The Prager U video on the British Empire has a lot of issues, but I think it also vindicates my decision to deal with the empire as a multi-part series. Today’s video goes through a lot of the assumptions and foolishness in the video, but Prager’s biggest mistake is probably trying to tell this epic, world-altering story in such a short form. There wasn’t much agreement on what the British Empire was, and what it represented at the time, and there isn’t much more now. I’ve now got over a dozen videos that attempt to put forward an argument about the British Empire. Prager’s attempt to sum it all up in just five and a half minutes looks deeply silly by comparison.
This has been one of the most requested videos since I launched the British Empire series last fall. I hope you enjoy it!
Ahhh, the Royals… I have successfully avoided reading a single story on the current Meghan Markle / Ginger Prince scandal, but I think I have gotten the gist from twitter. Putting Markle in the thumbnail was obviously a desperate bid for clicks, but it’s also got a tangential relation to the topic of today’s video, beyond the fact that the Royals are briefly discussed at the end of it. As I understand it, Ginger Prince was allowed to marry an American actress because it was seen as good for the institution, modernizing and a helpful way to appeal to new markets. Now the institution is shocked that the changes they hoped were cosmetic might yield more significant changes.
This story is obviously a very specialized thing, but I have a hunch that it’s emblematic of an emerging theme for the United Kingdom over the next half century or so. From free trade agreements, to military commitments and positions on international incidents, the British will continue to make changes that look small and clever in the short run, but end up changing things more than they’d like in the medium to long term. Like the Queen of England this week, the British people will find themselves grumbling as they acquiesce to new arrangements they did not foresee, and would not have chosen had they known they were coming.
The later 20th century was not a big focus of my book, Avoiding the British Empire. I date the end of the British world system to 1914, and the beginning of World War I. The time after than is mostly one of decline. But it had peaks, and the period after 2016 will be seen as a new valley. One of the things that I did study intensely in writing the book was the distinction between “informal” and “formal” empire. The informal empire of financial power was as important, or perhaps more important than all the red bits on the map that were formally controlled by the British Empire.
If you look at it that way, then it’s clear that the European Union represented a new informal empire for Britain. Which makes throwing it away with Brexit quite nuts. I take a more in depth look at this in today’s video.
My guess is that today’s video will get lots of comments along the lines of “You’re only realizing this now?” and “Obviously!”. For many observers of the Middle East over the past two decades it is transparently obvious that the United States has been the problem. Nobody else has been overthrowing governments and sowing chaos with the abandon that the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have. At least a million lives have been lost, and an entire region of the world has lost out on two decades of economic development because the US wanted to cover up for the fact that their client state, Saudi Arabia, had done 9-11. So yeah, we’re the bad guys. Obviously. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get worse.
Our bad guy status is not so obvious to the US public at large. And it’s certainly not so obvious to the US media. That’s why I think it’s worthwhile to mark the trajectory here. The US isn’t just a damaging actor, it’s been getting progressively worse. Many argue that Obama was better than Bush, and his attempt at an Iran Nuclear Deal really was a serious attempt at peace, but everything else he did was a continuation of the horrors of the Bush presidency. More than that, it was an intensification of them. Obama destroyed Libya and Syria without even pretending to rebuild them. His drone program led to fewer US casualties, but its scope and brutality put us into even more morally fraught territory that its initially smaller bodycount hid from us. And Trump, with his gleeful embrace of war crimes is obviously another big step down the path to heck. Things really are getting worse. That’s worth marking, which is one of the things I attempt to do with today’s video…
Believe it or not, today’s video deals with a surprisingly persistent piece of conventional wisdom. I honestly couldn’t tell you where I picked it up, maybe Niall Ferguson, but it’s something I unthinkingly believed for decades. The idea is that countries that were colonized by the British were better off than those colonized by the French, because of superior British institutions, or better management or whatever. I hardly thought about this old assumption in my two years researching the British Empire. Serious books of history don’t try to make this claim. But once the vids started coming out, it started cropping up in the comments.
This is one of the most fun things about studying history. If you build up a base of knowledge, you can occasionally get these sudden “Ah-Hah!” moments when you realize that something you’ve always believed is unmitigated balderdash. Today’s video wrote itself with very little prompting. If you have a cursory knowledge of the history of the countries in each of the Empires before and after colonization, it becomes clear how silly this old story is. And with this video, I get to make it clear to everybody else too… I love my job.
