The BBC today reports that France has agreed to head an expanded UN Peacekeeping force in Lebanon. (Read article)There are a host of issues which could potentially arise out of this development, as well as various commentaries that could be made. There is an entire discussion to be had about the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping forces. (My husband has recently been doing some research on their effectiveness versus that of mercenary forces.) I also know those who would make snide comments about the French military tradition, etc.
Yet, as a British historian and modified imperialist by nature, what strikes me is that imperialism is never truly over. When one country takes over another, the impact is always there. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a flurry of the Europeans withdrawing from Empire. Imperialism itself became a dirty word and the ultimate evil by the 1990s -- unless one was in China, or Russia, where the view is rather different. Europe and America seem embarrassed that such a thing could ever happen and some former colonies have exacerbated the blame game at times, hoping for greater concessions from former European masters. Historians have castigated imperialism as the great crime. In the last few years, the debate has begun to be a little more balanced, with historians and economists demonstrating both pros and cons of the imperial era of European history.
Regardless of any debate, however, the reality is that despite "Decolonization", the ties that bind -- or the chains -- however they are broken are never completely severed. Britain withdrew from India in 1947, after 300 years on the ground in one form or another. Can anyone truly say that there is no connection between India and the UK? Immigration policies and education shape India's fortunes still. Spain, who long ago retreated from her empire in the Americas, still has a visible impact, and the first country to indict Augusto Pinochet for human rights violations was the long ago Chilean colonizer of Spain. Even the U.S. -- strong world power-- strongest of any former colony on the planet -- we still have extensive ties to Britain. In the Post 9-11 Speech to Congress, President Bush stated unequivocally that "America has no truer friend than Great Britain. Once again, we are joined together in a great cause -- so honored the British Prime Minister has crossed an ocean to show his unity with America. Thank you for coming, friend." Winston Churchill would be thrilled. Churchill argued that three circles would never allow Britain's place on the world stage to be completely diminished -- her relationship with Europe, with the Commonwealth and with America. Empire never truly ends.
Okay -- so why bring this up over Lebanon? Well, the French are the ones who set up the power sharing government currently operating in Lebanon in the first place. It was designed to keep a balance between Christian and Muslim groups in Lebanon and it held until the Civil War broke out in 1975, followed by the invasions and influence of Syria. Still the structure was set up by the French in 1943. So, France returns to its Middle Eastern mandate arena. France has had an interesting mix in its imperial relations. French withdrawal from Southeast Asia was spectacular in its deficiencies. Central and Western Africa went better, although not the Algerian conflict of the late sixties. Several French departments are still overseas -- including French Polynesia and French Guiana in South America. Given France's difficulties in some of its last imperial entanglements, the French government is adamant that the specifics of the mission be laid out in advance.
Is it wise to send France in? There are debates, but yes. They have an understanding of the situation on the ground that is unique. No, the leaders who were making policy in 1943 are not in power, but the legacy of their process can be helpful in creating a sustainable peace. Notice I said sustainable -- because that is the only type in which the Israelis are certainly interested. Hezbollah? Well, we'll see. Imperialism has its benefits. Sometimes when a situation has become too heated internally the only solution is for an outside force to create a truce. We call them mediators and negotiators, counselors and sometimes imperialist conquerors. But, the job cannot be rushed, not if it is to work.