Ethiopia: Ideological Basis of Western Domination

(Nahusenay Belay)

Any sort of political, economic, cultural or social action demands an underlining set of ideas elaborating the aim, process and possible outcomes of a given activity. In a broader sense, Antonio Gramsci stated that in order to establish and maintain hegemony there must be a fitting alliance between a particular ideology, its material basis and concomitant institutions. In other words, the underlining ideas must be accompanied by necessary material resources and executing institutions. Ideologies, however, don’t necessary show the visible and articulated interest of the state or any other entity for that matter. Discrepancy between declared objectives and the actual but hidden interest of the state is not uncommon. Hiding the actual interest and behaving in a totally different manner is a tough staff in politics, especially in international relations. It is here where properly formulated ideas with Universalist and hard to reject decorated appeals come to the stage.

The main claim of this piece is that throughout the last two centuries the exploitative linkage between Africa and the West has been largely sustained by the latters ability to establish and implement a system of ideas that are capable enough to cover its actual interests. The same claim also works for the contemporary North-South politics. This is called the interest theory of ideology i.e. ideology serves to gain or preserve or increase the advantage of a particular group. Though ideology is a very contested concept its application in international relation is dominantly defined on the basis of interest. Ideology is the decorated cover that can hide your actual interests. In this regard, actors in international relations have to use ideology mainly for, at least, three reasons.

First, the potential actor has to convince the taxpayers and the legitimate body empowered to make decisions, such as the legislative organ. Secondly the potential actor has to secure international support from others. Thirdly, the targeted state and its population must be ‘fooled’ so that the degree of resistance against the potential actor would be insignificant. In this regard Gramsci developed the construct of ‘ideological hegemony’ to explicate how the ruling class wins consent of the governed. False consciousness or messianic visions are the main characteristics of such ideologies. In a similar fashion, ideology may encompass Georges Sorel’s theory of ‘social myths’, which, though devoid of empirical evidence, still stimulate men to action (Alan, 1996).

The Ideological basis of Imperialism and Colonialism

Cecil Rhodes’s 1890 statement is a good illustration of how the Europeans cover theirs actual interest while intending to colonize Africa. Rhodes stated that “I contend that we [Europeans] are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race…If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…”. In related terms the then 19th century French authorities come up with the concept of civilizing mission best known as “White Man’s Burden” and other master race narrations. As you can see there is also a religious element to it as they were claiming to spread ‘the God’s word’ to the “brutal world of the blacks”.

According to Mazower, ‘It was after the defeat of Napoleon that the concept of a European civilization became fundamental to new understandings of international order and new techniques of international rule (2006: 554). For him the concept itself was an ambiguously constructed intellectual phenomenon, which was instrumental to claim power and rationalize the use of violence in the process. Mazower argued, “In reality all universal claims hide claims to power (Ibid: 561). A good instance of the instrumental value of the Civilizational claim is the treaty to divide Africa among the major European powers. This treaty ‘talked of the need ‘to initiate the indigenous populations into the advantages of civilization (ibid: 557).

Europe was conceived as the center of civilization and the discipline of International Law was instrumental in this sense. The concept of Civilization was used as determining factor in deciding beneficiaries, jurisdictions and participants of international law or principle. According to Mazower the term International community was/is ‘an empty box which successive generations filled with new content’ (ibid: 566).

The actual interest of the Colonial Powers

The actual interest was, however, securing foreign markets for industrial products in an age of protectionism (e.g. the ‘China Market’. Remember the Opium War); gaining and controlling access to raw materials; competition with other industrialized nations over both exporting extra labor force and importing cheap labor – or, until the 19th century, free labor. In 1898 US Senator Albert Beveridge, argued that “we are raising more than we can consume. Today we are making more than we can use… Therefore we must find new markets for our produce, new occupation for our capital, new work for our labor…”. Therefore, if such statements go the chance to be part of the state’s foreign policy these strong demands must be secured by any means. Remind that the US had never had any colony.

The consequence was war, including WWI, competition and resistance, exploitation of the ‘North’ over ‘South’ and resultant mass migrations. It has to be recalled that many Africans had accepted such ideologies that were decorated by beautiful words. It was this conviction that led few African elites to cooperate with the colonizers in their effort to ‘civilize’ the community. Such elites are always present.

What About The Cold War ?

Cold War was driven by fundamentally incompatible conceptions of the organization of political, economic and social life. According to Latham the three powers (US, Soviet Union and China) shared many things such as their understanding of Cold War as fundamentally ideological struggle and a struggle over the direction of history and the definition of modernity (the variation in the way to modernity should not be forgotten). Similarly they viewed decolonization as an opportunity to expand the scope of the Cold War.

