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Keith Rankin: Empire Building

Empire Building

By Keith Rankin
23 February 2003

Is the United States simply the world's policeman, on the beat, acting to reduce global crime? No. The Washington regime gets visibly angry at the very suggestion that there may be no crime that the Iraqi nation can be arrested, tortured and sentenced for. For America's political leaders, good news is any pied or half-pied excuse to attack Iraq.

So what is it that turns Washington on? And, if not through Washington, how should humanity address crimes committed by governments, be it crimes on their own people or crimes on people in other nations?

To understand the reasons why the US government (or, more correctly, the American/British/Australian axis) wishes to wage war on Iraq, there are a number of historical analogies to draw on. None is a perfect analogy, but each of the four biggest cases of extranational aggression of the last 200 years can teach us something.

Napoleon's "war of liberation" on Europe (WW0?) was a bloody attempt to impose the enlightened (ie modern) values of post-revolution France onto the rest of Europe (and, indirectly, on the world that Europe dominated). It was a war of so-called civilisation against the so-called feudalism of eastern and southern Europe, and against the reactionary British who profited from the world as it was.

Washington is on a similar mission; to "modernise" (ie to Americanise) the world. Those countries and peoples in the so-called "Middle East" are seen by Americans as not only the locus of vestigial mediaevalism but as a place from which mediaevalism (analogous to the feudalism which Napoleon fought) could (like Mordor) seek to reclaim the modern world. This idea of the "clash [to the death] of [rival] civilisations" - one modern, one mediaeval - is of course codswallop. But it is codswallop that seems particularly attractive to the American mind, which sees the world as a match-race or boxing match; a head-to-head contest between the (very) good guys and the (very) bad guys. (The America's Cup, a match race which serves as a useful metaphor for this contest of good versus evil, is, it would seem, very appropriately named.)

Mission control in Washington might take heed of Napoleon's fate, and the passion of Russia's resistance in conditions that gave Russia home-town advantage.

World War I offers some particularly useful insights. The war of aggression waged by the German-Austrian axis took place in an age of imperialism in which the Germans in particular felt short-changed. WWI took place as the Turkish Ottoman Empire was disintegrating, and as crude oil was fast becoming the critical commodity of the 20th century. That war was about Germany seeking to incorporate the Middle-East into its fledgling empire; and it was about Germany preventing Russia from adding Southwest Asia to its empire.

With this analogy the USA today is clearly the analogue of WWI Germany, and a Saudi Arabia that is ripe for revolution is the analogue of WWI Russia. Yes, under this analogy the aggressive posturing of the Anglo-American axis is a scrap for the political control of the strategically important Middle East. We might note in passing that neither Germany nor Russia achieved hegemony over the Middle East following the 1914-18 scrap. Both lost. And Russia's revolution was made more certain because there was a war.

Another aspect of the WWI analogy is the role of terrorism. WWI was sparked by a terrorist assassination. Indeed terrorism had become a fact of life in Europe and the Middle East since the 1880s. I still remember the anarchist bomber in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, a book I read in the sixth form. WWI could have been justified by Kaiser Wilhelm as a war against terrorism.

A further analogy is the significance of the present mobilisation of troops in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait. One British historian (AJP Taylor) claimed that WWI was caused by "railway timetables". Once the troops had mobilised, it was virtually impossible for them to demobilise. So they fought because they were there. Could that happen again? Is there no way out? Must large-scale preparation for war itself make war inevitable?

World War 2 was really two wars, naked grabs by military powers (Germany and Japan) to expand by stealing their neighbours' territories. This was old fashioned tribute-seeking imperialism; more like that of the Assyrians, the Romans and Ghengis Khan than like the relatively benign British and French Empires of the late 19th century.

America's present imperialist project has some important analogies with that of Nazi Germany. To understand it though, we have to recognise that neither fascist ideology nor anti-Semitism were central to Germany's 1930s' project. (Japan was not fascist and had no equivalent of the "Jewish problem". They did though see the Chinese much as the Germans saw the Slavs, and arguably, much as Americans today see Arabs.) Germany's project was to create a Reich, an empire that would last, like that of Rome, for centuries; the plan was for a Third Reich that would last an entire millennium. Europe would eventually be united under a Pax Germanica.

To get their war started, the German National Socialist government first formed an axis (in this case with Austria and Italy) and then they picked on a country with a recent history that was annoying to Germany and that had no hope of resisting. That country was Poland.

We might usefully learn today about the propaganda war in 1938 and 1939 - ie the war for the hearts and minds of the German people - that eventually made it acceptable for Hitler to invade Poland. Poland was painted in the blackest of terms. How dare they claim sovereignty over Prussian cities such as the port of Danzig?

I don't know if the Polish government had anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction. Maybe the Polish president was a bad man about which many apocryphal rumours were told? Would we feel better towards Hitler today if we learned that Poland in 1939 was a somewhat unsavoury place? Of course not! Germany versus Poland - like USA versus Iraq - could never justified on moral grounds.

The analogies go deeper. Germany needed a "smoking gun" before it could justify to its people an attack on another country. Tired of waiting, the Germans actually staged a Polish incursion into Germany, using German soldiers wearing stolen Polish uniforms. The Germans had the temerity to claim that they were acting in self-defence. The United States will make a similar claim if the United Nations refuses to endorse an attack on Iraq.

WW2 in Europe was not over once Warsaw had been pacified. That was only the first battle in a very large war; a war in which the German aggressor (the winner of the first battle) eventually lost. The relative military strengths of the invader (Germany) and invadee (Poland) in 1939 had virtually no bearing on the final outcome of that war.

There is one other war, almost forgotten, which needs to be compared with an Anglo-American attack on Iraq. That is the Anglo-French attack on Nasser's Egypt in 1956. It was an act of aggression over a strategic resource; in this case the Suez Canal. Nasser had much in common with Saddam Hussein. He was clever, and he was defiant. He did not accept that the western powers had special God-given rights to rule the world. And he won.

The above analogies suggest that the motives of the United States today are really not much different to the motives of aggressors in past wars. And they all suggest that America will not be able to succeed in imposing its project of global dominance upon the world.

How do we prevent war in 2003? How can America pull back without losing face? What we can do is to focus much more comprehensively on the issue of weapons of destruction.

We can wage a multilateral "war" against weapons of mass destruction? How? The United Nations must first come up with an acceptable definition of "weapons of mass destruction". Next, the UN would need to compile an inventory of all countries' stocks of weapons of mass destruction, and the likelihood that each country might use them for any purpose other than self-defence. We then find a democratic means that requires each country to decommission their weapons of mass destruction.

Just as the gun-lobby in America resists any attempts to control the use of lethal weapons within America, so I expect that the USA (the world's most trigger-happy nation) would, more strongly than any other country, resist any genuine attempt to eliminate the world of weapons of mass destruction.

At least, if the United Nations can deflect the Anglo-American axis by showing it just how hypocritical its self-serving crusade appears to the rest of the world, then there will be less immediate risk of World War 3 breaking out.

If it does break out, WW3 will most likely be a global version of what is at present happening in Israel/Palestine: a war without a foreseeable end; an often low-tech war of terror, fear and counter-terror. There will be no Pax Americana. An American empire, yes. But no empire of peace; no empire of civilised enlightenment. The American Revolution is no more the basis for world government in the 21st century than the French Revolution was in the 19th.


© 2003 Keith Rankin



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