A reader, Daniel Nikolic, asks a good question. He wants to know if there is a grain of truth in Noam Chomsky’s views on international relations that goes beyond his exaggerated statement of them. My answer to that is a categorical “no”. Either the theory of imperialism is true or it is false. That theory, which goes back to C. Wright Mills and before that to Lenin and where he got it, the British writer, J. A. Hobson, claims that the main explanation for international relations is that nations want to capture one another’s territories so that they can exploit the mineral wealth of the place and the labor of the inhabitants for the economic benefit of the imperialistic nation. The contending theory, that of realpolitik or geopolitics, is that nations are in quest of ever increased security, however powerful they are, so that their risk in dealing with other nations goes down. International relations is like a game of monopoly. You want enough money so you can afford to pay the rent even if you land on an expensive property owned by an opponent. You take risks only when you have no alternative, such as when you put all your money on a hotel hoping not to land on an opponents property because your only chance of survival is if the dice run your way. Sometimes nations are in that quandary, as Britain was in 1940, but most of the time you roll the dice when you are secure enough to withstand misfortune, as was the case in both Vietnam and Iraq, where the United States could sustain defeats and yet quickly rebound. There is so much the imperialist model cannot explain, as why we went into Vietnam, where there were no natural resources discovered until after the war was over, and which we can now access because Vietnam is an ally rather than an adversary, while the theory of realpolitik can explain all of international relations, back to the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
Let us consider two wars that were thought to be examples of imperialist wars that were not, which becomes immediately clear if we just clarify terminology. The Mexican War, which ended in the cession of most of what is now the American Southwest from Mexico, is thought to be imperialist. But what people were being exploited? The area was relatively unsettled and so could “rightfully” go to whomever settled there. The Mexicans could have brought cattle there but they didn’t, while the Americans did bring cattle to Texas and other places where they settled. There were no natural resources to exploit, though there were supposedly ore deposits in the northern territory where Custer met his end, though that was just an excuse to expropriate more land from the Indians. What was in what would become the Mexican Cession were Indians, but they were not exploited. Rather, they were decimated, the remainder of their population settled in reservations. Genocide or near genocide is not exploitation.
So what was the reason for the Mexican War? It was expansionism, not imperialism. Polk wanted the United States to reach from sea to shining sea, and there is some point to this point of view in that the breakup of the continent into separate states would lead to endless conflict, just as had happened in Europe. Think what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War or if Aaron Burr had been successful in creating a western nation (which means cross-Allegany) that buffeted the United States. Nations get into conflicts and fight with one another. This way, that wouldn’t happen. We were lucky it didn’t happen with Canada, even though we tried to take over that territory during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, perhaps because Canada was settled by the same groups that settled the United States: largely English speaking Brits, Scots, and irish. People of similar ethnic identities tend not to fight with one another.
That proposition holds for what happened in World War I as well, which is often also understood as an imperialist war where the German empire and the British empire were in conflict over territories. It may indeed have been the case that both sides saw territorial settlements of overseas colonies ceded by one side to the other as part of the outcome of a war they each thought would be over in a few months. But a war so long and catastrophic instead meant that the government of the defeated nation would fall. Kaiser Wilhelm was forced to abdicate a few months after the Armistice just as a German victory in World War II would surely have meant that Edward VIII would have been restored to the throne and English civil liberties abridged and Churchill shot.
So what were the issues that led to war in 1914? The general consensus among historians is that it was the desire of Kaiser Wilhelm to get some kind of naval parity with Great Britain. Why should the English rule the seas? So it was nationalistic militarism, not colonialism, that led to war. It was a very short-sighted decision, not just because of its consequences, but because Germany was rapidly catching up with Great Britain as a cultural and industrial power and the Twentieth Century could well have been the German Century if they hadn’t twice been sidetracked into wars.
There is one war in American history that comes close to being an imperialist war. That was the Persian Gulf War that George H. W. Bush fought to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The reason for the war, as James Baker, the Secretary of State at the time, argued, was “jobs, jobs, jobs”. We needed Kuwait oil in the market to keep oil prices down and so allow the American economy to prosper. But even if Saddam Hussein had kept Kuwait, he still would have had to sell its oil to somebody. As the argument goes, the two main players in oil politics are “Mr. Supply” and “Mr. Demand”. And letting Kuwait go would have kept American troops out of Saudi Arabia, the Muslim holy land, which was the original insult that Osama Bin Laden presented as the reason for his war on the United States. So the real reason for the Persian Gulf War was probably to stabilize the Middle East by having the region adhere to the prior boundaries, just as our policy in Africa has been dominated by the desire to keep the boundaries drawn up in the colonial era in place so as to reduce the possibility of violence, though that doesn’t stop non-state actors from engaging in genocide, kidnappings, and other forms of violence.
So what accounts for the fact that the theory of imperialism, despite its poor track record in explaining international relations, retains its hold on the imaginations of people, now for over 120 years? The answer, I think, is that it appeals to our sense that life is radically unjust and that a great deal of satisfaction is provided by holding to that cynical view. Rich people, for example, got that way by being crooks; politicians got power by betraying their constituents; the products you are sold are bad for your health, all assurances to the contrary notwithstanding. This is just the opposite of the view that there is a natural justice in the universe, where moral transgressions meet with at least symbolic undoing, that the people in prison are overwhelmingly guilty, that your soul will be saved, even if your reward comes only in the afterlife or, according to the liberal version of the doctrine, life is as a whole getting better and better: people every year more and more saved from the scourges of disease and starvation and buttressed by an ever more comprehensive safety net, however much there may be setbacks on the inevitable road to progress.
Imperialism is the sense that a great nation’s successes are gained through the suffering of others, that the great nations are almost always wrong when it comes to international policy, that people at home suffer just as do people abroad. The satisfaction that comes from such cynicism is that a person who is cynical will not be caught out when something that seemed to be on the level was found out to be otherwise, and so a person would have to admit that they were gulled, as I was, when I believed that Colin Powell would not lie to me to my face (over national television) when he claimed that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction. I had not believed, I had not been so cynical as to believe, that this honorable man would tell a lie of such weight that the nation would go to war over it, and the way I recovered from that was to say that not many honorable people would betray their word and their responsibilities in so clearly fraudulent a way, just in order to achieve the objectives the administration he served had set out to accomplish. He wasn’t lying to protect the nation; he was lying to protect a war that was unnecessary and was fought for reasons that still remain murky. But a cynic is sheltered from making such misjudgments; such a person is convinced that the leaders are, like as not, lying, and so can remain smug in their self-assurance. (Not that this theory of cynicism includes you, Mr. Nikolic, because you may simply be mistaken, nor does it include all those people knew in my youth who espoused a theory of imperialism as part of their ideological allegiance to Marxism.)
Far from being a philosophy that flowers only on the Left, however, global cynicism is exactly what the supporters of Donald Trump are up to. They don’t care if he cozies up to dictators or is more lip than action. He is the embodiment of what they think about the world: that it is mean and crass, like he is, and that we have to all manage that fact, protecting our own loved ones as best we can from the general crassness, never considering that it doesn’t have to be that way, but that we can judge individual leaders and policies on their merit, case by case, and find them either wanting or satisfactory. But that takes an intellectual discipline that we may apply in child-rearing or at work but which we are spared from exercising in politics, where we can employ a single brush, either of cynicism or good will, to whatever it is that comes across the no longer flickering screen of public events that come into our lives whether for amusement or for knee jerk condemnation.