The hubris of the long-distance empire

What we are seeing in Afghanistan today, in almost real time, is the implosion and final collapse of the imperial project the US launched there in 2001. As with the final US collapse in Vietnam in 1975 or indeed the generally slightly more orderly withdrawal of British troops from India or so many former outposts in Africa during the period 1947-65, what we are seeing is one distinctive aspect of the kinds of long-distance empires that West European and West-Europe-origined empires have been building in continents not their own ever since 1415. That is, their unique “hit-and-run” quality.

1415 was the year in which royal Portuguese adventurers/conquerors started to capture port cities in Africa, which they continued to do, going ever further southward, throughout the century. Then in 1498 their Vasco Da Gama took a conquest fleet around Africa’s southern tip and across the Indian Ocean to start conquering and despoiling port cities in India. And such long-distance empire-building has been going on ever since– by the “Big Five” of West-European empire-builders and their spawn here in the United States. (See more about the “Big Five”, here.)

There have always, throughout recorded history, been empires. And back in the 15th and 16th century CE there were several large and powerful land-based empires: Aztecs and Incas and Ming-Chinese and Ottomans, Safavid Persians, Mughals, Songhais, and so on. But what was different, distinctive, and extremely dangerous about the sea-based empires launched by the West Europeans was that new “hit-and-run” quality they brought to the venture of empire-building.

If you’re the ruler of a land-based empire, you might invade, enslave, and do other terrible things to your neighbors as you expand… but at the end of the day you will have to live with those neighbors and the next ones beyond them. However badly you treat them, if your empire is going to continue to survive and grow you’ll need to be able to incorporate those conquered neighbors and a whole range of disparate groups of people into your empire-building project.

By contrast, if you’re running a long-distance, sea-based (or more recently, air-based) empire, you can treat conquered peoples with utmost disrespect and cruelty. If they rebel, you can round them up and ship them off to another part of your empire… and then, you can replace them with either members of your own nation (as settlers) or with a bunch of enslaved people whom you ship over from another of your imperial holdings.

That was what the Spanish, English, and French did in the Caribbean. It’s what the Spanish, Portuguese, and English did in the American mainland. It’s what the Dutch did in the East Indies and Southern Africa. It’s what the French did in North Africa and the Indian Ocean… And those cruel, violence-based traditions carried on and became normalized within those empires and their spawn.

The earliest of those long-distance empires were built not only on having advanced and very lethal naval gunnery but also on a readiness and an eagerness to use it. That led to extremes of risk-taking and cruelty… And where their riskier imperial adventures did not work out, they were easily able to pull up their stakes and sail away, nearly always leaving mayhem and suffering behind them.

That was what happened when the Portuguese conquistador Afonso de Albuquerque tried to capture the strategic, Muslim-held port city of Aden in 1513. His plan relied on storming the walls of Aden’s fort with ladders, but the ladders he’d built all collapsed when fully loaded. No matter! He sailed away, all guns blazing, doubtless taking some of his key “local informants” with him, and leaving chaos and a badly battered city behind him.

… And so today, we’re seeing the U.S. military rapidly pulling out of Afghanistan, and trying to take its key local informants out with it. The hubris of the long-distance empire continues.

Hey, here’s an idea: let’s try to build an international order that is not based on today’s equivalent of naval gunnery and the eagerness to use it? Something like, h’mm, a decent respect for all human persons and the communities they live in?