In the half-millennium of modern European imperialism, from the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century to the withdrawing roar of the British and French empires in the 20th, there was one truth on which all of these powers, often at war with each other, could agree. That was, land which could be designated terra nullius (“no-one’s land”) could be taken—indeed, had to be taken—by one of the powers, or another power would get it. So empires conquered large swathes of territory in Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, and Australasia, most of which was regarded as unoccupied. They did so in pursuit of precious metals and stones, for settlement and defence (of other lands already seized), for points of supply to their ships, in order to demonstrate their power, and—the most cited reason in polite society, even more polite if put into French—for the mission civilatrice or the mission religieuse.
That last of these—the obligation to deliver Christianity to uncivilised heathens—is sometimes dismissed as merely the hypocrisy of pious icing layered over a filthy cake. But it was sincere enough, and a tacit underpinning of the conception of a white man’s duty and decency. I’ve never seen it expressed more frankly than at the end of John Buchan’s 1910 novel Prester John, a book that drew upon Buchan’s own experience as a young administrator working for the High Commissioner of South Africa in the early years of the 20th century. Buchan’s hero declaims, “I knew then the meaning of the white man’s duty. He has to take all risks, recking [sic] nothing of his life or his fortunes, and well content to find his reward in the fulfilment of his task. That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies.” This passage combines both the late imperial authoritarian paternalism and the contempt for the “dark men” credited with only animal instincts—especially strong in a workaholic son of the manse.
Sincere or not, murderous campaigns of dispossession continued and the indigenous peoples (some of whom, such as the Zulus in South Africa, had themselves been imperialists) were conquered, pacified, and, to a degree, integrated. But in time, all Europe’s empires came to an end. Spain’s empire, in South and Central America and the Caribbean, declined from the 17th century on, finally ending in the late 19th. Portugal held on to a few colonies in Africa and India until the 1970s. The Ottoman and Austrian empires collapsed after the First World War. Belgium, having grossly exploited the Congo (personal property of King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908), got out in the 1960s. The Russian empire was replaced by the Soviet version in 1917, which fell to pieces in 1991. Britain lost its Indian jewel to independence in 1947, and got out of Africa in the 1960s, a process that was at times—as in Kenya—bloody. The end of French colonialism took longer and involved nasty wars in Indochina and Algeria into the 1960s. As the British and EU diplomat Sir Robert Cooper noted during a recent discussion panel organised by the Henry Jackson Society, “the big thing in the 20th century, at least in Europe, was that empire and the wish to acquire territory ended.”
As the European empires, especially the vast British empire, faded after the Second World War, America assumed leadership of the largely democratic world (the “West”) and then, after 1991, of the world itself. The historian Linda Colley wrote that:
The former US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, urg(ed) as early as 1992 the importance of deterring any potential competitors, including America’s own allies, “from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” For, as Robert Kagan reasoned, the “benevolent hegemony exercised by the US” operated not only to its own advantage, but was also “good for a vast portion of the world’s population.” “If this be the workings of empire,” wrote another neoconservative commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, “let us have more of it.”
Still more clearly and more authoritatively, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in Bill Clinton’s first administration (1997–2001) said in a February 1998 interview that “if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
We are now perhaps living through the passing of the second imperial age, often referred to as one of hegemony, a term better suited to the self-image of a state established in defiance of imperial Britain. But the United States’ commitment to its hegemonic position is waning, and as it retreats from global policing, Europe, lulled by the sense of security America hitherto provided, has neither the capacity nor the will to take its place. The new rising imperial power is China, and its malevolent ally, Russia. The vacuum is already being filled.
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For perhaps two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Albright’s hubristic remark arguably remained true. But even in the 2000s, and unmistakably in the 2010s, China’s rapid economic growth was increasing its global power, even as its Communist leaders modestly protested they had no global ambitions. In 2013, Xi Jinping assumed the presidency and quickly set about making it clear that China—whatever its public diffidence—was now a player in the biggest geopolitical game of all. It too would now stand tall, and its ability to see into the future—not least as a result of its advances in artificial intelligence—was fast approaching that of the US. China is now a would-be imperial hegemon, and denials of its intention to be one look increasingly threadbare.
The country’s well-educated, ambitious, and ruthless rulers ensure that China acts like an essentially benign but still hungry global capitalist, pushing for free trade and open borders. They sound its nationalist trumpets to rally Chinese behind a patriotic narrative of revenge for former humiliations at the hands of the West in the years before 1949. They snarl at Taiwan and herd hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in Xinjiang into re-education camps. And they charm the democratic world into using Chinese technology, receiving its investment, and acquiescing to its plans to bolster the Belt and Road Initiative aimed at putting a girdle of roads, seaways, and bases around much of the Earth. China has already acquired a majority stake in the Greek port of Piraeus, and has been negotiating with Italy to invest in the port of Genoa, on the country’s north-west coast, or Trieste in the north-east.
