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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis
January 2014

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The Anachronism of Empire
by Curtis F. Jones

Imperialism comes in two types—hegemonic and colonial.

Type I (hegemonic) confines itself to controlling the policies of its foreign subjects, who are regarded as just another natural resource—the labor to operate the government and work the plantations, mines, factories, and oil fields. The relationship can range from well-intentioned to malevolent. Many British officials felt empathy for their wards. The Belgian monarch’s guidance for the Congo may have been the most vicious.

But all hegemonic imperialism was exploitive. The British spoke of “the white man’s burden”, the French of “la mission civilizatrice”. The Americans told the Iraqis “we come as liberators”. Their subjects knew better. Even the most understanding imperialists have alien origins, hence alien agendas. In the choice of rulers, local incompetence is preferred to foreign expertise.

So hegemonic imperialism has a limited time to do its dividing and ruling. The Persians had a few years in ancient Greece, the Arabs 300 years in Spain, the Ottomans 400 years in Eastern Europe, the British 200 years in India, the Nazis five years in the Balkans and Russia. Eventually, all these invaders packed up and went home.

Colonial imperialism (Type II) is a far cry from hegemonic imperialism. Colonists are not looking to govern foreigners. They want the land, not the people.

Colonial imperialism also comes in two forms—inclusive and exclusive. Inclusivism of a sort was practiced by the Islamic conquest, which welcomed converts to Islam, and transformed most of the Middle East and North Africa into a homeland for speakers of Arabic and followers of Islam. The Caliphate discriminated against non-Muslims and charged them extra taxes, but didn’t persecute them. The Muslims saved their animus for doctrinal disputes among their variant sects. For Jews, medieval Islam was a refuge from persecution in Europe.

A better example of inclusivism may be Brazil, where the Portuguese started by colonizing and Christianizing, but ultimately produced an assimilated society.

Exclusivism favors one community over all the others. We saw an iniquitous example in Germany under Hitler. We see a more humane incarnation in Israel. Washington prevailed on the UNGA to exonerate Israel from the charge of racism, but questions remain to be answered: What is the accurate term for a community that discriminates against non-Jews, proclaims that Israel is a Jewish state, and bases a person’s claim to be Jewish on the status of the mother? On what basis does a devout Zionist, who is unobservant of Judaic doctrine, claim to be a Jew?

Turkish migrants from Central Asia transmuted Greek Orthodox Anatolia into Muslim Turkey. Paradoxically, their rejection of Kurds as a separate community reflects exclusivist sentiments, because it denies self-determination.

The United States was the initial product of consensual unification, but it took less time to annex 3.7 million square miles of North America than to evolve from exclusivism to inclusivism: African-Americans got the vote in 1870, by the 15th Amendment; another segregated community, women, got the vote in 1920. (The language of the 19th Amendment is unfortunate: “The right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied … on account of sex.”)

For colonizers, the original inhabitants are an inconvenience. America’s bloodstained conquests were facilitated by demographic advantage. Practice was not squared with democratic principle until 1924, when Native Americans finally became citizens.

Since 1948, the US has stumbled into another paradox. Washington subscribes to the theory that Israeli expansion into Occupied Palestine is illegal. Simultaneously, Washington has talked itself into the practice of bailing Israel out of financial stress or military crisis, whether Israel’s position is legal or not.

Israel’s two wars of independence—1948 and 1967—had dual objectives: annex the land; get rid of the people. At the present stage of international organization, survival overrides legality. Israel’s dual objectives are still in force, obstructed only by Palestinian demography and Middle Eastern geopolitics—not by the US or the UN.

What are the prospects? Let’s concede that hegemonic imperialism is expiring. The Europeans have already capitulated. The last surviving major practitioners of empire are China and the United States. The US is still playing fast and loose with security guarantees. On paper, we are committed to insure the security of at least 11 states in the Middle East, a region where the imperialists’ frontiers seem to be disintegrating. The American people cosigned those commitments without reading the fine print. Those signatures got us into five misbegotten military campaigns: against Lebanon in 1983, the Iranian navy in the 1980s, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and the Islamists now. But we see signs of backing away: withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, hesitancy toward Egypt and Syria, sensitivity to condemnation of Obama’s drone warfare— revealing growing awareness that no state, however super, can dictate political evolution. America’s network of foreign military bases may be obsolescent. If so, someone should clue in Washington. The Europeans showed us how to disengage from hegemonic over-commitment. Just shrug it off, at some cost to global image.

This brings us to colonial imperialism. One form—tribal resettlement, like the Turks’ trek from Central Asia to Anatolia – seems already extinct. The world is too full of people. The closest we come these days is the attritional re-colonization of the US by the individual enterprise of Latin American migrants.

There is another case of colonial imperialism that may be immune to the European solution. Europe gave up colonial imperialism 200 years ago (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), and it never went as far as our leaders did when they extended their guarantee of Israel’s security to include support for Israel’s defense policy. The Israelis have grasped the reality that their security requires a defensible border— a straight line down the Jordan River instead of a half-moon enclave. Politics trumps diplomacy. In the face of John Kerry’s implausible and inexplicable campaign to convert rump Palestine into a state, Israel— with no visible attenuation of American support—steadily pursues its more realistic campaign to extend its sovereignty from the sea to the river. (There is always the remote possibility that Obama and Kerry have lost hope, but feel a moral obligation to make their best effort, so that the electorate will comprehend the gravity of America’s predicament.)

Washington is also straining to comply with the public rejection of another war—against Iran’s Khamenei, Syria’s Bashar al Asad (who deserves it more), or anyone else. Most of us feel that World War II had to be fought. Some Israeli leaders feel the same about a second war against Iran. If we don’t need all those bases, maybe Israel does.

Washington intends to avoid war. With the mysterious outbreak of World War I in mind, we ask Washington: How do we insure that war avoids us?bluestar

 


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


author Curt Jones, a member of this journal's Board of Directors, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.


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