The Sunset Empire Shudders and Shakes

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Arc of the Sun

Just this week, intervention into Syria was debated on the floor of the House in a robust, spirited debate in which the government of the nation presented its case, its elected opposition presented the contrary argument, and those fighting against intervention won the vote, 285-272.

Now, many of you know what I am referring to, others are puzzled that the vote included 557 voting, since the House of Representatives only has 435 voting members. But the "House" I am referring to the British House of Commons, the "government of the nation" is the parliamentary cabinet headed by Prime Minister David Cameron, Ministers of Her Majesty Queen Ellizabeth II, backed by a majority of 304 Conservative Party ("Tory") and 55 Liberal Democrats ("LibDems") members of the House of Commons.

Leading the opposition are 257 members of the Labour Party, and sitting in the cross benches are 17 Northern Irish MP's ~ 8 Democratic Unionist, 5 Sinn Fein (who abstain in protest to UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland), 3 Social Democratic and Labor Party, and 1 Alliance Party member ~ 11 minor party members, including the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalist), a Green and a (socialist) Respect Party member, and 5 Independents.

About thirty (30) Labour Party members were absent from the vote, and 5 members of Sinn Fein always abstain, so a unified Tory vote would have carried the day, independent of the vote of the LibDems. However, according to the tweets copied by the Guardian's Live live blog of the Syrian Motion debate, about 30 Tory members broke ranks, along with about 12 Lib Dems, and with an almost unified opposition, that was enough.

As Anne Perkins at the Gardian discussed in the coverage today, the long shadow of Iraq carries carried substantial responsibility for this defeat. It was due to Iraq that the PM David Cameron promised to allow Parliament a veto on going to war. Also carrying substantial weight among MP's was how badly Iraq turned out after seeming so simple at the outset, where by contrast we are already aware of the bewildering complexity of the situation in Syria.

Most evocative for me, however, is the historical echo of this vote. By most accounts, the last time a British PM lost a War Vote in the House of Parliament was part of the transition from the First British Empire to the Second British Empire, as recounted by a historian interviewed for the AP coverage:

George Jones, professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics, compares the House of Commons’ decision about Syria to its vote in 1782 to have British forces call it quits during the American Revolution.

"The last time the government was knocked off course by Parliament like this was in the 1780s when Parliament accepted that we’d lost the war of American independence and gave up America, so this is a pretty important event," said Jones. "If the government can’t get through its policy of war and peace, it’s an issue of confidence. Its competence has been shattered."

The ebbs and flows and long waves of geopolitical history

Now, last time this happened in England, the context was quite different. At the time, the British government was the "hegemonic" power of the West ... the "first among equals", typically able to swing things its way, so long as it avoids confrontations that unite every other power against it. It had emerged to that position in the then-"Emerging Economies" of the 1600's and 1700's on the back of Spanish Silver. Luxury goods ~ both traditional British luxury exports like fine woolens and new British luxury exports like Sugar ~ were used to persuade the Spanish aristocracy to hand over silver, mostly newly mined in their two Mountains of Silver in Mexico and Peru. That silver was then taken to allow British merchants to buy their way into the carrying trade in East Asia, where although the market for inferior European products was limited, East Asian producers were quite happy to sell their products for cash ~ silver.

Back then, the new colonies in British North America were by no means as central to the First Empire as the British West Indies, but we did play our roles. This included acting as a logistical support base for fur trading in the great watershed of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and as a source for timber, rope, pitch and other supplies required for ship building, giving British maritime trade an additional competitive advantage.

But it was decided in the House of Commons in 1982 that we weren't worth the cost in blood and treasure it would take to reconquer British North America.

And, indeed, the loss of British North America was only a warning tremor for the geopolitical earthquake that hit Europe: the Napoleonic Wars, which given the geopolitical impact outside of the European subcontinent has very real claim to being the Original World War.

Indeed, the greatest impact of the American Revolution may have been the combination of filling the heads of young radicals in France with Republican ideas at the same time as it emptied the Treasury of the French Monarchy. Out of the convulsions of the French Revolution emerged the strong-man dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, who gained enough ground in Europe to challenge Britain's position as hegemonic European power in a balanced of power with the far older and more common system of a subcontinental land empire, surrounded by tributary states.

