The Return of Empires Part I
The recent expeditions of the French in Africa clearly smack less of neoimperialism than they do neocolonialism, and have prompted many to wonder whether the events are the start of a new cycle of world politics in which an outgoing unipolarity is perhaps being replaced by a forthcoming multipolarity not hailed by everyone, or something different, something new or maybe a repeat of history, but in new packaging?
Maybe something that would allow, for example, the United States «to leave without actually leaving», to continue implementing their global plans in a more complex system of interstate relations? If so, then the imperial projects and vassal relations of by-gone eras that had seemingly vanished forever will turn out to be much in demand…
One of the first instances of this trend was noted and identified by Jürgen Habermas, a well-known German philosopher, at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first mandate.
He observed, for example, that the «realistic» school of international relations that had restored its influence in Washington after Bush differed from the «neocons» not so much in its aims to preserve America’s global hegemony, as the way these aims would be realised.
According to Habermas, the desired world order of this school is largely in response to Carl Schmitt’s theory of larger space (Großraumtheorie). Schmitt thought of «larger spaces» as the spheres of influence of dominant imperial powers and their «strong ideas».
One could say that America was still at a crossroads during Obama’s first mandate, leading rearguard actions to preserve its global leadership, while at the same time becoming increasingly aware of the inefficiency and onerousness of its attempts, especially amid the global financial crisis.
From the beginning of his second term in office, however, Obama is starting to decisively reformat the world. The problem being faced by Washington is not only that maintaining its unipolarity is becoming impossible, but that multipolarity is undesirable.
Washington is already uncomfortable with the fact that while preserving the existing order, China will eventually arrive at the point of global hegemony and could behave exactly as America itself is doing. As Habermas shrewdly observed: «It is more in America’s own interests to attempt today to bind tomorrow’s global powers to the kind of international order that no longer needs a superpower».
Meanwhile, more and more research is appearing in the West showing that a natural rebirth process of the imperial policies of a number of former parent states has begun in reaction to the devolution of America as global leader and the growing chaos of global politics, and often not in the direction that America would find favourable.
The return of empires is described metaphorically in the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes: «Empires will never die so long as their roots are not dug up or covered with salt. Their spirit lives on in many generations of descendants and ascendants, as well as subordinate nations. They are ready to rise again at the first available opportunity, the moment geopolitical pressure on them begins to wane and the systems that have been declared immortal turn out to be brittle and dilapidated».
Unable to withstand this «hurricane», the White House, according to proposed recommendations, should be at the head of this process and send it in the «necessary direction». It is advisable to contrast the natural formation of new empires with the organised construction of the kind of empires that America would be able to act jointly with, whilst as far as possible slowing down the creation of potentially hostile formations.
Thus in the newspaper National Interest, Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the US Department of Defense, points to «the growing triumphalism of several empires manqué».
According to Zakheim,
«In East Asia, China is increasingly flexing its political, economic and military muscles as a commanding power to which others must perform the kowtow ritual of subservience. In the Middle East and Central Asia, Turkey is exploiting its newfound economic and political prowess to extend its influence over the many states that once constituted the Ottoman Empire. And Russia is drawing upon the power and influence it derives from its energy resources to pursue a neo-czarist policy in Europe and in the outlying regions of the old Russian Empire. Nor should one overlook the influence in South Asia of India, whose economy dwarfs that of its neighbors and where the Moghuls once were the dominant force, and Brazil’s inheritance of the Portuguese Empire’s mantle in Africa, facilitated by its own increasing economic clout. The imperial legacies of these states have provided impetus to their nations to cut a greater figure not only within their regions but also on the world stage. When visiting these countries or meeting with their elites, one senses a growing sense that they are reverting to their traditional roles as major powers».
Most worrying to Zakheim, however, is that
«all believe that the United States, and even more so Europe, no longer should monopolize decision making for the international community. They reject the post-World War II settlement as outdated and will not automatically accept American leadership on any given issue. Washington policy makers, currently obsessed with that other imperial legatee, Iran, would do well to recognize that there is more to these states than impressive economic growth, military expansion and political influence. Americans are known for their lack of historical sensitivity. They will need all the sensitivity they can muster in order to deal successfully with states whose claim to a greater role on the world stage is motivated as much by past glory as by present success». (1)
It is not difficult to see that Zakheim’s misgivings are akin to those expressed in Samuel Huntington’s prophecies regarding a future «clash of civilizations».
One of the main dilemmas being faced by the United States’ imperial policy at the present moment, according to the German academic Herfried Münkler and expressed in his book «Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States», is the discrepancy between recognising the irrelevance of further expansion and the fear that this will be perceived by others as a sign of weakness.
«It is harder to put down an imperialist, civilizing, humanitarian, value-expanding mission by which an empire has defined itself, without being seen – by those within the empire as well as by others – as in decline».
Another peculiarity of America, as defined by Münkler, is that America is, by nature, an «empire in a hurry», a consequence of its short four-year election cycle.
«Probably, Washington’s growing tendency in recent years to use the military for problem-solving also has something to do with the time pressure built into democratic mechanisms. Military solutions offer themselves with a suggestion of speed and finality, so that an «empire in a hurry» may grasp at them more often than would be sensible or advisable». (2)
Academics also believe distinct traces of imperial ambition are evident in the policies of the European Union. In an article entitled «The Imperial Re-Bordering of Europe: the case of the European Neighbourhood Policy (Cambridge Review of International Affairs, June, 2012), it has been pointed out, for example, that the European Neighbourhood Policy could be interpreted as a declaration of the European Union’s imperial intentions.
In particular, the fact that the EU’s neighbouring countries would be more like its subordinate subjects than equal partners, according to the plans for integrated relations laid out in the policy, could also be part of its imperial strategies.
In keeping with the strategies of a multicultural empire, the European Union is using the European Neighbourhood Policy to create new borders and division lines between its neighbours following the example of the Balkans.
According to the article’s author, the imperial policy of transforming borders being carried out by the European Union uses less noticeable, but more importunate instruments of control based on voluntary subordination and the acceptance of imposed regulations. (3)
And so the construction of «larger spaces» in global politics has begun. There is undoubtedly no point in waiting for the borders of these new/old empires to be formalised or officially announced.
After all, the point here is not their direct reinstatement with all the accompanying paraphernalia (that would look like a farce), but the return to an appropriate modus operandi for projecting the interests of former parent states.
The future global hierarchy which is emerging at the behest of Washington will, in every way possible, avoid identifying itself with the colonial empires of former times, for fear of stirring up the memories of nations.
And not just the former colonies who were subjected to ruthless exploitation, but the imperial capitals themselves, whose inhabitants are not so keen on saddling themselves with a burden they have already shaken off and who do not want to see the arrival of new and overwhelming streams of migrants from these territories.
Neither is there any point waiting for conventions or agreements similar to the capitulation regimes or acts of vassalage, since modern legal bondage can be far stronger evidence of the dependence of former times. The neoimperialist renaissance of Western powers is easier to follow when it comes to the logic behind their ideas and actions, if one does not attach too much importance to the «high moral standards» they hide behind.
Dmitry MININ | Strategic Culture Foundation
(To be continued in Part II)