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Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
Libya and the invention of Brown Britain
Instead of acting as a coloniser in Libya, the UK could model itself as an authentic post-colonial state open to all.
Last Modified: 30 Aug 2011 10:52
With its society cleft by class and race, the UK is hardly in a position to be offering itself as a model to others [EPA]

Liberal interventionists are having a "mission accomplished" moment. They had thought their project of civilising barbarians by force had died with the invasion of Iraq. Now they rejoice as a deftly-led Western air and special forces operation has all but delivered the Libyan rebels to power.

As with President Bush in his flight suit, liberal celebrations are premature. We are now at the point of maximum danger for the Western project in Libya.

It took months of punishing air strikes to get this far. Tripoli was taken by close coordination between Western advisors and air forces and the few contingents of the rebel army that have any serious military capability. The fractious National Transitional Council lacks a reliable force with which to secure the country, and there is no sign of an international stabilisation force. Conditions are ripe for infighting to break out and for "regime dead-enders" to prolong the struggle.

But even if dire outcomes are averted, what would constitute success for the liberals?

The narrative of intervention offers two positions: a West which bears the burden of civilisation, and a native society in need of tutelage. Centuries of imperialism and decades of "development" have failed to follow through on the promise of this myth for either party. Now, the Western world power on which it is premised is slipping away, whatever happens in Libya.

How might we begin to re-imagine the parable of intervention, in ways suited to the coming multi-polar world in which small powers like the United Kingdom and Libya will have to fend for themselves?

The appearance of democracy

To be a liberal interventionist is to know what other peoples' countries need. Manuals on stabilisation, peace processes, and democratisation are being pulled off the shelves around the Western world. NGO and contractor wallahs everywhere are dusting off their résumés.

A chief goal will be the appearance of democracy, delivered through an election process. The key requirement of such a process is that it be sufficiently credible but not so much so the locals can't game it. Human rights must be respected and the victor's justice of the ICC carried out. Most important of all are "free markets", code for ensuring the Libyan oil industry - over which Gaddafi maintained sovereign control - is fully opened to Western interests.

The best that careful tutelage by well-meaning Westerners will get you these days is a neoliberal "low-intensity" democracy of this kind. The Libyan elite can enrich itself and provide bread and circuses to its population.

With its own democracy shot through with the influence of big money and the self-immolating doctrines of neoliberalism, its society cleft by class and race, the UK is hardly in any kind of shape to be offering itself as a model to others.

Britain today faces fundamental strategic dilemmas. It is trapped between the two great halves of the declining West, Europe and the US. Its economy is doing poorly in part because its chief export markets are not in booming Asia, but in depressed Europe and the US.

Yet, on the eve of Western decline, the UK political class continues to imagine itself as part of the white, strong, world-bestriding West.

Faced with rioting from excluded youth, politicians called for the full panoply of security techniques to be brought home from its remaining colonial outpost in Northern Ireland. They floated the idea of "area curfews" in which depressed areas would be shut down at night while the party carried on in Knightsbridge and Chelsea, creating a world of colonial partitions in London itself. Even mobile phone service and social media were to be denied to the denizens of the native neighbourhoods when they got uppity, just as in Syria and Egypt.

But what if Britain began to think of itself as an authentically post-colonial state? What if it fostered an identity that encompassed both sides of the imperial experience, the coloniser and the colonised? All of a sudden, those who have been so excluded from British life, immigrants from former colonies, would be propelled to the centre. They would be equal participants in "Brown Britain" with a humbled ruling class once again open to the influences of the East, willing to mix with native society.

Instead of the UK being a place where other countries have diasporas - Pakistani, Nigerian, Malaysian, et cetera - the UK would have networks and diasporas of its own, who fully identified with the project of Brown Britain. They would be a leading edge for business and influence around the world. A re-imagined BBC World Service - infused with the hip, cosmopolitan tenor of Al Jazeera - could become the voice of Brown Britain and of the aspirations of a post-imperial world.

A UK that struck out in this direction would carve a path to world influence congruent with its own history as a great trading state, but one which also reflected cosmopolitan lessons drawn from its imperial past. It would become an advocate for the global South in the councils of the West, an advocate willing to leverage its access, influence and expertise.

The UK could position itself between the shrill demands of a West that thinks it still runs the show and emerging powers, interests and opportunities around the world. It might make especial use of its links to the Arab world, strongly bolstering the Palestinian struggle, earning access and sympathy within and beyond the Middle East.

By breaking with the Western script, and dealing with the Libyans as equals, not as natives who need to learn civilisation, Brown Britain could achieve a privileged position in Libya. Drawing on its own and Arab expertise, for example, it might assist Libya in keeping its oil industry out of the hands of the multinationals. Such a policy might cost BP some profits, but it will secure a partnership with a nearby oil-rich country.

For their part, Libyans should be ashamed by the murderous buffoonery of the Gaddafi years and their collective failure to produce a serious post-independence politics. They face the task of founding a new order at home, and a new dispensation in their foreign relations. They must avoid the temptations of becoming a neoliberal client state.

The UK and Libya ought to engage on the basis of mutual humility. They share many problems. Their societies are divided by ethnicity, their youth without hope or skills for the new century, their economies in need of investment and infrastructure. What kind of new partnerships, across all sectors of society, might be envisioned for mutual benefit?

Rather than pack its multicultural youth off to prison before evicting them from public housing, the UK might instead think of youth and cultural exchanges and international public works programmes. Such efforts might prepare Libyans and Britons for a cosmopolitan world and its opportunities. Educational initiatives could reinvigorate UK and Libyan universities. Hybrid, brown models of engagement might become the basis for new forms of internationalism.

Brown Britain may be an impossible dream; the political forces to bring it about certainly are lacking. Other white powers like Canada and New Zealand have tried to rebrand themselves as "Asian friendly" and failed. But the UK's present course promises only managed decline. Its politicians must come to realise that a multicultural society is a precious resource in a globalised world, not a problem to be cleansed away.

Tarak Barkawi is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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