How the Dead Hand of Imperialism Continues to Influence World Politics

British troops on the way to Baghdad, 1917.
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  • March 8, 2021

How Imperial History Shapes Our World
By Samir Puri

We are all in the throes of a hangover, Samir Puri writes, a “great imperial hangover.” He explains in “The Shadows of Empire” that we are living in the “first empire-free millennium” in history and yet the legacy of these empires still powerfully shapes our times. He is aware of the notion of informal empires but makes a strong case that there was something distinct and notable about formal empires, which existed from the days of the oldest human civilizations until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. This juxtaposition — imperial legacies in a postimperial world — is an intriguing idea that proves a clever prism through which to look at the world. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Britain’s exit from the European Union and the breakdowns in Iraq and Syria all have deep roots in an imperial past that still casts shadows on the present.

Once you start to think along these lines, you see the shadows of empires everywhere. The day I began the book, I had been reading about a topic that Puri does not discuss but is one more example of his thesis: the roiling debate about what to do with the hundreds of thousands of artifacts that were, over the centuries, taken from across the globe and now sit proudly in the great museums of the West. In recent history, because of the reach of Western power, most countries have either acted as imperialists or found themselves subjugated, and in both cases their national identity was profoundly shaped by the experience. Even the United States has been deeply affected by imperialism, Puri says, arguing that American slavery was an idea imported from Europe’s empires and was “the ultimate manifestation of colonization, not of land but people.” In fact, the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes has described the historical circumstance of African-Americans as “a colony within a nation.”

Puri, an expert on armed conflict who has worked in the British Foreign Office, makes the case that Britain’s two pivotal decisions of the last several decades — joining the United States in the Iraq war and Brexit — were both crucially conditioned by the country’s imperial hangover. Once the world’s greatest imperial power, Britain clung to the idea that it had the military strength, the diplomatic skill and above all the ambition to shape far-flung parts of the globe. In addition, modern-day Iraq was a British creation, cobbled together in 1920 out of three provinces of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. London could once again decide Baghdad’s fate.

Brexit was animated by a view that Britain was not a country defined by its proximity to Europe. In fact, what had often characterized British nationalism was its separation from the Continent. (In Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” John of Gaunt gives voice to a deep-rooted English nationalism when he describes the island nation as “this precious stone set in the silver sea / Which serves it in the office of a wall / Or as a moat defensive to a house, / Against the envy of less happier lands.”) The leading Brexiteers, including now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, often spoke about a “global Britain,” continuing its historical mission around the world, forging closer ties in particular with its old colonies and dominions from Canada to India to Australia.

The Russian case is in some ways even easier to make. Puri points out that “the evolution of Russia was inextricably linked to its expansion, so much so that it is unclear whether Russia created an empire or the process of imperialism created Russia.” He dates the start of Russia’s European-facing empire to the kingdom of Kievan Rus, which began in the ninth century in Kyiv, the present-day capital of Ukraine. From those modest beginnings grew an empire that at its height, after the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, spanned 11 time zones and comprised almost 200 million people. When you consider this history, Vladimir Putin’s remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century” makes sense, especially if you listen to what he said immediately after: “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” These deep imperial ties with Ukraine help explain why Putin’s brazen annexation of Crimea was broadly popular within Russia.

We enter the postimperial 21st century with an unusual geopolitical dynamic. The two leading powers on the planet, the United States and China, both derive a great deal of their internal legitimacy and purpose from the notion that they are anti-imperial nations. In America’s case, its identity is tied to its birth story of rebelling against the British Empire. In China’s case, every schoolchild is taught that the country’s modern history began with Western imperialism humiliating and crippling the Middle Kingdom for over a century. And yet both countries have informal empires. The American one is a vast network of economic alliances and military bases scattered around the world. China, for its part, is trying to develop something quite similar with its huge Belt and Road Initiative, which may swell to 10 times the size of the Marshall Plan.

How will these two distinctive postimperial superpowers interact in the 21st century? What will be the consequences of the imperial shadows cast in this new, emerging bipolar era? Unfortunately, Puri does not have much to say about any of this. Having provided a fresh perspective on all the issues I have raised above, he offers brief and intelligent speculation, but mostly proceeds to simply recount the imperial histories of major countries or parts of the world. Much of this is well written, comprehensive and judicious, but it is still potted history. Having introduced a fascinating subject, Puri declines to fully engage and explore his own thesis. He seems to imply that this task is left to the reader, but that leaves too much to us, and lets the author of this stimulating book off the hook too easily.