The Joys of Empire

I suppose it’s time to write something about Robert Kaplan’s awful “Imperialism is Actually Good” hot take from Foreign Policy a couple of weeks ago. First I need to confess something. Every time I read a piece like Kaplan’s (or like Graeme Wood’s “ISIS is really very Islamic” piece from March, though in that case I was also on vacation when it was published), I kind of shut down a little in my brain. I start to imagine the thousand thinkpieces that are going to be spawned from this one, and it exhausts me before a single one of them has actually been written. So I try to ignore them for a while until I think it’s safe to revisit the piece and some of the responses it generated and try to get a fresh handle on it. Maybe it’s the amateur historian in me that needs to wait until some time has passed before I comment.

Kaplan’s piece generated so much heat that first Foreign Policy changed its headline (from “It’s Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East” to “The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East”), and Kaplan himself added a postscript where he explained that he hadn’t chosen the provocative original headline and, look, he’s not saying that we need to bring imperialism back, he’s just saying that things were better when empires ruled the unruly troublemaking peoples. And, in Kaplan’s defense, he’s got a newer piece out now that actually argues for less US engagement in the Middle East, not more. So where a lot of the initial responses to Kaplan’s piece attacked him as being some kind of neo-imperialist nutter, I’ll take him at his word and treat him as merely an imperial nostalgia nutter. And one who doesn’t really know his history very well; take Kaplan’s description of the Ottoman Empire, the first of the three empires (the second is the colonial mandates that were put in place after World War I and the third is America’s soft empire of the post-World War II era) whose successive collapses have led to regional chaos today:

First, Middle Eastern chaos demonstrates that the region has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. For hundreds of years, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia had few territorial disputes. All fell under the rule of an imperial sovereign in Istanbul, who protected them from each other. That system collapsed in 1918, unleashing the demon of national, ethnic, and sectarian disputes over who controls which territory at what border precisely.

Kaplan has two problems here. First, if we grant that the Ottoman Empire served as a bulwark against “the demon of national, ethnic, and sectarian disputes” over its lifetime, then we still have to reckon with the fact that this bastion of order and stability engaged in a near-constant series of wars throughout the duration of its existence. Did people living in modern Iraq or Azerbaijan, the front lines in the 200 year long Ottoman-Safavid rivalry, appreciate how the Ottomans controlled the demon, or were they too busy getting out of the way of yet another invading Ottoman army? What about folks living in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Russians and Ottomans, for example, went to war with each other no fewer than seven times? Was that a particularly stable time for them?

Kaplan’s second problem is that the empire didn’t really do a great job of containing our friend the demon, as witnessed by the fact that nationalist movements in Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and elsewhere stripped the empire of most of its European holdings long before World War I brought the whole thing to an end (that “collapse” in 1918 was more like the culmination of a long, slow decline). Even moderate Arab nationalism was one of the levers the British used to spur the Arab Revolt in 1916-1918. The fact is that “nationalism” was still a pretty new phenomenon even when World War I rolled around, so it’s fairly ahistorical to argue that the Ottomans were somehow tamping down nationalist sentiment all those centuries before that. Ottoman collapse didn’t unleash pent-up nationalist strife so much as the development of nationalism helped to bring about the end of the weakened Ottoman Empire.

While we’re on that subject, though, one might wonder after reading Kaplan why, if the Ottoman Empire was so nice and stable, all those Balkan communities were so keen on fighting to win their independence from it. See, one reason why many of the states that succeeded that empire (and not just in the Arab world) and the European colonial empires have struggled so much in their independence is because, hey, empires suck. They tend to exploit peripheral territories and they hollow out any sense of local cohesion or capacity for self-governance in the name of preserving imperial control. When they inevitably collapse, and it is inevitable, they frequently leave behind chaos and untested local elites who are unable to cope with that chaos except through totalitarianism, which in the long run just continues the degradation begun by the former empire. For rational people, this is an argument against imperialism, but Kaplan sees the destruction wrought by empire and says, “man, if only we could get another empire in here to fix this stuff.” That’s pretty bizarre, isn’t it?

Kaplan also finds himself on shaky historical ground when he starts talking about the issue of borders and “artificial” versus “age-old” states:

Among the states affected by the current upset, two kinds have been discernible. First, there are the age-old clusters of civilization. These are places that have been states in one form or another going back as far as antiquity, and thus have evolved sturdy forms of secular identity that have risen above ethnicity and religious sect. Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt are the most striking in this category. If one looks at a map of Roman sites along the North African coast, one will see that the map is crowded with settlements where these countries are located, and relatively absent of settlements in the vast stretches in-between of Algeria and Libya. In other words, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt are historically definable. Whatever tumult and regime changes they have experienced in the course of the Arab Spring, their identities as states have never been in question. And so the issues in these countries have been about who rules and what kind of government there should be, not about whether or not a state or central government is even possible.

