The US as a commercial empire
Answering the criticisms of Christopher Jones, David Westbrook
defends the US as having a commercial empire:
"Let me take Christopher's provocation as an excuse to flesh out the ideas for some upcoming talks I'm giving on security and international law. eEpires by definition are not parochial; "parochial empire" is an oxymoron. Bracketing the pejorative implications of the terms for the moment, the fact that both "imperial" and "parochial" seem to capture something essential about the U.S. suggest that the outward expression of the American project is aptly described by neither word.
Had the U.S. experience in Vietnam been simply imperial, it would have been
far easier to understand. What is interesting at present, indeed shocking, was
that the U.S. won most of the battles, lost the war, and won the victory that
it set out to, viz., that for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese
people, as the then surreal phrase had it.
Vietnam simply isn't a Maoist country. Nor can "imperial" begin to explain the U.S. return of the Panama Canal or the Philippine naval bases. In a similar vein, while Ronald often refers to the Westward expansion as imperial, which in some sense it was, I think he misses a more important but more subtle point, viz., that even in expansion manifest destiny seems to have limited the territorial ambitions of the U.S., that at some point in the nineteenth century, the U.S. came to understand itself as occupying a discrete space, and not a much larger one. An imperial U.S. would have simply incorporated Canada, and probably most of (even more of?) Mexico.
None of which implies that the U.S. does not have profound strategic interests around the globe. But this is nothing new. There seems to be mass amnesia among us chatterers regarding the Cold War -- remember, the decades during which the U.S. exercised military force on a global basis? Nor, of course, was the Cold War new in this regard, preceded as it was by WWII. Of course, there was a brief period of isolationism in the 1920s, widely regarded as hopelessly naive. At least since Wilson, however, a fundamental reality of international politics has been the global military interests/presence of the U.S. Much of that activity has been in the Middle East. Indeed, we have had a massive military presence in Iraq since the first Gulf War (remember no fly zones, and the military buildup that, inter alia, got the UN inspectors back in the country (conveniently forgotten by the NYT in its anniversary of the war commentary)?.
It is true that the U.S. has tried to make the world in its own image (ecclesiastical ring fully intended). But I think we learned this from the British, who were stunningly successful (consider not just language, but law, sports, dress . . .). However, the British empire was always something of a self-contradiction. In the British model, liberalism coexisted uneasily with overlordship, democracy with aristocracy, free trade/commerce with landed interests. Such faultlines were exploited by the American revolution -- which decried taxation, the obligations of citizenship without representation, the rights of citizens -- and later by Ghandi and others in the decolonialization process. If we focus on the first half of these bifurcations, then what we see is a commercial republican democracy, enormously sure that it understands the right way to do things. What such a polity wants from foreign affairs is not land, dominion, or even glory so much as orderly marketsplaces, stable laws, and more generally, the spread of its version of civilization (and the absence of threats to its version of civilization). It is only a small stretch to reimagine modern history without a British imperialism as such, and the expansion of British culture as carried out solely by quasi private interests, the Hudson Bay Company, the East India Company, and the like. Would such a commercial republic be afraid to wage war? Not necessarily. Nor would it necessarily very tolerant, or very interested in the ways of others. At the same time, such a republic is hardly parochial, for the simple reason that it defines itself externally.
I would argue that the U.S. represents a commercially expansive republic, perhaps the purest commercial polity (the Phoenicians?) the world has ever known. In light of U.S. history -- particularly the abolition of titles -- the U.S. never really functioned as an empire. No royal family, no Napoleon, no desire to incorporate conquered lands into the Reich (once the continental bounds were set), and so represented solely the commercial, as opposed to the royal/aristocratic, half of the British project.
It might be argued that expansive commercial republics are inherently unstable. After all, the British Crown did take over from the joint stock companies. And Thucydides can be read to the same effect -- that Athens could not remain a trading city state, but had to become an empire in order to protect herself and especially her trading alliances, which gradually ceased to be allies and became either vassals or enemies. But on the other hand, the U.S. has not become an empire over a considerable period of time, and indeed recurrently experiences bouts of isolationism. Moreover, I'm not sure what happens when such a republic is as successful as the U.S. has been, that is, what does it mean to be a commercial republic in an age of globalization? But enough for now . ." .
RH: The westward expansion of the US not imperialistic? I can imagine a Russian
making the same argument about the eastern expansion of Russia.
