Imperial adventures around the globe
Outside, Looking In
by Gordon Barlow
When I was a boy in Australia, all our world maps showed the British Empire in red. It pretty much embraced the world; the sun never set on it; God was an Englishman. We were lucky to be a part of it, and rather pitied those nations that weren’t. It’s a measure of how narrow our world-view was that we had no notion that the American Empire was on the way up, and the British on the way down.
These days, the whole world is aware of the new empire on the block. It is no longer flying beneath the radar, but announces its presence with all the fanfare and pride that other empires did in their respective primes – the Roman, the Mongol, the Turkish, the Spanish, the French, the British, and so on. From here outside, it appears that few American citizens are aware of the historical context of their empire. A couple of years ago a well-traveled American friend of mine protested indignantly, “We don’t do empires,” and there seem to be plenty who still think that.
From the time of the earliest settlements in North America, the British and (later) Americans expanded their empires – sometimes in small increments, sometimes in large. The United States would have begun bigger if the 13 rebel territories had persuaded the rest of Britain’s American colonies to join the 1776 rebellion. The local governments of the Canadas and the several West Indian islands decided that their interests would be best served by remaining in the old empire.
The “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803 of nearly a million square miles was a false bill of goods, since the vendor didn’t own the territory, and the buyer knew it. What was bought and sold was the exclusive right to steal it from the people in possession. Well, that’s how empires expand; they don’t ask anybody’s permission.
The forced transfer of half of Mexico in 1848 – also nearly a million square miles – was the same kind of acquisition. So was the purchase of Russian America in 1867 – only half a million square miles, this time. Several of Spain’s overseas possessions were added to the burgeoning empire by force of arms in 1898; Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the most notable ones.
Since then, America’s expansion has mainly followed the broad method of the European trading nations between the 15th and 20th Centuries, with businessmen and troops moving more or less in lock-step. Occupying the Middle East was predictable, looking back. It’s what the British did in India. After all, local satraps can’t be relied on to protect the raw materials necessary for the prosperity of the home constituents.
We who live outside the US know probably better than most Americans the extent of the imperial brutality that is accompanying America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course we don’t condone it, and the notion of “human rights” is perhaps stronger with us than it is within the US, where the term “civil rights” resonates more. We rely on international treaties whereas Americans look to their Constitution.
But we are perhaps a little more able to put brutal occupations in perspective. Europe remembers the excesses of Germany and Russia; Asia remembers China’s Great Leap Forward, Japan’s invasions, and the more recent holocausts in Cambodia and Vietnam; Latin America remembers its local genocides. By current African standards, America’s sins are small beer. (Of course nuking Iran would put all those other memories in the shade. America’s friends all desperately hope the madmen don’t win that argument.)
Non-Americans in general are also inclined to empathize more with local resistance movements that pit themselves against foreign occupiers. We know that the people who made the American Revolution were called “terrorists” by the British; the French civilians who resisted the German occupation were also “terrorists.” We see terrorism from both sides of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Most foreign politicians accept their US colleagues’ obsession with terrorists and terrorism, but for lesser folk the terms are a bit of a turn-off. As for Islamic terrorism, well, that term might have more effect outside the US if it didn’t imply that the entire community of Islam is savage. Religious crusades are frowned on as anachronistic, by most educated outsiders.
All that said, there is no doubt at all that America (and Israel) will rule south-western Asia for the foreseeable future – or at least as long as the Western currencies can sustain the expense. The lands between the Mediterranean and the India-Pakistan border will be ruled the same way that Britain ruled its Indian Empire. The history of British India will be to a large degree the history of south-western Asia under America. The East India Company is already the model for Blackwater and Halliburton.
There is nothing new under the sun.