This one was kind of a journey. Attacking PragerU’s dumb mistakes, as I did in the last video, is not a difficult project. Many have done so already. What’s a lot more difficult, is reckoning with the valid points that Prager makes. The British Empire was tremendously influential, and it is responsible for the spread of representative institutions all over the world. Prager is absolutely right about that.
The larger problem is reconciling these two things we know about the British Empire:
A: It left the world some decent institutions and…
B: The British Empire inflicted massive suffering on the world, on a scale that dwarfs anything that came before, and Britain’s poorly managed reign ended with the multi-decade apocalypse we know as the two world wars.
The standard approach is to pick one narrative and run with it. The viewpoint you choose often coincides with the left or right political marketing segment you choose to fall into. What I try to do with today’s video is reconcile the two, which involves diving in and attempting to sort out my own feelings about freedom, history, and life in general. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. Let me know how you think I did.
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!
There are some standard stories about the fall of the British Empire, like imperial overstretch, and the rise of nationalism world-wide. But they are rarely linked to what I see as the real cause of the Empire’s fall: incessant war mongering. As we close out this epic week of content on the British empire, World War One will take center stage. World War One has a much more central part in British mythology than it does in the US. That may be the reason why people are reluctant to draw the connection between that “victory” and the end of the Empire as closely as I do.
To some extent, today’s video is about what empire means. Is it just about territory? I think not. Later in the week we will show how the British Empire quickly disintegrated after it lost something more intangible: its “informal empire”. This concept is pretty amorphous, and as I think about the way I’m using it this week, I think I may not do a very good job of sticking to just one definition either. Informal Empire includes what is currently known as “soft power”, the financial and cultural weight that a society has, distinct from its military power. But I consider some aspects of military power to be part of “informal empire” as well. If you are undertaking some sort of quick punitive expedition to get people to act more in accordance with your wishes, I think that’s informal empire too. Obviously, when we’re talking about military action, the lines between informal and formal empire become less clear.
I think my definition of informal empire probably includes everything that is not formal empire. If you’re not planting a flag, or a near century-long “temporary presence” like the British had in Egypt, we’re talking informal empire. US military bases abroad are formal empire. Everything else the US does in those countries, from the bankers to the diplomats, to the fact that people in that country love Apple iPhones… is informal empire. I hope this has been clarifying rather than mystifying, and I hope you enjoy today’s video “Is the United States an Empire?”
This video has turned out to be quite prescient. Closing in on two months ago, when it became clear that the UAE was withdrawing some troops from Yemen, I proposed three possible scenarios for what it would mean. All three are still worth considering, but it’s looking like the one I flagged as most likely is the one that’s happening. It’s a sort of Vietnam 1973 scenario. The Saudis have lost, but they won’t acknowledge it yet, and there is plenty of murder and destruction to come before it becomes obvious to everyone with a 1975 style “helicopters on rooftops” moment.
I didn’t anticipate how quickly things would fall apart, however, with Saudi and UAE proxies engaging in open warfare in the only major Yemeni city that their “coalition” has managed to take. I think the Vietnam parallel stands though. Since World War II we have been lucky enough to see very little inter-state war. Much of the suffering in the world has come in the context of civil wars. This Saudi invasion of its neighbor is only one of a handful of such examples since the 1940s. Vietnam is one of those examples, and the parallels will just get more and more obvious. As sad as this is, it is a bit heartening to see that the US failure in Vietnam wasn’t some unique failure of will, it’s just really fricking hard to invade a country in the modern context. The Saudis are doing even worse than we did, much more quickly.
The US invasion of Iraq also fits into the Vietnam structure pretty well, as I documented five years ago…
In recent months I’ve realized that there’s a gaping hole in my “Yemen’s Disaster” series. The series does a good job laying out the many different divisions within Yemen, and between the sponsors of differing sides in Yemen’s civil war. But it leaves out the very important role of divisions within the “Saudi Coalition” that has been destroying the country. The United Arab Emirates, supposedly allied with Saudi Arabia, has been pursuing a very different strategy, which is laid out in this video.
I still believe that China will never be able to be a hegemon the way that the British were and the US still is today. I firmly believe that it’s possible for the world to survive the rise of China without World War III.
But that doesn’t mean that the rivalry won’t exist. China will be dominant in Asia by the end of the century, and it is very, very likely to be the richest and most powerful country in the world by that point as well. The question, as I’ve said before, is how we get there. Will it be peacefully, or after another war? I believe that continued growth in the United States is necessary to meet that peaceful result. China won’t be tempted to assert itself militarily if it doesn’t think it can win, so the US needs to fade slowly. Which means it needs to keep growing…
This video explains one of literacy’s most important effects. I’ve long been puzzled by the “Long Peace” we’ve been experiencing since the end of the second World War. Despite what our media tells us, the world is much more peaceful than it has ever been. There has been very little war between great powers since WWII, and the pace of civil wars has slackened greatly since the end of the Cold War as well. Even more importantly, the great powers have not been able to exploit this period of peace to beat up on everybody else they way they have in the past.
Europe experienced a great period of peace from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the Crimean War in the 1850’s. Even that war was a relatively quick, if costly, break in a period of peace stretching up until World War I (1914). During that period of time however, Europe extended over the whole world, crushing indigenous peoples and empires all around the globe. It was peace for Europe, and suffering for everybody else. This time it has been different. This video lays out why Literacy has a lot more to do with this than is currently recognized.
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.