The Pathologies of Imperialism
Red Army soldiers cheer Joseph Stalin in Red Square in a scene from the 1942 film Moscow Strikes Back, Wikimedia Commons

The Pathologies of Imperialism

Harold James
Harold James
10 min read

An earlier version of this article appeared in the German language newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on March 4th, 2022.


February 24th, 2022, constituted a shock to the European psyche. The invasion of Ukraine, without any plausible casus belli, the massive use of military force against civilians, the attempted hunting down of a legitimately elected government, all came as a complete surprise. But so did August 1st, 1914, or September 1st, 1939: they were all surprises that produced an initially stunned reaction across the world. But they shouldn’t really have been so unexpected.

Vladimir Putin’s onslaught jolts us because it appears to come from a completely different mental world. Respected analysts before February 24th were concluding that the US intelligence warnings of an imminent invasion were the products of a mixture of ridiculous fantasies and paranoia. Afterwards, they were dumbfounded. Many, including the entourage of France’s Emmanuel Macron who tried the last serious peace negotiation before the outbreak of conflict, have simply concluded he is insane.

In fact, however, what may be called Putinism has deep roots. It comes out of European history as much as out of specifically Russian history. The script is from the 19th century playbook of imperialism, the push to establish empire by any means, however brutal and destructive. It is simply augmented by the methods and tactics of the KGB. We should think then, not of Putin’s personal psychopathology, but rather of the flaws of an imperial way of constructing reality.

The pathologies

Here are the five pathologies of imperialism, as they were developed in 19th century Europe, which have now been co-opted and updated by Putin.

First, empire is primarily a politician’s political response to weakness and humiliation. In France and Britain, the crucial imperialist turn occurred in the 1870s. In both cases it was designed as a compensation for loss. France had been defeated in Bismarck’s war. Jules Ferry saw the expansion of France into Tunisia, Madagascar, and Indochina as an alternative way of resurrecting French grandeur. His critics, above all the great patriot Georges Clemenceau, instead saw it as a diversion from where France’s true focus should lie, on the recovery of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and on the ligne bleue des Vosges. Britain under Benjamin Disraeli was also pivoting to a new game of power politics, with the rise of Germany, and of the perception of relative British industrial and economic decline. Later, in 1884, Bismarck pushed for imperial engagement because he thought he was losing his grip on politics. Simply put, imperialism is for losers.

The main driver of Putin’s vision is his famous assessment of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The destruction of Ukraine, and its political order, is a way of repairing that fundamental flaw in the Russian psyche.

Second, the fact of empire requires a doctrine of world political uplift—not just the interests of a particular country. The theory needs to connect with a universally attractive proposition, however hypocritical that might appear, especially in retrospect. For 19th century France—and especially for Ferry—there was a mission civilisatrice. Britain’s Cecil Rhodes spoke in his will (testament) of how: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” And of course, the proponents of imperial grandeur always emphasized their fundamentally peaceful intent, as in Emanuel Geibel’s subsequently infamous poem of 1861, which was originally intended to demonstrate the curative powers of a peaceful process of the rationalization of political boundaries: “The whole world may heal itself through German character:” “Und es mag am deutschen Wesen / Einmal noch die Welt genesen.”

For Putin, there is a universal world view too, to which he thinks Russia can give its own unique slant, its own version of a civilizing mission. Today, politicians all over the world, from right to left, from extremists to moderate centrists, are tripping over themselves to denounce neoliberalism as a faded and failing doctrine of US hegemony. Russian can play the anti-liberal card as well—in fact probably better—than anyone else. The turning of Russian policy to a much more aggressive stance occurred in 2007–2008, in the midst of the global financial crisis which was read everywhere, not just in Russia, as a discrediting of American capitalism, or the end of the American era of world hegemony. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, President Putin’s chief ideologist, has laid the claim that “neo-liberal values create the basis for civilization conflict” as the argument for Russia’s intervention in the Ukrainian conflict.

Third, the universal and the national are mixed, intertwined: a particular country portrays itself as the best incarnation of the need of the moment. Putin has a very traditional linguistic view of nations and nationalism. His programmatic essay of July 2021 sounds distinctly Herderian, updating the view of Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th century German thinker, that focused on the centrality of linguistic commonality, even in regions with many regional variations and dialects. The conclusion developed by later followers of Herder, first in central Europe and then throughout the world, was that large linguistic groups deserved and needed statehood. Putin wrote in “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” that “the incorporation of the western Russian lands into the single state was not merely the result of political and diplomatic decisions. It was underlain by the common faith, shared cultural traditions, and—I would like to emphasize it once again—language similarity.”