John Heelan says: "My thanks to David Westbrook for his comments rebutting some of my points (I take it that he agrees with the others?). There are many things that David and I agree on in this exchange, not least the value of WAIS as a stage for testing and discussing ideas as a basis of increasing world understanding.
David points out that political forms are not necessarily transhistorical. I agree, however I suggest that motivations generating contemporary political forms are indeed transhistorical. If personal motivations did not survive their own cultural lifetimes, then the teachings of the Bible, Torah and Koran would be only interesting historical observations and not of transcendental value as claimed. [Contra that, it could be argued that personal motivations will adapt to the contemporary times in which they are exercised., thus giving free rein to those religionists who seek to interpret sacred works in the light of their current environment, thereby forming a strong link between dominant religions and politics.] Thus although the political form may not be transhistorical, underlying personal motivations are so and will attempt to create political forms similar to those that have satisfied similar motivations in the past.
Where we perhaps disagree most is on the notion of "empire" in today's world. David partially defines it as "territorial expansiveness" and "willingness to rule other peoples" and "having a class of civil servants capable of administering an India". Conflating his two latter descriptions points to the need for *direct control* to benefit from the cost and risk of the "territorial expansion". [In the case of India, tax tributes were one of the important benefits: not for nothing were the local government directors of a region called "Collectors".] The concept of "direct control" of empire is perhaps outmoded in today's (and even more so, tomorrow's) world. Territorial sovereignty is no longer necessary for "virtual empire" of today's only world superpower. It controls by *indirect* means.
Indirect control is/can be exercised by the awarding/withholding of funds and trade links to other countries (as was seen with the cuts of international aid to those countries that disagreed with the US in the UN), backed up by the implicit threat of direct control through US overwhelming military superiority. Given the rapid development of technology, more and more of that military force can be applied remotely. In the future, much of the world could be controlled militarily from the safety of Cheyenne Mountain.
David rejects the concept of "commercial empire" and promotes that of "commercial republican democracy" but without really defining what he means by it. If he were basing it on the US model, then presumably there would have to be a global Constitution of some nature agreed by non-US member states, with some kind of federal oversight. If so, this raises the questions of the US relationship with a competing UN, where federal power would lie and how non-US member states would protect themselves against misuse of that federal power. The US constitutional safety-valve, the "right to bear arms", by a non-US member state would run counter to the declared strategy of Bush of ensuring that no other power could challenge US military supremacy.
I am not surprised that David finds the concept of commercial interests defining culture "hopelessly simplistic". However, I did not suggest that but argued the opposite in that the inexorable world-wide spread of US cultural norms through travel and the media brings in its wake commercial interests benefiting from the increased markets generated. It is not surprising that the organisations benefiting most are from North America, the fount of that culture. Neither do I deny the existence of "altruism or selfless belief" however, I suggest that they operate at a personal level rather than a political level. [Did not Christ comment on the difference between things rendered to God and to Caesar?].
I do believe that political desires and actions are based on class interests and use the United States as a contemporary example. The appointment of each Administration seems to depend on the size of its election war chest relative to its competitors. I suggest that contributors to those election war chests are rarely altruistic and contribute having some self-interest at heart accompanied by a trust, usually well founded, that their preferred flavour of Administration will satisfy that self-interest. [One only has to consider how well Bush has rewarded his major sponsors, the oil and energy industries, the defense industries and the richer echelons of American society at the expense of the poorer echelons and perhaps the longer-term economic well-being of the country. Further it has rewarded sections of the media industry for its uncritical support of the Administrations policies at home and abroad.]
David applauds the Bush administration attempts "to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi government as soon as possible". As I have suggested previously, that will happen only if the US retains some form of indirect control over the eventual governing body of Iraq. I find it hard to believe that the Bush (or any other US administration) would tolerate its energy policies being disrupted by an Iraqi parliament, democratically elected and ruled by the predominant Shia population, linking with Iran, its natural co-religionist partner, to control a major part of the Middle East oil reserves. Thus, I suggest that any handover of direct control will be accompanied by a method of indirect control, thus incorporating Iraq as part of the US "virtual empire".