All these developments are causing the US grave concern. In a speech at the Hudson Institute in early July, the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, said that China’s leaders believe they are in a “generational fight” to make China the “world’s only superpower by any means necessary.” He accused China of attempting to compromise COVID-19 research in US research centres, pharmaceutical companies, and universities. “If you are an American adult,” he added, “it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data [in]… the largest transfer of human wealth in history… our data isn’t the only thing at stake here—so are our health, our livelihoods, and our security.” The FBI, he said, “is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case approximately every 10 hours… The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information, intellectual property and to our economic vitality is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.” FBI chiefs are not frequent public speakers. The very fact of Wray’s appearance is itself evidence of how worried America has become—his speech was one of a series of increasingly stark warnings delivered by high administration officials, and more are sure to follow. Although nothing is certain with this American president, it looks as though the days when Trump boasted of his close friendship with Xi are now over.
Even so, a strong (though weakening) “don’t worry too much” case is still being made by those who know something about both China and the US. Speaking in February, Joseph Nye, Harvard political scientist and an assistant defence secretary in Clinton’s administration, said, “The US remains the only country with global capacity in hard power, and in soft power the US still does better than China.” He cited a survey conducted by British research firm Portland that puts America in the top five and China in 27th place. In short, the Middle Kingdom may have imperial ambitions, but the real global power can still check it for the foreseeable future. Others point out that America spends much more on defence than China—$610bn against $228bn, and that although China has slightly more tanks (7,760) than the US (6,393), the US has seven times more armoured fighting vehicles (41,760 to China’s 6,000). The US (12,304) has three times the number of fighter aircraft than China (4,182), including many more multi-purpose planes, attack aircraft, and helicopters. In big naval ships, there’s no contest: the US has 20 carriers against China’s two, and 85 destroyers to China’s 36. China’s strength lies in small ships—with 54 frigates and 42 corvettes while the US has none. China has 76 submarines to the US’s 71, but many more of the US subs are nuclear. Finally, the US has over 5,000 nuclear warheads while China has only 250.
It is certainly true that China’s dynamism disguises large problems. It is ageing faster than the US, and the University of Wisconsin economist Yi Fuxian predicts it will consequently still have a GDP lower than that of the US in 13 years’ time. And the more China shows its claws, the more it stirs up anxiety and hostility in its own neighbourhood, as it is presently doing, most dangerously, on the Indian-Chinese border. The US has taken the Indian side of this dispute, which as of this writing is the subject of talks. Secretary of State Pompeo recently said that “The Chinese took incredibly aggressive action. The Indians have done their best to respond to that.” He added that the number of maritime and boundary disputes in which the Chinese Communist Party has engaged is “unequalled anyplace else in the world.” And China’s behaviour has so alarmed and angered Australia that the country has increased its defence budget by 40 percent over the next decade. Britain, which had decided to use Huawei technology in the next generation of 5G phones, is now reconsidering. In response, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, has warned that Britain will have to “bear the consequences.”
The coronavirus crisis has also made China less trusted. However the pandemic started—in a random spillover event, a Wuhan wet market, or in the city’s Institute of Virology—China has so far turned its face against an international inquiry unless it is conducted by the World Health Organisation. Yet this is a body distrusted by other countries, especially Australia and the US, for what is seen as subservience to its largest member. China now increasingly acts as did empires in the 19th century’s high age of imperialism. As Francis Fukuyama has noted, China has “for the first time staked out expansionist territorial claims” and promulgated a new law sharply decreasing the agreed “one country two systems” arrangement reached when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony. It now cracks down hard on demonstrations, arrests prominent leaders of democratic movements, removes pro-democracy books from libraries, deletes messages from social media accounts, and censors the press.
China claims—and has militarized—islands in the South China Sea in order to control one of the world’s biggest shipping lanes. It constantly threatens Taiwan, now a successful democratic state, with absorption in the next 10 years, if necessary by force. Last July, the Wall Street Journal reported that China and Cambodia had signed a secret agreement to build a large naval base near Sihanoukville, in Cambodia. This project was denied by both sides, and China pointed to Cambodia’s constitution which forbids hosting foreign military bases. Any bases, the Chinese regime argued, would be merely “strategic support points” incapable of supporting offensive operations. “We are dealing,” writes Fukuyama, “with an aspiring totalitarian country like the mid-20th century Soviet Union, and not with some kind of ‘generic authoritarian capitalist’ regime.”