Fourth, geopolitics is central to the vision of how and why an effective nation must become an empire. Calls for more geopolitical thinking are ubiquitous today. They have resounded since the 2008 financial crisis, and especially since the advent of Xi Jinping, the presidency of Donald Trump, and the advent of a new Cold War. For some, it is a vague sense of continents and big geographical spaces; for others, it is about a claim that reality consists of endless conflict and struggle, in which space matters more than ideas, maps more than chaps. The latter claim, that geopolitics constitutes a zero-sum game in which one side must lose if the other is to win, is above all associated with the Bavarian thinker Karl Haushofer, his lessons from the rise of Japan, and his wish to apply those to instruct a defeated Germany how to rise again after the defeat of 1918. It was Haushofer who laid the basis for the definitional shiftiness of geopolitics. He saw himself as the prophet of geopolitics, but could never clearly explain what it actually was. A characteristic attempt was the normative demand that “Geopolitics must and will become the conscience of the state.” Haushofer inspired Alexander Dugin, who loves to acknowledge the intellectual debt, and whose Eurasian vision helped to mold another aspect of Putin’s world view.

Fifth, and finally, there is a distinct time window for a favorable outcome in the drive to empire. At the beginning of his political supremacy, Putin made a strategic bet that Russia might—like the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s—be able to use its natural resources in order to exercise influence: to lure client states by the offer of continued supply of cheap energy (dependent of course on continued compliance). The crucial mistake of Russia in the 2000s was to abandon any thought of moving into advanced industrial production, or any strategy of industrial rather than raw materials orientation toward a world market on the model of Deng Xiaoping’s China. The strategy looked brilliantly successful at the time of high energy prices but flawed if energy prices would fall. The energy price spike in 2007–2008 produced the formulation of a new Putin doctrine of assertiveness.

Other petrostates—even post-Soviet Kazakhstan—thought about decarbonization. Russia did not. Gasputin would be helpless without the gas. The heightened discussion of the CO2 issue and the move to global agreements on global warming (held up briefly by Donald Trump) then took away the basis of the Russian long-term strategy. If carbon energy would become at some point in the future a worthless asset, Russia’s advantage would quickly fade. That makes for a logic of conflict sooner rather than later, reminiscent of the miscalculations of 1914 when German military planners were frightened of the likely rise of Russia’s industrial and population power, and frightened by its increasing capacity for speedy military mobilization. War sooner rather than later: that was the destabilizing philosophy that accompanied declining imperiums.

It is perhaps redundant to recite as a “lesson of history” that imperialisms fail and provoke backlashes. The old imperialisms failed, but very slowly. Putinism too will fail, indeed is failing, quickly: although we should worry that failing political orders can do immense damage, and that when they have nuclear weapons the damage is unfathomable.

The financial story of imperial decline

A specific form of failure is, however, the final historical lesson: the story of how would-be imperial powers accumulate substantial economic and financial reserves that they think will protect them in the course of the inevitable conflict. Imperial Germany built up a war reserve in gold that it kept in a medieval fortress tower, the Juliusturm in Spandau (the idea of storing up wealth was a little medieval too). Putin deliberately built up a high level of international reserves, with 74 m troy ounces of gold (at the end of January), currently worth $142 bn. But the gold reserves are useless, even though they are overwhelmingly situated in Russia, because they cannot easily be moved and traded. Germany’s reserves in 1914 also were trivial, and could only pay for a few days of conflict.

The ruble and its golden backing now, instead of preserving a secure regime, offer a path to opposition. In past conflicts the ability to sell government debt was always regarded as a critical vote of financial confidence, and central banks manipulated interest rates in order to get citizens, whether patriotic or not, to buy national securities. It is clear that Putin has failed that critical vote of confidence.

For protesters, too, it's dangerous to take to the streets in Russia. Most of the oligarchs don't even dare voice any open dissent, as the remarkable scene of acquiescence in the Kremlin’s grand Hall of St Catherine demonstrated. But, like the Russians who abandoned the front during the first world war, citizens can still vote with their feet, and move out of the ruble. The lines in Moscow to get dollars are their own form of protest.

There is now also an intriguing new possibility of how money as a voting mechanism works. Electronic private currencies (cryptocurrencies) offer a way of expressing dissent, of rendering a financial vote of confidence. The dramatic surge in the bitcoin price since the imposition of Western financial sanctions is an indication of the movement out of Russian funds and assets, the dramatic flight of capital from a regime that has lost credibility. Money—and the lack of it—destroys empire. Modern money (cryptocurrency) is even quicker in doing the job: restoring freedom.

