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Who owns the world?

| Monday, September 20, 2021

As I followed the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack on the U.S., I was struck by the similarity in outlook of both the U.S. leadership and the al-Qaida leadership. Defense Secretary Gen. Austin’s remarks during the commemoration reiterated the readiness and determination of U.S. troops to defend the “American way of life.” This theme reverberated in the remarks of most other speakers of the day including former president George W. Bush. The BBC documentary on the 9/11 attacks indicated that al-Qaida had justified their attack on the U.S. as retaliation for the U.S. occupying some of their holy lands in the Middle East. In sum, both Americans and the al-Qaida were fighting to preserve their way of life. This similarity in outlook reminded me of an idea I heard from professor Achille Mbembe of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. In his keynote address during the Pan-African Youth Conference in March, professor Mbembe argued that the key question of the present epoch is the question of “Who owns the world”? I agree with professor Mbembe that this is the central tension characterizing our world today.

This tension characterized the colonial and imperial epochs. Arrogant Europeans, convinced of their superiority, felt obliged to fulfill a self-appointed mission of civilizing African and other peoples who they considered barbaric for simply being differently from them. Europeans felt that they owned the world and therefore had the right to shape it in whatever way they wanted to. It is the same tension that today fuels the patronizing feelings of Europeans and North Americans towards Africa and the parts of the developing world. It is the same tension that is fueling U.S. paranoia over a rising China leading to the AUKUS pact, which seeks to contain Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region. America seeks to maintain a world system that allows it to secure and preserve its way of life. This is what the political theorist, Carl Schmitt, called the “concept of the political.”

The question of who owns the world plays out as a fierce battle between competing civilizations intent on preserving their unique ways of life against those who would like to have it destroyed. As civilizations clash, the weaker ones are defeated and subjected to a world shaped on the whims of the victors. In a word, it is a zero-sum game. One question that arises, however, is whether this must be the case. Should we be contesting for ownership of the world in the first place? In my view, no, we should not be contesting for ownership of the world. But why are things playing out the way they do? In my estimates, the problem can be traced back to around the 15th century. Modernizing Europe laid foundations for a modern world premised on plunder, exploitation, expropriation and oppression of the exoticized ‘other’ — Africans, Asians and Indigenous peoples. As such, the development of Europe by those means meant, necessarily, the underdevelopment of the victims of their ownership of the world. Coerced into such a system, these nations could only develop through two ways. First, by getting permission from the overlords i.e., the reigning power at the time: Britain in the past and America in the present. Such permission is given for strategic reasons, such as containing a regional threat. Countries that arguably developed through this route include South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. America, seeking to establish solid influence in Asia, permitted and played a significant role in the transformation of these societies. The other way societies could develop was through beating the reigning world powers at their own game. This is what America did in the 18th century, it is what the Soviet Union did in the early 20th century and what China has been doing since the late 20th century.

So, what are we to do as young people inheriting this absurd setup of things? We must seek to be different. Politics, international politics, does not have to be a zero-sum game. We must be prepared to do whatever it takes to put an end to this system and build on its ashes a new equitable international dispensation. We must shun all forms of chauvinism. This is true especially for those of us in the developing world. We cannot resign ourselves to being purged from history. It is not enough that we are willing to fight in defense of ourselves and our way of life. We must also build capacity to fight in defense of that. Let us not tempt aggressors and self-interested actors with our weakness.

Trevor Lwere is a senior from Kampala, Uganda, studying economics and global affairs with a minor in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is currently studying abroad at SOAS University of London. He is a dee-jay in his free time and can be reached at [email protected] or @LwereTrevor on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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