Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Empires of Britain and the United States - Toying with Historical Analogy

One of the recurrent concepts in the study of history is that of the ‘natural cycle’, and its most enticing form is that of ‘collapse’. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Rise and Fall of Feudalism. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. All of these are, of course, ridiculous oversimplifications.

Arguably the evolution of the British Empire into a Commonwealth of 70-odd self-governing nations, many of them with stable democratic governments, who can all get together and play cricket and have Commonwealth Games (and impose sanctions and suspensions on undemocratic members): cannot be considered much of a ‘collapse’ when compared to say the Inca or Aztec civilisations. Nor can post Medieval Europe be considered a ‘collapsed’ version. Even Rome left a series of successor states across Europe – some successful and some not. (Though there was clearly a collapse of economics and general living standards in these successor states.) The fact that the Roman Empire survived in various forms both East – Byzantium – and west – Holy Roman Empire, Catholic Church, Christendom, etc – would also argue somewhat against total collapse. Still the idea has been popular with both publishers and readers.

Yet the ‘natural cycle’ theory has been revisited recently by economic historians in such appalling works on ‘Imperialism and Collapse’, as The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. [That’s the one where the Paul Kennedy explained how US power “has been declining relatively faster than Russia’s over the last few decades” (p.665) – just before the Berlin Wall came down.]

Personally I have great reservations about trying to make long-term arguments about inevitability from disparate facts about very different societies, but the game can provide some amusing pointers.

So let us compare the US imperial experience to its British model. A whimsical exercise in comparative dates.

England was colonised by the Norman Empire (a tribe that spread across France, Britain, Italy, and the Middle East can be referred to as an empire I believe), in 1066. After some initial fierce resistance, they settled well, integrated with the local economy, and started developing a more advanced economic society.

North America was colonised by the British Empire (and Spanish and French of course), in the sixteenth century. After some initial fierce resistance, they settled well, integrated with the local economy, and started developing a more advanced economic society.

Norman England spent the next few centuries gradually taking out its neighbours. Wales, Ireland, and eventually Scotland (though the fact that the Scottish King James I & VI actually inherited England confuses this concept a bit). The process was fairly violent.

The North American ‘English’ colonies spent the next few centuries taking out their neighbours. Indian tribes, Dutch, Spanish and French colonists, etc. The process was fairly violent.

England fought a number of wars over peripheral areas, particularly the Hundred Years war over claims to lands in France.

The North American Colonies enthusiastically joined (if not blatantly incited) the early world wars, with the desire of taking over nearby French and Spanish colonies

The English fought a civil war in the 1640’s to 50’s over the issue of how to share power between the executive government, the oligarchs, and the commons. It appears that the oligarchs incited the commons (which was not very common in those days anyway). It was extremely bloody, and those on the periphery – particularly the Scots and Irish - came out badly (and with a long term bad taste for their over mighty neighbour).

The Colonies fought their first civil war over the issue of how to share power between the executive, the oligarchs and the commons in the1770’s to 80’s. It is clear that the oligarchs incited the commons (who in the US were still not very common - every male except those Yellow, Red or Black. An improvement? Certainly not considering the theoretical philosophical base of the so-called Revolution!). It was not really so bloody, but those on the periphery – particularly the Indians and slaves (both of which were pro-British), and the Loyalists and Canadians – came out badly. (60-100,000 ‘citizens’ were expelled or forced to flee for being ‘loyalists’, let alone Indians and ex-slaves). Naturally the Canadians and their new refugee citizens developed a long term bad taste for their over mighty neighbour – who attempted to attack them at the drop of a hat thereafter.

The British spent the next century and a half accumulating bits of empire – the Dominions, the Crown Colonies, and the Protectorates - in a haphazard fashion. Usually, but not always, troops followed traders and settlers.

