ashland.news
May 26, 2024

Relocations: A very different conception of geo-political dynamics

A map indicating the countries involved in the Bandung Conference in 1955. Graphic via blackpast.org
May 5, 2023

We have too little awareness of how profoundly colonialism shaped our world

By Herbert Rothschild

Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day. That’s Sept. 16, on which date in 1810 the war began that ended Spain’s almost 300 years of colonial rule. Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle at Puebla in 1862, when Mexican forces temporarily stopped Napoleon III’s effort to establish French control over Mexico, a short-lived success — it ended five years later. Cinco de Mayo is more a cultural celebration by Mexican Americans than a political celebration in their country of origin.

Herbert Rothschild

Nonetheless, I take Cinco de Mayo as an occasion to stress how deeply and lastingly European (and later U.S.) colonialism shaped our contemporary world and its international relations. You and I spent the years between 1946 and 1990 thinking about global affairs as a struggle between democracy and Communism, with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as the main players. Not so for most of the world’s people. They thought of global affairs as a struggle to get free from domination by countries in what we called the Free World. 

Our media paid a great deal of sympathetic attention to India’s independence movement, largely, I think, because of the immense personal charisma of Mohandas Gandhi. Other than that, little attention was paid here to independence movements except in the context of Cold War thinking. We generally sided with the efforts of European nations to retain their colonies, convinced that independence would mean victories for Communism. Our media depicted the defeat of the French in Vietnam as a tragedy. And when Cuba threw off control by U.S. corporations and Meyer Lansky’s Havana Mob, it was intolerable.

Emblematic of these very different ways of understanding of geo-politics was the Bandung Conference, a meeting of Asian and African states, most of which were newly independent. Organized by Indonesia, Burma, India, Ceylon, and Pakistan, representatives of 29 nations met April 18-24, 1955, in Bandung on the island of West Java. In those nations lived 54% of the world’s population. The conference’s stated aims were to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism.

At the time of the conference, only five African countries were free from colonial rule — Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya and the Union of South Africa. The first four were invited; the fifth, for obvious reasons, wasn’t, and its apartheid regime was condemned in the final communiqué. India had gotten free of British rule in 1947; so had Jordan (1946) and Burma and Ceylon (1948). Recently free from French rule were Vietnam (beginning in 1948 and ending in 1954), Lebanon (1946), and Cambodia and Laos (1953). The Philippines got free from U.S. rule in 1946 and Indonesia from Dutch rule in 1949. The colonial powers, including the U.S., had maintained their control with whatever ruthlessness they believed was necessary, and the scars were deep.

Other nations were invited to send observers. The U.S. refused to do so. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who along with his brother Allen, head of the CIA, ran Eisenhower’s foreign policy, regarded Bandung as a threat. He feared a Non-aligned Nations movement would seriously impair his effort to divide the world into two warring camps, and that the U.S. and its European allies would come under criticism. Richard Wright, the leading African American author at the time, attended, as did Adam Clayton Powell, U.S. Representative from Harlem, but neither went in an official capacity.

Ironically, in his welcoming address, Indonesian President Sukarno praised the American War of Independence as “the first successful anti-colonial war in history” and quoted from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” It won him no friends in our national security establishment. In 1965, both the U.S. and Great Britain seized the opportunity to support Gen. Suharto’s assumption of military control and his removal of Sukarno, and collaborate in the massacre of members of the country’s Communist party and many others, especially ethnic Chinese, considered sympathetic. Deaths numbered between 500,000 and one million. For the next three decades Suharto served U.S. corporations well.

Much as the conference delegates wanted to create a new space for non-Western countries to operate — they called for universal disarmament — the influence of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. rivalry was too great to ignore. In the final communiqué no colonizing nations were named, although there was sentiment to name the U.S.S.R. for its forcible control over Eastern European countries as well as the traditional colonial powers. Instead, it condemned “colonialism in all its manifestations” as “an evil which should speedily be brought to an end.” And it specifically allowed the signatories to continue accepting aid from governments outside Asia and Africa, which was well understood to mean the two superpowers, whose rivalry spurred their attempts to buy allies on those continents.

The value of recounting this history is to make us aware that our conception of the world is still largely unchanged from the 1950s although the world itself has changed enormously. You and I grew up with maps that were versions of the Mercator projection, created in 1569. Living in the heyday of Portuguese and Spanish colonial aggression, Gerardus Mercator depicted the lands in the northern hemisphere as relatively much larger than they are. In 1963, Rand McNally adopted Arthur Robinson’s very different projection. In 1988, the National Geographic Society followed suit. Look at the global projection I chose as my graphic. Is this the world you usually see in your mind’s eye?

It’s not just a change in cartography that requires a change in perspective. So do changes in relative economic and political power. Now that China has joined Russia as our antagonist of choice, the racism endemic to the colonial enterprise is reinforcing our tiresome Manichaean conception of global affairs. We should have discarded both decades ago. 

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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