Puerto Rico should not be a partisan political issue in the United States. The Democrats contemplate the idea of Puerto Rican statehood with glee, imagining that the Spanish speaking public will automatically vote for their party. Donald Trump is using Puerto Rico as yet another stage for his performative racist bullshit. Both sides are missing out on how important the island is to US national security.
This is part of a troubling trend in US politics that continues to grow. We’re really in the last couple decades of being able to ignore everything about world politics. Instead of using this time to position ourselves more intelligently, we’re turning more and more of our national security issues into partisan footballs. Iran, Israel, Puerto Rico, and now Ukraine have become partisan issues, making everybody dumber, and making the world a more dangerous place. Today’s video is a small attempt to push back against this wave of stupid.
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.
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?
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.
The story I’m telling in today’s video is a bit reductive. It must seem crazy, or even a little racist to try to boil all of history down to the actions and power of two Atlantic empires, the British and the American. I am aware that this vision of history is easy to argue against. But as weird as it is, I think it’s definitely saner than the standard view. The 19th and the second half of the 20th centuries are often described as if they were stable systems, governed by agreement, or at least peaceful competition between great powers. The longer I look at these issues, the more convinced I become that that’s not really what’s going on. The stability in both systems was underpinned by hegemonic power. British in the 19th, American in the 20th. The implications of this are rather grim. Looking at history this way doesn’t flatter the British or the Americans, it heaps guilt on them. That’s why British and US propagandists are so obsessed with the idea of competition.
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?”