- Historic Sites
“The Shah Always Falls”
A soldier-historian looks at how the world has changed in the past decade and finds that America is both hostage to history and likely to be saved by it
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
I’d like to see us go back to where it is possible, within the realistic limitations of geostrategy, to support plebiscites so that people can agree on whom they want to live with or who should be their leader. I would like to see us on the side of human rights. We talk about human rights very selectively. We beat up on Burma because we don’t have any trade with it, but Saudi Arabia’s abuses of human rights have been vastly worse, and we don’t say boo. Sometimes in the short term, as with Turkey, which is our big aircraft carrier in the Middle East, we have to go softly, but even with Turkey we could talk tougher behind the scenes. Human rights should always be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. I want America to be on the side of the downtrodden, the huddled masses, the tired and the poor. Why not?
You’ve argued that it’s been the business of the United States to destroy empires, that the United States has been the greatest of the anti-imperialist powers.
European imperialism is still hard to assess with a cold eye. We’re too close to it. When we look at the question in a few centuries, I suspect we’ll decide that the imperial powers did some good things, a lot of bad things, and many indifferent things. But in our time they’ve long since outlived their usefulness. They probably started to do so by the eighteenth century, certainly by the nineteenth and absolutely by the twentieth. The United States seems almost like an organic response to the problem of empire. If you look at our wars, even before we were a nation—for example, the series of conflicts leading up to the French and Indian War—we were fighting empires while being a part of one. We were under British suzerainty fighting against the French Empire.
The clash of civilizations is a great thesis, but it does not describe a new phenomenon. The history of the eastern Mediterranean in the twelfth century B.c. is the clash of civilizations, and so are the imperial wars of the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century the French and Indian War is crucial, and the colonial militia is decisive. On the Plains of Abraham, we prove that modern empires can fall. We show that it’s possible. Well, we fight the greatest empire of that age, the British Empire, twice, once to kick it out, and once to confirm it’s got to stay out. Our next war is against the Mexican Empire. The first phase of our struggle against empires climaxes with the Civil War, when we destroy the imperial legacies of human bondage and a landed aristocracy. That first phase ends with Seward’s purchase of Alaska, and it roughly defines American territory as we know it, except for Hawaii.
What’s the second phase?
In 1898 phase two kicks in, and America starts looking outward. Nowadays we underestimate the Spanish-American War because we assume that important wars are bloody. This one wasn’t bloody, but it was the first time a non-European power destroyed a European empire. The Spanish Empire was decrepit, archaic, and bankrupt, but it was an empire, and we reached out and broke it, and we began becoming a new form of empire in the process. The Japanese saw that the Europeans didn’t all gang up on the Americans for destroying a European empire, so a half-dozen years later they took on the other decrepit empire in the Far East, the empire of the czars, and destroyed part of it. In the First World War we were fighting alongside empires but also against them, and we destroyed the decrepit Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the upstart Second Reich. In the Second World War we destroyed the Italian empire, the Japanese empire, and the German Third Reich. By the end of the Cold War we’d destroyed the last great surviving European empire, the Soviet incarnation of the Russian Empire of the czars, and in some respects become an empire ourselves, although a new kind.
This process was layered and complex. In Indochina we were an anti-imperial power fighting imperial wars against anti-imperialists backed by imperial powers. Communism was an imperial force, the last great wave of European imperialism. But at the same time, the Vietnamese and Cambodians were fighting their own anti-imperial struggle against us. By the nineties we’d directly or indirectly been involved in the destruction of almost every European empire. Even the Dutch in Indonesia had to leave back in 1949 because America basically said, “You’ve got to go home.” The Belgians pretty much withered on their own. The Portuguese mostly withered on their own too, but sad to say, we apparently gave Indonesia a green light to kick them out of East Timor, which we came to regret less than a quarter of a century later. Finally, in the course of restructuring empires we’ve gotten a legacy of behaving like a new sort of imperial power. I want us to continue to be this new sort of enlightened imperial power. It’s the moral, right, and wise thing to do.
Is the Chinese empire the last one that you think America will destroy?