Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Empires on the go

When I was a boy in Australia, all our world maps showed the British Empire in red. It covered the world, pretty much; the sun never set on it. We felt lucky to be a part of it, and we 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.

A few years ago a well-travelled American friend of mine protested indignantly, “We don’t do empires”. He’s changed his mind, since. He could hardly not do. Today, the new Empire announces its presence with all the fanfare and arrogance of every past empire – the Roman, the Persian, the Mongol, the Turkish, the Spanish, the British, and so on. To outsiders, though,too many American citizens seem to be unaware of the historical context of their empire. 

From the time of the earliest foreign settlements in North America, the British and (later) Americans expanded their realms inexorably – sometimes in small increments, sometimes in large. 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 permission from the conquered.

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 empire by force of arms in 1898: Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico...

Since then, America’s expansion has followed the broad method of the European trading nations between the 16th and 20th Centuries, with businessmen and troops moving more or less in lock-step. The military occupation of the Middle East was predictable. It’s what the British did in India. Local satraps can’t be relied on to provide the raw materials necessary for the prosperity of the imperial homeland – not without the presence of imperial troops to remind them of their duties.

Brutality is a natural part of the reminding-process, and psychopaths are hired to do the reminding. Human-rights have no part to play in the administration of empires, and are pretty much a dead letter in any imperial context. 

Non-Americans have no excuse for not recognising this truth. 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 genocides of aboriginal peoples. Africa’s history is cluttered with similar savagery. 

Non-Americans in general are inclined to sympathize more with local resistance movements that pit themselves against foreign occupiers. We are more aware of history. The French civilians who resisted the German occupation were called terrorists. The local heroes who made the American Revolution were called terrorists by the British. Non-American politicians tend to condone their US colleagues’ use of terror-tactics to counter the resistance of the conquered – but not their constituents, in general.  

The bogey-man of worldwide Islamic terrorism is a conspiracy theory too far for most of us. We know that the entire Islamic community isn’t savage. Religious crusades are frowned on by most educated observers, today.

Nevertheless, we don’t doubt that the Oceania envisioned by George Orwell in “1984”, of America (and Israel, its Airstrip One), will endure for the foreseeable future – or at least as long as its currency can bear the expense. Empires’ lives are measured in centuries. There is nothing new under the sun.

This essay was originally posted a couple of years ago. Somehow, it has appeared again now, with the date 29 July 2015. I've no idea how this happened, and the Blogger website can't explain it. So... The content is still valid, but I do apologise for anybody irritated by the apparent double-post!