Friday, 6 June 2008

The US Empire Expands - 19th Century Imperialism Lives On

Just when I thought we were beginning to witness a bit of maturity in US politics with the primaries for the Democratic candidate which seemed to suggest parts of the American public were putting aside some of the bigotry and narrow-minded attitudes that they have become renowned for, suddenly we find that with the last gasp of his regime George Bush is busily expanding the American empire. Of course the Americans have never liked to be categorised as imperialists because they feel they were the first nation to throw off imperial rule when they defeated the British in the American War of Independence. However, they were really no different from Japan which came from at least a degree of imperial control in the mid-19th century to begin carving out their own empire in China and elsewhere in East Asia. Of course a lot of people assume that imperialism is all about colonies with the country being totally controlled by the imperial power and settlement by that power. The old empires like the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese did this across the world, but what people forget is that there are many forms of imperialism and it is some of these other forms that the USA carried out and is still, it seems carrying out today. Of course the USA still has clear imperial control over Guam in the Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean as those countries have their laws made in Washington, but the empire is expanding elsewhere in less controlling forms.

Before looking at different forms of imperialism, it is important to note one issue that I will come back to later that tends to be common to anywhere which is coming under any form of imperial control, that is 'extraterritoriality' which means that if you are from the imperial power or one of its friends, then you are immune to local laws no matter what you do in the country. This applies to all diplomats, but when there is imperialism going on it is extended to soldiers, business people and so on. This is always controversial as it means that people from the imperial state can commit what would be seen as crimes and get away with it or only be punished by the rules of their home country. Having extraterritoriality removed was a goal of Chinese nationalists and Communists right through the first half of the 20th century.

Imperialism breaks first of all into 'informal' and 'formal' imperialism. Informal imperialism is effectively economic dominance of a country and this was what tended to happen to developed societies in the 19th century for example in China, the Ottoman Empire and South America where states had shaken formal imperialism of Spain and Portugal by the 1820s only to come under informal imperialism from Britain and the USA. Informal imperialism is very common nowadays. Developing countries have their economies distorted so that they provide the resources that the Western world needs at cheap prices. Once it was things like fruit, sugar and coffee, increasingly it is becoming bio-fuels. Until they asserted their autonomy in the 1950s-70s even the rich oil countries of the Middle East were under such control. Interestingly like the Japanese 150 years ago, the Chinese are now turning from exploited to exploiters and carrying out informal imperialism not only in Africa but also Australia and Canada. The advantage of informal imperialism is that it is pretty cheap and does not look like imperialism, but this was the form that the British and the Dutch East India Companies began with in the 18th century in India and Indonesia, only later did it become more formal, state-run imperialism. The USA was carrying out informal imperialism in Central and South America from the 1820s onwards and moved into East Asia during the Cold War. Alongside states it ran informally there were ones like Cuba, Panama and the Philippines which it controlled more formally. In China whilst none of the colonial powers conquered the whole country in the 19th century they did rule directly over small areas or particular cities, especially the treaty ports, where their law rather than that of China prevailed.

Formal imperialism is when a country takes over the other country and runs its economy and foreign policy, though as I discuss below this may leave a lot of autonomy in the hands of local elites. There are various grades of formal imperialism.

Spheres of influence: with these you are not far away from informal imperialism. An example was Persia (now Iraq) in the 19th century and up to the end of the Second World War. Neither Russia/USSR or the UK actually took control of Persia but it was accepted that the Russians would be dominant in the North and the British in the South; Russian and British companies would be the ones getting all the contracts and in the case of trouble it would be the Russian or British who would intervene in their respective areas. To some extent the French still have this kind of relationship with much of West Africa and the French military intervenes if there is unrest. The British do this on a smaller scale, as with former colony, Sierra Leone. It is argued that during the Cold War Western Europe was effectively the US sphere of influence and Eastern Europe much more clearly the Soviet sphere of influence.

Dominions: this is a very British mode of imperialism and is often a legacy of tighter control. It is for countries like New Zealand, Australia and Canada, that were heavily settled by Europeans so that the indigenous cultures almost disappeared and they are now considered 'White' countries. These states though independent in domestic and foreign policy retain the British monarch as their head of state rather than having their own president and they refer

Dependent Territories: these can be defined differently and have a particular technical meaning when talking about the UK. These are countries, often small ones, which effectively cannot subsist without the economic input of the imperial power. They run their own affairs but are heavily dependent on trade with the imperial power and may be compelled to be guided on things like defence and foreign policy. They may also provide military bases for the imperial power. Ironically this is what Cuba had become for the USA before Fidel Castro pulled off the revolution in 1958 and even then the US base at Guantanamo Bay remains a legacy of that imperial relationship that even Castro could not remove.

