Empire Unlimited


Sydney Morning Herald editor-at-large Paul McGeough recently wrote that ‘Australia has spent its time in Iraq ducking and weaving well away from the front line, at the same time as MPs at home huff and puff and make po-faced speeches about œwartime leadership  and œbeing at war. ’

Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argues that Australia is ‘the only country that has fought with the US in every one of its maj or conflicts since 1914, the good and the bad, the winning and the losing,’ because our ‘geographical and historical isolation has bred a wisdom about the structure of peace.’

Howard believes in the US Empire a nd would never dare challenge its hegemony. It is a position widely lauded in elite circles in the US.

Court journalists can be relied upon to defend ‘bad’ conflicts as noble mistakes or misplaced benevolence, but Krauthammer’s praise for a subservient foreign policy is revealing of another trend.

Despite the odious history of the British and US Empires in the last centuries, it has become increasingly acceptable to express respect for these long-forgotten days (in the case of Britain) or their continuation (in the case of the US). After all, there are an awful lot of uncivilised people around the world just waiting to be invaded and occupied.

Britain is currently undergoing such a discussion. Niall Ferguson is a Harvard professor of history, senior research fellow at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University. He writes polemics for the UK Daily Mail (and irregularly contributes to The Australian). His main area of interest is empire he’s rather fond of it.

He says America should accept its imperial ambitions and occupy Iraq for 40 years. He believes that the 20 th century suffered grotesque violence due to the decline of empires. He thinks the British Empire was a positive force for good and the Victorian period saw some untidy ‘blemishes’ but these have been exaggerated:

If it hadn’t been the British [Empire], it might have been somebody worse. In any case, empires have been with us as a means of power and control for centuries and centuries, so you might as well cast a moral judgement on rain as on the British Empire. I am fundamentally in favour of empire.

Ferguson attempts to argue that the British Empire assisted in pushing the poorest parts of the world into the global marketplace, and any violence directed towards the natives wasn’t intentional (his ‘arguments’ are remarkably similar to another empire-supporter, new ABC Board member, Keith Windschuttle.)

Thanks to Scratch.

The Independent‘s Johann Hari an early supporter of the 2003 Iraq war has responded with appropriate contempt towards Ferguson’s white-washing of the historical record:

Whenever somebody argues that there are great swaths of humanity inherently incapable of self-rule who must be forever subject to imperial masters, it’s an essential act of intellectual hygiene to condemn them. With uncharacteristic politeness, Ferguson does not tell us precisely who these people who must be always subject to colonial domination are. But I think we can assume that like the servants and maids who waited on him as a child [in Africa]they are black- and brown-skinned, bwana.

Unsurprisingly, Hari was roasted in conservative circles. The London Times published an opinion piece by author Lawrence James which claimed that the imperial rulers of India ‘were humane men although hampered by inadequate administrative machinery and limited resources [and]made a determined effort to feed the hungry.’ Only a handful of natives were murdered in Africa, he argued, and African and Asian historians should stop ‘carping’ on the Empire’s ‘imperfections’. (Notably, neither James nor Ferguson cite any non-White historians to bolster their claims.)

The systematic slaughter, imprisonment and skulduggery of the British Empire are clearly something to be praised, even emulated. The Empire was ‘largely good-natured and involved little bloodshed’,writes James. The indigenous inhabitants of the various countries plundered for Queen and country may disagree.

Hari responded soon after, comparing the imperialist historians to individuals who ignored or excused the crimes of Stalin. When James claimed that, ‘unlike Stalin’s Russia, the British Empire was always an open society,’ Hari retorted:

If you implicitly think of only Whites as people, then he is of course correct. People coloured like him or me could condemn anything they liked. But how ‘open’ did the British Empire seem to a Mau Mau rebel being doused in paraffin and burned alive for trying to reclaim land stolen by the British? How ‘open’ was it to an Irishman being tortured by the Black and Tans for advocating a free Ireland? How ‘open’ was it to Indians who were jailed for trying to organise relief efforts in the middle of a famine?

This takes us back to the war in Iraq. Conservatives and some confused Left-wingers now talk about ‘liberal imperialism,’ a supposedly benign form of invasion and occupation that frees oppressed peoples from brutal dictators (probably supported by the West, at some point). If only the world were so simple.

Those calling for an open-ended commitment to the military engagement in Iraq claim withdrawal would bring civil war as opposed to what’s happening now? The clear implication is that only ‘we’ can bring order and security, and not the feckless, incompetent, corrupt and infiltrated Iraqi forces.

The reality, however, is that the West has brought a country to its knees principally because of its blatant disregard for Iraqi lives. Resistance to this foreign occupation is therefore legitimate and should be openly supported.

Twenty-first century empire-builders couch their rhetoric in the language of human rights, but they are little better than the imperial rulers of the 19th century. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other US-infected nations torture, extra-judicial executions, aerial bombardment and civilian murder is the modern reality of empire.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.