Introduction

The narratives positioning international organisations as completely benign actors in the international community have been routinely questioned and scrutinised by international relations scholars since these narratives first gained prominence. The idea that any actor in the international community could be construed as entirely benevolent is at best, blissfully naive, and dangerously ignorant at worst. The proliferation of discourses that refuse to acknowledge the existence of negative qualities in international organisations is a clear example of the latter.

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In this essay, I intend to call into question the legitimacy of the argument that posits that international organisations are wholly benevolent actors in the international system. I aim to do so by examining the inclination of international organisations towards imperialism, and their perpetuation of this ideal. This essay is divided into three main sections. The first aims to provide a working definition for the concept of imperialism and what it means in the context of this essay, to facilitate further analysis. The second section will detail the ways in which international organisations act as a vehicle for the continuation of imperialism. The third and final section builds on the sections preceding it. It examines the practice of peacebuilding and peacekeeping missions that are orchestrated by the United Nations (UN), in order to demonstrate the propagation of imperialism by international organisations in practice.

 

Defining imperialism

Before any in depth analysis of the imperialistic tendencies of international organisations can be conducted, it is imperative to have functioning definitions of terms that will undoubtedly be referred to repeatedly in said analysis. This means classifying not only what is meant by imperialism, but also identifying the qualities necessary to be qualified as an international organisation. The use of one set definition instead of changing definitions throughout gives additional focus and coherence to the essay.

International organisations are not an exclusively modern phenomenon. They have existed, in a myriad of forms, for several centuries. The terminology we now use to describe them was coined much more recently, however. The first recorded use of the term ‘international organisation’ most likely occured in the late 1860s. By the end of the nineteenth century, the phrase had been accepted by scholars and was in frequent use (Rittberger et al., 2012). There are a number of definitions in existence which can be used to illustrate the nuances of international organisations. Through the examination of several of these definitions, it is clear that the three permanent features of each definition are membership, aim, and structure. A functioning definition therefore alludes to these three aspects in order to demonstrate what an international organisation is. Any reference to international organisations hereafter is based on the definition given by Archer (2014, p. 33) “an international organization can be defined as a formal, continuous structure established by agreement between members (governmental and/or nongovernmental) from two or more sovereign states with the aim of pursuing the common interest of the membership.”

Imperialism as a concept is difficult to define. Perhaps some of the difficulty in accurately defining imperialism can be attested to the prevalence of the concept in world history. Imperialism as a political system has been utilised for milennia, as evidenced by the numerous empires that have previously existed. Any valid definition of imperialism has its origins in two basic observations about the world we live in: the existence of enormous inequality, both within and between countries, in practically all aspects of life, and the resistance of this inequality to change.            Imperialism is a relation between a Centre and a Periphery so that:            1) there is harmony of interest between the centre in the Centre nation and the centre  in the Periphery nation            2) there is more disharmony of interest within the Periphery nation than within the Centre nations            3) there is disharmony of interest between the periphery in the Centre nation and the  periphery in the Periphery nation(Galtung, 1971, p. 83).

This definition, borrowing on Lenin’s explanation of the same concept, illustrates the clinical efficiency with which imperialists operate. The maintenance of disharmony of interest between the peripheries of both nations essentially eradicates the possibility of them mobilising in an attempt to resolve the inequalities they face. The more favourable treatment bestowed upon the centre in the Periphery, in an act of recognising them as somehow different than their counterparts in the periphery of the Periphery, ensures their loyalty to the imperialists in the Centre.

 

International organisations as a vehicle for the perpetuation of imperialism

As alluded to earlier, there is a branch of scholarship within international relations that is reluctant to call into question the benevolence of international organisations. The willingness to accept the motives and actions of international organisations at face value without hesitation belittles their intelligence. This reluctance to challenge the accepted narrative can be accredited to some of the central tenets of classical liberalism, which upholds international organisations as a peaceful means of managing technological advancement and globalisation (Barnett and Finnemore, 1999).

“Only imperfect, amateurish imperialism needs weapons; professional imperialism is based on structural rather than direct violence” (Galtung, 1971, p. 91). The structure provided by international organisations facilitates the operation of imperialism on a wide scale without widespread protests and condemnation by the public. This imperialism is best examined through three avenues: the creation of international organisations, norm formation by international organisations, and the governing and decision-making bodies of international organisations.

The creation of international organisations is a highly imperialistic act. In a discussion on international organisations, it is imperative to recognise who the organisations were created by, who they were created for, and who they are governed by (Surabhi Singh and Moushumi Basu, 2014). Discourses concerning international organisation cannot just focus on why an international organisation is established; by ignoring the vital question of who has established them and who governs them, the argument is missing a crucial component that is often more revealing into the nature of said organisation than why it was created. The majority of international organisations that currently exist were established by the West, in order to maintain and reinforce Western goals (Puchala, 2005).

