Monday, 21 December 2009

Did decolonization mark a major change in World Politics?

This essay seeks to show that decolonization was instrumental to major changes in world politics. Even though a plethora of changes, positive and negative, minor and major can be attributed to decolonization, it is recognized that the liberal definition of what constitutes a major change, particularly self-determination and the constructivist perspective of values, identity, ideas and wide reaching normative change, differs from the realist perspective that a major change constitutes a shift in the balance of power. The limitations of this realist perspective are addressed. Self-determination and sovereignty of prior colonies in Asia and Africa are presented as symbolically important divergent from the realist suggestion that the actual exercising of sovereignty by weaker or ‘quasi’ states is of minimal impact in world politics. It is also presented here that contemporary events in world politics, such as the growing norm of human intervention and its apparent infringement on sovereignty has some of its origins traced back to decolonization. The liberal position that central to impact of decolonization on world politics was the changing and growing role of international institutions, is argued to be congruent with the constructivist view that the meanings and interpretations are significant.

This assessment starts by firstly contrasting the contending paradigms of theoretical framework of realism, liberalism and constructivism, their understanding of decolonization, the international system, sovereignty and what constitutes a major change in world politics. There is analysis of transformations and continuities in world politics and the ‘expansion of the international society’ , prior to and after decolonization to identify when, where, why and how they can be attributed to decolonization. Understanding changes in the post colonial relationship is indispensable to this assessment and brief references are made to the Commonwealth and Francophone states. An appraisal is made of the impact of changing composition of International Institutions notably the United Nations, the impact of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). The impact of decolonization in India on contemporary world politics is evaluated and a brief conclusion summarizes key findings.

Understanding Decolonization - What does each theoretical framework say?

According to Duara: “… decolonization refers to the process whereby colonial powers transferred institutional and legal control over their territories and dependencies to indigenously based, formally sovereign, nation-states … decolonization represented not only the transference of legal sovereignty, but a movement for moral justice and political solidarity against imperialism.” (Duara, 2004).

It isn’t uncommon for liberal accounts of decolonization to use a chronology that begins with the signing of The Charter of the United Nations in 1945 followed by a growing tide of nationalism in Africa and Asia. There were provisions in the charter supporting normative ideas and values of equal rights and self determination of all peoples. According to Paul Lauren, for nationalist leaders in Africa and Asia, this provision “bolstered their spirits further” (Lauren, 1988). This gave impetus to normative framework change of human rights and self-determination that made imperialism unfashionable and independence inevitable. Robert Jackson notes: “Demands for independence based on equality and self-determination eventually deprived colonialism of its moral defenses and put in its place alternative norms for justifying independent statehood” (Jackson, 1993).

Realists pay a lot less attention to normative notions in world politics. In trying to comprehend the impact of decolonization, they focus on its effect on power and the security interests of states. They may make reference to growing military and humanitarian intervention as evidence that decolonization did not give absolute sovereignty to newly independent states. Stephen Krasner asks pertinent questions that both liberals and realists ask themselves. “What do Third World countries want? How can they get it? What should the North do? What is the long term prognosis for North-South relations?” (Krasner S. D., 1985). Realists answer these questions with power, control and politics as the backdrop whilst liberals accentuate self-determination, normative change, economics and the role of institutions. Realists attribute the motivations of the developing nations for pursuing decolonization to a desire to maximize power for the state arguing that the demands of the G77 for the NIEO and altering the composition of existing international institutions confirms this. This can be further substantiated as newly independent states consistently exercise their sovereignty, which in many cases leads to human rights abuses on their own citizens. Liberals are in favor of institutions that promote this sovereign right. However, the realist will further say this is ‘organized hypocrisy’ and sovereignty is irrelevant without the power to back it up and are likely to make reference to the limited impact of the NIEO as evidence of this.

A widespread approach to analysis of change in world politics as a result of decolonization is looking at post colonial relationships and its impact on foreign policy. ”Most constructivist work on post-imperial ties, however, has focused on autonomous change in the normative framework of North-South relations (for instance, on decolonization …)” (Brysk, Parsons, & Sandholtz, 2002). Ideas, values and identity are recognized by the constructivist school as the catalyst for normative change during the decolonization process. The idea of granting sovereignty is a social construct from interaction and sharing of ideas.

Decolonization Transformations: What constitutes a major change in world politics?