Once again, I heartily agree with David when he comments, "If the U.S. is already, or must soon become, an empire, then the U.S. should prepare for that, by making the army bigger, by officially distancing itself from the obligatory language of public international law, by reviving some version of the mandate system, and -- most importantly, perhaps by developing a dedicated civil service capable of administering places like Iraq over the medium to long term.". One can point to steps that have already been made in that direction with increase in US military spending, the USâ€™ distancing itself from International Courts of various kinds and increases in its quasi-diplomatic corps. Whether such increasing strength is desirable from a global perspective is debatable.
David admits that it is a close call between the US being "understood as a commercial republic rather than an empire". So do I. As somebody once opined: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck- its a duck and not a swan". The dictum could also be applied to 'empire'".
RH: A bigger US army? See "Robots, start your engines. Could a robot race
funded by a military research organization help to advance the development of
autonomous fighting machines" (The Economist, (3/13-19/04). The US army
is going high tech, developing unmanned land vehicles similar to flying drones.
Wars may be fought by machines controlled at a distance, not by masses of troops.
Answering the criticisms of Christopher Jones, David Westbrook defended the US as having a commercial empire:
John Heelan responds: "David argues an interesting case, however there are perhaps some questionable points in his thesis. It is possibly a little naive to confuse the US' admirable absence of hereditary titles with a general absence of "titles". Granted that the US does not have the panoply of hangers-on of royalty that plagues the UK, it does have equally sycophantic hangers-on of other forms of potentates, such as political leaders, especially the President, and the CEOs of major world-wide organisations. Similarly with the absence of an American "Napoleon", although some might suspect that the current and some previous Presidents had Napoleonic designs disguised, or perhaps considered necessary to protect the US from communist encirclement. One can point at overt and covert military incursions into countries at risk to American interests world-wide followed by the appointment of puppet leaders. Was Vietnam America's "1812" experience?
David is perceptive in his reading of Thucydides that "Athens...... had to become an empire to protect herself and especially her trading alliances, which gradually ceased to be allies and became either vassals or enemies". Is this not also an apt description of the motivations of the present and recent US Administrations, especially in regards to its policy toward oil-rich countries such as those of the Middle East-(and its need to support Israel as its guardian of that region) and Venezuela ? Without continuous access to cheap sources of energy, the successful US commercial machine would literally grind to a halt. Commercial necessity of continued access to primary resources is the main driver of US international policy rather than an altruistic spread of American-style democracy. (Were not the British, Dutch and Spanish empires driven by similar desires?)
The spread of the American commercial empire is fuelled by the inexorable spread of American cultural hegemony- Microsoft, Levi jeans and Starbucks coffee are but symptoms of that contagion. Such hegemony leads to the increasing success of US companies, which in turn leads to their increased needs for both primary resources and protection against damaging import tariffs of other countries. The latter demands the mechanics of the US-dominated World Trade Organisation to protect US global commercial interests benefiting from the spread of US cultural hegemony. The supply of the former- primary resources- needs to be protected by direct or indirect control of the territory in which they are extracted- the Middle East oil reserves being a prime example (with Venezuela and the West Coast of Africa waiting in the wings.)
Contemporary altruistic "spread of democracy" is purely a politically
correct and convenient cover for protecting the US commercial empire, just as
the "spread of Christianity" was the cover for Spain's and the "White
Mans' Burden of helping the poor benighted heathens of India and Africa"
was the justification for the British Empire. In reality, commercial interests
are/were the major drivers in all three cases. [One wonders what excuse China
will adopt in the future when it starts to spread its commercial wings.]"
David Westbrook says: "Somebody once said of Schopenhauer (I think, anyway one of the German idealists) that he conducted his education in public. I've a similar sensation, using WAIS exchanges in preparation for several upcoming talks. That said, please allow me to clarify a few misunderstandings, and extend the argument a bit.
Thinking about the historical significance of the U.S. might benefit from more precision than the term "empire" allows. My thought is that the U.S. is a political beast different in kind from the empire. The EU, incidentally, is another similar but different species of political beast. More generally, I don't think political forms are transhistorical (which Marxian impulse ought to appeal to John Heelan, no?), and therefore I've argued (in my book, City of Gold), that the contemporary politics of globalization is different in kind from the politics of the 19th and 20th century. The question I'm trying to address here -- and it is a hard question -- is how to begin understanding the U.S., as a national government, albeit one in an unprecedented position of power, in this new context.
