When Is Imperialism Actually Imperialism?

Whether it is in the context of the conflicts in east Ukraine or in the Central African Republic (CAR), observers are quick to denounce imperialistic behaviors on both sides.

For instance, European and US leaders accuse Russia of imperialism in Crimea and the eastern region of Ukrainian, where pro-Russian rebels are taking over buildings and other ares, while Russia says that Westerners forcing their views on the rest of the world is akin to cultural imperialism.

In a similar fashion, a few African observers accuse France of imperialism for its military interventions in the conflicts in Mali and the CAR.

Each superpower seems set on accusing one another of being imperialist, but what does that actually mean?

A survey of the concept

Nowadays, imperialism usually refers to cultural imperialism, when a country imposes an ideology or a way of life onto other countries. As such, the concept is a sensitive one and is not to be used lightly. 

On the Global Voices website, the word imperialism appeared 200 times between 2008 and 2014, and all continents have mentioned the subject at least once.

Worldwide, Google Trends’ search statistics on imperialism give the following results:

Les pays cherchant le mot impérialisme le plus souvent

Countries where the search for imperialism is done most frequently. 

And here are the words most frequently associated with imperialism:

tops des mots associés à l'imperialisme sur Google

Most frequent word associations with imperialism on Google

In French, Google Trends shows that unsurprisingly, searches about imperialism are related to news items from Europe. The most popular news headlines on imperialism in recent years are:

It also appears that among French-speaking cities, the residents of Dakar, Senegal are the most intrigued by the question of imperialism:

Les villes ayant recherché le mot "impérialisme" le plus souvent - via Google Trends

Cities that have searched for “impérialisme” (in French) most frequently, according to Google Trends

Imperialism according to region

Accusations of imperialism have recently been flung back and forth in reference to Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine. European media have discussed at length Russia's interference in the country following the country's ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych and the successful referendum in Crimea to leave Ukraine and join Russia. 

Quentin Baker, the co-founder of the Association for the Promotion of Territorial Cooperation in Northern Europe, warns against a simplistic read of the situation in the region as pro-European versus pro-Russian ideology [fr]:

La révolution actuelle n’a pas été initiée par des questions de politiques étrangères mais bien par des motifs internes. Il s’agit d’une opposition entre un large spectre de la société et un gouvernement kleptocratique, corrompu et abusif. Ce n’est pas l’est contre l’ouest et Monsieur Ianoukovitch n’est pas coupable d’amitié avec le Kremlin mais bien d’abus de pouvoir.

The current revolution has not been ignited by foreign policy issues but by domestic motives. It is an opposition between a civil society and a plutocratic government, corrupt and abusive. It's not east versus west, and Mr. Yanukovych is not guilty of being friendly with the Kremlin but first and foremost of abuse of power.

Observers in other parts of the word have denounced the hypocrisy of condemning the imperialism of Russia [fr] while ignoring Western imperialism elsewhere. Make no mistake, Russia's behavior smacks of imperialism, but Crimea's desire to maintain a privileged relationship with Russia is undeniable and cannot be ignored. 

In the Central African Republic, the intervention by French military forces was desired by many. It succeeded in slowing down the violence, but the intervention seems stuck in a complicated situation in which no one is blameless in the continuation of the conflict. 

Jean Batou, a blogger from Bangui at Contretemps, explains why the French intervention is fraught with chances for mission creep [fr], or the expansion of a mission's original goals

Rien ne serait plus trompeur que d’envisager l’impérialisme français en Afrique au seul prisme de ses « chasses gardées postcoloniales », même s’il est par ailleurs prématuré de pronostiquer l’extinction de la Françafrique. Les autorités hexagonales ont ainsi commandité pas moins de trois volumineux documents sur les perspectives stratégiques de la France en Afrique. Le plus récent des trois annonce clairement la couleur : « L’Etat français doit mettre au cœur de sa politique économique le soutien à la relation d’affaires du secteur privé et assumer pleinement l’existence de ses intérêts sur le continent africain »

Do not make the mistake of seeing French imperialism in Africa through the prism of its “privileged post-colonial network” alone, even though it would be also premature to say that the era of Françafrique is over. French authorities have commissioned no less than three detailed reports on the strategic outlook for France in Africa. The newest of three clearly says it all: “The French government must put the heart of its economic policy in supporting the business relationship of the private sector in Africa and fully assume the existence of its interests on the African continent”

The military intervention in Mali already raised many questions from observers, like this one from Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France [fr], a UN expert and head of the Frantz Fanon Foundation:

Il s’agit de profiter de la déliquescence d’Etats sous domination continue depuis les indépendances pour réintroduire directement une présence militaire camouflée derrière des armées locales dont nul n’ignore l’insigne faiblesse. Dans ce jeu géostratégique, le Mali devient otage d'une volonté des Etats impérialistes et de leurs soutiens.

It seems to me that France is taking advantage of collapsing states that have been under continued domination since their independence. France can reintroduce its armed forces behind the front of local armies, which are famously weak. In this game of world politics, Mali has become hostage of the will of imperialist states and their alleged support. 

Malian author Aminata Traoré agreed with that analysis [fr], and added:

Aujourd’hui la militarisation pour le contrôle des ressources de l’Afrique fait parti de l’agenda. Ce qui se passe aujourd’hui au Mali est l’illustration d’une nouvelle étape de la politique de mainmise sur les ressources du continent, notamment les ressources énergétiques, sans lesquelles la sortie de crise, la croissance et la compétitivité ne sont pas envisageables par l’Occident.

Today, militarization of the region in order to control resources in Africa is part of the agenda [of superpowers]. What is happening today in Mali is an illustration of a new stage of political control over the continent's resources, including energy resources. Without these resources, the economic recovery, growth and competitiveness of the west is just wishful thinking.

All the analyses of imperialism seem to forget an important driving factor in these events: whether in Crimea, the CAR or Mali, a non-negligible part of the population have benefited directly from foreign military interventions in these regions. After all, as the well-known Gerald Seymour phrase explained, “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter”.

In today's world politics, we may have the 2.0 version of that phase: One man's imperialist might very well be another man's freedom fighter.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.