It is common to hear America described as imperialist or an empire. It is widely accepted as simple fact in many circles. I certainly think American acted that way in the past by extending its power across the North American continent and aping European colonialism by trying to amass colonies in the late 19th and early 20th century. We even had our colonial concession in Shanghai before WWII just like our European brethren. But since WW2 we have pursued a different policy. We actively prevented our closest allies, the British, from reasserting control over their empire. We refused to bail the French out of Indochina. (Then get tangled up anyhow.) We left Britain and France high and dry in the Suez crisis. But most critically we didn’t do what imperial powers normally do with either Germany or Japan. Instead ‘despoiling them’ as Machiavelli proposed in such circumstances, we imposed democracy on them and financed their economic recovery. In the end that policy led to very successful democratic political countries and prosperous economies. Critics of America insist that our policy is still colonialist and imperial but the results just don’t justify that claim. For example, Toyota just became the worlds biggest car maker. And it was a rich West Germany that managed to absorb its impoverished eastern countrymen after 50 years of Communism – not the other way around. America actually sets up conditions where our so called victims are allowed to win. In fact what we set up is a ‘win-win, because it pays better than exploitation. To understand America you have to understand that what we are really about is business.

If you harbor a distaste for America I would suggest that the term commercial oligarchy is a lot more accurate. It describes our domestic and foreign behavior well while retaining a satisfying frisson of anti Americanism. On the domestic front, Silicon Vally has plenty of foreign born billionaires who came to America to chance their hand at becoming members of our oligarchy. We welcome them. Here is America’s secret – we let foreigners win too – whether they stay at home or come to America. There is one simple requirement:- they have to be good. (Shooting up Fort Dix doesn’t count as good.) It is even OK if they are better. I drive a Toyota Camry which, if its reputation among mechanics is correct, outdoes other Japanese cars. But that is enough of America’s secrets – we wouldn’t want those that don’t like us to understand us too well.

The larger point I want to make is that while folks have been getting exercised about US imperialism they fail to notice some steaming examples of imperialism and empire elsewhere in the world. They tittered a lot when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’. I admit I didn’t take him seriously at the time. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw that Ronald Reagan had it right. The Soviet Union was in its ideology anti imperialist and a lot of us accepted that claim instead of looking at what the Soviet Union did. In retrospect the Soviet Union continued the long standing Czarist imperial policy of subjugating its neighbors to the east and south. (The Czars – which is a corruption of Caesar – were busy fighting the Chechens in the mid 19th century.) In the 30s Stalin killed millions of Ukrainians because there was a lot of opposition there not just to Communism, but to Russians. Ukrainians, like other human beings, remember and they left the Soviet Union as soon as they could and more recently drove out a Russian backed president in the Orange Revolution. Putin’s Russians poisoned the opposition candidate and nearly killed him. So it goes on. We should be as wary of Russian leaders who say they want to restore Russia’s greatness as we are of other European leaders. Likewise, Soviet Russia’s Eastern European satellites left the Soviet Union as soon as they could and began to prosper as they shook off a system that had been exploiting them. The unadorned truth is they were colonies. It should have been obvious right from the beginning. The allied armies in 1945 did not strip Berlin of everything from sofas to industrial equipment and ship them home. The Soviets did.

In all fairness to the Russians I don’t think that their attempt to reform themselves and their empire was all bad. What was bad was persisting blindly with the economics of total state ownership and maintaining that persistence with a murderous tyranny. That was the evil in the evil empire. Gorby got it, but too late.

Given the Soviet example, China followed a similar path but changed tack in time and abandoned total state ownership while retaining a totalitarian political system. They call their system ‘Communism with Chinese Features’, but whatever it is, economically it works just like capitalism. I note in passing that we have seen the combination of capitalism and totalitarianism before in European fascism, but it remains to be seen how China will handle that explosive mix. Currently, they are set to displace America as the world’s largest economy. As an American and an Australian I see that as far better than a failed China, but I don’t think China and the world are out of the woods yet. There is the matter of handling a booming Chinese economy. The developed world, Social Democracies as well as the aforementioned commercial oligarchy, have learned a great deal from dealing with the boom bust cycle. We know that the bigger they boom the harder the bust. We have found it useful to develop banking infrastructure like the Fed or the Bundesbank to smooth out the economic volatility that can destroy wealth in a depression faster than a boom can create it. We have also developed regulatory arrangements like taxation and rules against making money out of thin air. The Chinese are new at this and I think they will discover that they are not immune to the same frailties and dangers that we have partially tamed in the capitalist West. Therefore I think the biggest danger to the global economy is China because of its size and lack of experience in regulating and moderating a booming economy. They are already big enough to trigger a world depression and too big for the rest of us to bail out. I wish them success, but I think concern is in order.

Which leaves the question is China imperialist and is it an empire? I think so. They have always been an empire but one that grew from the center out. Throughout their history their method has been to assimilate those they conquered. Eventually the conquered people become Chinese and China becomes bigger. That is exactly the model they have followed in Tibet. Conquest followed by moving in large numbers of Chinese. Sooner or later those Tibetans are likely to be absorbed and become just another part of China. Were it not for Tibetan Buddhism it would be a slam dunk, but Tibetan identity will persist for a long time because of Tibetan spiritual achievements. I think the Chinese, being atheists because of their Communism, underestimated the importance of the Tibetan spiritual tradition to much of the rest of the world and likewise saw Falun Gong as a threat when it could have become a strength. I believe those mistakes will eventually cost them dearly.

It is also worth asking if the Chinese are now embarked on a policy of expansion that is classically imperialist and colonialist well beyond their borders. I’m not sure, but they are doing some very nasty things in Africa that generally escape attention as imperialist. I’m thinking of two trouble spots in Africa that are best known for the large number of people dying there. Darfur and Zimbabwe. In the month of October last year 3700 Iraqis died. At that time 2500 a week were dying in Darfur and 3500 a week in Zimbabwe. The Chinese are involved in both places. Chinese interest in oil is well know to be an issue in Darfur. I know Zimbabwe personally and the Chinese involvement there goes right back to the guerrilla war of the seventies. Mugabe and his party the ZANU PF have always been a Chinese clients. And his continued rule is based on Chinese sponsorship. His Army was re-equipped a couple of years ago with new Chinese vehicles and arms the better to keep the population quiescent as they suffer starvation. There is a lot of mineral wealth in Zimbabwe and enough natural gas to heat Africa or China for decades. I am not saying that it is China’s intention to starve the people of Zimbabwe, or kill the black people of Darfur. It seems to me to be a byproduct of their policies. Whatever their purpose – and as far as I can see it is about access to raw materials and energy – the Chinese are doing a pretty good job of acting like both 19th century capitalists and 19th century colonialists.

To those who see the US doing the same thing in Iraq I would say that while we are certainly there because we have energy interests in the Middle East we are trying to protect them by establishing democracy rather than – as we did during the Cold War – leave tyrants in power as long as they were anti Communist. I don’t expect the US to stop pursuing its interests nor do I expect China to do so either. We both need raw material and energy and will do what we need to to get them. I would prefer to see both of us do so in a way that minimizes harm to the bystanders. The US managed that well in the Kurdish part of Iraq, but not in the remainder of the country. We need to do better. And so do the Chinese in Darfur and Zimbabwe.

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