Reviving the old language of "empire" does not get us very far down this road. While we may differ on what "empire" means, I think a sensible understanding must include at least territorial expansiveness, and a willingness to rule other peoples that are thought of as other peoples. In these terms, the U.S. is not an empire, and has not been in the twentieth century (the nineteenth century is a closer call). U.S. territorial expansiveness stopped with the Philippine adventure, which was probably already an aberration. Or, about the same time, when the frontier was declared closed, nobody started talking about Lebensraum. Regarding a willingness to rule other peoples, the U.S. has never developed a class of civil servants capable of administering an India. All the talk about large embassies masks the fact that Americans do go home, regularly, or as William Pfaff once phrased it, Americans have no desire to rule spice islands. Therefore, contra this message heading, I do NOT think of the U.S. as a "commercial empire," but instead as a commercial republican democracy, which is a different thing.
As political forms, empires have other typical, perhaps required, aspects. In the last post I suggested that acquisition of land had a certain historical affinity with hereditary title, and that such affinity was relevant to understanding the British empire. At the same time, country was different from town, and trade and commercial wealth free from title to land formed another importantly British way of looking at the world, and so organizing their empire. I noted that the U.S. really only participated in the latter perspective, for constitutional and other reasons. That is, it is a strain to talk about empires without hereditary titles to land. Conversely, societies truly devoted to trade with foreigners (the Netherlands, Venice) amass great wealth, but can only uncomfortably be called empires. Fourth, I've also argued, in City of Gold, that the notion of "empire" is bound up with the notion of glory, and contemporary politics is at most impressive. Contemporary world leaders are at most celebrities, not even trying to be the Sun King. But my argument does not turn on whether heredity and glory are required aspects of that form of government we think of as imperial.
Playing Weber to his Marx, and while I'm flattered that he finds my reading of Thucydides perceptive, I find John's idea that "commercial interests" drive culture hopelessly simplistic. It is not just that there are such things as altruism, or idealism, or selfless belief, or political desire, all of which cannot be reduced to class interest (or, contra the right, to rational self-interest). Indeed, for many people and perhaps John, the attractions of the left ("solidarity") have little to do with self-interest. Of course it is only Marx in his critical mode that attempts to make such self-interest the foundation of culture. The real sustained intellectual effort to make self interest the key to politics, of course, is liberal economics, generally speaking an enterprise of the right. As an intellectual project, this has been (to put the matter gently), less than successful. Economics explains very little, and has almost no predictive power, as any devout reader of the Wall Street Journal or the Economist will recognize (which is why economics is fun).
As importantly, commerce itself (notably, the regimes of property, money, contract, as well as demand) cannot be understood apart from their cultures. Globalization is important not because it is an expression of specifically American cultural hegemony (an overdetermined concept), but because it is creating the culture -- the World -- in which most of the planet's people spend significant amount of their lives, including their commercial lives. This world, including its commerce, cannot be reduced, as mere superstructure, to some antecedent and more authentic base.
But quaint arguments over economic determinism aside, what is at stake here? Suppose one were to grant my thought that the U.S. is not an empire, but instead a highly engaged commercial republic with a big army? What's the difference? Contemporary audiences want normative arguments, so here's one:
If the U.S. sees itself as a commercial republic, leading by example, one might expect much more attention to diplomacy than we have seen from this administration. I have the sneaking suspicion that Clinton could have done almost everything Bush did, and in ways far more palatable to the chattering classes. This, I think, is essentially the position of the New York Times and the liberal orthodoxy: we understand that power sometimes must be exercised, even wars may be necessary, but we think it important that there be multilateral support. This sense of respect for the autonomy of other states has, of course, profound roots in going back through the UN to the League to the vision of Kant's Perpetual Peace. Under a republican (small "r") understanding of our role in foreign policy, the Bush administration is correct to try and hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi government as soon as possible, and we should abandon our positions in ex-Yugoslavia and, soon, Haiti.
As this talk of leaving folks to their own devices suggests, the liberal orthodoxy may be profoundly irresponsible. Contra the orthodoxy, there are no nations in the position of the U.S. The English historian Niall Ferguson has been forcefully arguing that the U.S. is an empire "in denial," and as a result, the U.S. is insufficiently prepared for its responsibilities. In this regard, the point I made from Thucydides, that becoming an empire is inevitable, warrants serious thought. If the U.S. is already, or must soon become, an empire, then the U.S. should prepare for that, by making the army bigger, by officially distancing itself from the obligatory language of public international law, by reviving some version of the mandate system, and -- most importantly, perhaps -- by developing a dedicated civil service capable of administering places like Iraq over the medium to long term.
