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 don’t want to give you the wrong impression of British Afghanistan policy here. In today’s video I point out that US Afghanistan policy is infinitely dumber than British Afghanistan policy, and that’s very true. But British Afghanistan policy was pretty dumb as well. What they did better was run a leaner and more effective occupation. They’d go in every few decades, kill some folks, and then bribe the folks who were left to not deviate from British policy too much. They had learned early on, in the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1839-1842, how little profit, and how much cost Afghanistan could produce. They had attempted to occupy the place with British and Indian forces, and managed to lose their entire army, with the sole exception of William Brydon, the fellow who graces this video’s thumbnail. So the British Empire wised up, tactically anyway.
What was dumb about British policy is the fact that they were there in the first place. Afghanistan, and much of modern Pakistan were only added to the British Empire out of fear. British leaders, and much of the British public were obsessed with an enemy that didn’t pose much of a real threat. The Russian Tsar was supposedly going to sweep out of the steppes and threaten Britain’s lucrative colonies along the Asian coasts. This was always a ridiculous proposition. British India had more railroads than all of the Russian Empire combined up until the 20th century. In the 19th century the Russians had put together a very large, and largely empty empire across the top of Asia. If they had tried their hand at Afghanistan or the Punjab they would have gotten their heads handed to them even more quickly than the British had. Even this was unlikely, because the Russians probably lacked the capacity to get a full 19th century army into the area anyway. But the British fell prey to irrational fears, and ended up taking on a whole lot of lands and responsibilities they had no real use for. Which ended up destroying their empire.
I probably don’t have to emphasize the obvious parallels between what the British did in Afghanistan, and what the US is doing in the Middle East out of fear of Iran today. Both of these policies are idiotic. So while the British may have done a better job managing Afghanistan, the fact that they were there at all means that there is little more to admire about British Afghanistan policy than there is in US Afghanistan policy.
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 may not strike you as very serious. But seriousness is the whole point. We use Iran to justify a lot of bad behavior. Just a week or so back, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that we’re going to indefinitely hold territory in Syria because we don’t like the fact that Iran has influence in a country it has had influence in for decades. We use the “seriousness” of the Iranian threat to ourselves and Israel to justify stuff. This doesn’t mean we’re actually serious about the Iranian threat.
Because if we were serious about countering Iran, we’d be using every possible opening. We’d have the ability to both deal with them diplomatically, and oppose them militarily in proxy wars, just like the Cold Warriors of Yore. But we don’t. Because nothing about US foreign policy is serious. Other than its consequences for the world. This video is a thought experiment, asking how we’d tread Iran’s president Rouhani if we were truly serious about countering threats from Iran.