Are empires coming back into fashion? The chief result of the Second World War, the defeat of Hitler obviously excepted, was the dissolution of the European colonial empires. This need not have been a necessary outcome. Indeed, after the First World War, the European colonial empires actually grew in size. Self-determination had then been proclaimed a war aim—when the Allies got around to deciding what their war aims were—but it was a self-determination for Europeans only; and then chiefly for those peoples who had been subjects of the defeated German and Austrian empires.

Beyond Europe, the British, the French, and the late-flowering Italian empires added considerably to their size, chiefly through the medium of the League of Nations mandates. The German colonies in Africa went to Britain, which also took the mandate over the former Turkish province of Palestine. France confirmed its long-held interest in the Levant by taking the mandates over Syria and Lebanon. The Italians, needing only sacro egoismo as justification, consolidated their possession of the formerly Turkish islands in the eastern Mediterranean and the territory of Libya. Even Japan, whose calculated intervention against the German enclave in north China had made it an ally of the victorious powers, succeeded in sweeping up some unconsidered Pacific islands; the significance of those additions was not to be made manifest until 1941.

After the Second World War, the trend was entirely in the opposite direction. Thanks to Japan’s whirlwind victories in the Pacific in 1941 and early 1942, European empires were actually much smaller in 1945 than they had been in the last years of peace. The British, as combatant victors, were able to re-enter their lost colonies at the moment of Japanese defeat. But the French and the Dutch, occupied during the war by Japan’s ally, Germany, were to take months over the repossession of Indo-china and the East Indies. Repossession, indeed, was to require a hard fight—in the French case, a fight that was to last eight years and end in partial defeat.

Of course the apparent re-creation of European empires was illusory. Britain was morally committed to the granting of independence to India, an act fulfilled by August 1947. And, with India gone, the logic of the British empire east of the Suez was destroyed. The French and Dutch colonies in the Far East were also cast into isolation by Indian independence, which would probably have necessitated their abandonment even without the rebellion that eventually won them their freedom. Once the dissolution of the Asian colonies—largely an achievement of the Japanese, however indirectly—was under way, the will to empire elsewhere among the European powers was progressively sapped. Africa, the last wholly colonized of the continents, began to fall to the “wind of change” in 1957.

The phrase was Macmillan’s, and the wind he unleashed blew away one African colony after another—first Britain’s, then Belgium’s, then those of the French, whose second postwar fight—to retain their North African territories, so heavily settled by whites—made them more reluctant donors of independence. As a postscript of decolonization, the Spanish, and ultimately the Portuguese, the first, and in many ways the greatest, of empire builders, gave up their last African possessions in the 1970s.

It seemed the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Within thirty years, the number of states in the world had more than doubled, and all 160 of them, at least in international law and the eyes of the United Nations, were strictly sovereign. However, though a new era seemed to be born, there were ominous signs that the old was refusing to die. It was not only that in 1969 First Secretary Brezhnev had proclaimed that doctrine of “limited sovereignty” which bears his name, and so effectively returned the states of Central and Eastern Europe to semi-subject status. The late Seventies also saw the revival of submerged and forgotten imperialism at many points of the globe. The Vietnamese, the dominant people of the Indochina region, embarked on the restoration of their former hegemony almost as soon as the North’s conquest of the South in 1975 was complete—a program that in 1979 provoked the Chinese into mounting a punitive attack on Vietnam’s northern border. In China’s view, the Vietnamese are a subordinate people of their own whose ambitions need to be checked.

But the Far East was not the only place where old imperialisms reemerged. The fall of the Shah and the rise of the ayatollahs were not simply religious events: they also gave notice to the neighbors of formerly imperial Iran that old claims were likely to be reasserted—as they since have been, both in the Gulf and along the two rivers. Syria’s intervention in the Lebanese civil war of 1975 and 1976, though endorsed by the Arab League, may be seen as a restatement of its old claim to govern that country as a province. In North Africa, Libya’s drive southward into Chad and toward the Atlantic via the northern Muslim regions of the west coast states reawakened memories of Muslim and Arab imperialism in black Africa before the coming of the Europeans. Ethiopia’s wars with Somalia and Eritrea have their origins in its imperial past. And most recently, Israel’s strategies toward its occupied West Bank territories and its northern neighbor states of Syria and Lebanon smell of a local imperialism, however strongly that is denied.


