LONDON – History has no final verdicts. Major shifts in events and power bring about new subjects for discussion and new interpretations.
Fifty years ago, as de-colonization accelerated, no one had a good word to say for imperialism. It was regarded as unambiguously bad, both by ex-imperialists and by their liberated subjects. Schoolchildren were taught about the horrors of colonialism, how it exploited conquered peoples. There was little mention, if any, of imperialism’s benefits.
Then, in the 1980’s, a revisionist history came along. It wasn’t just that distance lends a certain enchantment to any view. The West – mainly the Anglo-American part of it – had recovered some of its pride and nerve under US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And there was the growing evidence of post-colonial regimes’ failure, violence, and corruption, especially in Africa.
But the decisive event for the revisionists was the collapse of the Soviet empire, which not only left the United States top dog globally, but also seemed, to the more philosophically minded, to vindicate Western civilization and values against all other civilizations and values. With the European Union extending its frontiers to embrace many ex-communist states, the West became again, if briefly, the embodiment of universal reason, obliged and equipped to spread its values to the still-benighted parts of the world. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man testified to this sense of triumph and historical duty.