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1. Birth of an empire
Reclaiming lands from ‘barbarism’ struck a certain soldier fighting in the Boer War as a noble task. More than that: ‘To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain’ was a superb imperial ideal.


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However, the young Winston Churchill was a realist as well: ‘The inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerors’.

Now, a bloodstained century later, facing a world in which a lone superpower claims its right to call the shots, another historian remarks: ‘Empire is always counter-productive. Imperialism creates weak rulers who demand further cycles of imperial violence to stay in power. British colonial power could only be sustained by the large-scale use of brutal force across four continents.’

When British men and women began to colonise America 400 years ago the Native Indians looked on with puzzlement and fear. ‘The earth nourishes beasts, birds, fish and all men. Everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’ But for the immigrants the prospect of owning their own parcel of land was intoxicating. When the state of Virginia drew up its constitution, it asserted (just a year before the American Declaration of Independence), ‘All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of possessing property.’

But of course not ‘all men’ were included. The first settlers said ‘our first work is expulsion of the savages’, and began driving the Native Americans westward off the pastures they had farmed for 10,000 years. There was no respect for Africans, either, brought in millions to the New World (by British ships) as slaves of people who thought them ‘almost incapable of making any progress in civility and science’, without any ‘system of morality’, without ‘words among themselves for humanity’s three greatest blessings: religion, liberty and love’. Yet what struck unseeing visitors to America was that ‘any man’s son may be the equal of any other man’s son’, and the characteristics the new Americans admired most in themselves were enterprise, self-reliance, and independence. Which meant that most men, and their sons, protected life, liberty and property with guns.

Tom Paine, author of ‘The Rights of Man’, emigrated to America in 1774, in time to the see the tension between the British government and their distant subjects, the colonists, come to a head. In 1776, as British troops attacked American militias, he published his best-selling pamphlet ‘Common Sense’. It called for American independence and a republican government.

‘Common Sense’ defended America against the brutal British: ‘The cause of America is the cause of all mankind.... The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof, is the concern of every man.... By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new area for politics is struck, a new method of thinking has arisen....America is only a secondary object in the system of British politics. England consults the good of America no further than it answers her own purpose.’ The colonists, often at loggerheads with each other, put aside their differences to win independence for the established colonies – and the right to settle beyond them as well.

In 1785, at a spot in Ohio now marked by a sign headed ‘THE POINT OF BEGINNING’, a geographer called Thomas Hutchins began measuring out America. The land survey he began would eventually cover over 3 million square miles and take 217 years to complete. The grid marked out over 1 milion squares, each 6 miles by 6. Roads, boundaries, township streets: all reveal its remarkable regularity to an aerial view. (Only the southern states made life difficult for the surveyors.) As the land was charted, it was sold off. For each freeholder, ‘the land being purely his own, there is no setting limits to his prosperity, No proud tyrant can lord it over him.’

Since the land was bought from the government, and the law guaranteed ownership, each landowner felt he had a stake not only in the land but in the whole country. The lust for land was powerful: like ‘the thirst of the tiger for blood’, remarked America’s 6th president, John Quincy Adams. The love of country soon became single-minded and isolationist. On Independence Day 1821. Adams made a much-quoted speech:

‘What has America done for mankind? America proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.... She has spoken among the assembly of nations, though often to heedless and disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings. She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’

2. Mightier yet
Adams also said that if America enlisted causes other than her own, ‘she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colour and usurp the standard of reason.’
Nevertheless, in the interests of capitalism, property, and ‘primacy’, America has taken the imperial path. Britain’s old-style empire was, in terms of territory and population, the largest in history; but America’s empire, in terms of power and influence, is global. Some of it is invisible – expressed, often indirectly, through money and influence, or exemplified by the US Patent Office’s interest in intellectual property rights: reasonable for an invention or a piece of creative work, but disturbing in that ownership of knowledge (the human genome, for example) can now have a calculable price. Rather easier to see is the worldwide spread of US business interests and trading corporations, their logos and their value-systems. America is now also the greatest military power. It has the world’s largest arsenal (including many weapons of mass destruction). America’s military presence has extended worldwide, too.

In 1945, as the United Nations took up its mission to maintain world peace, the USA began fettling itself for further war. It also insisted that UN Security Council resolutions should be open to veto – a veto the US has used more often than any other member country. For 45 years and armed to the teeth, anti-communist America faced what was then the Soviet Union in a tension-ridden stand-off that nearly became a shoot-out. Today there are over 1.3m US soldiers divided among bases which amount to nothing less than military colonies. Many of these troops are permanently deployed in over 40 countries round the world, and guard military outposts in at least 60 more. Several such ‘colonies’ are in the UK, which this year agreed (without allowing time for parliamentary debate) that the US base at Fylingdales should be part of America’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defence project which effectively extends America’s military power into space.

