Dr. Hans Köchler

President of the International Progress Organization (I.P.O.)

Professor of Philosophy, University of Innsbruck, Austria


Self-determination in the Age of Global Empire

Keynote lecture delivered at the

 3rd International People's Forum

"Affirming Life Together in the Face of Belligerent Empire"

  Peace Memorial Hall, Jeju Island, Korea, 25 October 2013

Verbatim transcript of the lecture delivered at the opening session.

I.P.O. Online Publications

International Progress Organization, A-1010 Vienna, Kohlmarkt 4, Austria

 © International Progress Organization, 2013


I will speak about self-determination in the age of global empire. This gives me the opportunity to share with you my reflections on what I once called the “imperial status quo” and about how I understand self-determination under the conditions of hegemonial rule. First, concerning the imperial status quo, one has to be aware that empire, by its very nature, is oriented towards expansion and that means towards the projection of power over as vast a territory as possible. Furthermore, imperial rule is meant to be of a perpetual nature; for that reason, the imperial power always tries to somehow negate reality. Evidently, imperial rule is not something peaceful. It has always been the result of the use of armed force because it is essentially about the imposition of the will of the dominant power (nation) on other nations and peoples. Imperial rule is intrinsically opposed to human dignity and self-determination. If one looks back in history, the durability of empire depends to a large extent on its “integrative” capacity. The underlying motive, however, is never benevolent. Depending on their specific integrative (or centripetal) dynamic, empires have lasted for periods of several decades to hundreds of years. As far as the 21st century is concerned, one may say that we have been witnessing, in the course of and following the events of 1989, the emergence of the first truly global version of imperial rule. This projection of power that – with its universal ideological claim – covers the entire physical geography has been made possible mainly due to two factors:

1.      the sudden end of the bipolar power structure in the last century;

2.      rapid technological changes including all aspects of information technology. This development is also the basis of the unrivaled military supremacy of the United States at the present time.

Certainly, there also exists a parallelism between economic globalization and the realities of this first truly global empire. Because of the technological developments and the scope of empire, the nature of imperial rule has fundamentally changed. It does not only relate to a specific territory of a particular imperial state plus its dependent territories, colonies or protectorates, but it goes beyond these in so far as the empire imposes its hegemonial claim virtually on mankind as a whole. This is the transnational dimension of empire in the era of globality. It exists through a claim not only to dominate the entire world, but also – at the meta-level – to rule the world through its very claim to ideological supremacy. The empire considers itself as the standard-bearer in terms of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law (which is an important aspect of the legitimation of imperial power). We are also dealing here with a claim to be the universal peacekeeper, enforcer and guarantor of a stable global order. All of these are based on the global projection of the empire’s military might. This is also obvious in the Jeju Island issue. It is similarly expressed in NATO, which is now going far beyond the mutual defense pact it was originally meant to be.

As far as the projection of power and the legitimation aspect are concerned, this strategy culminates in an imperial posture as so-called “indispensable nation”. We have heard that word repeatedly from the mouth of leaders of the United States. The imperial strategy in the age of globalization – although it may be short-lived – means that, first of all, the United Nations Organization can only operate within a kind of reserved (i. e. limited) space that is assigned to it by the global hegemon – who will always circumvent it should he not receive for his interventions the blessing of the UN Security Council. We have seen what this means in the cases of the Kosovo war in 1999 and of the Iraq war in 2003. We also must be aware that the global hegemon will reserve to itself the right to implement the resolutions of the Security Council according to his own interests. A case in point was the military aggression against Libya in 2011.

The imperial strategy further means that the dominant power, as a consequence of its hegemonial doctrine, will try to legitimize the influence it exerts over the rest of the world by presenting itself as indispensable enforcer of international law everywhere – and in the name of the UN, but not under that organization’s control. What the implementation of this global claim to power means in the current international environment has become most obvious in the change in the nature and mandate of today’s largest military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Allow me to briefly reflect on that particular aspect; and allow me also to recall the history of that organization because it is now redefining its role and is beginning to assume – or, more precisely, arrogate – a kind of global leadership. According to the Atlantic Charter of 1949, a document adopted a few years after the Second World War, NATO was meant to be a mutual defense pact only. Its rationale is clearly set out in Article 5 of that treaty, which means that NATO operates on the basis of the United Nations Charter and within the framework that is provided by the UN Security Council’s authority and responsibilities in the field of collective security. Furthermore, during the years of the Cold War, NATO was a kind of geopolitical counterpart of the rival defense alliance of the Socialist countries, the Warsaw Pact. While this organization was dissolved after the revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe in the course of 1989, NATO nonetheless still continues to exist. It earlier operated in a situation of a bipolar balance of power, but it continues to operate in the present unipolar constellation.

NATO has acquired an increasingly aggressive posture and it has fundamentally changed its purpose. The new mandate constitutes an outright violation of the Atlantic Treaty of 1949, which is most obvious in the notion of the so-called “Non-Article 5 Crisis Response Operations”. That is the new NATO term for what has become one of the most essential aspects of its military doctrine. It is to be recalled that Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter deals with collective self-defense and thus provides that in case of an attack against a member state the other member states of NATO will help it to defend itself.

