Vol. 3    Issue 09   16-30 September 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Professor A. R. Momin

Imperial America: End of a disastrous dream?

On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy, by Eric Hobsbawm (Pantheon Books, New York, 2008)

Eric Hobsbawm, an internationally renowned historian, has been described as the greatest living historian of our time. He has written over 20 highly acclaimed books. His trilogy of 19th century Europe, comprising The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848I (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987), are considered among the classics of modern historiography. His best-selling autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (2003), has been translated into several European and Asian languages.

The essays in this slim volume seek to survey and analyze, retrospectively, the major events that shaped the 20th century and to reflect on the global scenario at the beginning of the 21st century. They supplement Hobsbawm's previous work, notably The Age of Extremes (1994).

Hobsbawm says that the 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history in the sense that the brutal wars waged during the century took a staggering toll of human lives. According to him, the total number of deaths caused by or associated with wars has been estimated at 187 million. In World War I only 5% of those who died were civilians whereas in World War II the figure dramatically increased to 66 per cent. Today, 80 to 90% of those affected by war are civilians. The 20th century will also be remembered by the dislocation and forced displacement of millions of people worldwide. It is estimated that at the end of 2003 there were perhaps 40 million refugees inside or outside their own country, a figure comparable to that of displaced people after World War II.

A central theme of the book is the end of the era of empires. Hobsbawm points out that the two world wars hastened the disintegration of empires and that the closing decade of the 20th century witnessed the demise of the Soviet empire in East and Central Europe.

A widespread claim during the era of imperialism was that empires brought civilization and enlightenment to culturally backward people, that European imperialism was motivated by a benign civilizing mission. Hobsbawm says that this claim is doubtful, though not entirely spurious. From the third to the seventeenth century, most empires were the products of military conquest by warring tribes from the outer edges of the Asian and Mediterranean civilizations. However, these conquests brought little to the conquered people. "Only the Arabs, who carried their written language and their new religion with them, brought something new" (pp. 8- 9).

Hobsbawm observes that though the era of empires is gone, so far nothing has effectively replaced it and "in practice we live in what we can now recognize as a deeply unstable form of global disorder both internationally and within states" (p. 5). He concludes that "there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, let alone the prospect of a lasting global hegemony…..by a single state, such as America, however great its military force. The age of empires is dead" (p. 13).

Hobsbawm dwells at considerable length on the past and future of world empires, and on the prospects for war and peace in the 21st century. He examines these two issues in the context of the enormous and unprecedented developments in technology and economic activity and globalisation. He opines that war in the 21st century is not likely to be as murderous as it was in the 20th century, but the prospect of a century of peace seems to be remote (p. 34).

Hobsbawm points out that globalisation has exercised a profound political and cultural impact, especially in its currently dominant form of a rapidly expanding global free market. He makes some perceptive observations about globalisation. In the first place, free-market globalisation has brought about a conspicuous rise in economic and social inequalities around the world, both within societies as well as internationally. Rising inequalities, according to him, have fuelled economic instability and political and social tensions. Second, the impact of globalisation is "felt most by those who benefit from it least". Hence the growing polarisation of views between its beneficiaries-such as entrepreneurs and high-tech professionals-and those who are untouched by it. Third, while the actual scale of globalisation remains modest, its political and cultural impact is disproportionately large. Thus, immigration is a major political and social issue in most Western countries even though the world share of people living outside the country of their origin is no more than 3 per cent.

America and the quest for empire

Nearly half a century ago, William Appleman Williams (d. 1990), one of the most prominent historians of American diplomacy, argued in his influential book The Tragedy of American Democracy (1959) that much of the history of the United States reflects a persistent search for an empire. Williams was denounced as being pro-communist. However, in recent years America's imperial project has been the subject of considerable academic and political discussion. Nial Ferguson, in his widely-read book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2005), has kindled a renewed interest in the subject. In his recently published book Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion (2008), Walter Nugent argues that the US has always been an imperial nation and that it acquired much of its present territory by aggressive means. America's imperialist expansionism is evidenced in the genocide and annihilation of the country's indigenous population, in the conquests of Mexico, Hawaii and Philippines, and in the invasion of Vietnam.

