Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The fallacy of "win-win"

5 July 2004

Whether a society can be built in Iraq that works both for the Iraqis and the U.S. must be doubtful, to put it mildly. One side or other is likely to be disappointed.

For a dozen years or so after the end of the second world war there was an enlightened, optimistic air in British political circles in relation to "the colonies" - that collection of possessions mostly in sub-Saharan Africa or on islands dotted through the oceans that comprised the rump of the empire once the Indian sub-continent had detached itself. Official policy was "to guide the colonial territories to responsible self-government within the Commonwealth in conditions that ensure to the people concerned both a fair standard of living and freedom from aggression from any quarter."

This was not anticipated to be the task of anything but many decades. The winds of change had not yet penetrated deep into Whitehall and a vast, magnificent new Colonial Office in the palazzo style was planned for the site now occupied by the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre by Parliament Square. It was, of course, never built. By the late 1950s it was clear that colonialism had had its day and the subsequent decade saw a rapid divesting of the remaining British possessions.

During this brief experiment in enlightened colonialism Britain poured money she could not afford into high-minded administrations charged with tutoring and shaping these territories into the sort of daughter-nations of which she could be proud. Ambitious social and economic projects were attempted, such as the infamous ground nut scheme in what is now Tanzania. Education, health, infrastructure, social and political enlightenment and economic development were all the focus of substantial investment. This was nation-building on an ambitious scale, and yet, for all this money and effort, the only return on investment projected for Britain was the reflected glow of her social and cultural benevolence.

These fledglings pecked the beak that tried to feed them, and the British did not strive officiously to keep them in the nest. They had no reason to. If, as Jan Morris pithily described it, "half the structure of Empire was mere scaffolding for the possession of India", the loss of that primary edifice symbolised the collapse of British global power and prestige. There was no attempt to recover it; Britain accepted her fate with some grace. And for several decades "nation-building" disappeared from the political lexicon; the newly independent states of Africa and the middle and far east became diplomatic pawns to the great powers as the cold war played out across the international stage. Their leaders often prospered from this, or fought one another. Often the populations suffered.

The failures of the post-colonial world have put nation-building back on the agenda, but it remains to be seen whether lessons have been learned about how to do it. The United States, the neo-imperialist power of the twenty-first century, is not where Britain was in the late 1940s. It is back in the 1920s, with its imperial reach at its zenith, its commitments enormous and its finances depleted. But it still has the desire and the means to project its power around the world. Its adventure in Iraq is not an act of benevolence but a power play for increased influence in the region and for greater security in relation both to international political violence and the supply of oil.

Nation-builders tend to replicate their own institutions if they can, and the worst to be said of Britain's efforts in the 1950s and '60s is that they showed a failure of imagination and foresight in attempting to cultivate institutions of a certain character in unsuitable soil. But the American enterprise in Iraq is more demanding. Their interest in promoting institutions that reflect the democratic openness of their own society lies in the assumption that such institutions will support their own values and objectives, to the benefit of their diplomatic and security agenda in the region. If this happened it would not be mere collateral benefit; it was a large part of the purpose for which the invasion was undertaken.

How does this square with that post war British policy "to guide the ... territories to responsible self-government ... in conditions that ensure to the people concerned both a fair standard of living and freedom from aggression from any quarter"? It would be difficult to frame a better description of what nation-building should be about. What is important is that it puts the people at the centre of the project, and what is good for the people of Iraq is not necessarily good for the United States of America. If a structure is to last, it has to reflect the needs and aspirations of the users rather than the onlookers. If it is to be built with outside help, the help must come without preconceptions attached and must serve the interests of those to whom it is given.

Whether a society can be built in Iraq that works both for the Iraqis and the U.S. must be doubtful, to put it mildly. One side or other is likely to be disappointed, but if it turns out to be the Iraqis they will end up either with a failing state or another dictator. If, by any chance, Iraq ends up with a healthy, representative government, it is not likely to be sympathetic to the American world view.

It all comes down to a fundamental truth about the politics of international development. If the lot of the politically and economically destitute is to be improved, the rich and powerful states in the world are going to have to give unconditionally. In geo-political terms, that means that the benefits that powerful nations derive from building relationships with repugnant regimes - the sort of benefits that the U.S. and other western countries sought from Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s - will have to be foregone. In economic terms it means that rich countries are going to have to sacrifice some of their riches to poorer countries by changing the terms of international commerce. The fallacy of "win-win" will have to be exposed; and just as the rich getting richer will never translate into good news for the poor, so a government in Iraq that works for the Americans is never likely to translate into one that works for the Iraqi people, too.


©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004