According to neo-realists, “States dominate the transnational arena although the constitution of this arena is changing.” (Heller & Sofaer, 2001). Consequently changes in statehood and sovereignty can be considered major in global politics. According to Brown, the term ‘sovereignty’ refers to claims of autonomy of multiple political units, a distinguishing feature of international political theory (Brown, 2002). Sovereignty and Self determination are central as key drivers of decolonization and represent the significant desired and achieved changes to newly independent states in Asia and Africa. Hedley Bull cites five themes or phases in their “revolt against the west” namely the struggles for equal sovereignty, formal political independence, racial equality, economic justice and cultural liberation (Bull, 1984). This ‘revolt’ represented the start of a seismic shift in the universal international society dominated by European powers – economical, military, intellectual and cultural authority and institutional legality. Bull goes on to further highlight factors he believes represent what brought about the collapse of the old Western-dominated international order. A number of these were interwoven in the decolonization process and closely associated with a liberal view of normative change. There was the “psychological and spiritual awakening” of colonised peoples which led them to become more active in political affairs, the West gradually losing interest in maintaining the position of dominance, the rise of the Soviet Union and shifting power equilibrium. Pertinently the Afro-Asian movement, G77, and Non Aligned Movement efforts transformed the moral climate of the international order.

The motivation for decolonization to reduce Western dominance is commonly discussed in the name of ideas and values by constructivists even when these values are ‘western’. Stephen Krasner offers an alternative realist perspective by the assumption that “... Third World states like all states in the international system are concerned about vulnerability and threat ...” (Krasner S. D., 1985). The motivation for decolonization is as much for power and control as it is for wealth. The Asian and African nations desired more than anything control over international regimes so they could secure their interests and values.

From the Liberal perspective, even though after decolonization these nations remained dependent to varying degrees on their previous colonisers for their security their motivation and behaviour was as a result of state preferences, not capability. Liberal Institutionalism acquiesces that more representation in the UN was an effective vehicle to pursue these interests. The advantage was growing acknowledgement of the principle of sovereign equality of states, an area that constituted a change in world politics from a power and control perspective. According to Krasner “... Before the twentieth century ... great-power dominated sovereign equality ... In the present system, the principle of sovereign equality dominates that of great-power primacy” (Krasner S. D., 1985). The classical realist might downplay the importance of participation and institutionalism and propose that increased Afro-Asian vote and involvement in the United Nation did not represent a major change in world politics. Even where there might be a slight shift in the balance of power, the view is that the International society will always include strong states and weak states, real states and ‘quasi’ states possessing positive and negative sovereignty respectively. If world politics represents interaction between sovereign states, then the mere rise in the number of states sovereignty, regardless of its ‘hypocrisy’, determines a major change. The sheer increase in diplomatic activity within the United Nations demonstrates evolution of the international order, challenging the realist argument that it represents only a stage for the main actors to exercise their power.

Another limitation of the realist perspective in determining changes in world politics attributed to decolonization is in its primary premise that the main actors on the world stage are states. Assuming other actors such as multinational corporations, international organizations and rising number of non-governmental organisations all have to work within the framework of the state actually doesn’t address the phrase ‘world politics’ . A large number of states became legally sovereign as a result of decolonization, but in practise they have to interact and negotiate with all sorts of other actors and the freedom to act as they desire embodied in the right to self-determination is restricted. This re-enforces the liberal view of interdependence being important in world politics and the growing nature of this due to changing norms introducing new actors (for example international organizations promoting human rights) has been effected by decolonization.

Another relatable challenge could be to the realist notion that sovereignty is absolute. There is increasing concern in the global political landscape for human security, higher levels of human intervention and the dilution of the importance of sovereignty in such cases. Decolonization contributed to a proliferation of ‘failed’ states resulting from inability for effective self-rule and dependence on former colonial powers for economic aid and security. Christopher Clapham notes that the French readiness to intervene militarily in Africa in the post colonial period included operations in Gabon, Central African Republic, Chad, Togo, Zaire and Western Sahara. Somewhat recent is Rwanda, where there was French direct military support for the regime in power. It could be argued by the constructivists’ school that growing civil war in newly independent African states influenced a changing norm of Human Intervention as ‘illegal but morally legitimate’. This norm of a higher moral cause as being important even where it infringes on a states’ sovereignty has spread and impacted world politics. In the last two decades we can see instances of this in Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Darfur in Sudan. The growing use of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) language has been significant in international politics today and central to drafting of international law and various resolutions passed in the UN. Recognizing that decolonization contributed to the creation of these ‘failed’ states and served as a trigger to these events cannot be ignored as an impact on world politics.

Decolonization Transformations: When, where and how has this happened?

By the 1960s, after years of fighting for independence, most Western colonial territories had gained self-rule. The change in world politics was the newly independent nations’ quest to realize their identity in the international arena. According to the constructivist school, world politics is essentially determined by shared meanings, norms and ideas (Wendt, 1999). This was clearly demonstrated in what became the most symbolic and influential moment at attempts at decolonization – the famous Asian-African Conference at Bandung in Indonesia. The strong shared values of resistance to colonial domination, discrimination against race and rights to self determination served as the prelude to what Paul Lauren referred to as “the flood” where in just over a decade, the membership of the United Nations more than doubled eventually giving Afro-Asians a majority. This represented a major shift in world politics as they could now influence the agenda on a wide variety of subjects ranging from human rights and sovereignty to racial discrimination. The reverberation of this heightened level of consciousness and mounting international pressure was felt across the globe - politically, socially and culturally. There were implications for Canadian Immigration Bill of 1965, the British parliament passing the Race Relations, dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and Civil rights movement in the US. In the UN, numerous historic treaties and agreements were passed – UNESCO approved the 1962 Convention against Discrimination in Education, the notable 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Decolonization Continuities: What is perceived as unchanged?

