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Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The Phantom Empire

Nelson Ascher of EuroPundits brings us word of this Guardian piece by Marxist historian (or "historian", as Ascher would have it) Eric Hobsbawm. Oh, this is rich, ripe fruit.

I found something to object to in nearly every paragraph, and so have had to pare it down considerably, lest I end up reproducing the whole thing, which would be Fair Use, you know.

Sit down (er, which you probably are already), because there are many astonishing assertions here.

The present world situation is unprecedented. The great global empires of the past...bear little comparison with what we see today in the United States empire. A key novelty of the US imperial project is that all other empires knew that they were not the only ones, and none aimed at global domination. None believed themselves invulnerable, even if they believed themselves to be central to the world - as China did, or the Roman empire.

Well, it's hard to argue that the present world situation is not unprecedented, because it is. So he's right there. But he immediately begins to go off the rails with his implication that the US aims for global domination. And it's pretty clear that the US does not feel itself to be invulnerable, or else it would not have felt threatened enough to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

A global reach, which became possible after 1492, should not be confused with global domination.

Which, of course, Hobsbawm does throughout this entire article. But he assures you that he sees the quagmire, so you know that he will not step right into it. Pay no attention to that ooze lapping at his collar bone. That's not quicksand, no.

The British empire was the only one that really was global in a sense that it operated across the entire planet. But the differences are stark. The British empire at its peak administered one quarter of the globe's surface.

Whereas the US is "administering" (He makes it sound so nice! I would have thought ruling would be a more appropriate word) much less land than that. Er, in fact, very little at all.

The US has never actually practised colonialism, except briefly at the beginning of the 20th century. It operated instead with dependent and satellite states and developed a policy of armed intervention in these.

And those satellite states would be...? Well, aside from the Phillipines (which was our fling at colonialism), there's...uh... Well, there's Japan and Germany, in which we had "armed intervention", in that we defeated them in a war they started (rumor has it that other countries were involved in defeating them, but I wouldn't know much about that). Then there's South Korea (which would be my vote for sole significant "satellite state"), except that was UN action. And then there's our satellite states Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Vietnam. There is also, of course, a large chunk of Central and South America. I suppose Panama might be our satellite state.

Some empire we are. All these military interventions, and hardly any useful satellite states to show for it. I mean, they aren't nearly as useful to us as the Soviets' satellites were to them. I wonder how Hobsbawm felt about Soviet imperialism, by the way?

In fact the present US policy is more unpopular than the policy of any other US government has ever been, and probably than that of any other great power has ever been.

There's the sort of thing we like to see in our Marxists---complete disconnect from reality. More unpopular than Hitler? Than Stalin? Than Mao? Than---gasp!---Israel?

Here comes another broadside from a parallel universe:

The sudden emergence of a ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power is hard to understand, all the more so since it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies nor the interests of the US economy. But patently a public assertion of global supremacy by military force is what is in the minds of the people at present dominating policymaking in Washington.

Hello? September 11th? Remember that? Airplanes, terrorists, thousands dead in Manhattan? Ring any bells at all? Even if he thinks military action in Afghanistan was the wrong response to that; even if he thinks that Iraq is completely unrelated, and so its invasion was ill-advised, illegal, EEEEEvil---surely he has to realize that's what's behind this sudden spurt of "imperialism".To completely ignore these facts is to concede utter irrelevance.

In military terms, the Iraq war was successful. But it neglected the necessities of running the country, maintaining it, as the British did in the classic colonial model of India.

This paragraph is shocking for more than one reason. Firstly, the Iraq war is barely over (having barely begun, of course). I think it's a bit early to decide that the US has "neglected the necessities of running the country"---in essence, lost the peace. This would be an unremarkable bit of disingenuity for a mere pundit---for a Fisk or a Pilger or a Monbiot. But Hobsbawm's supposed to be a historian, and at least a competent one. You'd think a historian would have a better grasp of timescales, and how much time is required to help a country recover from three decades of misrule.

The other, more shocking thing is that apparently Hobsbawm is comparing the British rule of India favorably with the American occupation of Iraq. Presumably Hobsbawm would be happier if we treated Iraq as an outright colony. Behold---a Marxist approves of imperialism, and it's not even Soviet imperialism!
More shocks ahead:

Iraq was a country that had been defeated by the Americans and refused to lie down. It happened to have oil, but the war was really an exercise in showing international power.

Did you see that?! It's NOT all about the oooiiillll. I'm stunned that Hobsbawm rejects this beloved theory, and the only explanation I can see is that he's determined to be unfashionable. If all those third-rate minds are convinced of it, I can hear him thinking, it must be wrong.

But, really, "an exercise in showing international power"? Bush looked around, said, "Hmmm...we have to show our power somehow," and decided to invade Iraq?