The new doctrine was officially declared at the Washington Summit of the North Atlantic Council in 1999 and has been the basis of NATO’s mandate ever since. The notion of non-Article 5 operations implies that the organization now goes far beyond the scope of collective self-defense and protection of the security (very vaguely and broadly defined) of its member states. Contrary to its defensive mandate, NATO has empowered itself to intervene also outside the territory of the member states, and that means virtually everywhere on the globe – and in a preventive manner, in the name of “crisis management”, “cooperative security” and “threat prevention”. Security, in this context, always is interpreted as the security of NATO member countries at the expense of everyone else. It is quite understandable that the critics of this reorientation are alerting us about a “deterritorialization” of the alliance’s collective defense mission. This change of doctrine means that member states under the leadership of the US will reserve to themselves the right to intervene wherever and whenever they consider it necessary in terms of their own security and in the interest of “threat prevention” – whereby it is only them who define what constitutes a threat, as it is only them who define the basic aspects of security.

It should not surprise us that, under these circumstances, NATO has tended to appoint itself as enforcer of UN Security Council resolutions – but without the Council’s control over how the enforcement measures are actually undertaken. The events in Libya in 2011 are one of the most drastic examples of this trend. Generally, this practice has led to a state of international lawlessness where the dominant global player, in the guise of a collective security organization that had originally been created with a clear regional scope, steadily and determinedly projects and extends its power over the rest of the world.

The new strategic concept of NATO adopted at the Washington Summit in 1999 serves as a kind of legitimizing tool for this imperial – or imperialist – policy. The global claim to power is particularly obvious in what we see now as the re-entering of the United States in full force in the regions of South-East and East Asia where one of the main goals is to contain China and to ensure, as far as the strategic logic of the US is concerned, that China would never reach the status of a competitor on an equal footing with the US. What I consider very dangerous is that the US now seeks to reinforce its status as protector of the regional states (as in the case of the Philippines, for example). This also carries the danger of proxy wars in the future. These imperial policies have indeed become a major destabilizing factor in East and South-East Asia.

However, we should also be aware of a development that may bring some kind of real geopolitical change, albeit slowly and gradually. Since the beginning of the new millennium, it has become evident that the unipolar order is unsustainable. The global claim to power by only one country has destabilized entire regions and has even led to anarchic situations. One can see more and more trends of resistance against the hegemonial power structure and observe signs of an emerging multipolar order.

Resistance to imperial rule can only come from the people. It will not come from the state bureaucracies. Many of these states are effectively reduced to the status of protectorates, and certainly any challenge to imperial power will not come from the subservient elites in those states. In this context, one must look at the peoples’ right to self-determination. What is needed, if I may allude to the conference motto “Affirming Life Together”, is that the peoples, in whichever region of the world, should counteract the imperial strategy of “divide and rule”. The previous speaker has already referred to what that means in terms of interreligious conflict.

One of the most important aspects where people – in distinction from imperial rulers, governments, and bureaucracies – can actually do something is the deconstruction of imperial myths with regard to human rights and democracy in particular. The myth that the imperial power, often vaguely referred to as “the West”, is the guarantor of human rights and democracy has served as one of the main justifications for many military interventions in recent decades. We have also been witnessing this scheme in what has been happening under the label of the “Global War on Terror”. The main reason why so far so little has been achieved in terms of a deconstruction of these imperial myths is fear: almost no one is prepared to risk to be isolated in public opinion, or to be vilified by the mainstream media in the powerful countries.

One other main problem is what I would call the subordination to the so-called political correctness that is imposed by the empire. As individuals, people are simply afraid that they might be accused as conspiracy theorists if they ask critical questions about certain events like what was really behind the events of September 11, 2001. Almost everyone is terribly worried; and when one raises the issue in larger international meetings, almost everyone would prefer to say nothing in public, but will nonetheless speak privately to the person who mentioned that issue in public. In terms of global discourse, one should not allow the empire to occupy the moral high ground. This should be an issue of utmost priority. What is needed, under the geopolitical circumstances at the beginning of the 21st century, is an effort similar in commitment and rigor to the earlier anti-colonial struggle in the bipolar era, i. e. in the period of the Cold War after 1945. Nowadays, at least, one can make use of tools that were not available then, namely the networking technology of the Internet age.

In my view, the main strategy should be to create a kind of post-colonial alliance among social and national liberation movements in the industrialized and developing worlds together. The oppressed peoples and the peoples from regions where the imperial power is trying to reestablish or strengthen its rule should assert, and reassert, their rights in the context of the entire United Nations system. They should make clear that human rights, economic freedom, democracy, etc. are not some abstract issues, but are directly related to international law, to questions of international legitimacy and the obligations of states; and that is exactly where the principle and right to self-determination comes into play.

As far as the situation in Jeju Island is concerned, this aspect of self-determination of peoples has particular relevance in view of the history of this region. People should not anymore accept conditions where they are at the mercy of outside powers. The tragedy of the people of this island in 1948 and in the subsequent years, those years that led to the Korean War and to the, so far, permanent division of the Korean peninsula, must not be forgotten and the lessons must be learned.

What is required, under the conditions of the present unipolar order, is a thorough assessment of the deeper and comprehensive meaning of the right to self-determination. The hegemon and his proxies have proven incapable to preserve a stable global economy, and the people in Europe now are also becoming more and more aware of this failure. Particularly in this transitory phase of global order – where, gradually, certain aspects of a new multipolar balance of power emerge – one has to focus on a redefinition of the concept of self-determination in a holistic sense. The formation of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) is one of the signs of geopolitical change and of the peoples’ assertion of self-determination vis-à-vis the dominant system. One should also not overlook other developments, in particular the withdrawal of military forces in regions where their presence currently has become too costly or counterproductive, although this may just be a recalibration of foreign military presence and may lead to an increase in military deployments in other regions such as the one where we are meeting today.