November 2009

Ango-settlers not imperialists

by Limbic on November 3, 2009

A good review of a new book on the great European migrations of the 18th and 19th century.

“…The migration of the British people over the globe, including North America; with the aid of some state power, certainly – the general protection afforded by the Royal Navy, occasional military expeditions to pull the migrants out of trouble, charters and treaties – but not in order to dominate anyone. Rather, the aim was to reproduce British-type “free” societies, usually freer than Britain’s own, in what were conveniently regarded as the “waste” places of the earth. Belich calls this “cloning”. It was an entirely different process from the more dominating sort of “imperialism”, representing a different philosophy, involving different social classes, and mainly affecting different regions of the world. Belich believes that it was a far more important influence than what is generally understood as imperialism on the whole course of modern history.

Belich’s approach brings out two further features obscured by conventional models. First, “settlerism” was transnational, in several senses, quite apart from the obvious one that it pushed beyond national frontiers. Other peoples did it besides Britons or even northern Europeans: Belich has interesting sections on Iberian, Chinese and Russian movements of settlement, the last-named mainly in Siberia, uncannily similar in many ways to the great “Anglo” ones. Or, rather, the “Anglo” one; for Belich is insistent that the British colonization of Canada and Australasia, and the Americans’ opening up of their West, were not merely similar but essentially the same phenomenon, umbilically linked, to a far greater extent than national accounts of each of them – and especially the myth of American “exceptionalism” – would lead one to believe. That is the first thing you discover when the imperial element is filtered out.

The second is that this kind of colonization was not necessarily a case of the centre “exploiting” the periphery. Settlers positively sought out “oldland” goods and capital rather than having them forced on them. They arguably gained more from the exchange than the metropoles did. At the very worst, “exploitation was mutual”. The cultural ties between them were also voluntary. It was the Australians who wanted to retain their British identity, rather than its being forced on them, and Britain which eventually cut the tie between them (by joining the Common Market). Resentment over their rejection by Britain led Australians to reconfigure themselves thereafter, fashionably, as colonial victims; but for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Australians and Californians preferred to regard themselves as “co-owners” of the great British and American enterprises – even as superior partners: fitter, more democratic, less debilitated by “civilization”, “Better Britons” (or Americans) – rather than marginal to them. Some even dreamt of shifting the metropolises of their worlds to their new lands: to Bismarck, North Dakota, for example, which one optimist in the 1880s “predicted seriously would someday be the centre of Western civilization”. It was this kind of process and feeling that created what Belich calls the “Anglo-world”, and contributed – more than a more one-sided “imperialism” could possibly have done – to its success.”

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Who rules the World Island commands the world

by Limbic on November 3, 2009

This is an old and excellent article on Sir Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics:

“Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

One such scribbler currently ruling the world is the Edwardian geographer Sir Halford Mackinder. Oxford professor, MP and imperialist, Sir Halford was the intellectual architect of modern geopolitics and the thinker who put the idea of “the Heartland” at the centre of global diplomacy.

Today, he is more relevant than ever. As Russia and Georgia continue their hot and cold war over South Ossetia, as the Kremlin attacks the European Union for its “eastern partnership” policy towards Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, and as America and Russia tussle over influence in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, Mackinder’s realpolitik vision is at its most active for half a century. Few recall his name, but our foreign policy is now played out in his shadow.

Mackinder’s fame comes from a rather dry lecture delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, entitled The Geographical Pivot of History. In it he made two dynamite propositions. First, that the globalised world — crisscrossed by steam, telegram and train — had become a closed system. Since there was nowhere left to colonise, the world had become a unitary space with every strategic advance by one nation necessitating a rival power to retreat. In this closed geographical context, diplomacy was a zero-sum game and geopolitics meant successfully squaring political power with geographical setting.

Second, the key to world power lay in “the Heartland of the Old World”, the Eurasian land mass stretching from the mouth of the Elbe in Germany to the mouth of the Amur in Outer Manchuria. This vast land mass included the Iranian upland in the southwest and part of the Mongolian upland in the southeast, but its core was constituted by the Russian Empire. In centuries past this terrain had been the pivot of world history as the Huns, the Mongols and the Magyars swept into Europe. Ranged against this “Heartland” sat the representatives of the outer fringe, the sea powers — Great Britain, the United States and Japan. And what geopolitics came down to was an ongoing struggle between the Heartland and the sea powers. Mackinder, as a loyal servant of the British Empire, was desperately worried that an expansionist Russia would act to the detriment of British imperial interests.

He explored these themes further during the 1919 Versailles peace conference in his most significant work, Democratic Ideals and Reality (tellingly republished this summer under the Faber Find imprint of lost classics). In contrast to President Wilson’s visionary rhetoric of democracy and national self-determination, Mackinder argued that the First World War victors should base the new world order not on lofty ideals but the hard geopolitical realities underlying history. And the most pressing of those realities was the threat posed by a united Russia and Germany. Mackinder’s thesis was simple: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; who rules the World Island commands the world.”

To prevent just such a terrifying power bloc, he advocated a cordon sanitaire of independent states in Eastern Europe — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary — to act as a bulwark between Germany and Russia.

Unfortunately, in Britain Mackinder was a prophet without power. “

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