Ideologies are naturally invoked to characterize these new Israeli policies, and to excuse or condemn as the case may be. But the real explanation may lie deeper than the ideological level. It is Israel’s unwelcome lot to occupy territory in the center of one of the most important land bridges in the world. The coastal strip that lies between the Mediterranean and the desert, from the border of Turkey to the head of the Red Sea, provides a narrow, well-watered, and level pathway between Asia Minor and Africa and between the two halves of the Muslim world, that of the Middle East and that of North Africa. In a sense, it matters not who occupies the territory of Israel: Byzantines, Crusaders, Zionists—their alien presence in itself ensures that they must fight to hold what they have. National unity and superior technology explain Israel’s run of successes in the wars it has had to fight. But victory, rather than solving its security problem, in a way merely complicates it; for the logic of geography draws any victor nation in the region inexorably toward the desert border to the east, the Taurus mountains to the north, and the shores of the Red Sea in the south.

Does Israel’s recent history provide us with any general explanation of the imperial urge, and of the apparent rise of a new imperialism in particular? Halford Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, would certainly say that it does, for his theory of interstate relations was intensely tautological, turning largely on the positions occupied by competing entities on the face of the global land mass. “You cannot escape your geography,” was the essence of his message, mediated only by an allowance for the comparative efficiency of transport technologies. Until the present century, he insisted, technology had conferred a decisive advantage on the maritime powers, since ships were better bulk carriers than any landbound vehicle. The rise of the railroad and the automobile then began, he argued, to redress the balance, and would eventually lead to the supremacy of the landlocked states. His prophecy has still to be borne out, but his emphasis on the importance of locality, though it scarcely amounts to more than a restatement of what soldiers call “the strategy of the central position,” undoubtedly had value. It certainly concentrates the mind wonderfully in assessing the potential outcome of regional power struggles, of which Israel’s is currently the most notable.

Geography and the theory of maritime preeminence also go far to explain Japan’s rise in the twentieth century, of which the first volume of H.P. Willmott’s history of the Pacific war of 1941-1945 is a major chronicle. Japan, like Britain, is placed across vital natural sea routes, in its case, the exits from the Siberian and North China ports into the Pacific. A self-imposed isolation denied Japan the chance to profit from its position until the late nineteenth century, when the West’s urge to add Japan’s markets to its system of free trade dragged the country into the modern world. And with a vengeance: the Japanese social system puts the highest value on intellectual achievement and team effort, and it was through a combination of these qualities that the country Westernized itself, educationally and technically, in less than half a century.

But adopting Western spots did not admit the country to the great power pack—at least not fully. Japan’s trade was heavily tariffed, Japan’s fleet severely limited by the Washington naval conference of 1921. The Japanese, who had talked themselves into the currently fashionable belief that they needed “living space” for their expanding population as well as markets for their industries and free access to the resources which fed them—in their case a belief which had some substance—saw no way to get what they wanted other than by imperial expansion. The older political generation, aristocratic in leadership and genuinely affected by Western liberalism, fought a losing battle against a new generation, which was increasingly bourgeois in composition and fascist (if the word has a meaningful Japanese connotation) in outlook.

The battle was eventually lost because, as in modern Arab politics, the extremists proved willing to kill their moderate opponents to get their way. By the end of the Thirties the armed forces, whose junior officers had precipitated the occupation of China through the Manchurian Incident of 1931, were ready to embark on the occupation of China proper (the “China incident” of 1937—an “incident” which was to last eight years). And when European colonialists, together with America—the great protector of republican China and no stranger to a little Pacific imperialism of its own—attempted to limit their expansion through the imposition of economic sanctions, the army decided that it must precipitate a general Pacific war.


