Independence and statehood are most conveniently measured in terms of membership in the United Nations. The United Nations today has well over 190 member states. This number is to be contrasted with the fifty-seven independent states that joined the organization before the year 1950. Something has happened, in other words, since the time of the founding of the UN — the number of independent states in the world has increased four-fold! This is the story of decolonization, of how the former colonies made themselves independent of their European rulers.
By 1945, we said, colonialism had become an anachronism. Colonies were a net drain on the resources of European countries and colonialism had little public support. Although there certainly were individual business interests which gained considerably from the existing arrangements, the European countries as a whole did not. This was particularly the case where there was determined local resistance to colonial rule. As they came to realize to their chagrin, when faced with a local enemy bent on fighting for its independence, the Europeans would sooner or later always lose. The locals were fighting on their own turf after all, and the Europeans were very far away from home. The Europeans had the clocks, the saying went, but the locals had the time. Maintaining an empire under such circumstances would have required a commitment that simply did not exist.
The process of decolonization began in an unlikely place: the island of Saint-Domingue in the West Indies, a French colony and the country we today call Haiti. In 1791, inspired by news of the French Revolution, and fed up with being exploited for their labor, a vast rebellion broke out among the slaves on the plantations, and in 1804, the country declared itself independent. A similar independence struggle began in India in 1857. British rule in India was always fragile and depended heavily on the collaboration of local elites and on the loyalty of the indigenous army. When Muslims and Hindu soldiers joined forces and rallied behind the institution of the Mughal emperor, the British found themselves in a hopeless situation. Eventually the British reasserted their power, but it was a close call.
Starting in the late 1950s, and accelerating in the 1960s, one former colony after another made itself independent, and by 1970 there were few colonies left. The cases that remain today are geographical curiosities like the Malvinas Islands in the South Atlantic which is a British possession and Nouvelle-Calédonie in the Pacific which remains French. This is not to say that the struggle for independence was an easy process or that the Europeans gave up without a fight. Well into the 1950s, the French believed they could defend their possessions in Indochina. However, at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954, they were decisively defeated. From this time onward, the United States gradually came to take over responsibility for what in the 1960s was known as “the Vietnam War.” Yet the United States too was eventually defeated by the Vietnamese and its armies were expelled from Indochina in 1975. Another bloody conflict fought by the French took place in Algeria. Here a sizable group of European settlers, counting well over one million people, had considered Algeria their home for generations. An armed uprising began in 1954 which ended with independence for the country in 1962. The British, meanwhile, were fighting guerrillas in both Kenya and Malaya. Here too the conflicts were bloody, but here too the independence movements eventually won.
This is how the European way of organizing international politics became the universal norm and the European type of state the only viable political unit. This outcome was a consequence of colonialism, yet colonialism itself was actually not the cause. After all, a colonized country is the very opposite of a sovereign state; colonized peoples have no nation-states and enjoy no self-determination. It was instead through the process of liberating themselves from the colonizers that the European models were copied. The Europeans would only grant sovereignty to states that reminded them of their own. The only way to become an independent state, that is, was to become an independent state of the European kind. To create such a state was consequently the project in which all non-European political leaders engaged. All independence movements wanted their respective territories and fortified borders; their own capitals, armies, foreign ministries, flags, national anthems and all the other paraphernalia of sovereign statehood. They all wanted to become a version of what the Europeans were.
Yet in far too many cases, the newly independent states ran into difficulties. The political institutions were too weak, the economy was not developing, or not developing fast enough. Often there were highly valued commodities — gold, diamond, oil — over which men with weapons were prepared to fight. The new national leaders — often educated in the schools of the colonial powers and trusted by the Europeans as “one of theirs” — often had no nations that they could lead. Instead, nations had to be “built” — constructed, assembled, imagined — but this, in many cases, turned out to be an impossible task. The outcome was a long series of “failed states”; states, that is, which have failed to live up to the European standard. Whether it made sense for the newly independent states to live up to European standards in the first place was rarely discussed. Whether there were alternative, non-European ways of organizing a state and its foreign relations was never discussed either. The pre-colonial history of the non-European world was never allowed to play a role in the world of independent states which now came to be established. This is how we all came to live in a European world.