Protectorates: this was a common form of imperial rule over much of the British and other European empires in the 19th century, notably the Netherlands over Indonesia. It is not as expensive as a full blown colonisation and in theory the protectorate enters into an agreement for protection though in reality it was generally forced. Some people use the supposed voluntary entry into being a protectorate to compare that form of imperialism positively compared to the formation of 'Mandates' by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War which was imposed on these countries when they were removed from control of Germany and allocated to other colonial powers. However, the treatment was much the same in both cases. What distinguishes protectorates and mandates from colonies is that local rulers stay in control, though they have to deal economically with the imperial power like dependent territories and have their defence and foreign policy and often many other policies determined by the imperial state. Large areas of India such as Mysore, Hyderabad, the Rajput States and Baluchistan (now inPakistan) were such protectorates, under local princes rather than direct British control like the rest of India.

Colonies: in the British Empire these became 'Crown Colonies' to designate that control moved from the hands of companies, notably the East India Company which lost control of its parts of India in 1858 and they were run by the British government. The Belgian and German governments were also obliged to take over colonies started by companies in Africa in the late 19th century as it proved impossible for anything less than a state to run colonies. As the name suggests, the aim was generally for settlers from the home country to colonise the imperial territory. This generally happened far less than was expected as people preferred to emigrate to the Americas. However, there were notable exceptions such as South Africa, Kenya, French Indochina and especially Algeria, where by the time of independence 1 out of 9 of the population was European. In colonies the imperial power ran everything replacing government of the country by governors and the military and large chunks of the economy came under direct control of the imperial state. In extreme cases, as with Algeria for France, the colony effectively became part of the metropolitan country; in 1945, 12% of the members of parliament sitting in Paris were elected from the colonies. Other countries did not engage so closely with their colonies, though there were discussions in the 1950s about Malta returning MPs to parliament in London.

Right, so with terms established, why do I think the American Empire is expanding. Well, we all know, as I was predicting last year, that it is in Iraq. This is a country which was under the Ottoman Empire until 1918 but the Germans were attempting informal imperialism there in the 1900s. After 1918 it became a mandate of the British until gaining seemingly gaining independence in 1945 when it became a full member of the United Nations. The British had re-invaded the country in 1941 to suppress uprisings and presumably fearful of the country's oil falling into German hands. As we know the USA invaded Iraq in 1991 following its recapture of Kuwait (a state Iraq had claimed sovereignty over as early as 1961) and then again in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It appeared that there were steps to Iraq again becoming independent, but it seems that it is not the level of independence it had up until 2003. Bush is negotiating for the USA not to just have a single military base in Iraq but 50 bases across the country. In addition US troops would have extraterritoriality but not simply to go about their business but to carry out arrests and military activities without referring to any Iraqi government. This is the kind of power Austria-Hungary asked Serbia to give in July 1914 and the Japanese demanded of China in 1937 which in both cases led to war. It is like the power foreigners had in Japan in the late 19th century which led to unrest in the country and a coup in 1867, the so-called Meiji Restoration. A new twist for the 21st century is that the USA wants control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet (about 9700 metres). In addition to all this, US companies since the war have been the key economic players in the country and will continue to be so even if this so-called 'Strategic Alliance' is not signed and you can guarantee that the US will have an effective monopoly on sale of Iraqi oil.

Iraq is already a dependent territory of the USA and the agreement would solidify that. The ongoing military presence and the extraterritoriality plus the supposed 'agreement' smacks very much of a protectorate being formed. One could envisage this being 1888 rather than 2008 with the USA having overthrown some local despot, restoring some local elites but effectively running the country as their own. Certainly the influence of any other power, notably Iran, is being excluded. The USA has seen the Middle East as to some extent in its sphere of influence since the Eisenhower Doctrine of the 1950s, but what we are now witnessing is not a kind of 'new imperialism' talked about during the Cold War, this is simply reheated 19th century imperialism. People argued that the Cold War was a natural development in history and when it ended a certain phase was concluded, but to me, it appears that the Cold War was an aberration and in fact there are more continuities between the world in 1908 and 2008 than there ever were between 1948/58/68 even 1978 and today. Predictions of American, Russian (notice their colonial moves on the seabed of the Arctic and the UK doing the same in the mid-Atlantic) and China as dividing up the world seem more accurate now than ever. Imperialism is not dead, we are witnessing it occurring this very moment.

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