Jack Straw’s colonial discourse

The UK foreign secretary's speech on 'failed and failing states' lays out a very British alternative to US unilateralism - a return to the days of Empire.

David Chandler

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UK foreign secretary Jack Straw’s speech on ‘failed and failing states’, delivered at the University of Birmingham on 6 September 2002, lays out a peculiarly British alternative to the post-Cold War assertion of US unilateralism – a return to the days of Empire and shared neo-colonial responsibilities (1).

Straw attempts to promote a new role for Britain in the world today through turning Britain’s colonial past into a positive justification for national influence. Post-colonial international law, based on the UN Charter, is found wanting as it is ‘founded on the doctrine of sovereignty, which declared a state’s domestic conduct and institutions to be beyond the reach of other states’.

Straw asserts that post-colonial states should no longer be seen as sovereign entities, capable of self-government and legal and political equality under the law. Instead, he argues these states are much less capable than international law assumes, and constitute a broad ‘at risk’ category where they can be ranked according to a ‘continuum of failure’.

This sweeping recategorisation of the majority of the world’s states as incapable and ‘at risk’ is based on an arbitrary list of factors, including failure to meet Western standards of good governance and public service provision of health and education.

Straw argues that ‘on the economic side, we could consider whether the state’s economy is stable, or heavily dependent on certain industries or agricultural sectors. Other indicators might include whether the country has a framework in place to ensure effective economic management, and deliver benefits to the population. This can be measured by looking at a range of indicators including per capita GDP, literacy and life expectancy’.

There are not many states outside the West that do not have economies that are ‘heavily dependent on certain industries or agricultural sectors’, so Straw’s concept of ‘risk’ is clearly a wide-ranging one.

Straw argues that the concept of ‘risk’ is central because, after 11 September, state failure is a potential threat to the rest of the world. Inevitably, ‘risk’ leads to strategies of ‘management’ through aid conditionality, diplomacy and military intervention if necessary.

The Straw thesis argues that the ‘risk’ posed by non-Western states needs pre-emptive regulation and oversight, a task that is too much for any one power or institution. The dangers that non-Western states pose can only be dealt with by the USA dividing international responsibilities. According to Straw: ‘This could mean the EU, NATO or the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) taking the lead in dealing with problems around the margins of Europe; the French or ourselves (perhaps jointly) in parts of Africa; and countries like Canada or the USA under the OAS (Organization of American States) in the Americas.’

Before the establishment of post-colonial Cold War institutions, which formalised sovereign legal and political equality through the United Nations and international law, the British establishment glorified in Empire. The US dismantling of these institutions turns the clock back regarding self-government and sovereign equality for weaker and smaller states, but unfortunately for Straw and the British government, the future will not be an exact repetition of the past.

If the British establishment’s only intellectual alternative to American domination is the call for a return to the divisions of Empire it is probably just as well.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • Read on:

    Making and breaking the rules, by David Chandler

    In defence of sovereignty, by Jon Holbrook

    The not-so-new imperialism, by David Chandler

    Ripping up the Charter, by David Chandler

    (1) See
    Failed and Failing States, a speech by Jack Straw at the European Research Institute, University of Birmingham, on Friday 6 September 2002

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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