Wallerstein argues that Western intervention around the world has been justified by appeals to notions of civilisation, development and progress, that originate from sixteenth century debates on the ethics of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. This book argues that four basic assumptions have been used to justify all subsequent 'interventions' by the 'civilized' into 'non-civilized' zones: the barbarity of others; violations of universal values; defense of innocents amoungst cruel others; and the spreading of universal values. Overshadowing the material benefits of conquest, and legitimising the build-up of military power, these arguments are portrayed as universal, encrusted in natural law and the justification for the west's self-imposed civilising mission. But, as Immanuel Wallerstein advances in this short and elegant philippic, these concepts are, in fact, not universal. Rather their genesis is firmly rooted in European thought and their primary function has been to provide justification for powerful states to impose their will against the weak under the smokescreen of what is supposed to be both beneficial to humankind and historically inevitable.
Wallerstein concludes by advocating a true universalism that will allow critical appraisal of all justifications for intervention by the powerful against the weak. At a time when such intervention - in the name of democracy and human rights - has returned to the centre stage of world politics, his treatise is both relevant and compelling.