Formal imperialism became unpopular during the first half of twentieth century and nearly disappeared during the second half. The great empires of the British, French, and eventually the Portuguese were given their independence. The Soviet Union still included plenty of non-Russian territory that was in effect ruled imperially, but after 1989 it too became independent. By 2000 western intellectuals had become obsessed, consciously or unconsciously, with the virtues of third world nations and peoples, which served as a counterpoint to the nations of Western Europe and North America, increasingly viewed as bastions of racism.
Imperialism seemed to be unnecessary, as well as unjust, in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, since democracy and capitalism were spreading further and further around the world. But the George W. Bush administration introduced a new form of imperialism to world politics after 2001, claiming the right to overturn any government that assisted terrorism or that sought weapons that the United States government did not think it should have. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have endorsed that policy, declaring respectively that Iran and North Korea must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a different kind of imperialism was emerging among western governments in North America and in Eastern Europe. Essentially, it seems to me, it is attempting to take advantage of the global economic order to impose certain western political and cultural values on other parts of the world.
The new imperialism is on display today in the European Community, which is trying to force one of its newer members to fall into line. That nation is Poland, which was welcomed into the EC in the 1990s but whose politics, like those of Hungary, have taken a sharp turn to the right. Its Law and Justice party won a majority in 2015, a very rare event in European nations today, and it has reformed its judicial system to allow the government to purge it and bring it into line. The EU has now sent Poland a warning about these developments, carrying with it a threat of actual economic sanctions. 22 of the EC's 28 member states, as it happens, would have to agree to impose real sanctions, which has never been done. The EC has also criticized Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for refusing to accept any refugees. Mainstream western liberalism not only believes in an independent judiciary, but seems to feel that advanced nations need to open their borders to threatened people from other parts of the world. But these views are not universally shared, even within their own societies.
The attempt to impose western values also shows up in sanctions against Russia and particular Russians for human rights violations. It has also manifested itself in the demand that President Hafez Assad step down in Syria, and the earlier demand for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. That was part of the movement begun by the George W. Bush administration to spread democracy through the Middle East, but within two years, the Obama administration had effectively reversed itself and effectively blessed the return of military rule in Egypt. European liberalism also favors stronger action against Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and allow for a Palestinian state, but the United States government has for the time being moved in a completely different direction.
The backlash against this movement is growing. Two other world powers, Russia and China, specifically reject western political and cultural models and maintain authoritarian states. They also have rejected the western tolerance for homosexuality, which is unpopular in much of the third world as well. Turkey, which had gone further in the direction of the West than any Muslim nation during the twentieth century, is now ruled by an intolerant, authoritarian state as well.
The values of democracy, the rule of law, equal rights for citizens, and broader social tolerance remain precious gifts which western democracies bestowed upon the world. Yet the assumption that some Hegelian momentum is inevitably driving them forward is hurting, not helping the effort to keep them alive. The changes of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries did not happen automatically, but because millions of people believed in them and made them work. They always encountered vigorous opposition, most notably in the Second World War--and that war was hardly an unmitigated triumph for liberalism. The belief in citizenship and equal rights, in my opinion, very powerful emotionally, but so is tribalism in both its older and newer forms. To prevail, the ideas of citizenship and equal rights must be renewed through effective collective action. Those values also turned out to be the best counterweight to economic inequality--the natural result of capitalism--when nations had to mobilize their resources to fight depression and foreign enemies. For the moment, the people of the United States, in particular, lack any unifying vision that could renew these values.
History does not move automatically in the right direction, and western leaders and NGOs cannot make it do so simply by telling the rest of the world how to behave. Throughout modern history nations have led by example. If the best values of modern history are to maintain their influence, teh western nations must act them out at home. They must also recognize once again that other parts of the world may not share them. That will become the challenge of statesmanship and diplomacy in the decades to come.