[Assam] [assam] Echoes of the End of Raj
bbaruah at aol.com
Tue Apr 17 17:00:39 IST 2012
This article is from the World edition of the New York Times
today(April 17, 2012):The Opinion Columns.
Echoes of the End of the Raj
By KWASI KWARTENG
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editor, Andrew Rosenthal, follow @andyrNYT.
THE Arab Spring, the threat of Iran as an emerging nuclear power, the
continuing violence in Syria and the American reluctance to get
involved there have all signaled the weakness, if not the end, of
America’s role as a world policeman. President Obama himself said in a
speech last year: “America cannot use our military wherever repression
America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945.
Deep in debt and committed to building its National Health Service and
other accouterments of the welfare state, Britain no longer could
afford to run an empire.
Moreover, Britain, which so proudly ruled the waves a generation ago,
was tired; it lacked the willpower to pursue its imperial destiny.
America’s role as an imperialist is even more fragile, as it never had
Britain’s self-confident faith in its own imperial destiny. Americans
have always been ambivalent about the role of global hegemon.
Today, American retreat is not motivated by traditional isolationism,
but by practical necessity. Like post-World War II Britain,
contemporary America no longer has the financial resources to maintain
an empire — one which, in America’s case, was pursued only
halfheartedly in the first place. Deficits and debt have been more
damaging to dreams of empire than any genuine shift in ideology.
My own parents grew up in the Gold Coast of Africa, as British power
ebbed, so I feel I have a direct connection with this phenomenon of
collapsing empires. The Gold Coast, of course, became Ghana in 1957,
the year after the Suez crisis. Today I am a member of Parliament, so I
have a double perspective on empire.
Much as the Second World War has been identified as the end of the
British Empire, future historians may well see the financial crisis of
2008 as the end of the American empire. Yet, the retreat of American
power, particularly in the Middle East, has potentially left the world
considerably more unstable and uncertain.
America is a much smaller figure than the colossus that seemed to
bestride the world in 1989, when an article titled “The End of
History?” could, paradox though it was, be taken seriously.
The suspicion has always lingered that America was a less than
enthusiastic imperial power. It never sought to administer foreign
lands directly and indefinitely, even though the presence of American
bases in Japan, Germany, Britain and, more lately, in Saudi Arabia did
look like soft imperialism.
During the cold war, America saw itself as the leader of the “free
world,” a claim to moral leadership as bold as that of any empire in
history. Its dominion relied on the force of alliance, direct
assistance and social and economic example, rather than occupation.
Only in the last 10 years has America intervened militarily to decide
who rules in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This assumption of
responsibility as a global policeman was nothing if not the act of an
empire. Yet Americans were always reluctant to admit this.
It was striking that, during this period, neoconservatives espoused a
more overt imperialism. American reluctance to wield the sword of
Britannia was the core of their irritation at their country’s foreign
policy. They exhorted the United States, like a slow, sluggish pupil,
to play a role for which it had no natural inclination.
A hesitancy to get involved in the messy details of international
politics has been a feature of the American body politic since
independence. George Washington’s famous admonition to “avoid foreign
entanglements” is one of history’s most notorious false quotations — a
three-word compression of a more subtle thought about avoiding Europe’s
squabbles. Nowhere, in fact, does that phrase appear in the great
Farewell Address of 1796. Yet subsequent leaders have followed the
accepted version of Washington’s remarks. Later, Woodrow Wilson
preached self-determination abroad, and the Vietnam War taught
Americans that their powers were limited. Today, the neoconservatives
seem like quaint figures from a past that many Americans would rather
forget. In 23 years we have gone from the “end of history,” a world in
which liberal capitalism and democracy seemed utterly dominant, to
President Obama’s rather limp declaration about the limits on what
America can do.
The financial crisis and mounting indebtedness have finally led to an
end to American imperial behavior. It is unlikely, even if the economy
recovers, that the country will enter campaigns with the buoyancy and
naïveté of its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The history of the British Empire suggests that any form of empire is
misguided. First, empire is too expensive. The rise of China and the
emerging world has meant that, even if America rebounds, its economy’s
relative size will be smaller. Surely it will not be as preponderant as
it was in 1945 and 1989. This alone makes multilateral action more
likely than solitary leadership.
Second, as the British discovered, maintaining an empire requires too
many calculations and too much knowledge — experience, even — for any
one power in today’s world even to attempt it.
Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught America those lessons.
Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, is the
author of “Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World.”
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