Authored by: Christopher J. Lee

The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Imperial Histories

Print publication date:  May  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754664154
eBook ISBN: 9781315613277
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042525


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On 24 October 1945, the United Nations (UN) came into being, thus completing a series of diplomatic meetings during the Second World War that sought to establish a peaceful world order for the postwar period. Seeking to restore the principles of the failed League of Nations (1920–46) within a new institutional body, the UN launched a representative assembly, a security council, an international court of justice and other organs to resolve future international tensions by peaceful, diplomatic means. At the centre of this undertaking was the primacy of the nation-state. The intellectual and moral foundations of the new body originated with US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points delivered in 1918, and the 1941 Atlantic Charter drafted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In keeping with these beginnings, the UN validated a world order based on self-determination and sovereign nation-states, not empires. 1 1

Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford, 2007); Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA, 2005).

Although British, French and Portuguese empires would remain intact, if in declining form, until the last decades of the twentieth century, imperialism as a stated political practice would be viewed as increasingly illegitimate, a stance solidified by the active inclusion of post-colonial countries as UN members. Yet the advent of the Cold War and its bipolar structure of world power compromised the dimensions and possibilities of post-colonial autonomy. Political independence appeared to be in name only, with the structural legacies of modern imperialism continuing to inform political and economic realms at local and global levels. The diverse cultural impact of western imperialism – through religion, gender, sexuality, racial difference, consumer taste, language and aesthetic forms of literature, architecture, music and other arts – looked just as irreversible.

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