The second group of Middle Eastern states is even more unstable. These take the form of vague geographical expressions and they are places with much weaker identities — and, in fact, many have identities that were invented by European imperialists. Libya, Syria, and Iraq fall most prominently into this category. Because identity in these cases was fragile, the most suffocating forms of authoritarianism were required to merely hold these states together. This is the root cause for the extreme nature of the Qaddafi, Assad, and Hussein regimes, which practiced levels of repressions far more severe than those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Algeria, also an artificial state, essentially invented by the French, has experienced remote and sterile authoritarian rule, and now faces an uncertain transition given the declining health of its ruler, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999. Jordan, too, is a vague geographical expression, but has enjoyed moderate governance through the genius of its ruling Hashemites and the overwhelming economic and security support this small country has received from the United States and Israel. Yemen may also be an age-old cluster of civilization, but one always divided among many different kingdoms due to its rugged topography, thus ruling the territory as one unit has always been nearly impossible.

Only suffocating totalitarian regimes could control these artificial countries formed from vague geographical expressions. When these regimes collapsed they left behind an utter void. For between the regime at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom, all intermediary forms of social and political organization were eviscerated long before by such regimes. Totalitarianism was the only answer to the end of Western imperialism in these artificial states, and totalitarianism’s collapse is now the root cause of Middle East chaos.

This bit of Kaplan’s piece was thoroughly refuted by

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial borders argument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.

Moreover, supra-national entities, like the United Arab Republic in the Middle East and the Mali Federation in West Africa, fell apart under local and national political constraints. This suggests that, counter to Kaplan’s claims, national distinctions matter, even when colonial powers drew the borders of what became postcolonial states. And Marc Lynch and others have recently demonstrated the ways in which national identity remains highly salient in the Middle East. Kaplan’s “artificial” nations can in fact show a high degree of coherence and nationalist sentiment, even in the face of ongoing political, social and economic turmoil.

The breakdown of these “artificial” states has led to the ride of what Kaplan calls “indigenous regional powers”:

Overlaying this meltdown of vague geographical expressions and the less severe weakening of age-old clusters of civilization has been the rise of indigenous regional powers such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a great, old-world civilization on one hand and a ruthless and radicalized sub-state on the other. This is what accounts for its dynamic effectiveness around the region. A Persian empire has been based in one form or another on the Iranian Plateau since antiquity. Thus, rather than face political identity problems like the Arabs, Iranians are blessed with a cultural self-certainty comparable to that of the Indians and Chinese.

Whereas Iran is the Shiite node of power in the newly sectarian Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the Sunni node. Saudi Arabia, compared to Iran, is the artificial creation of a single extended family. The country the Saudi family governs does not territorially configure with the Arabian Peninsula to the extent that Iran configures with the Iranian Plateau. Nevertheless, the House of Saud has impressively navigated its way over the decades through immense social transformation at home and a tumultuous security situation abroad. And the recent high-level personnel changes engineered by the new king, Salman, including the replacement of the crown prince and foreign minister, indicates the absolute determination of this dynasty to readjust its policies in order not to let Iran dominate the region.

This ascribes a degree of internal unity to Iran and Saudi Arabia (and Turkey, though he doesn’t go into any detail where Turkey is concerned) that simply doesn’t exist. There are at least four separatist movements currently active in Iran that I can name off the top of my head: Kurdish and Azeri Turk in the northwest, Arab in Khuzestan in the southwest, and Baloch in Baluchistan in the southeast. Saudi Arabia has a large historic historic Shiʿa population in the east that frequently chafes under Riyadh’s control, and Turkey of course has the Kurds. You can’t just ignore or gloss over these things in an effort to assert that the three states currently dominating the Middle East are doing so because their borders somehow naturally coincide with their own national identities and are thus not “artificial.”

Kaplan’s other big problem, it seems to me, is really at the core of his whole argument, which is the question of what “empire” means. Lumping the Ottoman Empire, which at least at its height directly ruled the vast territory under its banner, in with the supposed Pax Americana of the 20th century makes for a pretty broad definition of “empire,” you know? But even using Kaplan’s broad definition doesn’t really help his argument. Instead of looking to the loss of empire as the cause of the current situation in the Middle East, Juan Cole suggests that we’d be much better off looking at what those empires, particularly the colonial empires, did while they were in charge, plus at a whole host of more recent challenges:

The Middle East is not facing state collapse because of the lack of empire. European empires themselves drew lines in the desert and instituted policies favoring minorities and dividing and ruling, which continue to haunt the region. A long-term drought has driven millions of farmers from their land in this region, a drought exacerbated by the extra heat in the atmosphere caused by climate change. Water shortages in Raqqa in Syria or Taiz in Yemen are severe, and underpin some of the social turmoil. The collapse of the socialist state after the fall of the Soviet Union and its deterioration into a rule of oligarchs under the impact of neoliberal (market fundamentalist) policies pushed by the West further destabilized these societies. The youth bulge, with hundreds of thousands of new workers trying to enter the work force annually, has presented challenges to these governments that they were unable to overcome. In any case, world regions do witness a great deal of turmoil in modern history. There was a time when Southeast Asia was in flames. It didn’t get back on track from the 1980s forward via Western neocolonialism. Indeed, the US Vietnam War had contributed to the destabilization of Laos and Cambodia.

The collapse or withdrawal of empire generally does leave a period of chaos in its wake, but anybody who’s really paying attention ought to be able to see that it’s the empires that actually create those problems in the first place. Prescribing more empire to fix problems created by empire is, as Jeet Heer writes, a bit like prescribing a drinking binge to a suffering alcoholic. And mourning the loss of empire really misses the point pretty badly.

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