In January 2003, US president George W Bush received a letter commending his ‘impressive leadership’. It was from the deeply hawkish Project for the New American Century, founded in 1997 by such men as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The Project is ‘a non-profit educational organisation’ dedicated to American leadership of the world. That leadership, say the hawks, ‘requires military strength, diplomatic energy, and commitment to moral principle’ – a fine collection of incompatibles of which only the first really matters to the aggressive US right wing. Their letter was a demand for an additional $100 billion to be spent on increasing US military might, ‘to ensure our security and greatness’. (‘Less than a nickel on the dollar for American security is cheap at the price’.)

There are plenty of Americans happy to claim that, as one right-wing commentator put it, ‘the unique imbalance of power has given the international system a stability and essential tranquillity that it had not known for at least a century.... The international environment is far more likely to enjoy peace under a single hegemon. Moreover, we are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium.’

There are plenty of other people (including some Americans) who recognise that just as 100 years ago it was the British who combined political, cultural, economic and military dominance with a strong sense of their own virtue and motives, it is now the Americans who fail to see how insufferable – and dangerous – this combination of might and righteousness can be. The words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, written in 1902, have been more appropriate to the USA than to Britain for over half a century.

3. Into the future
H G Wells published his ‘Outline of History’ in 1920 (the year a British protectorate named Iraq was created) and it became a bestseller. In over 1,100 pages Wells demonstrated how and why every empire in history had fallen. He wanted to see an end to imperialism, and the formation of a peaceful ‘federation of the world’. There was already a ‘great development of worldwide political, social and moral ideas’, but, he observed gloomily, ‘The armies march, the flags wave, the patriots bawl’. So they do, still.

Is a peaceful world federation possible? The nearest we have got is the United Nations, founded on a stated determination ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. By 2002 every country or state in the world (except Taiwan and the Vatican) had signed the UN’s impressive Charter. So far, however, the aim to achieve peaceful resolution of conflict has proved extremely difficult. Another aim, ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all’, has proved extremely demanding. The UN is also the guardian of international law (as the International Red Cross is guardian of the Geneva Conventions); but respect for its rules has only been as strong as each member country’s readiness to recognise them.

Some people see the UN as too bureaucratic, and ineffective in its international policing. Others applaud its remarkable achievements in caring for refugees, bringing aid to stricken peoples, facing the global problems of poverty, disease and deprivation. Most agree that it needs rethinking and reform. The UN’s difficulty is that it succeeds or fails according to its members’ political will to abide by the Charter and put the welfare of the global community above their own. But it takes time to gain a sense of community in a world given over for centuries to weapons and war – and the UN is less than 60 years old. Not yet enough people have recognised that it is militarism that exemplifies barbarism today, or exposed the myth that might is right.

One group of modern political thinkers has suggested that the way to face the USA’s global dominance is to match it with a new European empire, led by a reformed European Union. These thinkers say that this empire of individual states would allow the smaller and weaker to benefit from the bigger and stronger; and all would flourish under its order and stability without losing identity or independence. ‘Like Rome, this Europe would provide the citizens with some laws, some coins, and the occasional road’: a modern, democratic, co-operative association ‘offering a road to peace and a common liberty. It is, at least, a noble dream’.

Or there are the new internationalists, who conceive of a world in which interstate wars are so counter-productive that no-one embarks on them. Armed intervention would be illegal. Instead, law, diplomacy, pressure and persuasion would be intensively and skilfully applied to disputes. A country that resisted all these would be isolated and condemned. Those that co-operated would benefit from shared trade and aid, and also an earned respect worldwide. New internationalists believe (rightly) that using war to end war means that wars will never stop, and they want it to fall out of fashion.

A third group envisages another kind of empire: a benign coalition of existing global élites. These include the more powerful nation states, the UN, the EU, the International Monetary Fund, the multinational corporations, and any other networks (including aid agencies) which have effective organisations and influence. The ideal of these new imperialists is an open world in which security and stability are in everyone’s interest and resources are shared.

Of course all such projections have flaws (some of them pretty obvious) and, put into practice, would develop new ones; such is human nature. But it’s important – vital – to consider what changes might be possible. A loose confederation of worldwide human organisations and networks, with an agreed universal code of laws, might well be worth trying (and has the virtue of growing out of what already exists). This could create a climate in which people increasingly accept that ‘difference’ is not served by militarism and violence. They might come to combine their local sense of ‘belonging’ with allegiance to a larger group: the human race itself.

H G Wells’ vision included what he called ‘universal justice’. He also called for universal access to minimum standards of education and standards of living. (And, interestingly, he attached great importance to ‘world control of the airways’.) His dream is worth reconsidering. It suggests a global union in which, for example, democracy isn’t the only feasible form of government and religion and race aren’t irredeemably divisive. ‘People would not fear so much, nor cheat so desperately.’ It would also be a profoundly interesting world. ‘A world state and universal justice do not mean imprisonment in any bleak institutional orderliness.’

Indeed, said Wells, those who imagine that such a global society would mark ‘the end of human adventure’ are quite wrong. In its imaginative and resourceful solving of problems, ‘it would be an unending exploration upon the edge of experience.’ Which would be a good deal better than what we have now.

Margaret Melicharova


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