Since World War II most of the world’s conflicts have revolved around struggles for independence against Western and Japanese colonial/imperial regimes
Following formal independence, a new type of imperial domination was imposed – neo-colonial regimes, in which the US and its European allies imposed vassal rulers acting as proxies for economic exploitation. With the rise of US unipolar global domination, following the demise of the USSR (1990), the West established hegemony over the East European states. Some were subject to fragmentation and sub-divided into new NATO dominated statelets.
The quest for a unipolar empire set in motion a series of wars and ethnic conflicts in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Baltic States, North Africa, Asia and Western Europe – leading to ethnic cleansing and the global mass refugee crises.
The break-up of nation states spread across the globe as the rhetoric and politics of ‘self-determination’ replaced the class struggle as the flagship for social justice and political freedom.
Many of the prime movers of empire-building adopted the tactics of dividing and conquering adversaries – under the liberal pretext of promoting ‘self-determination’, without clarifying who and what the ‘self’ represented and who really benefited.
Sectional, regional, cultural and ethnic identities served to polarize struggles. In contrast ‘central’ regimes fought to retain ‘national unity’ in order to repress regional revolts.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze and discuss the national and international forces behind the slogans of ‘self-determination’ and the larger international and regional consequences.
Basic Concepts: Ambiguities and Clarification
One of the striking aspects of the process of globalization and national development is ‘uneven and combined development’ (ICD). This takes several forms – uneven development between regions, within and between countries, and usually both.
Imperial countries concentrate industries, commerce and banking while colonized/neo-colonized countries are left with export-linked, resource-based enclaves and low-wage assembly plants. Frequently, the capital cities of colonized and de-colonized countries concentrate and centralize political power, wealth, infrastructure, transport and finance while their provinces are reduced to providing raw material and cheap labor by subject people. Infrequently political power and administration – including the military, police and tax collection agencies – are concentrated in economically un-productive central cities, while the wealth-producing, but politically weaker regions, are economically exploited, marginalized and depleted.
Combined and uneven development on international and national levels has led to class, anti-imperialist and regional struggles. Where class-based struggles have been weakened, nationalist and ethnic leaders and movements assume political leadership.
‘Nationalism’, however, has two diametrically opposing faces: In one version Western backed regional movements work to degrade anti-imperialist regimes in order to subordinate the entire nation to the dictates of an imperial power. In a different context, broad-based secular nationalists struggle to gain political independence by defeating imperial forces and their local surrogates, who are often ethnic or religious minority rent-collecting overlords.
Imperial states have always had a clear understanding of the nature of the different kinds of ‘nationalism’ and which serve their interests. Imperial states support regional and/or ‘nationalist’ regimes and movements that will undermine anti-imperial movements, regimes and regions. They always oppose ‘nationalist’ movements with strong working class leadership.
Imperial Perfidious Albion, the United Kingdom, slaughtered and starved millions of people who resisted its rule in Asia (India, Burma, Malaya and China), Africa (South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, etc.) and Europe (Ireland).
At the same time, British imperialists promoted regional conflicts arming Muslims to fight Hindus, Sikhs to fight Muslims, Gurkas to oppress Malays and create various warring religious, ethnic and linguistic groups throughout the Indian subcontinent, Burma and Malaya. Likewise the UK promoted conflicts among religious, secular nationalist and conservative groups throughout the Middle East.
The imperial powers naturally operate through the strategy of ‘divide and conquer’, labeling their adversaries as ‘backward’ and ‘authoritarian’ while praising their surrogates as ‘freedom fighters’ which they claim are ‘in transition to Western democratic values’.
However, the strategic issue is how imperial states define the kind of self-determination to support or repress and when to change their policies: Today’s allies are dubbed ‘democrats’ in the Western press and tomorrow they can be re-assigned the role of ‘freedom’s enemies’ and ‘authoritarian’, if they act against imperial interests.
The Two Faces of Self-Determination
In contrast to the imperial practice of shifting policies toward dominant regimes and separatist movements, most of the ‘left’ broadly support all movements for self-determination and label all opponents as ‘oppressors’.
As a result the left and the imperialist regimes may end up on the same side in a massive ‘regime change’ campaign!
The libertarian left cover-up their own fake ‘idealism’ by labeling the imperial powers as ‘hypocrites’ and using a ‘double-standard’. This is a laughable accusation, since the guiding principle behind an imperial decision to support or reject ‘self-determination’ is based on class and imperial interests. In other words, when ‘self-determination’ benefits the empire, it receives full support. There are no abstract historical, moral precepts, devoid of class and imperial content determining policy.
Case Studies: The Myths of the “Stateless Kurds” and “Ukraine’s Liberation”
In the Twentieth Century, the Kurdish citizens of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran have made claims of ‘self-determination’ and fought against established nation-states in the name of ‘ethnic liberation’.
But who defines the real ‘self’ to be liberated?
In the case of Iraq in the 1990’s, Kurds were sponsored, armed, funded and defended by the US and Israel in order to weaken and divide the secular-nationalist Iraqi republic. Kurds, again with US support, have organized regional conflicts in Turkey and more recently in Syria, in order to defeat the independent government of Bashar Assad. Leftist Kurds cynically describe their imperial allies, including the Israelis, as ‘progressive colonialists’.
In brief, the Kurds act as surrogates for the US and Israel: They provide mercenaries, access to military bases, listening and spy posts and resources in their newly ‘liberated (and ethnically cleansed) country’, to bolster US imperialism, which ‘their warlord leaders’ have chosen as the dominant ‘partner’. Is their struggle one of national liberation or mercenary puppetry in the service of empire against sovereign nations resisting imperial and Zionist control?