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Editorial Introduction to 'The Legacy of Colonialism: An Unbounded Series'

Mis à jour : juil. 2

Written by Timothée Ceurremans

Source: Ysé Sireuil

The Legacy of Colonialism: An Unbounded Series is ideu's first series of interrelated articles. Its aim will be to paint a picture of colonialism in all its forms and shapes in order to foster deeper understanding of what led to today's international reality.

I. Methodology

Contrary to what was affirmed by Helene Dotsch in the first part of Past and Present of Colonialism, I believe postcolonial studies - or at least its course-specific variations - are not a niche area of study anymore. Several branches of social sciences tend to re-examine the matter with a modern and decentred eye (Keukeleire & Lecocq, 2019; Fisher Oran & Nicolaïdis, 2013; Chakrabarty, 2000). History, anthropology, law, sociology, political sciences and many other disciplines increasingly try to debunk the Western-centric or Eurocentric perceptions in colonial history in order to shed new light onto the consequent international relations. It is thus a subject which is incrementally reviewed both critically and objectively. If, indeed, it is true the results and objectivity of these reviews may vary (typically Bruce Gilley’s “The Case for Colonialism” attracted heavy criticism) (Gilley, 2018), the fact remains that colonialism and the postcolonial world it has created are in the academic zeitgeist.

So as to further the analytical framework for the decentring of foreign policy and scholarship that has been developed by several scholars, among which can be found Keukeleire (to see an introduction on YouTube by Prof. Keukeleire to the practice of decentring, click here), Onar Fisher and Nicolaïdis, let me expose the decentring agenda I am proposing to follow for ideu’s The Legacy of Colonialism. In order to foster and open debate in the search of a more diverse and less Eurocentric analysis of today’s societies, I propose to start by adding a generational dimension to Fisher Onar and Nicolaïdis’ analytical framework. That dimension would fit into ‘temporal decentring’ inasmuch it would complement both the provincializing and engagement needs of foreign policy analysis. By acknowledging that the historical narrative is not only Euro- or Western-centered but also generationally framed (i.e., dictated by the dominant set of ideas to be found in a specific generation of European or Western scholarship) and by including new and less academically-centered perspectives, the purpose of enriching the academic analysis and policy-making can be served well. Indeed, often enough, professors and academic assistants have pointed out the valuable input on research that is created by discussions with students. In the same vein, it is a well-known demand of citizens to render policy-making more accessible and increasingly aligned to the interests of the many rather than the few. That is precisely the outcome that this series seeks to attain. It is an outcome by which the young and perhaps idealistic student body can inform the more experienced and learned world of academia and policy. But while admittedly experience and knowledge will inevitably be a limiting factor, it’ll at least enable professional scholarship and policy-makers to understand what captures the intellectual curiosity of the next generation of citizens, professionals and voters. Altogether, of the next generation of civil society. Finally, I believe that this avenue for cooperation would, inwardly, be mutually beneficial to students and researchers. And, outwardly, it will eventually lead to a more thought-through and less ethnocentric approach to the subjects of European foreign policy.

II. The Need for Colonial Studies

Today’s societies are scarred irreversibly by colonialism. Still today its presence can be felt in social struggles, legal remnants of the colonial past and international relations with former colonies.

For instance, the EU’s development policy was born as a result of the demands of European colonial powers to keep a privileged relationship with (former) colonies. Another example can be found in the political discourse surrounding the EU-Mercosur agreement, which was tainted by South-America’s colonial past.

But of all examples, the most telling is the debate surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted around the world. While initially designed to voice the demands for a more equal and less oppressive societies for black minorities, these protests have led to calls for the questioning and reconceptualization of our nations' colonial past in the collective imaginary. The fact that several cities in Belgium have decided to take off the statues of Leopold II is irrefutably tributary of the fact that our current social struggles are tainted by historical institutions such as colonialism.

