28 January 2008

End of empires

We all know the subjects best avoided with particular people, or with particular groups of people: topics which cause irresolvable arguments, reach no conclusion, and leave both sides bruised afterwards. In yesterday's HMD post I strayed into one such minefield, offending almost everyone at once.

For me, with most US Americans, one of those no go areas is the idea that the USA might not be seen from outside as an unalloyed force for good in the world. Some become angry at this suggestion; others are hurt; there are those who don't believe that such a premise could possibly be advanced seriously, so assume it must be a joke; some simply can't grasp the idea at all. This what it must have been like when talking to my own compatriots, a hundred years ago, at the height of the British Empire. I am, just about, old enough to remember some former French colons from Algerian days who saw France in the same light. It's a set of blinkers which comes with overwhelming power and reach. Imperialists are incapable of believing that everyone doesn't love them.

Along with that blindness, like a conjoined twin, comes conviction of omnipotence: a belief that nothing at all is beyond the coercive capacity of that power and reach. We British continued to believe this despite loss of the American colonies, experience of the North West Frontier (what is now Afghanistan), the Boers of South Africa, or 1920s Iraq. The French failed to learn from bloody noses in Viet Nam, the Lebanon and Algeria. For Americans, it wasn't seriously dented for long by Viet Nam, nor Cuba, nor Iran.

It's particularly refreshing, therefore, to find Thinking Through My Fingers (Jim Putnam being a transatlantic cousin) seriously and in a matter of fact manner considering both propositions: that undiluted US hegemony may be at the end of its shelf life, and that this may be no bad thing. (I should also make honourable mention of Dr C, whose clear eyed excoriations of US foreign policy are unflinching.)

How far, and how fast, the bulk of the US population can follow TTMF in moving from starry eyed "shining house on the hill" fantasies to real life will decide how much global trauma can be avoided. It has to be said that Britain offers no model to be proud of in this respect: the list of places where we left misery and disaster while managing to believe that we had planted everything needed for a deep and successful society is long and alarming.

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