In the past few decades, the US has systematically undermined the sovereignty and autonomy of many countries, defied international conventions, and violated human rights. Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential and vociferous critics of American expansionism, has pointed out that the pursuit of global hegemony has often led the US to support a variety of terrorist criminal wars. The US was responsible for the unlawful use of force against Nicaragua. It is the only country which has been criticized by the International Court of Justice for carrying out terrorism in Nicaragua. In Latin America, the US was responsible for the overthrow of democratic regimes and for legitimizing the rule of ruthless dictators. The US regularly denounces various countries as "rogue states" and "axis of evil" and has excluded them from global financial institutions because they refused to submit to the dictates of Washington. At an international seminar held at Harvard University in 1997, it was reported that the elites of countries comprising nearly two-thirds of the world's people-Chinese, Russians, Arabs, Muslims, Africans and Indians-see the US as the single greatest threat to their societies and as a menace to their integrity, autonomy, prosperity and freedom of expression. They view the US as intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical, and engaging in financial imperialism and intellectual colonialism (quoted in Samuel P. Huntington, "The Lonely Superpower", Foreign Affairs (March-April 1999).

The US has one of the most deplorable records in ratifying international conventions aimed at the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has often vetoed many UN resolutions designed to enforce the human rights of refugees and displaced persons. Consider, for example, the UN Resolution 194, which affirms the rights of the Palestinian refugees who had fled their homeland or had been expelled during the 1948 war to return to their land of birth. In 1993 the Clinton administration vetoed against this resolution along with Israel. In fact, the US has the dubious distinction of having used its veto power more often than any other member of the Security Council. The 2008 annual report of Amnesty International says that the US has "distinguished itself in recent years through its defiance of international law".

America's unilateralism and expansionism have engendered deep resentment across the world. Sometime ago, a British diplomat remarked that "one reads about the world's desire for American leadership only in the US. Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism". In March 1998, while reflecting on the former American president Bill Clinton's visit to South Africa, Nelson Mandela strongly rejected a trade agreement with the US that would have limited transactions with any third country. He declared: "We resist any attempt by any country to impose conditions on our freedom of trade. My country rejects another state's having the arrogance to tell us where we should go or which countries should be our friends. We cannot accept that a state assumes the role of the world's policeman".

Hobsbawm notes that one of the most notable events that took place at the beginning of the 21st century was the decision of the US government in 2001 to "assert a single-handed world hegemony, denouncing hitherto accepted international conventions, reserving its right to launch wars of aggression and other military operations wherever it wanted to, and actually doing so".

Hobsbawm presents a powerful and devastating critique of America's hegemonic expansionism and its brazen disregard of international law and norms of civilized behaviour. He says that the answer to the question whether the historically unprecedented project of global domination by a single state is possible, and whether the admittedly overwhelming military superiority of the US is adequate to establish it, is no" (p. 53). He emphasizes that the most obvious danger of war today arises from the global ambition of an uncontrollable and apparently irrational government in Washington (p. 58).

America's political establishment is evidently in the grip of a curious mix of megalomania and paranoia. Hobsbawm points out that America has only ideologically defined enemies: those who reject the American way of life, wherever they are (p. 80). Tragically, America's megalomaniac foreign policy has brought about its international isolation. As Hobsbawm points out, probably for the first time in its history, an internationally almost isolated America is unpopular among most governments and peoples (p. 56). It is quite evident, he adds, that the US is trying to maintain its eroding global hegemony by means of politico-military force and in so doing promoting disorder, conflict and aggression.

Imperialism of human rights

Some people argue that armed cross-border intervention is legitimate and sometimes necessary to preserve or establish human rights in an era of growing global violence, disorder and barbarism. For some this implies the desirability of a global imperial hegemony and specifically one exercised by the world's lone superpower, the USA. This view, which Hobsbawm describes as the imperialism of human rights, entered public debate in the course of the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s.

