Merry Christmas Everybody! I’m heading out of town in a couple hours, but I’m super psyched to be able to fill one of the year’s biggest gaps by putting out a Christmas eve video on Tunisia! I intend to do a better job of keeping on top of Tunisian and North African politics in the new year. In September and October they held a series of elections that I am very late in covering. Tunisia is probably the most important country in the Middle East/North Africa region. There’s a distinct chance that what they’re doing now will be remembered long after the decades of nastiness further East have been forgotten. One can hope anyway…
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?
I occasionally enjoy running one of these snippets, and you may see more of them. Once a month I do a live chat that ends with a lengthy Q & A. Occasionally I like one of my answers enough that I think it deserves being re-cut into its own video. This is probably the least articulate of the videos I have done this with, but I think the anger is appropriate, and I think the necessary point is completely made. What do you think of these sorts of videos? Fun to surface them, or best to leave well enough alone?
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!
Honestly, I think this video is the most punk rock thing I’ve ever done. I pride myself on occasionally making videos that nobody agrees with, but I think I may have really outdone myself with this one. In the series so far, I’ve laid out that my vision of what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries doesn’t exactly accord with the standard view, but I’ve been pretty delicate about it. With this one I go ahead and torch a whole bunch of historical pieties in the loudest way possible. Yes, as a title “European Empire is a Myth” is outrageous, and that’s kind of the point. This is YouTube after all, and I’ve got to take shots at virality occasionally.
At the end of the day, though, once you think about it, I hope you’ll agree that the people who will be most offended by this episode are Nazis, white supremacists, British nationalists and possibly an Oxbridge historian or two who doesn’t have a sense of humor. I think the upending of world history I do here serves a purpose. Or perhaps I’m just an asshole. You be the judge!
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.