its control? Part of the answer can be found in Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”. In it, he notes that “the European peoples […] must realize that in the past they have often joined the ranks of our common masters where colonial questions were concerned”.
In other words, we need an alliance between the working class of the West and the peoples of the South. The common interest of such an internationalist alliance is evident not only on the issue of war and peace; the common goal must also be to overcome the capitalist mode of production as a source of national and imperialist exploitation.
In that pursuit, the Western working class, as Fanon urges, must not allow themselves to be bought off with socio-imperialist concessions from the ruling class and halt their fight against exploitation and for better standards of living at their national borders. The task is rather to express international solidarity with all those forces in the South which stand up against neo-colonialist oppression.
In Germany, we have given ourselves the task of bringing about a change of mind set in German foreign policy, which is still being shaped by imperialist motives and colonialist mentalities. This is because, in view of the pursuit of geostrategic dominance through NATO and of capitalist profit interests by means of “humanitarian interventions”, targeted exports of weapons of war to exert geopolitical influence, and exploitative free trade, our foreign policy is of a piece with the colonial policy that Karl Liebknecht was criticising at the start of the 20th century. Critical reflection and systematic decolonisation of our culture of public remembrance, which would include the genuine recognition of the Herero and Nama genocide and the payment of appropriate reparations, are just the start.
To create the essential context for the development of alternatives to take us beyond neo-colonialism, a multipolar world needs to emerge. The economic rise of China and the further development of international alliances like BRICS or of continental confederations like the African Union and the South American organisation UNASUR, originally founded to act as a counterweight to the US-dominated Organization of American States, have the potential to shift the balance of power in that direction. Building on such a development, we might manage to tackle important issues pertaining to the world order, like renegotiating global trade relations, democratising the United Nations and demilitarising the planet. As utopian as that scenario might sound, in the face of war, neo-colonial exploitation and environmental destruction, there really is no alternative other than a more peaceful and fairer world order.
Sevim Dagdelen is member of the German Bundestag, Chairperson of The Left Party parliamentary group in the Committee on Foreign Affairs and spokesperson on International Policy. At the University of Namibia (UNAM), she was invited on 16 November 2022 to give a Guest Lecture “Colonial past – Neo-colonial present? International Relations in the Light of War, Sanctions and International Law”.
Foto: Gedenken an den Genozid der Schutztruppe an den Herero; https://www.flickr.com/photos/erdbeernaut/38597591805/in/photostream/