The United States spent the next century and a half accumulating bits of empire - conquests from the Indians, purchases from France and Russia, conquests from Mexico and Spain, annexations of places like Hawaii, etc – in a haphazard fashion. Usually, but not always, troops followed traders and settlers.

Let us pause and emphasise a point here. The above sounds a bit contemporary. It is not really. Britain had been in the business of direct conquest in the 16th and 17th century, but came more into treaty and association in the 18th and 19th century. The US was into direct conquest in the 19th and even 20th centuries – see wars with Spain and Mexico – and have come more into treaty and association since World War Two. Also the British have pretty much pulled out of the expanding Empire business. The US is still in full swing.

The British spent most of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries as the world’s policeman, responsible for keeping the peace, and for maintaining a balance of power. They were usually pilloried by all about them for this role, particularly by up and coming powers who wanted a ‘place in the sun’ - Germany and the United States being the stand out examples (though there is a lot of whinging from old allies like Russia). For the last half of that period, the British voter was having serious second thoughts about the whole concept.

The United States took on the mantle of world’s policeman in the post Second World War world. They have spent much of the last 60 years trying to keep the peace, and, interestingly, to maintain the balance of power. (Do not be fooled by the concept of the overwhelming superpower. Britain was a lot closer to being able to take on the rest of the world in the 19th century, when it really could defeat every other navy in the world combined; than the US is now, where it could perhaps face Iran, Russia and India simultaneously, as long as the European Union is friendly. Whoops, forgot China, the Balkans, Palestine, Syria, North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other little blips on the US horizon. Well let’s be honest, no one has ever been able to take on more than a few of the other powers simultaneously. NO one.)

For their troubles, they are usually pilloried by those all about them, particularly by up and coming powers who want their place ‘in the sun’ – the Soviet Union and China being the stand out examples. (Though there is a lot of whinging from old allies like France). For the last forty years (since Vietnam, and certainly since Gulf War One), there have been signs that the US voter is having serious second thoughts about the whole concept.

Britain was quite reluctant to take over later imperial dependencies, particularly leftover states of defeated Empires like Turkey, such as Iraq and Palestine: but also parts of Africa and Asia ‘of interest to no bugger’. They were never part of the British ideal of commercial empire, and were almost impossible to govern. They were abandoned as soon as possible.

The United States is currently experiencing the joys of taking over, or being responsible for unwanted bits of empire. Strangely the names Iraq and Palestine are occurring on that list, as well as Afghanistan and possibly other commitments to come. (The US has interfered in these areas far longer than Britain had before she was stuck with them). They cannot be considered part of a logical geopolitical empire (not even for oil conspiracy nuts), and will be abandoned as soon as possible.

The British voter responded to the world wars by wanting out of empire. Now. Some of the states thus ‘released’ were well-developed societies with decent infrastructure and good literacy and rule of law concepts. India, Malta, Ceylon, Bermuda and Singapore spring to mind. Others were abandoned prematurely: without literacy, rule of law, good infrastructure, a developed civil service, practice of voting, or any of the other minor necessities for establishing a democratic state. See any list of African dictatorships.

The US voter is responding to current events by wanting out of the Middle East ASAP. They are intent on abandoning states to ‘democracy’, regardless of a lack of literacy, rule of law, good infrastructure, a developed civil service, practice of voting, or any of the other minor necessities for establishing a democratic state. Whoops.

Britain suffered from an immense artificial economic high after the Napoleonic war. This left the British economy extremely artificially inflated for eighty years, and still well above its realistic weight in the world for another fifty (and only really brought back to the field by the immense economic losses of two world wars). In the last twenty years Britain has held a more realistic place in the world economy for its population and industrial level (though still relatively inflated by an immense backlog of prestige and sometimes reluctant respect.).