However, after inventing the modern mass civilian armed force capable of moving in independent Armies and crush opposing forces in ground of his own choosing, Britain was able to hold its own and continue playing balance of power politics until Napoleon over-reached in Russia, lost the bulk of the veteran core of his Grande Armée and was finally defeated.

While Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the hegemonic power in Europe, the Second Empire that it built in the 1800's was substantially different from the first. Even as the British were losing their hold on British North America, they were consolidating their hold in India under the British East India Company. The Napoleonic Wars had been a bonanza for the British East India Company. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the Europeans reversed their historical competitive disadvantage in textiles as the abundant labor and more productive agricultural systems of India and China became less important than the productivity of the grim "Satanic Mills" of the English Midlands.

India's traditional trade deficit to its east balanced by a trade surplus to its west was replaced with a trade deficit on all sides, and in the resulting depression, the British East India Company was able to raise armies with more Indian soldiers than the local rulers, better equipped with Indian-made weaponry than the local rulers, and use the export to Europe of raw materials from the newly conquered territory to pay for the costs of the conquest.

But the British East India Company proved less competent at government than it was at conquest for profit. There were a series of regulatory Acts of Parliament in the 1800's, until finally after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British government nationalized the British East India Company and India under direct Imperial control became the cornerstone of the Second British Empire.

Of course, in the former British colonies of North America, the original New World trade plantation basis of British West Indies had gained a new lease on life with the mechanization of the stripping of cotton seeds from cotton bolls, and Southern US cotton plantations had boomed selling cotton into the mechanized textile mills of England. while in the North, the economy was built on "sweat equity" investment in frontier farms taken from Native Americans in a symbiotic relationships with a domestic manufacturing economy on the Northeast coast. The conflict over the institution of chattel slavery erupted into the Civil War, and with the victory of the North, the United States began the process of economic development that made it the largest economy in the world by the turn of the Century.

And so in the extended World War of 1917 to 1945, while Great Britain emerged having defeated its primary rival power in Europe of Bismark's Germany, it emerged having lost the power position on which it had built its Second Empire, and almost immediately afterward the process of European Decolonization began.

And the United States proceeded to build the peculiar institution of a Base Network Empire, an Empire where the purpose seems to include that the Empire cost money, in order to ensure an ongoing share of national income to the merchants of death that manufacture the weapons systems and provide logistical support to our armed forces.

At the end of World War Two, this expensive Base Network Empire made a certain kind of bizarre sense. The US had fully half of the functioning productive capacity of the world coming out of WWII. We made most of the things that people wanted to buy ~ not just overseas, but in the United States as well. Without substantial spending of US dollars overseas, overseas economies could not afford to buy US products. And the maintenance of US bases overseas was one means of ensuring that US dollars continued to be spent overseas, so that countries overseas could not collapse into a general international trade depression after the War.

We had, after all, experience the kind of malignant political parties that can be established in the midst of general depression with the fascist parties of Spain, Italy, and particularly Germany. We did not want to recreate those conditions, even more widely.

But times changed, economies developed, and the conditions under which the Base Network Empire made a certain kind of bizarre sense no longer apply. The United States was, at the end of WWII, a country with a massive share of world productive capacity and a substantial trade surplus. We are now a country with a declining share of world productive capacity, on many measures being passed or already having been passed by China, and with a massive trade deficit. We were an energy exporting nation at the end of WWII. We are now an energy dependent nation. At the end of WWII, we were the nation in the world who offered the greatest economic mobility ~ particularly the greatest chance to someone who was born in the bottom fifth of the income ladder that they could climb into the middle class. We have become a far more rigid class society, where being born into the bottom fifth largely condemns one to remain in the bottom fifth, and being born in the top tenth is the primary means of reaching the top tenth in adulthood.

The Base Network Empire was always a brutal affair, with the bulk of the US population largely shielded from the brutality on which it was based. But in the 1950's, there was a tension in concerns for international peace and justice regarding how to weigh the substantially different points to be made on the benefit and cost side of the scales. Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it has become harder and harder to find any points to lay on the benefit side of the scale.

The Self-Funded, Self-Appointed Policeman Is Not A Policeman

So now we find ourselves facing the question of whether the United States should once again spend a fortune in blood and treasure acting as the Policeman of the World. However, it cannot be ignored that when someone pays to act as a policeman, rather than working on the pay of the community being policed ... and indeed appoints themselves as police ... that does not fit any sane definition of "police".