Sovereignty, classical realists note, did not bring with it complete freedom from imperialist influences. Colonial legacies were visible in the desire of the new governments to keep the boundaries that were created during colonial times, in the promotion of ethnic rivalry, in the continuation of inhumane and unjust actions against minority populations, and in the practice of distributing the country's resources in an uneven manner. Also, after being under foreign rule for decades, newly independent governments often lacked governmental institutions, good governance skills, and the governing experience needed to effectively rule their newly sovereign nations. In most cases, the transition from colonial province to independent state was a violent and arduous journey.

The ‘morning after’ decolonization was a traumatic experience for a number of newly independent states as the “relationship with the former colonial power was the only substantial external relationship ...” (Clapham, 1996). In Africa the former metro pole continued to have extensive interests within the African state. This ‘new’ relationship was one in which the African State had least control. According to William Zartman, this ‘dependency approach’ (in contrast to decolonization theory, where the relationships are caught up in an evolutionary process) is used to explain Third world developmental problems. In his article written fifteen years after most of Africa received its independence, he notes that Europe is still present and influential in the continent. Despite sovereignty and self-determination, this didn’t seem to represent a change in the international system. Zartman says: “... the attainment of political sovereignty masks the reality of continued dependence on world economic structures, and calculations of power and interest within this dependency relationship explain underdevelopment”. (Zartman, Europe and Africa: Decolonization or Dependency?, 1976). Zartmans realist view that decolonization has not changed much due to continued dependence is analogous to Nkrumahs term Neo-Colonialism as ‘the last stage of Imperialism’. According to Nkrumah “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is in theory independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.” (Nkrumah, 1965). The limitation with this generalisation is it doesn’t give much credence to the fact that any control is always indirect and it is the independent sovereign state that has direct control.

The unchanged structure of the United Nations Security Council and the permanent five members with veto power is often cited by realists as substantiation of decolonization being inconsequential. This assessment defines power from a limited perspective of primarily military and secondarily economic. There are a large number of newly independent states that are members of the UN, even though not one of the Permanent five members, but wield an enormous amount of ‘soft power’ . India is a good example. Since attaining independence in 1947, it is now recognized as one of the ‘rising’ powers alongside China and Brazil. Alongside its growing economic and military strength and capabilities, its unique strong nationalism and constructivist norm of identity, evident during and ever since the decolonization process, has been significant in defining a strong state in world politics.

The impact of decolonization in India on world politics: A brief case in point

North East and South Asia are regions in which powerful states in the contemporary world have extensive interests and therefore are central to world politics. These regions combined are home to nearly two-fifths of the world population. India’s location and demographics makes it geopolitically strategic to numerous contemporary issues such as nuclear proliferation, global economic crisis, climate change and the fight against terrorism. Decolonization and assertion of its sovereignty has eventually given India, leader of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a prominent position in world affairs. India’s role in Afghanistan and Pakistan is pivotal and in an increasingly unipolar world with an arguably declining power of previous colonizers like Britain and France, its relationship with the US hegemony is acquiescent and improving. In 2006, the US and Indian governments struck a bilateral deal that recognizes India as a nuclear weapons power and Washington recognizes that in time India could become a valuable security partner. According to Ashton Carter , the deal’s impact would mostly be felt by the ‘in-betweens’ and the ‘stalwarts’ including the five states that are formally entitled to have nuclear weapons under the NPT (Carter, 2006). Even the classical realist looking from a purely power and security perspective would be slightly naive to suggest the impact of this on world politics is minimal.


What has been shown that all theoretical frameworks acquiesce that numerous changes in world politics can be attributed, as least in part to decolonization. Where there is some divergence is what represents major change and the importance of sovereignty. It’s been illustrated that realist explanations of decolonization transformations that focus on self-interested states competing for power or security, using economic and military instruments, is limited if it does not account for normative change. The constructivist view of collective norms and social identities in the Afro-Asian caucus of the UN and activities of the Non-Aligned Movement shaping elite beliefs and subsequent state behavior is congruent with the liberal stance that economic and political considerations are important, propagated by instruments such as more representative membership of international institutions. Whilst sovereignty was important motivation for decolonization, its’ symbolic value was of more essence for normative change and quasi states exercising their sovereignty impact was constricted. Finally the brief case study of India has demonstrated that nationalism and subsequent decolonization has enabled the state to evolve into a strategic player in world politics. The essence of the argument is this essay can be encapsulated in the words of British Prime minister, Harold Macmillan, in a speech to both houses of the South African parliament in February 1960: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.” (Harold Macmillan, 3 February 1960, in (Hyam & Louis, 2000))


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