Russia, meanwhile, is no longer what Churchill called “a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” at least not in its post-imperial-pre-imperial pretensions. It has staged a (bloodless) takeover of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, and continues to support a (very bloody) separatist war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. In 2008, it invaded Georgia in retaliation for Georgia’s attempt to re-take control of its northern region of South Ossetia, which Russia had colonised (as it had Georgia’s western region of Abkhazia). It frequently rattles its sabres on the borders of the three small former Soviet Baltic states, which are now members of the European Union and NATO. It maintains huge intelligence operations in Central Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic. It provides assistance to the genocidal Syrian dictator-president Bashar al-Assad and has established permanent bases there. And it uses its RT network and covert operations to peddle an unrelenting campaign of falsehood, conspiracy, and propaganda in Western democracies designed to affect and infect elections. All of this is part of an attempt to rebuild, as far as possible, the former Soviet Union.
President Putin has, like Xi, insisted that the West is now “obsolete” and clinging to a liberalism which “has come into conflict with the overwhelming majority of the population.” Immigrants, he says, are permitted to “kill, rape, and plunder with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.” The Russian leader now presents his country as the centre of Christianity, and an example of a conservative-moral approach to the world. Russia’s authoritarianism and China’s totalitarianism (the second a harder version of the first), now allied, present a formidable front of two states dedicated to increasing their global power, in a fashion increasingly similar to the imperial strategies of Europe.
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And yet, the West, faced with these unambiguous advances, retreats. Robert Cooper has described the European Union as a “postmodern empire”—its membership is voluntary (though, as the UK is discovering, hard to slough off), its politics are liberal (though not, to date, especially democratic), and its member states are projected to be part of a devolved federal order (although they would be subordinate to the centre in matters of economic, foreign, and defence policies). It is also largely pacifist, with the partial exceptions of Britain and France, and therefore unable to defend itself without America. And Europe as a whole spends considerably less on defence than the two percent of GDP it had promised NATO it would.
It remains, in other words, a disorderly collection of economically competitive states, dependent on a US whose sitting president holds them in contempt. That president has made it plain that he wants all American troops and manufacturing to come home. In John Bolton’s recently published memoir, The Room Where It Happened, the former head of the National Security Council revealed Trump’s desire to “get out of everything.” And in this respect at least, Trump is not out of kilter with the drift in American politics and society. The policeman’s duty to punish criminals and maintain order is no longer seen by many Americans as their country’s calling or responsibility.
In this crucial area, Barrack Obama was not as decisive as Trump, but he was getting there. He was an anti-interventionist president and—like the European states who followed George W Bush into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—he was not in a hurry to commit blood and treasure to further military adventures, and certainly nothing approaching the magnitude of that invasion. He did, unlike Trump, increase troop levels in Afghanistan (to no avail) and, with great reluctance, assisted France and the UK in toppling Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Otherwise, he threatened but did not deliver—most famously, when he warned that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was a “red line” and then did nothing to punish Assad when that line was crossed. Should a Joe Biden presidency come about, it is unlikely to be any different in this respect. As vice president, Biden was among those counselling Obama not to participate in the Libyan attacks.
The imperial, or hegemonic, post-war West was America and its allies. It assumed, and largely produced, effective consensus on opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies, until victory in 1991. This was expected to usher in a new era in which disputes, and even wars, would continue to occur, but in which the progress of democratic, capitalist, socially liberal values would be nonetheless accelerated. The European Union still lives, if more and more fearfully, in that hopeful bubble: The US, in its Trumpian (and perhaps post-Trump) iteration, now opts for heavily armed withdrawal. Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank (2007–12) has noted that “traditionally in crises since World War II, the United States has acted as a leader in trying to focus the world’s attention on what to do…the United States is no longer playing that role…globalization with Chinese characteristics versus US autarky. How is that going to compete?”
The US’s hegemonic period, now shrinking, often looked like empire, especially the British version, which it mostly replaced. Imperial Britain decreed a “Pax Britannica,” which America then sought to duplicate as a benign “Pax Americana.” Like Britain, the United States established bases and supply stations across the globe and promoted free trade. But it had an “informal empire”—that is, it controlled countries without either occupying them or (usually) choosing their leaders, as Britain did for Egypt and Argentina, among others.
Faced with the gathering threats posed by China and Russia and the weakness of Europe, there are those who argue that America must face up more frankly to its imperial responsibilities. The historian Niall Ferguson has argued that the US must shoulder this burden and that it must begin by acknowledging it. President Trump is ensuring that Ferguson’s demand is out-dated. Nationalist not imperial power is what he wants. Global as well as nationalist power is what Presidents Xi and Putin want. Will these two states inevitably fill the vacuum? If the 19th was Britain’s century, and the 20th was America’s, will the 21st belong to China and Russia?
John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence (Polity Press).