Undeniably, erecting statues of personalities is a symbolic act that carries with it a certain glorification. Whatever proponents of colonial or confederate statues may say, they do not solely convey our history. They also affirm a romanticized vision of our past which served only the powerful. And while that was arguably a necessary step in nation-building, I am convinced it is a vital leap to rethink, replace in (modern) context and redesign these symbols of the collectivity. To represent in public spaces the transnational wave of reprehension of racism, White or Western supremacism and police brutality towards minorities, is to engage in a process whereby the collectivity feels it is advancing towards healing and reconciliation. Working on the collective imaginary is not only vital to the collective rethinking of the narrative structure of our societies, it is also necessary in order to forge a new normative discourse. It allows our societies to actualize in accordance with the value-preferences of the majority of the population and, thus, allows redress for the many mistakes and missteps of our nations" history. Simultaneously, it serves to eradicate and call out the fallacious premises undergirding today’s approach towards, externally, the world and, internally, minorities.

So I say: let’s venture beyond that limited paradigm and let’s open up for the sake of the collective and global well-being of peoples who are made up of, inter alia, ethnic minorities. Because as Clifford Geertz correctly noted already 2 decades ago:

‘Social and cultural boundaries coincide less and less closely- there are Japanese in Brazil, Turks on the Main, and West Indians meets East in the streets of Birmingham- a shuffling process which has of course been going on for quite some time (…) but which is, now, approaching extreme and near universal proportions. Les milieux are all mixte. They don’t make Umwelte like they used to.’ (Geertz, 2000)

In light of the omnipresence of the remnants of colonialist thought in the contemporary world, I call for the research of colonialism by students and young workers in all its forms and shapes. Let's engage with our knowledge and raise awareness on our scale!

That is why, with the overarching objective of creating debate and interaction at all levels of study and practice, the series The Legacy of Colonialism will seek to fill an informational gap. A gap that, in my opinion, has been created by a flagrant lack of basic education with regard to colonialism. In that pursuit, the following contribution will be the third of this series on ideu.eu to build mainstream knowledge about colonialism.

III. The New Colonialism

As a Belgian, son of a Congo-born father, I have only learnt briefly in school about the Belgian Congo through courses about the Belgian Monarchy. It is only many years later, during my studies in Canada, that the broader subject of colonialism emerged again through a course about Legal Traditions. While I discovered more about it, I realized that I was of the few lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to do so. And consequently, to cast a critical look onto it. It is regrettable that this opportunity has not been granted to many people, some of whom are now in positions of leadership. Because it is precisely the ignorance caused by lack of education that fuels miscomprehension and that pushes former colonies farther from European interests; into others’ potentially more malevolent hands…

Unfortunately, to which geopolitical power vacuums these countries subsequently get drawn is uncertain. Paradoxically, while trying to flee colonialism, a number of States fall prey to new forms of imperialism. Some might argue this is for the better as it is at least voluntary, while for others it is for the worse because it aggravates an already bad state of internal affairs. Let me expound why I adhere to the latter side of the argument:

Though colonialism through physical occupation is considered by many Europeans to belong to a distant and long-forgotten past, new forms of colonialism or international exploitation have gradually appeared. Three variations of such a colonialism can be pinpointed and have to be examined more closely. The first, neocolonialism, refers to “the control of the economic and political systems of one state by a more powerful state, usually the control of a developing country by a developed one”. In turn, semi-colonialism, was used to describe in the 19th and 20th centuries states that were “penetrated by imperial capital, trade and political influence, but which preserved their juridical independence”. Finally, economic imperialism is the “domination of the economies (…) of politically independent countries by foreign or multinational companies”. All these definitions accurately describe Djibouti’s current reality as a country which is increasingly eating out of China’s hand. Also called “geo-economics” (Blackwill & Harris, 2016), here’s how China proceeds:

To understand the dynamics at play in modern-day Djibouti, but in general in Africa, a quick detour has to be taken to explicit China’s new commercial ambition for 2050. Since 2013, Xi-Jin Ping’s vision for a powerful and world-leading China culminates in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The project’s ambition is to develop roads from China to Europe and thus to revive the historical Silk Roads which allowed, during the Han Dynasty, trade and cultural exchange, thus prosperity, to flourish. China’s authoritarian leader wants to revive those roads, both on land and through sea, to increase trade and to stimulate economic growth.

