Empires Only Fall When They Have to Pay Their Bill
By By Rafe MAIR
When I read this I thought that surely one couldn’t characterize such cataclysmic events with a simple one liner but on reflection one can usually add that the financial catastrophe is ignored by those in charge proving again Mair’s Axiom I – you make a serious mistake assuming that people in charge know what the hell they’re doing.
In aftermath of the World War II, three large empires crashed, the British, the Dutch and the French.
Indonesia, occupied by Japan 1942-5, was the improbable legacy of Dutch explorers of the 16th Century; by 1945 the Netherlands had enough problems restoring their domestic economy. By 1949 Indonesia was free although it wasn’t until 1963 that Indonesian New Guinea became Indonesian.
The British Empire was tottering on the brink of collapse after World War I and when India and Pakistan were freed in 1947, the jewel of the imperial crown vanished. It must be said that the British (mostly but not always) made a virtue of necessity by leaving democracy and the “Rule of Law” behind.
The French were more tenacious and it wasn’t until the Battle of Dien Bien Phuin 1954 that the French realized that the colonials didn’t love them as much as they assumed. Its empire finally came to an end when after much bloodshed, Algeria was gracelessly given its freedom.
The common factors of these three collapses was economical – the colonizing nations could no longer maintain a rule by force. Even Churchill was forced to accept that it was ridiculous that Britain could, with a handful if troops, hold onto a faraway sub-continent.
George Santayana observed “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. He could well have had the collapse of empires in mind for Wilde might have added “and when they do start to fall, they go into a state of denial which substantially prolongs and exacerbates the agony”.
At the end of World War II two empires remained; the Soviet Union, heir to the vast Russian empire, and the United States which, as observed in a moment, invented a new kind of empire.
Ronald Reagan didn’t bring down the Soviet Union, bankruptcy did. When the “wall” came down with a thud in 1989, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev faced the independence declarations of many Soviet “satellites” plus its so-called “autonomous republics”. To try to hold on the communist buffer states behind Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” and the dissident Soviet republics was not feasible – there was no money and an industrial sector that didn’t work. An excellent treatise on the state of the Soviet industry of that day can be found in The New Russians by Hedrick Smith meticulously examined the Soviet “system” conducted from 1988 to 1990. The Soviet didn’t lose its empire because it was not powerful enough militarily – Russia remains the 2nd most powerful country in the world – but because it was stony-assed broke.
The United States sees itself as a peaceful nation that abhors empires. During World War II President Franklin Roosevelt combined with the “chattering classes” deplored the British Empire and made it clear that American GIs were not in harm’s way to retain it. After all, wasn’t America the “arsenal of democracy?” America has “no territorial ambitions” it was piously stated. This hardly conforms to examination. Most of what is now the United States was conquered land from American Indians and 1/3 of Mexico.
But that was long ago – hasn’t the US seen the errors of its ways to become an idealistic democracy with a constitution to match?
Not at all. The Monroe Doctrine of 1821 declared that Europe (including Great Britain) should not become entangled in Latin American affairs and that the United States was prepared to go to war to protect the Western Hemisphere from European incursion.
This principle was honoured observed much more in the breach than in practice and led to invasions (Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Philippines and others not to mention Iraq and Panama – twice – Afghanistan and tiny Grenada, never forgetting Viet Nam.)
But times have changed. The United States can invade and stay in the sense of controlling public policy without use of a single soldier. Canada is a good example, the UK perhaps a better one.
Canada, without a single enemy that can attack her, save the US, spends billions of dollars a year to add to American forces where the US requires them whether under the guise of NATO, the Security Council, or just to advance domestic politics.
If one indicia of nationhood is the ability to defend oneself just look at the nations around the world that protect their autonomy by the timely process of asking for and getting the US Navy to sail by. Gunboat diplomacy is alive and well.
As the “Oscar Wilde rule” has hit Washington, the US ability to maintain its empire, as happened in France, the UK and Russia, is rapidly waning – and it’s firmly in denial.
There has arisen a new form of empire based upon Churchill’s stunning speech in Zurich in 1946 calling for close economic ties between ancient foes France and Germany leading to a United States of Europe. (Little remembered is his recommendation that the UK stay out and strengthen English language nations).
Churchill’s motive was clear – Britain had had quite enough of fighting European quarrels going back to Louis XIV and he saw a European financial union as a way to keep European nations from fighting one another and dragging Britain in.
One might weakly say “so far, so good” but in fact the EU has become a huge Ponzi scheme. Many incoming nations have either brought with them, or acquired soon after, weak economies which momentarily prospered with new EU funds but soon needed huge cash bail-outs leaving the few prosperous countries, notably Germany, as reluctant bankers of last resort depending upon expansion to lighten their load.
In 2020 Oscar Wilde (wherever he may be residing and there are differing opinions on that) he will no doubt observe “By 2015 the empires of Britain, France, Russia America, and the European Union were collapsing to become satellites of the Empire of China which has economic bases on every continent and to which the proud old empires are fiscally in thrall”.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.