That may be a vigilante. If enough people have gotten together it might be a mob. If its a single powerful individual who uses political power or wealth to organize a police force, we might call that a strongman, mob boss or warlord. But its not police.

Korea: that was a Police Action. The US forces forming the backbone of the UN forces were acting on the orders of the United Nations (after the Soviet Union missed a meeting of the Security Council). The Invasion of Iraq, that was more a self-appointed mob, a "coalition of the willing to invade another country".

But now we don't even have the backing of the UK. Without the backing of the UK, it seems highly unlikely that the United States will obtain substantial NATO support, so even the perversion of what was originally supposed to be a treaty of mutual self-defense into an organization to provide political cover for actions that cannot gain the sanction of the United Nations is not going to be there.

If we act in Syria, without UN backing, without NATO backing, without even the backing of our closest allies ... we will just be a rogue state. We will be labeling the state that we are attacking a rogue state, as rogue states are wont to do, but that won't change our status.

And if we attack, it will be under the leadership of the President who as a candidate in 2008 pointed to the importance of what observers referred to as "Soft Power". Joseph Nye in June 2008 wrote:

I have spent the past month lecturing in Oxford and traveling in Europe where Barack Obama could be elected in a landslide. I suspect that this fascination with Obama is true in many parts of the world. In fact, as I have said before, it is difficult to think of any single act that would do more to restore America's soft power than the election of Obama to the presidency.

Soft power is the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion. As I describe in my new book The Powers to Lead, in individuals soft power rests on the skills of emotional intelligence, vision, and communication that Obama possesses in abundance. In nations, it rests upon culture (where it is attractive to others), values (when they are applied without hypocrisy), and policies (when they are inclusive and seen as legitimate in the eyes of others.)

Polls show that American soft power has declined quite dramatically in much of the world over the past eight years. Some say this is structural, and resentment is the price we pay for being the biggest kid on the block. But it matters greatly whether the big kid is seen as a friend or a bully. In much of the world we have been seen as a bully as a result of the Bush Administration policies.

How far we have fallen from those giddy days. But that fall was inevitable. For it is not enough to wish to rely on Soft Power rather than Hard Power ... a country would also have be able to advance a vision that is attractive in its own right. "We won't be as recklessly foolhardy in our brutal application of force overseas, but instead will be brutal in measured, well considered doses" is only attractive in the immediate aftermath of the George W Bush Residency. Once that memory fades and it has to stand on its own innate appeal, it has little innate appeal to draw upon.

Indeed, the United States could still draw on a massive well of good will around the world, but only if:

  • ... if we were to abandon our Base Network Empire and the brutal policies that we have had to pursue to maintain the Base Network Empire;
  • ... if we were to dismantle the protections for our own Neo-Aristocrats and restore the ladders of opportunity which we have dismantled at their direction
  • ... if we were to break through the opposition of the Climate Suicide Pact and lead the way to a sustainable 21st Century

... we would gain massive and sustainable influence ... at the expense of expensive and unsustainable hard power.

But one thing we would have to do is to abandon the idea that the whole world is our stage.

Our neighborhood is the Americas, Western Europe, West, Central and Southern Africa, and the Pacific Rim. It is a big, big neighborhood. But it does not include Central Asia. It does not include the Arabian Peninsula. It does not actually include Syria.

The basic, empty argument for intervention is: "Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do this".

The answer that would be given by a United States that was pursuing a foreign policy that is not doomed to collapse in another ten to twenty years would be, "If something must be done, we must persuade either the world community or else Syria's neighbors of this fact, and if we agree with the action that they come up with, we should offer support that action."

The crisis in Syria is, after all, far more like the French and Indian War or the American Revolution than it is like the Napoleonic Wars or the World War of 1915-1945. And we risk taking on the role of the French in those wars, wasting our blood and treasure on reckless foreign adventures while ignoring the rotting foundations of our domestic economy.

Don't Leave Your Heart in a Hard Place

I know that the sunset empire shudders and shakes
I know there's a floodgate and a raging river
I say the silence of the ribbons of iron and steel
I say hear the punch drunk huddle drive hammer and steel

Sometimes you're beaten to the call
Sometimes you're taken to the wall
But you don't give in

I know that the cannibals wear smart suits and ties
I know they arm wrestle on the altar
I say don't leave your heart in a hard place

Sometimes you're shaken to the core
Sometimes the face is gonna fall
But you don't give in




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