But while, from a Chinese perspective, the Belt and Road Initiative can only bring about prosperity and fame to China, it is also a particularly fitting example of a new form of colonialism. Indeed, as part of the BRI, China has to make roads, both terrestrial and maritime. To do the second, the “People’s” Republic has created financial dependencies by affording loans to developing countries in Africa and South East Asia. Some of these countries are now unable to pay the loans back by reason of the high interests. Djibouti, for one, is situated in the Horn of Africa. This is a strategic location for China as it is the shortest maritime road towards Europe. As Djibouti is a country that is seeking to become a “commercial hub” in the region (Blanchard and Collins, 2019), the country acquired debt and a lot of it; inter alia from China. A large part of its external sovereign debt is, therefore, owned by China (Blanchard and Collins, 2019). It is estimated at around 1.2 billion $ according to American officials. By having such a significant economic leverage, China was able to increase its influence on Djibouti, which’s GDP is about 2.05 billion $ in 2019. This crippling debt actually led Djibouti to grant China a lot of land and projects. It, for instance, ceded a port in a 99-year cession, offered the Chinese a military base, allowed the construction of a Chinese navy port and consented to build Africa’s biggest Free Trade Zone in Djibouti. Some of these projects are now owned by Chinese State-owned companies in cooperation with a Djibouti agency. Needless to say, China’s influence on domestic policy is thereby magnified substantially. This influence is leveraged through what is called “debt trap diplomacy”. Next to this trap, China’s presence in Djibouti has also allowed its companies to invest in Ethiopian Gas Fields. A deal has even been signed to build a pipeline from Ethiopia to Djibouti to export the extracted gas.

Internationally, China’s increasingly expansive foreign policy, to put it mildly, did not go unnoticed because Djibouti also serves as foreign military bases for European and American armed forces. Former National Security Advisor of the U.S. John Bolton accused China of exploitative lending and the 2017 National Security Strategy portrayed Chinese influence as undermining African sovereignty by “locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments.” But if it is any consolation, other developing countries face a similar faith. To take just one, Sri Lanka, who also had to cede a port to repay the incurred debt, fell into the same debt trap (Parker & Cheffitz, 2018). Far from being the only examples, by doing so, China has managed to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean and Africa, and hence to further its geopolitical chess play towards global hegemony.

This new form of colonialism demonstrates to what extent the dichotomic divide of our world (described by Helene Dötsch in her piece) transcends time and space. Furthermore, it shows how emerging economies, as China, can become major world players through growing economic might. It also proves the need to grow awareness on the subject of colonialism, if only because younger generations must grow conscious of the hardship international dependency creates but also to avoid discursive mistakes that originate in latent ignorance and eurocentrism. Because, ultimately, a big part of the (neo)colonial problematic truly hinges on discourse.

That is why opening up channels of interaction and debate are paramount in fighting the past in its present disguise.


-Laurent Ploch BLANCHARD and Sarah R. COLLINS, “China’s Engagement in Djibouti”, (2019) Congressional Research Service IF 11304

-Bruce GILLEY, “The Case for Colonialism”, (2017) Third World Quarterly

-Stephan KEUKELEIRE and Sharon LECOCQ, “Operationalising the decentring agenda: Analysing European foreign policy in a non-European and post-western world”, (2018) 53(2):277 Cooperation and Conflict

-Nora FISHER ONAR, K. NICOLAÏDIS, “The Decentring Agenda: Europe as a post-colonial power”, (2013) 48(2):283 Cooperation and Conflict

-D. CHAKRABARTY, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000

-Robert BLACKWILL and Jennifer HARRIS, War by Other Means, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2016

-Sam PARKER and Gabrielle CHEFFITZ, “Debtbook diplomacy: China’s Strategic Leveraging of Its Newfound Economic Influence and the Consequences for U.S. Foreign Policy”, Harvard Kennedy School Paper May 2018

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