The international relations story of imperial decline

When imperialisms end, much depends on the manner and style of imperial exit. And that style in turn depends—especially when those who manage empire are concerned with geopolitics—on other powers. A key responsibility of the international order after 1945 was giving a framework for the end of empire, or imperial decline.

Britain’s decolonization experience may offer a useful lesson. One episode, Suez, was the turning point in its imperial decline. The Suez venture began with an Israeli attack on Sinai on October 29th, 1956, followed by a British and French ultimatum and the launching of an attack by paratroops on November 5th. The plan amounted to a rash action to reclaim the Suez Canal from Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, but conducted without any substantial prior consultation of the United States, with which London had convinced itself it had a “special relationship.” The expectation of the British government of Prime Minister Anthony Eden was that the joint action with France and Israel would succeed quickly, and that the United States would be pleased with the result and delighted to see Nasser fall. In fact, the chaotically conducted operation sputtered, and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was furious. He had wanted the world’s attention focused on the illegitimate Soviet action in sending tanks into Budapest, and instead now realized that the world was being given a very different demonstration, a high-handed and botched old-style exercise in Western imperialism. The United States then realized that a sterling crisis would bring Britain into line; the wily Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, who had initially enthusiastically supported the Suez action, changed his mind on the wisdom of the British plan. He was, as the later Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson later sneered, “first in, first out.” Historian Diane Kunz’s definitive book on the financial side of the Suez crisis even suggests that he may have egged on the American financial attack on sterling as a way of undermining Anthony Eden, who he went on to replace as prime minister.

This old story, which molded British politics for at least a generation, has a great deal of relevance now. Is there a buddy who can manage and nudge Russia’s imperial decline in a friendly and non-aggressive way? The critical relationship for a Russia struggling with its own version of imperial decline is with China. Vladimir Putin may have thought that a quick overwhelmingly powerful successful action to bring Ukraine in line and change its government would win plaudits in China. That was of course what Eden hoped to demonstrate in 1956 at Suez. Instead of a brilliant but brutal surgical strike, Russia mounted a spectacularly brutal and mismanaged war. The appalling extent of civilian casualties in Ukraine, the degradation of the Russian army, the threat of widespread nuclear contamination if not from nuclear warfare (and there is even a threat of the use of battlefield nukes) then from the reactor fire in the largest European reactor, Zaporizhzhia, caused by Russian shelling. These are all so appalling as to have turned Russia into an international pariah.

The consequences of the bungled war present a grave test of China’s continued commitment to a close relationship. Putin and Xi Jinping proclaimed themselves to be “best friends” in 2019, and a few weeks ago at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, they announced that that friendship had “no limits.” On March 8th, Xi Jinping encouraged peace talks, urging “maximum restraint.” The “limits” of these “best friends” are being severely tested.

China is much more interested in a multilateral world. Despite attempts to move to a “Dual Circulation Strategy” after Covid as a way of reducing dependence on outside supply chains, China is more dependent on world trade than ever. There is no interest in seeing an escalation of already existing trade wars. Ukraine is an important trade partner of China, and also a vital link in its engagement with Europe. Second, the Ukraine conflict has implications for Taiwan. A quick and successful Russian action leading to the reorientation of Ukraine would probably have had implications for the People’s Republic’s possibility of applying pressure on Taiwan (and limiting the capacity of the US to provide an answer). But breaking up Ukraine is counterproductive for the PRC. China is utterly committed to its interpretation of the territorial integrity of states for a very particular reason: a recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as breakaway states would imply that there would be nothing wrong with recognizing the independence of Taiwan as a breakaway state.

It is deeply frustrating for the US and for Europeans to stand by with only limited assistance to a country that is being torn apart and destroyed. But it is also clear that the threat of nuclear war means that there can be no direct military assistance, no NATO forces in Ukraine, and no no-fly zone. Washington, London, Paris, Berlin all need Beijing in dealing with Russia. The only figure who can authoritatively tell Putin that he has to stop is President Xi. Like President Eisenhower dealing with his old friends in the “Special Relationship,” Xi may find himself with the duty of telling the “no limits” “best friend” that now is the time to stop. That is the responsibility, however uncomfortable, of being a counsellor in the process of imperial decline.

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Harold James

Harold James holds multiple professorships at Princeton University and is an official historian of the IMF. He won the Helmut Schmidt Prize in 2004 and the Ludwig Erhard Prize in 2005.