Ghosts of Imperialism Past: How Colonialism Still Haunts the World Today

February 4, 2015 Topic: SecurityHistory Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Events

Ghosts of Imperialism Past: How Colonialism Still Haunts the World Today

Many of today's most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints trace their origins back to European colonialism.

While the days of European colonialism may be long over, it's legacy is ubiquitious.

That was the message that Michael Ancram, Lord Lothian, a British conservative politician and former MP, delivered to an audience at the Center for the National Interest on Tuesday evening.

In focusing on colonial borders, Ancram gave a unique perspective on some of the most dangerous geopolitical flashpoints afflicting the world today.

Ancram began in the east with the Line of Control (LOC) that delineates the border between India and Pakistan. He noted that the British government’s failure to solve the Kashmir crisis during partition has cast a long shadow over the world. And that shadow has since gone nuclear.

Moving slightly to the west, Ancram next turned his focus to the Durand Line along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Much as Pakistan disputes Indian control of Kashmir, successive Afghan governments since 1947 have rejected the borderline drawn between the British Raj and the Afghan Kingdom in 1893. When U.S. officials have said that the Durand Line is the international border, Kabul has accused Washington of meddling in its “domestic” affairs.

While not as well known as the Kashmir crisis, the Durand Line is in many ways more dangerous. For one thing, the current Afghan government claims all lands stretching from the Durand Line to the Indus river, which—according to some estimates—constitute 60 percent of Pakistani territory. The two sides have already been waging a vicious proxy war over the Durand Line for years now, and this is likely to intensify as international involvement in Afghanistan decreases.

The land bordering the Durand Line could not be better suited for this proxy war as it plays host to just about every terrorist group and undesirable element imaginable. It is, of course, from this area where al-Qaeda plotted against the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The remnants of al-Qaeda central are still plotting against America there today, and they are joined by militant and terrorist groups planning attacks on countries like Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Pakistan itself. Even the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is getting in on the action along the Durand Line.

The crisis engulfing the Middle East as a result of ISIS’s rise was another major focus of Ancram’s discussion on Tuesday. He noted that, in many ways, the origins of the current crisis can be traced back to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France. Like the Durand Line—which arbitrarily divided the Pashtun people between Afghanistan and the British Raj—Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot redrew the Ottoman Empire after World War I without regard for the people on the ground. The result divided existing societal groups—like the Kurds—among different countries, while grouping historical adversaries—most notably, Shia and Sunni—together.

As a result, the international borders of the Middle East have long been contested by everyone from Gamal Abdel Nasser to the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. ISIS is only the latest the join the fight. It also might be the most dangerous. Calling the group a “virus,” Ancram noted that ISIS had already conquered a landmass roughly the size of the United Kingdom. It also has the potential to “spread like a virus” to other places like Jordan, Yemen and perhaps even Saudi Arabia. Despite this danger, Ancram advised against the West continuing to intervene militarily, which has proved ineffective and in fact further fueled nationalism and Islamism in the Middle East.

Western military interventions in the Middle East have also alienated the growing Muslim communities in the West, who themselves are one example of how Europe is still being impacted by its colonial past. Another legacy of colonialism in Europe today, according to Ancram, is the ongoing tensions between Russia and the West, which have their roots in the Yalta Agreement. At Yalta, “three old men” bequeathed Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Once this area was under Soviet control, large numbers of ethnic Russians began moving into the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine. Often they concentrated in certain areas.

They soon became “trapped” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as NATO and the European Union began rapidly expanding eastward. As former Warsaw and Soviet states aligned themselves with the West, they began viewing their ethnic Russian populations more and more like “fifth columns.” This, in turn, further alienated the ethnic Russian populations. The results of these dynamics have been all too apparent as of late in places like Ukraine.

Fortunately, Ancram sees a potential way out of these conundrums. Specifically, he pointed to Northern Ireland as a potential model for Ukraine and other countries living under the long shadow of colonialism to follow. In particular, the concept of “parity of esteem,” which is the foundation of the Belfast Agreement, could help the world extinguish the ghosts of imperialism once and for all.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Menendj​