Additionally, these powers also used to think that history is on their side and conceived the leaders of the Third World as malleable. Moreover, their conception of security was also fundamentally similar. They consider security at home as inherently tied to the expansion and preservation of their respective systems abroad. The main factors driving the foreign policy of these states were also similar, these were strategic geo-political interest, and material and economic considerations and controlling domestic political forces were among the salient ones. However, the dominant understanding of Cold War is however ideological, as if ideology was an end by itself. US as guardian of individual liberty, anti-collectivism, market values and the USSR as the mother of social justice, collectivism, and state planning.

The period between 1940 and 1960s the US was led by modernization ideology which was implemented by the tools of foreign aid, development planning and technical assistance. Here the assumption is that there is only one linear way to ‘civilization’ and the model is the US. Here the fear of communist expansion was also a driving motive. In contrast the Soviets during the 1950s were aiming at socialist transformation and they followed ‘activist policies’ of military and economic aid and arms sales to post-colonial states and liberation movements. In the 1940s China was seen as ‘intermediate zone between imperialism and Soviet socialism’ and portrayed as the ‘natural ally of the oppressed people’.

The Third World in the last years of 1950s was determined to rapid development and tries to reject the ideological rigidity. Anti-imperialism, disarmament, development, trade and economic cooperation were their primary objectives. To the dismay of the big powers the Third World leaders hesitate to replicate the models of development prescribed by the big powers and instead they prefer to contextualize ideas to their own realities. They were also playing the big powers against each other.

However, in the 1960s due to many reasons the US shifted its policy from modernization and accelerated development towards the use of direct force and coercion. Promotion of any form of anti-communist government was also among the options. Simultaneously the Soviets also changed their policy towards promoting Marxist-Leninist party buildings. China was supporting forces countering the US and the Soviet. The Third World largely prefers the Non-Allied position. The conception of modernization, which ignored the culture, religion, and history of the Third World make the US and Soviets pay the price in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. For the Soviets, Latham conclude that, this lead to ‘over extension and final crisis of the Soviet state’.

In this process, super-power supported violence escalated dramatically. The struggle to determine the course of the Third World helped destroy the foundations for détente, but the greatest damage was done by its contribution to a tragic pattern of expanded militarization, civil war, and human suffering across some of the poorest regions of Africa.

And Now?

Post Cold War is basically a period of promoting free market and the liberal political ideas. And the way the West tries to secure its interest is not structurally different from the earlier periods of interaction. Actual economic and political interests of the West needs a weak and obedient states and an open economy that can allow big Multi National Corporations and their states fulfill their demands with low cost. In the African soil strong and properly functioning state shall not exist for the sake of Western interests.

To this end, the ideas and forms of organization prescribed and promoted by the West are framed in these terms, which are really hard to reject. This is where the function of ideology began. Human right and democratic principles are highest forms of institutionalizing people’s dignified life. However, practically speaking, these issues are serving the purpose hitherto served by ideologies such as ‘Civilization Mission’ or ‘White Man’s Burden’. What we are observing is a continual struggle of the West to abolish the sovereign basis of African state’s independent existence. Due to this the very notion of developmental state is their primary ideological enemy.

In our context the pressure from big powers regarding Human Right and Democracy Human is hardly genuine. Rather they are using these notions as an entry point to erode their sovereignty. The tone is also not different from the tormenting idea called ‘White Man’s Burden’ or ‘Civilization Mission’. Human Right or Democracy grows out of particular society’s internal economic and political dynamism. Learning from the sophistication of advanced societies is a wise thing to do. Rejecting the values of human right and democracy would be the stupidest thing a government can ever pursue. The sad thing is these sacred values are used by the West for extractive purposes which aims at creating flimsy governments with no capacity to go their own way.

Moreover, the double standard implemented by the West with regard to issues of Human Right and Democracy demonstrated the decorated and hard to reject ideas are being used as ideological instruments to maintain and develop the existing unequal politico-economic relation between the North and the South. Issues of Human right and Democracy are becoming ideological software to install or uninstall governments. The ugly part is there are still many Africans who believe that the West is the legitimate ‘installer’ of democracy and human right. The ill application of human right and democracy is rendering these ideas suspicion and in extreme cases absolute rejection.

The Ethiopian government was keen enough to learn the dangers associated with letting foreign civil society organizations meddle in the country’s political and legal play field. The result was a proclamation that would enhance the growth of local and independent civil society and close the entry point for ‘civilization mission’. The West already feels the pressure and they are toiling day and night for the abrogation of the law, which seems next to impossible. Their struggle will continue and our curiosity will continue. The current mode is via academic institutions, ‘policy institutes’, short term ’capacity building’ trainings and others. Sovereignty is the essence of the state and the law is necessary but not sufficient to protect Western intrusion!

Mazower Mark. “An international civilization? Empire, internationalism and the crisis of the mid-twentieth century” International Affairs 82, 3 (2006) 553–566.
Latham, Michael E. “The Cold War in the Third World, 1963-1975.” Crises and Détente. Eds. Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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*The author Nahusenay Belay is a guest writer at,
Nahusenay Belay is a lecturer and PhD Candidate at Addis Ababa University. He is Political Scientist by profession and can be reached at
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