Ewan joins the conversation on this blog with a lengthy response to my post Idle Speculation. He objects to my characterization of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy as imperialistic, and after a series of observations about Putin’s behavior and that of the United States, he remarks “Compared to the US, Russia is the grown up.”
I shall not dispute Ewan’s factual assertions – as I remarked at the beginning of the post, I know little or nothing about these matters and warned readers to take them for what they were worth. But the remark that I quote, I believe, reveals a way of thinking about international affairs that is fundamentally wrong, and I shall spend some time explaining why. Now, I have written about this before, and like many writers, I am in the grips of the bizarre fantasy that someone who has read anything by me must surely have read everything by me, but, to paraphrase that great fantasist Ronald Reagan, though I believe in my heart that this is true, I know in my head that it is not. So here goes.
If, like me, you have spent your entire adult life inveighing against the self-congratulatory ideological mystifications of America’s imperial projects, and if it makes you, as it makes me, “faintly nauseous” [to quote James Comey] each time you hear an American apologist describe this country as “the good guy” on the international scene, you might be seduced into a transvaluation of values, leading you to call America the bad guy and America’s opponent the good guy [or “the grown up.”] But that would be a mistake.
The world is a complex array of nation-states, some of which have been imperial powers [Spain, France, Germany, Great Britain, Mongolia, among others], some of which are currently imperial powers [China, Russia, the United States], and the rest of which would be imperial powers if they could. There are two models of imperium, or Ideal Types, as Max Weber would have labeled them. One model is the ceaseless expansion of the homeland into contiguous territories – China, Russia, and to some extend Germany exemplify this model. The other is the projection of imperial power overseas or to non-contiguous territories – England, Mongolia, Spain, Portugal, and France come to mind.
The United States has pursued a rather complex mix of these two styles of imperialism. Very early in its history, it declared the Western Hemisphere its natural sphere of interest, projecting military and economic power to a number of places in Central and South America. At the same time, America’s principal imperial project for its first hundred years was the forceful incorporation of all the territory to the west and southwest of the original thirteen states, ending only when America reached the Pacific Ocean. Once that Manifest Destiny had been accomplished, America reverted to the alternative model of imperialism, projecting its power into the Pacific and the Northwest.
The Second World War ended with two great empires bestriding the world like Colossi: The Soviet Union and America. The Soviet Union had successfully expanded both east into Central Asia and west into the Baltic and Eastern Europe, incorporating a contiguous territory spanning eleven time zones. America had, in effect, inherited the imperial purple of Great Britain and France, and now, seventy years later, has its troops stationed in upwards of one hundred fifty countries. Things did not always go smoothly for the two hegemons, of course. The Soviet Union’s Afghanistan adventure ended badly, contributing to its eventual breakup. America ill-considered attempt to assume France’s role in Southeast Asia was so disastrous that it was forced to reconstitute its military force to repair the damage.
In all of this, there are no good guys and bad guys, no grownups and wayward children. There are just states [not individuals, remember] expanding their imperial reach until they come up against other states strong enough to oppose them successfully. The underlying purposes of these expansions vary. America’s motives are transparently those of international capital. China’s motives are in part those of state capitalism and in part an effort at internal consolidation and stabilization [Owen Lattimore’s classic work, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, is, as I have observed before on this blog, a useful guide.] Russia’s motives appear to be in part economic and in part revanchist.
What then is a man or woman of the left to think? If there are no good guys and no bad guys, where do I hang my hat and my heart? I can only offer the answer that satisfies me. Put not your trust in princes, as the Good Book says [Psalm 146, chapter 23, verse 5]. Choose your comrades in this world, those with whom you make common cause, and then fight alongside them for what you and they believe to be right and just.