Thus, to conclude, while I think the U.S. should be understood as a commercial republic rather than an empire, I think it is a very close call in ways that matter. Far from being a defense of the U.S. position, I think this understanding poses serious questions for the U.S., more correctly, for those of us with the temerity to worry about the justifications for politics".
RH: I agree that the word "empire" has become politically incorrect
and must be eradicated. New York will become the Non-Empire State, one of its
ornaments being the Non-Empire State Building. Berkeley, CA takes its name from
a line by George Berkeley, which must be rephrased "Westward the course
of republic takes its way". However. "republic" suggest Republican,
which is politically incorrect in Berkeley. Somehow we must avoid that word
Tim Brown says: "Do we have a commercial empire? If you define the term to fit your pre-conceptions, of course we do. The next question then is: do France. Germany, Great Britain, Spain, Japan, China, and on and on have commercial empires as well? By the same definition, of course they do as well. It's just that theirs are small that ours and therefore their ability to control the globalizing commercial environment to their own benefit is not as strong. But does it somehow make them morally and ethically superior to the US simply because they are smaller? Hardly! If history is one's guide, whenever a European country, from France to Sweden (yes, Sweden - look at the history of St. Barths) has had the ability and opportunity to create an empire for itself by force it has done so. Relative contemporary weakness is not proof of virtue nor is relative contemporary power proof of then opposite. When the Europeans declaim against "American imperialism" they are forgetting, or more correctly, deliberately ignoring their own pasts. And compared to past European enthusiasms for carving out overseas empires the U.S., being extraordinarily reluctant to follow in their footsteps, is acting with considerable restraint not excessive zeal".
RH: The US is more than a commercial empire. See the article "The next
American empire" (The Economist, 3/20/04),which has a map of American bases
around the world, as the UK once had.
Christopher Jones says: "David Westbrook yearns for a new vocabulary which is just not there because there hasn't been any change in the human condition. The same emotions that propelled empire (or commercial empire if you wish) in the ancient world are alive and well today. And that is why "parochialism" is the ultimate definition of "empire." Based on the tribe or its post 1789 offspring, "the nation." The collective ultimately imposes its values upon others with complete disregard to the particular national characteristics of that other tribe/ nation or what ever. It has convinced itself of its own superiority through religion (Spain) culture (France) or institutions(Britain). Financial greed is merely another dart in that quiver. Like it or not, we are talking about human nature and its origins in the hunter/gatherer society. The idea that somehow American "globalization" could achieve a new revolutionary human spirit is sad and naive. José Antonio Primo de Rivera noted that all change is useless if it is not accompanied by a new human spirit. This yearning for a "new man" is essential to Nietzsche and to fascism.
I would say that the old 19th century concept of empire may not be appropriate to today's US republic. The "empire" was far superior in my view because at least, it was propelled forward in a slow "long term investment" mode rather than the US's quarter by quarter concern for the bottom line. Said in another way, the European empires were forced to improve the general lot of the colonized peoples because their perspective was so long. The better examples are Portuguese Africa or French Algeria (which in the end was an integrated part of France). There, after 100 years or so, old racisms, exploitations etc. simply melted away. This was an important part of the mission civilisatrice. This is not the case for the US. The American presence is short term (the Shah's Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Vietnam) because the American policy makers are forever beholden to two things: elections and money to bankroll their campaigns in those elections. That is where Von Kuehnelt-Leddin pressed home the difference between monarchy and today's western "democracies"."
Hank Greely says: "Christopher Jones's argument about the different consequences of imperial interventions based on the length of the imperialists' time horizons seems plausible, but it is not obviously supported by facts. It's hard for me to see much difference between Algeria, 40 years after the French departure, and Vietnam, 30 years after the US departure - and, if there is a difference, it does not favor the civilizing and long-term French. Any continuing benefits from the French civilizing mission are difficult to discern in that poor, growing, dictatorial, and terror-ridden land. Any improvements wrought by European imperialism in the Congo, in Mozambique, or in Burma seem no less evanescent - and possibly more - than changes wrought by American interventions in the Philippines, South Korea, Haiti, or Vietnam. Some interventions had some beneficial consequences; others didn't. I doubt that the record supports any systematic difference in outcome favorable to the Europeans".
