I think about history a lot. And when historians look back to the beginning of this century, I’m beginning to get the sense that the only story they will be able to tell is one of US imperial consolidation. This could easily be just one part of a three-parter, but I don’t think I’m going to bother to tell the other parts of the story, because they are adequately covered elsewhere. Most know that US oil and gas is now dominant in the world, and that the US dollar is stronger than it has ever been. But few understand how much our own foreign policy disasters cleared the way for that dollar and petro-supremacy. With today’s video I lay that out…
History can seem predictable sometimes. We know how it turned out, so we assume that the countries that are powerful today had somewhat predictable paths to power. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the countries we’ve come to expect to have done well, did well. No surprises there. The story of Egypt’s 19th century provides a counterpoint to that complacency. There was a lot about its story that was quite similar to the stories of the Japanese and German world-beaters we are more familiar with. In the 1830s, an African country was, quite successfully, intervening in Europe. If a few things had gone differently, Egypt might have ended up as one of the world’s great powers.
It all went wrong of course. And the British had a lot to do with this. But too some extent, it was also just bad luck. There was nothing to guarantee that Japan or Germany would be successful countries. There wasn’t even anything guaranteeing that the United States would have been as successful an experiment as it has been. It’s all much more up in the air than we might think. This is a little terrifying, but also a little exciting. Today’s video on Egypt talks about what could have been.
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.
A certain kind of commenter has real problems with videos like this one. It compares the trajectory of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping to a mid 19th century French dictator. Some see the idea of historical comparisons as ineffective, or even racist. To those who say it’s ineffective, I am forced to agree. It’s not like what happened to Napoleon III will predict exactly the path that Xi Jinping’s rule will take. But I never claimed it would. This video only talks about the surprising parallels, it makes no claims for the future. History is a treasure trove of events, processes, and situations. None of it will predict exactly what happens, but aspects are often similar. There’s no harm, and certainly no prophecy in drawing out parallels the way that this video does. Some other commenters, both Chinese and Western, claim that it’s ridiculous to compare China to European history. Both of them hold on to the idea that there’s something intrinsically different about the Chinese, and I’m either being racist, or not racist enough by assuming easy parallels with Europeans. I think that’s just balderdash. Chinese people are people too, and despite the scale and age of their country, it moves in similar ways.
Vague similarity to past situations is all I’m claiming here. I’m not claiming to know how Xi Jinping’s rule will end. But I am trying to make the case that Xi Jinping’s assumption of dictatorial power is something that we’ve seen before in modern history. Many in the US are reacting with panic to the idea of a great power backsliding in this way. They are acting as if it’s somehow unprecedented. It’s not. That’s all this video is saying.
One of the many irritating things about US foreign policy is its complete lack of imagination. We just keep running the same old scripts over and over. World War II, probably the US’s best war, and really the only one that can be called “good” in the 20th century, still provides the mental models for most foreign policy practitioners. This comes about in very conscious ways, such as the closing in on a century long insistence that everybody the US doesn’t like is Hitler, but I think it comes about in unconscious ways too.
In today’s video, I talk about the way that US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s foreign policy directly echoes FDR’s. They both wanted war, though for very different reasons. John Bolton is using similar tools, and as the past week illustrates he’s getting perilously close to bringing about the same results. But unlike FDR, he has no noble purpose. This is some scary stuff. But it’s also pitiful. We’ve advanced so much as a world over the past 70 years. It’s profoundly disappointing that the most powerful people in it are playing out scripts from another era.
Today’s video skirts an interesting question. How much do the US people know about the power our government, financial and legal sectors exercise in the world? My sense is not much. I have this, perhaps naive, hope that if they did have a better sense of that power, they would want the US government to use that power more responsibility. Instead, at this point we’ve got a government and media that actively misleads the people on this topic, and often misleads itself.
A key part of Washington DC’s ability to benefit from ever increasing defense budgets is keeping people scared. Emphasizing that US financial and legal power is capable of shutting down almost any real threat would kind of sabotage that effort. So we pretend that places like Russia and China are somehow independent actors that can do us harm, rather than stakeholders than are almost as wrapped up in benefiting from the status quo as the US is. I dunno. It’s something I think about a lot.
This one answers a very specific question. Turkey has been acting in ways that the US and the EU disapprove of for at least four years now. Elements of the problem go much farther back, but up until the Gezi park protests in 2013, and the accompanying crackdown, the West was pretty much on board. That hasn’t been the case for quite a while now. But it’s only recently, in the past few months that real cracks between Turkey and Western countries have become visible. Why did it take so long?