Apparently so:

In real terms they mean that the US can invade anybody small enough and where they can win quickly enough. The consequences of this for the US are going to be very dangerous.

I've seen this in any number of punditry venues, and I always wonder how literally the authors take it. The US "can invade anybody small enough and where they can win quickly enough". Well, it can, but will it? Will it invade Belize? Burma? Bolivia? Burkina Faso? Does Hobsbawm fret that the US might invade Saudi Arabia or Indonesia? France? Canada? What would be the point?

Domestically, the real danger for a country that aims at world control is militarisation.

No, domestically the real danger is that the public will get sick and tired of paying for war and the upkeep of conquered countries, and elect someone new to office.

Internationally, the danger is the destabilising of the world. The Middle East is far more unstable now than it was five years ago. US policy weakens all the alternative arrangements, formal and informal, for keeping order.

Hobsbawm must belong to that new political party, Revolutionaries for the Status Quo.

In Europe it has wrecked Nato - not much of a loss, but trying to turn it into a world military police force for the US is a travesty. It has deliberately sabotaged the EU, and also aims at ruining another of the great world achievements since 1945: prosperous democratic social welfare states. The crisis over the United Nations is less of a drama than it appears since the UN has never been able to do more than operate marginally because of its dependence on the security council and the US veto.

Wrecked NATO---if I recall, the major (or sole) objections to NATO involvement were the French, who did not want to do so much as protect Turkey. I don't think that NATO should have been involved in Iraq (or Bosnia or Kosovo), but protection of Turkey is clearly within NATO's avowed purpose. Seems to me the French have wrecked NATO, if it is wrecked.

Sabotaged the EU---Er, how? By asking Eastern European countries for help directly rather than going through the Fr---I mean, Brussels?

Ruining "prosperous democratic social welfare states"---er, huh? Maybe we're ruining them by taking on their burden of defense, thereby allowing them to grow ever more bloated. Unless he just means the Soviet Union.

And apparently the UN was never hampered by a British, French, Chinese, or Soviet veto---only an American one.

How is the world to confront - contain - the US? Some people, believing that they have not the power to confront the US, prefer to join it. More dangerous are those who hate the ideology behind the Pentagon...

...which is...what? We are not to know.

...but support the US project on the grounds that it will eliminate some local and regional injustices. This may be called an imperialism of human rights...There is a genuine case to be made that there are governments so bad that their disappearance will be a net gain for the world.

Be sure and read Oliver Kamm's response to that. Snork.

But this can never justify the danger of creating a world power that is not interested in a world it does not understand, but is capable of intervening decisively with armed force whenever anybody does anything that Washington does not like.

First, to say that the US does not "understand" the world would be to suggest that somebody, somewhere, does.

Secondly, think of all the countries which have done "anything" Washington didn't like. Think of how many of them remain unbombed (by us) since Bush became President. Maybe it'd be easier to make a list of those we have bombed.

How long the present superiority of the Americans lasts is impossible to say. The only thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that historically it will be a temporary phenomenon, as all other empires have been.

In the interests of fairness, I'll note he's correct about this.

The weakness of the US economy is such that at some stage both the US government and electors will decide that it is much more important to concentrate on the economy than to carry on with foreign military adventures.

Indeed, as I mentioned above. However this would be true whatever the state of the economy. I don't believe the economy is particularly weak by historical standards, but only by the standards of the tech bubble of a few years back---another thing a historian might've known.

And Bush's existing international policy is not a particularly rational one for US imperial interests - and certainly not for the interests of US capitalism. Hence the divisions of opinion within the US government.

Ah, yes---the famous squabbling of the Bush administration.

But the major preoccupation is that of - if not containing - educating or re-educating the US. There was a time when the US empire recognised limitations, or at least the desirability of behaving as though it had limitations. This was largely because the US was afraid of somebody else: the Soviet Union. In the absence of this kind of fear, enlightened self-interest and education have to take over.

That first sentence is not only not a sentence, but it doesn't tell us for whom this is "the major preoccupation". For Hobsbawm, presumably. However, having failed to note (or notice) any reason for this recent American "imperialism", he also must fail at demonstrating what sort of "education" is now lacking.

This next bit tells all:

This is an extract of an article edited by Victoria Brittain and published in Le Monde diplomatique's June English language edition.

I must say that this is very much in keeping with the flavor of other Le Monde articles I've read, whether translated into English by other bloggers, or (with great difficulty and heavy assist from Babelfish) in French. They tend to be densely constructed on a foundation of air, propped up here and there by cryptic (often irrelevant) assertions, and decorated with hyperbole. How they manage to keep from crashing under the weight of their absurdities, right there on the page, is a mystery to me.

Truly, it concerns me that this represents the best of our supposed intellectual and cultural betters.