Saturday, March 12, 2011

Do stable states need imperial roots?

Although humans make a lot about the intricacies of government, and are very proud of their different styles of government, in actual fact there have only been a very limited selection of basic styles of government for humans to choose from. Really there are only those recognized by Machiavelli as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, (or their evil twins dictatorship, oligarchy and ‘licentiousness’), but there are many forms that these types can take.

Monarchy for instance is a possible long term solution for a citystate, an independent country, a confederation of states, or a great empire. Aristocracy will work almost as well for most of these, at least for the medium term. Democracy, has proved a bit more limited, and has historically been for much shorter terms.

Citystate’s have always been with us. Many of the ancient empires of the Middle East were in fact single city states with large hinterlands, or a loose confederation’s of city states. The most famous example being ancient Greece. Medieval city states included not just those on the Italian peninsula like Venice and Florence, but scattered bodies through the Holy Roman Empire and along the North Atlantic and Baltic coasts. Early modern citystate’s then spread to the Americas, with most modern American East Coast states growing out of the system. In more recent times Hong Kong and Singapore have been ideal city states, and several developing Middle Eastern Emirates are headed in the same direction.You will notice that some of these, now as then, are monarchies, some aristocracy’s or oligarchy’s, and some democracies (at least in theory).

The more standard states, which are usually a collection of coherent provinces and with a number cities and rural areas connected within a single boundary, are the default system in human history. Again, such states ranged from ancient Egypt, through medieval France, to modern Botswana.

Having said that such states are the default system, it is noticeable that their incorporation within empires has been amazingly common. Egypt within the various ‘Egyptian’ (actually a series of different tribal powers), Alexandrian, Roman, Arab, Turkish and British Empires; France within the Carolingian, Plantagenet, Bourbon, Napoleonic and French empires; and Botswana within various African confederations before the British Empire. Indeed it could be suggested that such states do not actually become nations until they have been, or have been affected by, an imperial system. Medieval France is the classic example here, because its disparate territories could only be considered a nation once combined under the Imperial pretensions of various monarchs or autocrats. Men like Charlemagne, Richelieu, Loius the 14th, and the Napoleons (I & III) were amongst those who had the most profound effect on the development of the idea of France as an actual nation rather than as a collection of feuding principalities.

The United States for instance is entirely a product of empire. The various colonies were established by various empires, and their eventual consolidation under the British crown was as a result of imperial wars. (Indeed the 7 Years War was pretty much forced on Britain and France and Spain by the American colonists in pursuit of exactly this result.) The later revolting Northern states were both demanding their traditional rights as Englishmen to a say in their own affairs, and rebelling against the central powers treaties with the Indian nations that would have limited their expansionism. (The Southern states joined what could be considered a second round of the English civil war more because British law was clearly heading down an anti-slavery path than for any other reason. Which was amusingly the same reason for the third round of the English Civil War/ second round of Wars of Independence, sometimes called the Confederacy War of Independance – note that the categories of Cavaliers, romantic but wrong, and Roundheads, repulsive but right, still applied to the two sides.)

Actually the trigger for the American Civil War was the imperial expansion into Indian or French or Spanish territory that led to the creation of so many new states which threatened the balance of power in the federal senate. After this minor bump in the road, imperial expansion raced even faster, with wars against Mexico and conquest of overseas possesssions in the Carribbean, Pacific and Asia all part of the plan. It is interesting to wonder if the United States as they currently interract with the world would remotely resemble the Federation of Independant American States that would have developed had these imperial pretensions not fundamentally changed the shape of their culture.

The same can be said for several other supposedly ‘post colonial’ states of the modern world. Red China is an imperial power. This is a simple statement, even just looking at their attitude and behaviour to various subject groups within the confines of the traditional Chinese Empire, let alone their occupation of Tibet. Their attitudes to spreading their influence in Africa and sabre rattling in the Pacific are also earily similar to American efforts a century or so earlier. (Taiwan for instance might well expect to have a major Chinese warship unexpectedly sink nearby as an excuse for war, in a way that would be familiar to residents of Havana at the time the US battleship Maine went down in 1898.)

India is another imperial power. This started with the extraordinary decision by a supposedly pro self-determination new state to greedily accept a, literally violently anti-integration, Kashmir. It is followed by the ‘nationalisation’ of the many principalities guaranteed a place within the original constituition within a few years. For the last twenty years it has been developing its naval power with the stated intention of making the Indian Ocean literally that. Various ministers and admirals have quietly commented that they are now willing to play a part in the internal affairs of their ‘near neighbours’… such as Malaysia, Kenya and South Africa…

In fact it could be argued that an imperial phase in the development of any state is the norm… if that state is actually likely to maintain its independence for more than a few decades.

In practical terms there are few examples in history of city states or small states being left alone long enough to gain secure independence unless they develop the ruthless use of power necessary to guarantee their own security. Look at the Italian city states of the Rennaissance for the best examples, but remember that every great empire in history started as a tribe or sitystate somewhere (The exceptions to this are tiny statelets like Andora and Monarco, that live on sufferance, and because they are no threat to anyone.)

Many new independent states have been set up in the modern age of idealism about self determination, but few have so far lasted as much as 50 years. Most small states set up by fiat of the great powers at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, or World War One, or World War Two, were usually incorporated under other imperial powers within decades. (Despite the so called security supposedly guaranteed by the fanciful League of Nations which failed so dismally… what we now call the UN.) Many post Second World War states have become parts of bigger states – the Baltic, Malayan and Indian states being good examples – and it is exceedingly likely that many of the post Soviet states are either going to be re-incorporated in the Russian Empire, or be subsumed into regional affiliations for mutual security/control. The artificial colonial divisions in Africa are also starting to come apart, and it is virtually inevitable that the splits between Muslim north and Christian/Animist south that are already developing in some countries (see the recent independence vote for South Sudan) will end in new federations bearing little similarity to the colonial drafts.

There is not a state in the world today that is not a product of the interraction of empire. Most are actually the product of imperial borders, and their stability depends on whether the habits of those borders are ingrained or not. (See South America for ‘ mostly stable’, and Africa for ‘mostly unstable’.) Nor are there many states, other than some complete backwaters of no interest to others, that could be considered stable contenders for long term survivial, that have not undergone some version of their own phase of power politics along the lines that would usually be considered ‘imperialism’. (The most obviously violent examples being China, India, Russia and anything approaching a power in the Middle East or North Africa.) There are many states that do not fit these categories, but that is almost a synonym for saying that there are many states whose long term future looks doubtful. The most stable small independent states for instance – the apparently secure ex-British Imperial colonies of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei etc – are nervously facing negotiating with their neighbours for mutual defence pacts against the stirrings of imperial China.

Imperialism is the default condition of human history. Interaction of imperialism is the default foundation of states. States that want to survive play the imperial game, and those that want to thrive play it well. States that don’t play either rely on the sufferance of the real powers, or become short lived footnotes in history. Frankly, despite our fantasies about Leagues of Nations/United Nations providing security, the vast majority of the states granted independence since 1945 are either lining up for playing the imperial game, or for extinction.


  1. Where you say 'Punjab' I believe you mean Kashmir.

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