Rob Gaudet says: "People around the world demand American products such as Levis and Starbucks. They like the products, its image, its quality, and the customer service that comes with it. None of this so-called "low culture" (as Professor Bhagwati of Columbia refers to it in contrast to America's "high culture" of democracy, human rights,
transparency, etc.) is foisted upon the world. It is demanded and paid for by consumers worldwide. For this reason, more than any other, we cannot call America an "empire." Empires are thrust upon people (like greatness upon some?) whereas American's goods (democracy, products, ideals, etc) are highly demanded around the world". RH: The world does not view the US as the most democratic country in the world, and Rob does not mention the network of US military bases around the world which the people did not demand and which are generally viewed as a manifestation of imperialism. This does not mean that they are a bad thing.
John Heelan says: " In the modern world, culture seems to be spread internationally by TV, films, pop music, newspapers and magazines etc. As Rob Gaudet says, it is not foisted on the recipients but actively sought by them. That is well and good. However, entrepreneurs naturally follow (and sometimes encourage by advertising and sponsorship) the spread of that culture to take advantage of the commercial opportunities offered. When that commercial opportunity becomes so large that it affects the Balance of Payments of major countries, those countries will seek to protect and maintain the primary resources needed to sustain production of cultural products (including oil & gas resources). The US' current protection devices are the World Trade Organisation, dumping and implicit (sometimes actual) military power. Although the world generally welcomes the positive aspects of North American culture, it is less receptive to implicit and explicit aggression and arrogance that often accompanies it.
European empires and the US as a commercial empire
Christopher Jones says: "Hank Greely either misunderstood my message or
I was not specific enough. I was referring to and lauding the entire span of
empire from the beginning to the bitter end and not the mess that followed.
To use Algeria as a case in point: France established control over the coastal areas in 1830 and left in 1962. During that 130 year period, generations of colons grew up side by side with Berber or Kabyle natives. The so called Pieds Noirs considered Algeria their home because they were born there. They worked for its prosperity. When Algeria was integrated into the French political system as three fully functioning départements , Algeria's status as a colony disappeared -- it was assimilated. Even after independence, France's mission civilisatrice is ever present: most Algerians use the French language better than Arabic. When they ran from their country in terror of the FIS/GIA (Islamic terrorists), they naturally gravitated to the héxagone (France). And it worked in the opposite way: I have been together with French who were reduced to tears when the conversation turned to the Islamic terror in post independence Algeria.
The same can be said of that ultimate jewel in the crown: the Raj in India. Britain left behind the English language and at least the notion of institutions (above all the justice system) which still exerts enormous influence on the India of today. Portuguese Africa is a wonderful example of a country that built schools, established a social welfare system, pensions and a way for the Africans to become Portuguese as asimilados. When the empire collapsed after the April 25th revolution, only disaster, war, murder and barbarity followed. In other words, European empire based on long term values produced positive results resulting in real assimilation of civilized western values in this "clash" of cultures despite its origins as "We're better than them." I do admit that there were some cases like the Belgian Congo that are not so rosy.
As for the US, I can't see any of this. The US did not leave anything behind in South Vietnam other than misery. Ask a Cambodian what he thinks of the Lon Nol regime. And the Philippines? Haiti? When I was in Saigon after the war, my communist minder spoke to me in German! learned in the DDR. Others spoke in French. You don't colonize with jeans (no longer made in the US) and electronics. Commercial empires are based on the bottom line and are short term. You have to cultivate heaven and work the earth, side by side".
Daryl DeBell says: "I am puzzled by Christopher Jones's statement, "In its zeal for world empire, the Americans had to eliminate these old European powers despite the threat from the Russians." I am aware of the recent assertions of an American thrust for an economic empire, and the disputes about what to call it, but " a zeal for world empire"? RH: Franklin Roosevelt wanted to eliminate the British and French empires, and, when the UN was created, the US did all it could to promote decolonization. The review of the book THE CHOICE: Global Domination or Global Leadership gave some idea of the mentality of the US administration. It may or may not be a good thing.
