In the Game of Imperialism, Some Players Are Just Better Than Others

In the glory days of the old imperialism, when wearing jodhpurs and pith helmets was the aspiration of many a young British boy as he lay in bed at night, the rules of the game were simple: make commercial inroads into an unsuspecting and preferably defenceless territory; extrapolate vast amounts of natural resources, building supporting infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications, and maps along the way; train a local army to loyally defend your position; and hold on as long as possible. Lose a turn with every insurrection. Additional points for creating self-sustaining, democratic institutions such as a free press, universal adult suffrage, and, eventually, independence of the protégée from the mentoring imperial power.

The last goal seems counterintuitive, but in reality is the most beneficial outcome that can be expected to result from an imperial relationship. The formerly colonized power still bears the scars of imperialism, from fractious cultural, religious, and identity wars to aging rail networks that emphasize resource-to-port channels over internal city to city ones, but has all the benefits of improved infrastructure and democratic ideals. Moreover, it is a modern nation which can compete in the modern arenas of trade and statecraft, sometimes even besting its former rulers. The former imperial power, whose activities can no longer stand the charges of hypocrisy brought up by international scrutiny, benefits from favourable trade agreements, shared culture or history, and a former colony that contributes to an international political system that is stable and free.

The winners of the old game of imperialism were undoubtedly the British. Cases in point: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and, of course, the United States, to name but a few. (Extra bonus points if former colony becomes a “beneficent” imperial power in its own right.) The metrics I use to measure success in this case are from the Economist’s recent exploration of the declining global levels of liberty. It is hard not to notice that in all key indicators of liberty, and growth, former British colonies feature prominently, from innovation, to economy, to democracy. The majority of British colonies succeeded where the majority of colonies of other imperial powers did not because the justifications British imperialists gave of teaching their “wayward colonial children” the meaning of freedom and democracy were contested in kind by the very colonists they were oppressing. More importantly, the colonies had in place a culture of freedom (in many cases fledgling, but present nonetheless) that allowed for ideas of democracy to mature and eventually grow, leading the people to strike out against their imperial overlords.  In the case of Canada, the gospel of democracy took root so firmly that many Canadians were convinced that they demonstrated imperial ideals to a fuller extent than the British, imagining that the centre of the Empire would shift, and to a no more natural place than Canada. Where colonies adopted the autocratic tendencies of the colonists, or where democratic institutions did not take hold as firmly, independence was a story of oppression, violence, and corruption. The majority of French, Belgian, Dutch, German and Spanish colonies ended up this way, in large part due to the failings of the powers that ruled them.

However, somewhere around the last quarter of the twentieth century, the rules of the game of imperialism changed. International watchdogs like the United Nations made it difficult for any would-be imperial power to colonize territories with the sole purpose of resource extraction or other selfish motives; there had to at least be a veneer of altruism, or, at the very least, national or international security. The new rules read differently. (The first rule of the new game of imperialism is that you DO NOT talk about the game of imperialism.) Stage an invasion in the name of securing stability in the short term and democracy in the long term.  Train local armies and police forces and attempt to pay them more than they would receive in bribes to ensure loyalty. Place great emphasis on local culture, and winning “hearts and minds” with soft power like television shows and material goods. This time democracy is the goal, not merely a useful outcome. Bonus points for resource extraction, but only if covert or gained at a third-party-determined “fair market price.” Points deducted for acting without international sanction, for native uprisings, and for civil unrest at home. Failed missions result in the player being removed from the game.

There are no winners in the new game of imperialism. When powerful states do not intervene, failed states and all of the associated chaos of poverty, disease, and terrorism emerge.  When they do, they face constant criticism for not paying enough attention to domestic problems in their own countries. The effort of stabilizing the new “colonies” is compromised, and the mission is never truly successful.

The case of Haiti is instructive and timely. In what Peter Shawn Taylor describes in the Globe & Mail as an early example of the new imperialism, the United States intervened in Haiti in 1915 initially out of fear that another power, such as Germany, might enter to fill the power vacuum created by a violent and public massacre of political protesters and then-President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.  In many ways, the Americans were successful, beneficent imperialists: according to the article, American intervention was responsible for all manner of improvements, from enhanced infrastructure to widespread medical treatments to the near-eradication of corruption in government ranks.  The only real failure was that they did not achieve that crucial last goal of creating self-sustaining democratic institutions before domestic pressure over foreign spending in the early stages of the Depression cased the Americans to withdraw in 1929. In their absence, Haiti fell into a century of violence, corruption, and disrepair.  Game over for America and for Haiti then, and game over today if the mission to create true democracy fails — again.

The alternative then, of course, might have been a German base in the Western Hemisphere from which a war that was often a far too closely matched contest between imperfect democracy and ruthless totalitarianism could have been won.  The alternative now is an unstable, underdeveloped nation prone to falling into a downward spiral of autocracy and economic decline. In other words, nobody wants to cheer for an imperial power, but in the global game of imperialism, there are no alternatives.

NB – I did some additional reading and stumbled across an article by the always-entertaining Niall Ferguson here on this very topic – how a power vacuum might occur in the next century, and what that might mean for the world. Preview: it isn’t pretty.

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