Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

From Opium Wars to Oil Wars (2011)

8 minutes | English Italiano

“Gaddafi’s death is a historic turning point!” proclaim the chorus of leaders of NATO and the West, who do not even take the trouble to put distance between themselves and the barbaric assassination of the Libyan leader or the lies deployed to that end by the leaders of the “rebels.” And yet, it is indeed a turning point. However, to really understand the significance of the war against Libya in the context of the history of colonialism, it’s necessary to take a longer view…

When British gunships appeared before China’s coasts and cities in 1840, the aggressors had several hundred cannons’ worth of firepower at their disposal, and could sow destruction and death on a large scale without fear of retaliation from enemy artillery, since its range was much shorter. This was the triumph of “gunboat diplomacy”: the great Asian country and its millennia-old civilization were forced to capitulate; thus begun what Chinese historiography aptly calls “the century of humiliation,” which ends in 1949, with the coming to power of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong.

In the present day, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has created for many Third World countries a situation similar to that faced by China at that time. In the course of its war against Gaddafi’s Libya, NATO was able to easily carry out thousands upon thousands of bombings while not only not suffering any losses, but in fact not even facing the risk thereof. In this sense, rather than a traditional army, the NATO military force resembles a firing squad. The execution of Gaddafi was not an excess or a roadside accident — rather, it makes clear the underlying purpose of the whole operation.

It is a fact: a renewed disparity in technology and weaponry has revived the colonial ambitions and temptations of a West that, as evidenced by its exalted self-conception and the false consciousness it continues to flaunt, refuses to really come to terms with its history. And we’re not speaking only about planes, warships, and satellites. Even starker is the advantage Washington and its allies enjoy when it comes to their multimedia carpet-bombing capabilities. The “humanitarian intervention” against Libya is a textbook example: the civil war (unleashed in part by the prolonged work of Western agents and military assets, so that so-called “rebels” from the very beginning had even aircraft at their disposal) was presented as a massacre perpetrated by the ruling power against a defenseless civilian population; meanwhile, the NATO bombing raids that most recently rained hell on the besieged, starving city of Sirte, deprived of water and medicine, were framed as humanitarian operations for the benefit of the Libyan civilian population!

This work of manipulation can now rely on, in addition to the traditional media of information and disinformation, a technological revolution that complements the Revolution in Military Affairs. As I have explained in previous talks and articles, it’s authors and press organs close to the State Department that celebrate the fact that the US arsenal has now been enriched with new and formidable tools of war; Western newspapers of avowed Western faith report, without any hint of self-critique, how in the course of the “Internet wars” manipulation and lying, as well as the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities, have become the order of the day. This is what is already happening in Syria, against a leadership group now more targeted than ever for resisting Western pressure and intimidation, and refusing to capitulate to Israel by betraying the Palestinian resistance.

But let’s return to the First Opium War, which ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking. This is the first of the “unequal treaties” — that is to say, imposed via gunboat. The following year is the US’s turn. They also send in gunboats in order to achieve the same result as Britain, but manage something more. The 1843 Treaty of Wanghia (in the vicinity of Macau) enshrines for US citizens residing in China the privilege of extra-territoriality: even if guilty of common crimes, they are still outside of Chinese legal jurisdiction. Needless to say this extra-territoriality privilege is not reciprocal; it does not apply to Chinese citizens residing in the US: colonial peoples are one thing, the race of gentlemen is quite another. In the following years and decades, the privilege of extra-territoriality is also extended to Chinese who “dissent” from their country’s religion and culture, who convert to Christianity, and who ideally become honorary citizens of the North American republic or the West in general.

The double standard of legality and jurisdiction is an essential element of colonialism even in the present day: “dissidents” — those who convert to the religion of “human rights” as proclaimed by Washington and Brussels, those potential Quislings in service of the aggressors — are awarded the Nobel Prize or other similar prizes. Immediately afterwards the West unleashes a frenzied campaign in order to remove the awardees from the jurisdiction of their country of residence, a campaign made more persuasive by embargoes, threats of embargoes, and “humanitarian intervention.”

The double standard of legality and jurisdiction becomes especially clear whenever the International Criminal Court (ICC) intervenes. From its reach are removed US citizens and any of the star-spangled soldiers and mercenaries they’ve stationed around the world. Recently, the international press has reported that the US is ready to block Palestine’s admission to the UN with a veto, partly in order to prevent Palestine from having recourse against Israel at the ICC: one way or another, in practice if not already in theory, it must be clear to everyone that it’s only the colonial peoples who can be tried and condemned. Its timing is in itself eloquent. In 1999, despite not having obtained authorization from the UN, NATO begins its bombardment of Yugoslavia; shortly thereafter, without wasting any time, the ICC proceeds to indict not the aggressors and those responsible for violating the international legal order that emerged de facto after World War II, but Milosevic. In 2011, twisting the UN mandate to care for and protect civilians, NATO resorts to every means to force regime change and secure control of Libya. Following a tried-and-true pattern, the ICC proceeds to indict Gaddafi. The so-called International Criminal Court is a kind of judicial appendage of the NATO firing squad. We could even say that the magistrates in The Hague resemble priests who, without wasting any time consoling the victim, proceed directly to the legitimization and consecration of the executioner.

One final point. With the war against Libya, a new division of labor has emerged within imperialism. Traditional colonial great powers such as Britain and France, availing themselves of Washington’s decisive political and military support, focus on managing the Middle East and Africa, while the US increasingly shifts its military sights to Asia. And so we return to China. Having put an end to the century of humiliation that began with the Opium Wars, the Communist leadership understands that it would be foolish and criminal to miss a second rendezvous with technological and military revolution: while it frees hundreds of millions of Chinese from the misery and starvation to which they had been condemned by colonialism, the mighty economic development taking place in the great Asian country also plays a role as a defensive measure against imperialism’s permanent belligerence. Those who, even on the “left,” line up behind Washington and Brussels in order to systematically vilify the Chinese leadership show that they care neither for the cause of improving the living conditions of the masses, nor for the causes of peace and democracy in international relations.