Hobsbawm argues that the justification for such intervention is fundamentally flawed because such interventions in situations where the US has no geopolitical or economic interests are quite incidental to its goals and priorities. He points out that US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were not undertaken for humanitarian reasons. Furthermore, neither the invasion of Afghanistan nor the Iraq war achieved the ostensible objective set out at the beginning: the establishment of democratic regimes in the region. Both proved to be lengthy, massively destructively and bloody and without a prospect of conclusion. For the Iraqi people, whose liberation was the official excuse for the war, the situation is worse than before.

Hobsbawm points out that there could be some justification for armed interventions if they are brief, produced immediate benefits and lasting improvements and have no imperial implications (as in the case of the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam that put an end to the barbaric regime of Pol Pot in 1978, and the overthrow of Idi Amin's regime of terror in Uganda by Tanzania in 1979).

Nemesis of hubris and megalomania

The celebrated Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the most grievous temptation is self-adulation. This is true of individuals as well as societies and nations. The US seems to have fallen a prey to this insidious, self-destructive impulse. Self-adulation and megalomania contain the seeds of their own destruction. America's pursuit of a megalomaniac foreign policy has landed her in an unenviable situation where, as Aaron David Miller, a former US State Department official, says in his newly released book Too Much Too Promised Land (2008), America is not liked, not feared and not respected. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently wrote that cynical and negative attitudes towards America that were not too long ago confined to the hard left in Europe are now found across the political spectrum. A recent survey found that 68% of Germans, 67% of French and even 52% of Britons disapprove of US leadership. In a recent survey for the opinion pollsters Forsa, the majority of respondents in Germany deem George W. Bush to be the biggest single threat to world peace.

The continued occupation of Iraq by the US-led forces and their brazen violation of human rights have exposed the hypocrisy and deceit of the US administration and have reinforced America's international isolation. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country since the invasion and an equal number have been displaced within the country. Hundreds of civilians are being killed every day. The Iraq war has resulted in over 4,000 US combat deaths and more than 16,000 US soldiers have been grievously wounded. In the last five years the US has spent close to $1 trillion on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In President Bush's 2008 budget, a staggering $623 billion have been earmarked for military spending, more than the combined military budget of the rest of the world. The failure of the US project in Iraq seems almost certain, as Jonathan Steele argues in his newly published book Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq (2008). On 26 August, an American air strike killed 90 civilians, including 60 children. The UN says it has convincing evidence about the incident. Commenting on the incident, The Economist wrote that "if America fails in Afghanistan, as it might, it will be remembered there for killing children" (30 August 2008).

In the past couple of years, a spate of books written by highly influential writers and diplomats has highlighted the rapidly eroding international credibility of the US. Al Gore, the former US vice-president, in his book The Assault on Reason (2007) has launched a blistering attack on the US foreign policy and on the Bush administration. He asserts that "reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions". He argues that the fiasco in Iraq stems from President Bush's use of a "counterfeit combination of misdirected vengeance and misguided dogma to dominate the national discussion, bypass reason, silence dissent and intimidate those who questioned his logic both inside and outside the administration". Al Gore emphasizes that the Bush administration's pursuit of unilateralism in its foreign policy has isolated the US in an even more dangerous world. Farid Zakaria, in his The Post-American World (2008) argues that, with the spectacular rise of countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia, the US will no longer dominate the global economy, orchestrate geopolitics or overwhelm cultures.

The erosion of America's international clout and credibility was manifest during and after the recent invasion of Georgia by a resurgent Russia. Following the invasion, when President Bush demanded that Russian leaders reject the Russian parliament's appeal to recognize the independence of south Ossetia and Abkhazia, within 24 hours the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced his country's recognition of the two Georgian enclaves. Taking advantage of the evident decline of American hegemony and flush with newly acquired petrodollars, Russia is set to challenge America's privilege to invade and occupy other countries. Significantly, President Medvedev said Russia would reject US dominance of world affairs in a unipolar world.

The unfolding global scenario seems to suggest that the terrifying American dream of world hegemony is nearing its end. One could not agree more with Hobsbawm when he says, "To give America the best chance of learning to return from megalomania to rational foreign policy is the most immediate and urgent task of international politics" (pp. 58-59). The moot question is whether Barack Obama or John McCain will succeed in cutting the Gordian knot. Only time will tell.

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