Winston Churchill is a complicated figure. He’s also a cherished one for the British, and for white dads across the English speaking world. He’s seen completely differently by the Indians, millions of whom starved to death on his watch, and there are very few others in the broader British empire that would have had much good to say about him. These historical arguments are important, and I don’t really have all that much interest in them one way or the other. But Winston Churchill is not just a historical figure. He’s a symbol. That glorious year and a half, between Churchill’s coming to power, and successfully convincing the US to save Britain, are worth emulating and celebrating. But for US politicians, the vital belligerence that made Churchill so valuable for that destroyed world, is something that should constantly be applied to our infinitely safer, happier world. That’s nuts. Which is why I made today’s video.
My book, and today’s video aren’t just intended as “blame America First” whining. They are intended as the basis for a new, saner approach to US foreign policy. One of the central problems in Washington, DC for the past 30 years is that we haven’t had a goal. We’ve had a ton of resources, a ton of professionals geared towards the outside world, and no clear sense of what to do with them since the end of the Cold War. Instead all these people have pursued a variety of conflicting goals. Some of them have been noble, some have been horrible, but in combination they have produced an effect that is disorganized in the most self-interested and chaotic way. With this series I hope to suggest a better way.
The mission of US foreign policy should be to stave off war for as long as possible. We should use our extraordinary power and reach to try to make the world a less dangerous place for everyone. This would do the world a great service, but it would also serve the United States in the best possible way. As I’ve also emphasized, it’s the United States that has the most power to lose from a new world war. So we should stop seeking it out in the deserts of the Middle East and in the waters of the South China Sea. We should stop sending the instruments of death to every country in the world we can, in ever accelerating amounts. If we stopped doing these things, I think we’d find that there is still plenty for Washington, DC to do. Even beyond the much larger problems that the United States has made, the world has many fault lines that could benefit from our diplomatic attention. Imagine a world with DC think tanks that were focused on solving Nagorno-Karabakh, or opening the border between Morocco and Algeria, rather than fomenting wars? It may all sound a bit pie in the sky, but once you’ve absorbed the arguments of today’s video, how could you want to do anything else?
I can’t seem to find it, but I believe it was Keynes who has this wonderful quote on the fact that so much of the world around us is shaped by the ideas of long-dead thinkers who nobody actually reads and whose names have been largely forgotten. Today’s video is about one of those thinkers, Halford Mackinder. He’s not a household name, but he creeps around the margins of any large history book you will read, and he still inspires a lot of bad foreign and domestic policy in countries all over the world. His “World Island” or “Heartland” thesis is part of the list of justifications people will offer for interventionist US foreign policy. But Mackinder’s influence always remains somewhat subterranean. Because it kind of has to. Because his ideas are crap.
If you actually read one of Mackinder’s books, which I did, his ideas sound more like a half-assed dungeons and dragons game than a serious theory of history and politics. And when you dive in and examine his assumptions about the upcoming 20th century, you realize they were all wrong. His idea of looking at geopolitics as a whole is rightly influential. His actual ideas about geopolitics and their future are frankly laughable. It’s amazing how influential you can get if you give a veneer of respectability to the paranoid visions of militarists. Today’s video demolishes Mackinder’s ideas.
With today’s video I try something new. Most of my video scripts come to me more fully formed, in a rush of inspiration. With this “Avoiding the British Empire” series, I’m trying something more ambitious. The first 9 episodes of the video series are meant to work with each other, building the case, and helping viewers arrive at a picture of the world that grows with each installment. The series is meant to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure this has been entirely successful. I tend to focus on making discrete points and individually successful videos. My writing process is like that as well. This series is the first I can think of, where multiple videos started out as “Oh, I need to do this in this video”, rather than as a loose collection of thematically related issues. Many of the videos in the series predated the over-arching series structure. Today’s video did not. What do you think?
With today’s video we begin to get into the meat of it… This Avoiding the British Empire series does, in fact, have a point that it is getting to, beyond clever comparisons. This video represents the first half of the main thesis. Considering what we now know about Britain’s power in the 19th century, and how much less power everybody else had… one conclusion becomes inescapable:
World War I was Britain’s fault. I am already getting some pretty shell shocked comments on the video, but not many who dispute the point. I’d love to hear what you think!