Monday, June 12, 2006

Imperial Pathologies

I've been quiet today, largely because after reading this post by Matthew Yglesias, I got very confused. (Also, errands.) On the matter of brobdignagian US defense spending:
The question then becomes what we're really accomplishing for all that. Since we're the richest country, and have a large population to boot, it makes perfect sense for us to spend the most -- we can afford it. But what's being achieved by spending the most by such a huge margin?
He then links to someone who links to this report by the CATO institute, amusingly titled "$400 Billion Defense Budget Unnecessary to Fight War on Terrorism". I expect the following documents from the CATO institute in the future: ".50 cal Machine Gun Unnecessary to Hunt Quail", or possibly "50-megaton Warhead Unnecessary in Luxembourg Trade Negotiations".

If you were American you might indeed ask what America gets for all the money it spends on Defense. This, of course, presupposes that American defense spending has anything to do with defending America anymore. What, pray tell, is the defensive purpose of the B2 bomber? Or any one of America's 12 Carrier groups? Or any one of the over 500 foreign military bases that America maintains around the globe?

The answer is of course nothing, unless you seriously think Uzbekistan is going to launch a sneak attack on Wyoming unless the Americans are in Kyrgistan. Well, we do have to fight them over there so we don't fight them over here, or so says the President.

What America gets for its elephantine war budget is exactly what you think it gets - unchallenged hegemony over the world, backed by unparalleled military might. America spends more than any five powers combined for the same reason the British Empire maintained a Navy that was equal to any two competitors combined - because that's what you need for empire. What's amusing is that anyone pretends that this state of affairs is somehow different from when the British, or French, or Romans, or Greeks did it.

I hope we aren't all labouring under the impression that an Empire requires jack-booted stormtroopers putting Emperor Palpatine on the throne. The Athenians ran one of the world's earliest empires, and did it with the most democratic constitution then existing. They simply maintained a double-standard that endured for decades: Athens was a democracy, and members of Athens' empire could be democracies, so long as they agreed with Athens. If not, well, ask the people of Melos - the ones who weren't enslaved by the Athenians for trying to remain neutral in the war.

Get that? It wasn't enough that Melos not take up arms with Athens' enemies: To the Athenians of the day, if you weren't a formal ally, you were an enemy to be destroyed. You were either for Athens or against Athens. Not that I think this is relevant or anything.

Rome did quite well as a Republic and still conquered huge swaths of the known world. (Ironically, the last Greek Empire - remnants of Alexander of Macedon's - was conquered by the Roman Republic.) Indeed, the formally-declared Empire really just added a bit more of North Africa, some of England, and Turkey to the corpus built up by the Republic. The conduct of France throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was almost exclusively imperial, regardless of the form of government - Republican or Monarchy. Imperialism, in short, has no politics.

Empires always have incredibly selfless reasons for their conduct. The Athenians maintained their empire to protect Greece from the Persians, long after the Persian threat passed. The Romans were always defending themselves. Incredibly, Julius Caesar was defending Rome across the English Channel. Similarly, Napoleon claimed to be defending France - as he was entering the burning ruins of Moscow.

Alternately, some will say that Empires kind of spring up by accident - something the British have claimed for their time in the sun. Oops, we conquered India. You know how these things are. And then, before we knew it, we'd gone and conquered Egypt. Oh, and you can hardly blame us for South Africa. We were protecting the human rights of the South Africans. See how well that worked out?

(We'll not be so rude as to bring up the Opium Wars. Bad form, I say!)

The Americans, for their part, largely explain their empire as a reaction to Soviet aggression. Even granting that, it doesn't explain what 30,000 soldiers are still doing in Germany, nor does it explain why the borders of NATO keep moving closer towards Russia. It certainly doesn't explain why there are 50,000 soldiers in Japan, which can defend itself quite well, thank you.

Of course, the American Empire is older than NATO, and older than World War II. There's an unbroken ideological line from the pilgrims disembarking from the Mayflower, the first Indian Wars, Manifest Destiny, the War of 1812, the drive to the west, and the eventual invasions of Hawaii and later the Phillipines. A question: If American expansion began after World War II, why was there an American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in 1941?

(Canadians have practised our own imperialism, lest anyone think I'm being one-sided. Just ask our First Nations how multilateral we were with them. But nobody cares about Canada's imperialism anyway. Certainly, people aren't dying in Iraq because of disagreements with the Nisgaa.)

If you think I'm being simplistic, you'll at least grant that the formation of the American Anti-Imperialist League - in 1898 - would seem to indicate that American imperialism existed before the Bolsheviks took power. Either that, or Mark Twain is a moron. And nobody calls Mark Twain a moron.