The US suffered from an immense artificial economic high after WWII. This left the US economy artificially inflated for the rest of the century, and still well above its realistic weight in the world to the present. (Whether the early 21st century economic downturn is as serious as it might be will not become evident for decades). Sometime in the next few decades, the US will probably return to a more realistic place in the world economy for its population and industrial level. (Minor variables like World War III may make this projection uncertain as to actual timing, but it will happen: simply because the US will not be able to largely sit out most of the next world wars and profiteer from everyone else’s ruin the way she could in the last two).

All these concepts are amusing. They imply a cycle of national maturity and development, which takes a certain time to process through. Note that the cases have not been affected as much by differing technological and philosophical worlds, as by where the nation is in its development. The only real sign of a modern world effect is that the US is moving through the stages a bit faster. Hooray for mass literacy within your society – presumably.

Does this convince you that someone should rush out and write a ‘natural cycles’ book with an inane title such as The Ebb and Flow of Great Power? I hope not. Amusing parallels in a limited case study hardly makes for convincing historical generalisations.

3 comments:

  1. I have enjoyed reading your blog very much, and I think you have some very interesting points to make, as well as a real talent for making them.

    However, I also think you have been less-than-fair in your analysis of American "intentions" over the last 75 years. While I understand that you intentionally employ hyperbole and sarcasm in an effort to initiate debate and comment, to suggest that the US intentionally "sat out most of the last two world wars and profiteered from everyone else's ruin" (I'm paraphrasing, of course) does no credit to your point, and belittles the efforts of hundred of thosuands of men who volunteered to risk their lives to protect not only American freedom, but the freedom of such allies as Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the millions of other poeple threatened by Imperial Japan's military expansion in the 30s and 40s.

    Nearly 10,000 Australians died fighting an enemy that couldn't rationally have been expected to threaten Australia itself, and they died on the other side of the planet (literally). I fail to see where the sacrifice they were so willing to make is any more real or honorable than the sacrifices accepted and made by Americans fighting in the south west Pacific theater.

    I certainly don't want to give the impression that I can't or won't see the point of your post, because I do see the point. I can even bring myself to agree with some of what you are saying in this post... American has failed to learn from the lessons of history far more often than she has gained by them, regardless of which historical example you care to compare her to.

    My point is simply that to point out the failings of a society (any society) should not negate the successes made by that society. Because the "words" of the US Constitution haven't been appreciated or universally applied for the vast majority of its history does not mean that it has no value as it is understood and applied today. Shouldn't it be even more appreciated today because it has lasted the 223 years since its inception, even though it WASN'T being followed literally each and every one of those years since?

    As an American myself, I understand and recognize the arrogance and pretentiousness of the typical American attitude of superiority, and I do not deny that I, myself, have fallen victim to the attitude in the past. The sense of national pride does still tend to grow out-of-proportion here in the States, I know... but what gives us Americans that over-blown sense of national pride is just as real and tangible in places like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and most of the European Union. It is a real and measurable understanding of individual freedom and self determination, whether in regards to the exercise of religious, political, economic or personal freedoms.

    Any number of yardsticks can be used to measure the success or failure of a particular society, but I have yet to find one more telling that that which measures the percentage of population that feels THEY control the manner in which they live their lives and the means by which they choose to live them. I do not think that there is any historical example of a society where that percentage is going to be higher than in our contemporary representaive democracies, of which both the US and Australia and the other Commonwealth Nations are all examples.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts and allowing me to comment and share mine. I look forward to visiting your blog in the future and reading more.

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  2. Agreed. I am pushing the envelope to make a point. Frankly though, I am not pushing it as hard as Americans pushed anti-Btitishness when they were jealous of British' hegemony'. British textbooks on US history are quite understanding about American continental imperialsim a century or two ago, whereas it is only since 9/11 that 'Noraid' (the subsidy of terrorism) has not been politically correct in much of the US.

    I suspect that if I was writing to a British audience in the pompous Victorian period where they felt they were God's gifts, I would be just as harsh as to a modern American audience...

    Perhaps I just like hitting pretension wherever I can get it?

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