Christopher Jones praised the achievements of European empires. HankGreely replies: "I think I see Christopher Jones's point, but the entire span of Empire seems to me too difficult to assess. One thing that seems clear is that the vast majority of imperial regimes have left behind messes - whether they were European or American; motivated by commercial interests (as was the British Raj before the Mutiny forced a Crown takeover), interests of state, or (at least in theory) a disinterested desire for the spread of civilization; moved by short term or long term considerations. As I said before, I see no systemic advantage to the European imperialists here - and the aftermath of the jewel in the crown (the name of a wonderful series of books and great BBC mini-series, by the way) is surely no exception. Even apart from the appalling slaughter of the partition, the British legacy includes not only the Republic of India, with its mixture of good and bad, but the military dictatorships of Burma and Pakistan, the vicious and unending civil war of Sri Lanka, and the basket case of Bangladesh.
As to the period of empire itself, the concrete effects certainly do vary. Algeria may be a positive example; the Congo is clearly an awful one. Even among the French, what became the Central African Republic or the Malagasy Republic surely did not get the "civilization" (or the French settlers) that Algeria got. I suspect the US actually did a pretty decent job in the Philippines while it was there. But those imperial regimes did not last, certainly in part because of local opposition to them. While it is clear that the post-imperial regimes have sometimes (perhaps usually) been as bad as, or worse than, the imperial rule, the fact remains that the imperial regimes were not sustainable, which seems to indicate a flaw in their idealization as golden ages".
RH: The British united the Indian subcontinent and cannot be blamed for the
later partition and the accompanying slaughter. I repeat that I traveled through
Africa before and after decolonization, which wrecked some well-functioning
countries. Decolonization occurred much too quickly for political reasons.
Hank Greely says: "I don't see why the British cannot be blamed for the slaughter that attended their hasty departure from an area that they had ruled for a century or more. They don't deserve all the blame or even (perhaps) most of it, but they surely should get some, especially since, as far as I can tell without being an expert in the field, they exploited and even exacerbated ethnic and religious divisions within the country as part of a "divide and conquer" strategy for maintaining their rule.
As to Ronald Hilton's travels through Africa, whether or not colonial Africa includes some countries that seemed, or even were, well-functioning to and for a European visitor doesn't have much bearing on how well they functioned for their peoples. In 1974, just after college, I traveled through Europe for 4 months with a college friend. Our 16 day Intourist tour of the Soviet Union was fairly well functioning and the parts of the country that intersected with us functioned well enough - but we did not assume that our experience reflected that of its people".
RH: Britain's departure from India was the result of a Labour victory. In the
US we may see a sharp change in US foreign policy if the Democrats win the presidency.
As for India, the British, far from dividing the subcontinent, united it. As
for the experience of the people under the old system. I visited Southern Rhodesia
when it was a peaceful, generally happy country without apartheid. Look at Zimbabwe
Christopher Jones writes: "The British should not be blamed for the bloodshed that occurred during partition, just as they shouldn't be blamed for partition at all. The entire process and its bloody consequences can be laid squarely at the door of Jinnah and the Congress (not the Mahatma.) I say it quite openly: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka would have been better off if they had remained colonies of Britain and their independence aborted. The Raj should never have been dismantled! A tragedy!!
Once it became clear that the colonial power was going to leave, the old pre-colonial rivalries and barbarisms surfaced from their colonial slumber. But Hank Greely leaves out one very important player in the "mess" made of decolonization -- the United States. If the Americans had not pressed for decolonization, many of those colonies would never have been decolonized or at least not in the way that it eventually and bloodily happened. In its zeal for world empire, the Americans had to eliminate these old European powers despite the threat from the Russians. Vietnam is a perfect case in point. It is said that the US was even personally encouraging Ho Chi Minh prior to 1945.
Regarding Africa: French West and Central Africa was for years an island of prosperity on the continent. Only after tribal bloodshed exploded in Sierra Leone and Liberia did it spillover into the old French communauté. The Ivory Coast was held together by Felix Houphouët de Boigny who also served as a minister in the French Fourth Republic in Paris. Unfortunately, the country became caught up in the generalized madness that swept over west Africa over the last decade or so. However, there can be no doubt that yet another superpower was interested to provoke downfall of the colonial system -- the Soviet Union. In almost every case, from Mugabe's Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe or the ANC or the FLN of Algeria, all were in the pay of the Russians. In many cases these outright communist movements were branded as terrorists echoing today's vocabulary and yet again, the US did not help its ideological friends".
Ronald Hilton -