The inhabitants of Central and South America would find the idea that America was "isolationist" in the early years of the 20th century bizarre, to say the least. The repeated invasions of what would later be called Banana Republics - not to mention the creation of the country of Panama - were all undertaken on behalf of US commercial interests. The occupation of Haiti in 1915 lasted until 1934.

Of course, it would be unfair to list America's foreign adventures without noting that yes, America was crucial in the defeat of fascism and protecting large parts of Europe from Soviet rule afterwards. But it would be wrong to say that America's interests were in the world's interests, or that there is any symmetry there whatsoever. America's interests were America's and nobody else's. America - as a state, not its people - didn't particularly care whether Spain, Greece, or Turkey were democratic or not, so long as they were in NATO and not the Warsaw Pact. This alone should, I hope, dissuade anyone of the idea that America was out to protect Democracy. If that doesn't, the number of times America undermined or eliminated democracies in favour of pro-Washington autocracies should be.

Once again: You can be a democracy, so long as you agree with Athens. Or Rome. Or Paris. Or London. Or Washington.

One of the silliest ideas is that anyone - including Canada or the United Kingdom - has a "special relationship" with the United States. When Britain's interests were in line with America - like with the downfall of Mossadegh in Iran - America was happy to help. When Britain overstepped its bounds - like during the Suez Crisis - America was quick to slap it down. Tony Eden learned the hard way that he couldn't count on Washington, even though Washington expected London's obedience. You'd think this lesson would have stuck with the British foreign service, but somehow the myth of the "special relationship" endures.

(Interesting historical note: Britain's greatest ally in the war against Argentina? France, who provided crucial intelligence on defeating the Exocet missile.)

Finally, after the empire has been built, the imperialists argue that it's dangerous to not have an empire - after all, somebody else could fill the power vacuum. This has been the position of the United States since the end of the Cold War, throughout the Clinton years (when Madeleine Albright called the US the "indispensable nation", this is what she meant) and in to the Bush years. Once again, we can see echoes of empires past. Pericles, during the war he'd started with Sparta, argued that however Athens had acquired its empire, Athens could not now give it up without losing everything.

The problem with being an empire is simple: Big rewards come with big risks, and the rewards for the Americans have been huge. Nobody knows the risks that come with empire like the imperialists themselves, which makes them paranoid as all hell. This is why England and France nearly went to war over some misbegotten malarial village like Fashoda in 1898. It's why Europe collectively immolated itself in 1914-18. It's why America got bogged down in Vietnam. And it's why the Pentagon compares countries who try to work through the UN or the International Criminal Court to terrorists.

None of this is to say that Americans are bad people - far from it. But as citizens of the empire (as opposed to it's subjects) they are allowed an immense ignorance about the actions of their government. Nothing was quite so weird as hearing Americans plead, "why do they hate us?" in the days after 9/11. And even the better-educated ones - like Matthew Yglesias, Harvard graduate - seem to be fundamentally unaware as to what America does, and why it does it.

Once again, so no one confuses my point: There is a fundamental difference between the predations of the American state and the virtues of the American people. The former has been building an empire for more than a century now, and has been opposed by right-thinking people at every imperial turn. The latter have largely gone about their business, occasionally sacrificed much for their brothers and sisters across the seas, and should (mostly) take pride in building a nation that - even without its empire - would be the envy of all the emperors and tin-pot gods in the long, sad history of emperors and tin-pot gods.

All that said, I'm beginning to think that America got in to the global-empire business a bit too late. But that's for another post.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, perhaps because I agree with most of it. I wouldn't be so quick as to say what MY understands or doesn't. He certainly seems to be consistent in criticizing some of the symptoms and byproducts of Imperialism.

There is a political question as to how to successfully counter American Imperialism. Americans, like maybe the British, don't like to be called Imperialists. Many liberals, as opposed to the left, might say that a rhetoric of Imperialism will be ineffective against American Exceptionalism, and yjay Imperialism can best be weakened by removing its tools, like defense spending.

There are a very few, like me, that think Imperialism and Exceptionalism are irradicable parts of the American character, and the best well-intentioned people can do is to create the kindliest, gentlest Rome possible.
But again, this would not be a useful public rhetoric.

Bob McManus

macadavy said...

One could argue that American imperialism began very early indeed, with the invasion of Canada in 1775, during the Revoluntionary War.
As for massive defence spending: war may be unhealthy for children and other living things - but it is good for business! Just ask Haliburton and the Carlisle Group.