January 21, 2002
one of those speeches so redolent of the classical tradition that
you can hardly believe it happened in your own lifetime, the American
public were treated, some ten or so years ago, to a
truly senatorial disquisition by West Virginia's Robert Byrd.
His purpose was to decry the decline, if not fall of American civilization,
and to get there he took us back to Rome's sorry fate:
and admirably organized as the Roman fabric appeared in the provinces
and on the frontiers [. . .] rottenness attacked the core of Roman
society. The free middle classes of Italy had almost wholly disappeared.
Adulation was now the chief function of an obsequious Senate. The
people were treated to free bread and circuses, and a rustic yeomanry
no longer made up the backbone of the Roman legions. Paid barbarians
had become the protectors of Rome. Rome's enemies were no longer
on the outside; they were within her bosom.
before [the traditional date for the fall of Rome] 476, the Roman
legions had made their final withdrawal from Britain, never to return.
Long before 476, the Visigoths established a kingdom of their own
in Spain, and the Vandals seized the province of Africa. And long
before 476, Attila's Hunnish hordes traveled at will through Rome's
frontier provinces and invaded Italy. Even more telling than these
military and political signs of decay were the alarms of scholars
and social critics."
can perhaps argue about how important those "alarms" cried
out by the Roman equivalents of Gertrude
Himmelfarb and Roger
Kimball really were, but what we can't or at least those
of us in Britain, and in Spain, and in Africa, can't dispute
is that we knew the empire was over for us when the legions left.
If we are to consider the subject of the coming end of American
empire with any degree of optimism, what are the chances that Dubya's
legions will return home before the new Rome suffers the fate of
the old one?
often during the "war against terror" the sceptical voices
of the right have felt the need to call upon dubious allies like
Edward Said to account for the world round them. There are much
more useful historical voices we can listen to, and one notable
example is the late Nicholas
Mansergh, an historian of Britain's imperial decline. One of
the key insights of his school was to insist upon the importance
of "events on the periphery" to explain why empires act
as they do. That is to say, rather than being efficiently run from
the centre, most policy decisions are entirely reactive to things
that have happened thousands of miles away. Another lesson this
school is keen to teach is the importance for any empire of its
"willing collaborators": no matter what power the metropolitan
state can bring to bear, her imperium ultimately rests upon finding
local supporters to prop up that rule.
that's as interesting as the price of pork, you might reasonably
observe, but what's it got to do with, oh, B52s bombing Afghanistan?
Obviously enough, the point is, who's helping the US do this? And
once you start "helping" the US in its benevolent mission
overseas, how liable are you to escape this particular friendship?
That the US needs her friends to carry out her good work is surely
evident from the recent importance of Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan,
and Uzbekistan and Armenia and Azerbaijan, and, of course, good
old Britain. A batch of old, uneasy, and freshly minted friends
there, but does one ever get to forego friendship with America?
the answer has been no, or not very often at any rate. One country
that knows all too well the cost of "benevolent assimilation"
with the US is the Philippines, and indeed, she stands out in the
postwar period as being the one client to throw off the yoke. There
the great sinew of empire was Subic Bay, and, as I say, quite astoundingly,
there the Americans left, even though they didn't want to. Now,
there's one small qualification to this triumph, and it's that this
opportunity for Manila to act only arose because some useful local
deity caused Mount Pinatubo's vast
volcanic eruption, and this happy fact caused what was intended
as a temporary evacuation of the base.
we all know, Mr. Bin Laden in his foolishness has provided a pretext
American involvement in the Philippines, unconstitutional as
that naturally is under local law. Regardless of whether or not
it succeeds, it remains illustrative of how irresistible imperialism
is once you've acquired the habit. When first America proffered
the hand towards the islands during the 1899-1903 conquest, there
were those who decried what they were doing.
military governor of Tabayas, Major Cornelius Gardener, bravely
condemned the behaviour of his peer governing the next-door province
of Batangas, where the Americans had killed some 100,000 natives.
