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Beyond the shining seas

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may 29, 2000. The practice of empire forms the rubric for the world's history during the past 500 years, dominated by the four horsemen of modernity: colonizing, war, slavery, and racism. Columbus's diaries from about 1490 to 1500 prefigured remarkably what was to come. Among nations, I would say the history of India reveals the most about the process as it engages almost every aspect of imperialism. And the pivotal moment would be the Carnatic Wars, Anglo-French wars fought in India from 1743 to 1763. From a global point of view, they set forth a sequence of events as significant as the American revolution in the decade following. For example, the Opium Wars in China (183942 and 185660) as well as France's interest in colonizing Vietnam both stem from the Carnatic Wars.

One might set up an evolutionary scale of the various national empires. First the Portuguese and Spanish, which were superseded by the Dutch. England and France next became dominant. At the beginning of the 20th century the United States, Japan, and Germany entered the lists.

A powerful critique of our own empire comes from the renowned scholar Chalmers Johnson in his new book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. It is significant that this work comes from an Asianist and a conservative. Among Asianists there is a significant level of resistance to the conventionally accepted terms and values of Eurocentric diplomacy discourse. Hence, a strong critique of empire exists in the Asian field. Conservative anti-imperialism is a proud American tradition that was submerged in the anti-communist crusade. The mission of Buckley's National Review was to persuade conservatives to give up their international conservatism (mis-named isolationism) for the crusade, of which the Asian wars have been a major part. The death toll in these wars is not trivial and needs to be responsibly computed. For example, if Khmer Rouge members are tried for war crimes committed after 1975, how shall we assess the role of the American bombing of Cambodia 196975?

An excellent study of the origins of conservative anti-imperialism is Robert Beisner's Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-imperialists, 18981900. Many 1960s arguments against U.S. aggression in Vietnam were prefigured by major national figures opposed to the Philippine War. William James, Charles Eliot Norton, and Benjamin Harrison are among Beisner's Twelve. American cultural propagandists work hard to make us think that our wars are noble reruns of World War II, but is it not actually the Philippine Annexation War of long repressed memory that we have condemned ourselves to keep re-fighting?

For a glimpse of the contemporary rampaging of the horsemen, take Haiti, the United States's little neighbor. The Washington Post National Weekly Edition for May 1 has a piece by Michael Dobbs, "The Price of Global Reforms: The Push to Free Markets Can Devastate the Local Economy." Swamped by rice imports forced on Haitians by the United States, rice farmers have been driven from their livelihoods into the cities. "Throngs of women seeking jobs at 30 cents an hour in sweatshops owned by US clothing manufacturers." "Roughly 50% of Haitian children younger than 5 suffer from malnutrition." Over the past 40 years per capita GNP has fallen from almost $600 to $369.

As a consequence of WWII, the U.S. had an opportunity to inherit the empires of the early 20th-century powers. Unfortunately, our leaders took that opportunity and turned their back on Roosevelt's anti-colonial commitments. Would we have taken this wrong turn had FDR lived? I'd like to think not; but maybe it was overdetermined by the momentum of all those centuries.

Moss Roberts is a professor of Chinese at New York University. This is a slightly edited version of a message that appeared on the H-Diplomacy list.