Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Tragedy of US Independence?

Matthew Yglesias renews his call (I believe this is year 3) for Americans to regret their independence. Hell, I'm not even American (-born, at least) and I think he's made a lousy argument.

(Consider the following an argument about duelling counterfactuals, and take it or leave it as you will.)
The issues at stake were eminently compromisable, had wiser leadership been available, and the examples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (to some extent) South Africa indicate that having lost the USA the British government was able to come up with a perfectly workable alternative system of imperial management. And wouldn't it have been better if the USA-British relationship had evolved along the Canadian model?
Some problems: Canadian "independence" was really a development of WWI. Canada and South Africa demanded and got (over French and American objections) their own seats at Versailles, and would later demand formal independence from London. This has implications for Matt's second point:
Consider that Canada and the other dominions entered the world wars at the same time as Britain rather than on the USA's leisurely pace. If we'd gotten into World War II in 1939 rather than 1941 the war, presumably, have been considerably shorter and many lives could have been saved. Even better would be if American entry into World War I in 1914 rather than 1917 could have brought about German defeat fast enough to prevent the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. If that had turned out differently, the world would have turned out to be a much, much, much better place.
It's kind of weird to assume there'd even have been a WWI if the British Empire included early 20th century America. What nation would be so suicidal to attack an Empire like that?

Still, if you assume that a US-UK empire entered the war against Germany, the question is the aftermath. I think Matt's being overly optimistic when he says the Russian Revolution could have been avoided. The Communists nearly took over in 1905, with far less stress to the Czarist system. Lenin was well-organized and willing to get bloody to take power. Who knows - maybe a Russian victory would have caused the Czar to relax, allowing the Bolsheviks to move in? You see the problems with alternate history.

There's a more salient problem with this, and Ezra's got it, I think, 100% right:
The American Revolution was a structural affair, not an ideological one. A big, rich, geographically protected nation that could foresee its future growth picked a reason to revolt. But given our reaction towards violent insurrections elsewhere, and our acceptance of taxation-without-representation here, it's clear that we simply believed America should enjoy autonomy rather than that the Brits were actually oppressive.
There's an added element - that American exceptionalism is a very old idea indeed, and played a role in the revolution. It's hard to see how the revolution could have been avoided without somehow getting Americans to a) stop seeing themselves as Americans, and b) stop seeing that as something chosen by God for Destiny.

The funny thing is, I know Matt's read John Judis' The Folly of Empire which goes over this ground pretty thoroughly.

Finally, there's the simple fact that no, I don't think an Anglo-American Empire would have been a good thing for world history. We've started to romanticize the British Empire, and that betrays a staggering historical ignorance. The British didn't build an empire out of Earl Grey tea. They built it out of conquest. Adding the might of America to that conquest would have made history more bloody, more dominated, and the resulting power would have, I think, been more dictatorial, not less. The answer to the worlds problems is not a stronger empire - we tried that, and got two world wars.

It's really a weird argument: We know the costs of strong empires - the early half of the 20th century should have taught us that. Why would we think the problem with imperialism was that one of the players (already the hegemon of the time) wasn't strong enough? Matt is longing for a power that had the might of America without the current legitimacy issues Bush's republic has. But before there was anti-Americanism, there was a strong current of anti-Britishism too. And just as the Americans today have earned their opprobrium, the British earned theirs. I'm not saying this is the best of all possible worlds, but history does unfold for understandable reasons.

1 comment:

Ronald Brak said...

In 1776 there was no strong evidence Britian would become more democratic. It was not unreasonable for the colonists to think they would perhaps always be at the beck and call of autocratic kings and queens. However I do believe everyone would have been much better off if somehow a more peaceful way had been found for the colonies to gain autonomy/independance.