As historian Stuart Miller puts it, Gardener's "motivation
was more practical than humane. He argued that the 'bitter hatred'
produced by such tactics was not in the best interests of the US
in the long run", and here we are with the finishing line almost
and more recent addition to the roster, is Saudi Arabia. There,
overt deployment of military personnel was only effected with the
Iraq war of 1991. And, seemingly, Riyadh
is asserting herself and she is on the brink of telling Washington
to quit the country.
is one of those things that just breeds conspiracy theories some
hold that maybe the US actually wants out, and that our lunatic
neo-con chums are crazed enough to want to see "regime change"
happen in Saudi too. After all, and this recent war has reinforced
the trend, America has now secured bases in all the Trucial
states the British employed on the Arabian fringe, making the
Saudis dispensable. Their governments are that bit easier to coerce
than the prickly Saudis. So maybe the Saudi commitment has become
a liability, and new developments mean it can be shed. But I wouldn't
count on it, as that would necessitate the one thing Washington
lacks, and that's clever imperialists.
a degree of rank or two above the likes of the Philippines or Saudi
you then have those countries (Britain, Japan even) that resemble
the old federated states of the later Roman Empire, i.e. the larger
and more vicious German tribes, whose usefulness saw them dignified
with the status of "partner" in empire. We could all sit
back and laugh ourselves hoarse at the idea of Britain or Japan
ever attaining the same amount of self-respect as the Philippines,
and asking the Americans to leave. When I worked for the current
leader of the Conservative party, Iain Duncan Smith a bog-standard
Atlanticist I would attempt to raise a smile or two by talking
to Tory MPs about "occupied East Anglia" (lots of US airbases
and intelligence facilities there), and you know, maybe it was the
delivery, but I never did get much in the way of mirth.
Britain we haven't had anything akin to a "Yanqui go home"
moment since the morons of CND attacked the deployment of cruise
missiles in the early '80s. The Tokyo establishment can be even
more relaxed than its London counterpart as most of the disagreeable
aspects of an American military presence aren't even on the Japanese
mainland, but on far-away Okinawa. My point in stressing all of
this is the simple one taught by Mansergh: if there's "guilt"
to be shared about for American empire, it's not just Americans
who are in the dock. My focus is on my own country, and Britain
is, I'm sorry to say, going down for a longer stretch than most.
in the small things, we get it wrong. When the Cold War, whatever
one thought of that, ended, NATO was in every practical sense obsolete,
and the continental commitment embodied in, for instance, the British
Army of the Rhine was instantly a relic. Yet it's still there today,
defending our German pals from God knows what the Danes perhaps?
Even as lickspittle a creature of American foreign policy as Canada
was manly enough to pull all her forces out of mainland Europe.
though really riles me about Britain's passivity as an American
vassal is that the legions will be withdrawn. At some point, and
very soon too, if the United States is to sustain projection of
her power overseas, where it matters, she will have to redeploy
forces from quaint postings such as the European central front.
Thus, what appalls me as a right-wing Tory is that no new national
mythos will be made out of this event: far from us having the glorious
memory to look back on, in which we asked the empire to leave, we'll
be sitting about wondering where it went, and why.
I an American patriot, imperialist or not, I'd find it all equally
depressing. From the point of view of those patriot-imperialists,
there's the small downside to forthcoming events: this is not even
especially sensible imperialism. Any foreign policy that lands the
US with indefensible central Asian commitments, for example, is
quite unutterably stupid.
what separates American empire from, say, the British is that although
both were "acquired in a fit of absence of mind", Dubya's
lacks in the homeland the extent of popular legitimization that
Britain's always had. Whatever harm American imperialism does to
the rest of the world, and however much we out there are in part
to blame for it, US behaviour abroad as currently conducted is just
as popularly unsanctioned as ever it has been, while the US is behaving
in its most suicidal fashion yet. When the legions leave Britain
and the rest of their soft Western postings, and pitch camp in the
East, and when China has had enough of encirclement, and when the
Russians find no common cause with those who would occupy satrapies
rightfully theirs, my money's on the barbarians winning again.