Probably one of the most overt examples of modern imperialism as carried out by international organisations is norm formation. The role of international organisations in setting norms for which the rest of the world is liable to follow has been well-documented (Barnett and Finnemore, 1999; Dellmuth and Tallberg, 2015; Finnemore, 1993). These norms reflect the values of those who are in positions of power within international organisations. The norms that are promoted by international organisations tend to be considered infallible and are unlikely to be challenged, granting the organisations the normative legitimacy that is essential for creditibility internationally. The control the West exerts over international organisations allows the West to determine the values and norms the entire world should adhere to. This is a blatant display of imperialism.

Domination over others, an idea central to the concept of imperialism, is also found in the decision-making organs of international organisations. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank utilise a weighted voting system – ultimately giving more power to countries which are economically prosperous (Surabhi Singh and Moushumi Basu, 2014). This includes policies concerning financial aid for ‘less-developed’ countries, despite the fact that the countries themselves, experiencing the supposed ‘lack of development’ first hand, would have a better perception of what aid is needed to promote development. The continued existence of the Security Council veto in the United Nations is another example of upholding imperialistic values in the structure of international organisations. The existence of the veto symbolises the ideology at the heart of the United Nations, to paraphrase George Orwell all nations are equal, but some nations are more equal than others.

 

UN Peacekeeping Operations: A Successor to Liberal Imperialism

United Nations peacekeeping missions have long faced comparisons to imperialism, not only from its detractors, but also from some of its most ardent supporters. In these comparisons, the supporters of peacekeeping attempt to emphasise precisely what separates modern peacekeeping from imperialism. The arguments made, however, illustrate that there is little separating modern peacekeeping from imperialism (Cunliffe, 2012)

The concept of mission civilisatrice fuelled European powers to ‘civilise’ the barborous natives of other territories and to impose their will in order to save these people from themselves. A similar sentiment is prevalent in modern peacekeeping missions. The UN have to intervene for the good of the citizens. The democratisation of the state is in the best interest of the nation. Using the mechanisms available to the UN, such as the peacekeeping forces, minimises any existing perceptions of overt ‘meddling’ in the affairs of another state. (Pevehouse, 2002). The comparisons between peacekeeping and imperialism are particularly apt when one considers that both propagate outsiders promoting a distinctive set of values, perfectly aligned with the values of the international order, in order to transform and reconstruct societies up to and including the use of force if necessary.

The efforts made by the proponents of peacekeeping to differentiate it from imperialism fall flat for one major reason. The underlying assumptions that they use to differentiate peacekeeping from imperialism are not airtight. One such assumption is that modern peacekeeping is conducted with the best interests of the subjects at heart, whilst imperialist projects have only ever been concerned with the best interests of the imperial power (Cunliffe, 2012). The implication of this assumption is that the key issue to be resolved is selfish motivations, that imperialist projects are completely selfish and peacekeeping missions completely selfless. This is, quite frankly, one of the worst ways to differentiate between the two concepts.

Imperialism was regularly justified as acts of goodwill that included spreading the benefits of progress and modernisation with the backwards people incapable of achieving such things alone. Governing those whom liberal imperialists saw unfit to govern themselves was seen as the moral duty of all liberal imperialists. This notion of liberal imperialism, the idea that imperialism is justified if the subjects are primitive, has consistently been used to legitimise and make imperialism palatable. The attempt to separate peacekeeping from imperialism on the basis that the former is altruistic and the latter is utterly self-interested deliberately ignores the storied history of imperialism and details a lack of objectivity (Cunliffe, 2012). The failure of these arguments to put distance between imperialism and peacekeeping is strong evidence that there is little ideological difference between the two concepts, that peacekeeping missions and its more intensified version, peacebuilding, are the heirs to liberal imperialism.

 

Conclusion

The central position of international organisations in furthering modern imperialism is highlighted through the comprehensive examination of several aspects of international organisations. The critique of a well-known policy of an international organisation such as the United Nations illustrates the pervasiveness of imperialism in international organisations. The scholars of international relations who characterise international organisations as completely benevolent forces in the international system have been imperative in the continuation of imperialism at the hands of international organisations. The heightened visibility and credibility offered to scholars that are decidedly pro-international organisations over critical scholars allows this imperialism to continue developing without being questioned. The absence of criticism of international organisations conditions the general public to internalise these narratives of imperialism, to accept them as a natural condition of the international system that is beyond questioning. This inevitably leads to growing desensitisation to inequality and asymmetrical relationships of power in the twenty-first century on the part of the general public.

 

Bibliography

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