The plan to which the Japanese worked perfectly exemplified the Mackinder theory, though in an unanticipated way. What the Japanese admirals grasped—and it was here the country’s acquisition of German Pacific islands proved so useful—was that the Pacific was essentially two oceans: an eastern sea empty of islands, a western sea full of them. Their object was therefore geographically determined—to seize all the islands of the western half, defend the perimeter, using internal sea mobility to do so, and thus face the Americans with the virtually impossible task of conducting a counteroffensive from the bases located in California. The plan almost came off. Had the Americans not won the Battle of Midway, and so frustrated Yamamoto’s final objective, the seizure of Hawaii, it would have succeeded. Because the Americans retained Hawaii, and were eventually able to build up a bigger fleet, simple superiority gave them the victory.

But in wars between Western or Westernized powers on the one hand and technically backward peoples on the other, it was not superiority of numbers that necessarily brought success. Indeed, it is the point of V.G. Kiernan’s lively and elegant study of the military side of nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism that Western armies, however small, won. The best-known exceptions are the battles of Isandhlwana, in 1879, when the Zulus beat a British brigade that had mislaid its ammunition, and Adowa, in 1896, when an Ethiopian feudal host beat an Italian army that had not believed that their enemy would attack on a saint’s day.

But generally the backward were beaten no matter what their numerical superiority. After industrialism had taken hold, the explanation lay in simple firepower (“Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim gun and they have not”). But before that, when East and West often met on technically equal terms, the West still won because of qualities not simply of discipline but of a sort of cold ruthlessness which Asians and Africans rarely had. It was only when a truly military people, like the Sikhs, who also had access to Western technology, were challenged to open battle that the outcome was seriously in doubt. Professor Kiernan has a high regard for Sikhs. Indeed, for a committed Marxist, he has a high regard for imperial soldiers in general, even when they fight for the oppressor side. In an epilogue which would not be reprinted in Marxism Today, he advances the entirely Kiplingesque idea that the losses inflicted on black and yellow in the course of their subjection to the imperial will were as nothing compared to those they suffered at the hands of indigenous power-mongers; and that, in the long run, imperialism was a necessary prelude to self-liberation.

Is there anything in these two studies of the military side of imperialism, one particular, one general, that bears out the purpose of Professors Gilpin’s and Smith’s books: to provide an all-purpose theory of imperialism? Smith, it is true, sets himself the limits of defining the pattern of imperialism in British and American history since 1815. But his purpose is to find an eclectic theory, and this is shared by Professor Gilpin. How do they differ? First of all in what they mean by imperialism: Professor Smith offers definitions so catch-all that almost any country, except perhaps Andorra and Iceland, might be arraigned on the charge if he so chose (though he abjures any “moralistic” element in his attitude). Politically, he says, imperialism exists “when a weaker people cannot act… [on] fundamental domestic or foreign concerns for fear of foreign reprisals” too strong to resist. Economically, it exists “when the local division of labor and the corresponding class relations of the weaker people can be demonstrated to have originated or to be sustained by external forces to such a degree that, failing these foreign connections, the local socioeconomic structure could not survive.” Phew! No wonder almost anyone can shout imperialism whenever he thinks the gibe might hurt. Women might shout it at men, children at adults, southerners at northerners—in both Britain and America—Brooklyn at Manhattan, Brixton at Westminister. As a result, Professor Smith’s earnest comparative analysis of imperialism here and there, earlier and late, provokes both assent and dissent almost indifferently.

If we are to be galvanized to any interest in the subject, the imperialism we are asked to confront must be much redder in tooth and claw than that. Professor Gilpin’s is. He is not shocked, as Smith appears to be, by the perception that sovereignty is a highly variable quantity, whatever the lip service international organizations pay to it. He has no difficulty in seeing that some states, being richer or stronger than others, will place a higher value on their own sovereignty and what is due to it than they do on that of their weaker neighbors. But he still seems to find it both novel and slightly shocking that the medium through which such values are translated is that of war. He disclaims any belief in a fundamental shift in the character of international relationships over the millennia, seeing Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War as a statement of state practice as valid today as it was when written.

But all that he really offers is neat categories for the message he perceives in it; that waxing states will wage war to increase their power as it profits them to do so; waning states will fight to hold what they have, but only when inescapably challenged. The real point of his book seems to be to remind his superacademic colleagues in the world of international theory (an artery of intellectual anemia at the best of times) that armies and combat deserve study equally with foreign offices and trade imbalances, and that blood is the price of admiralty today as it has ever been.

This brings us back to the question of whether imperialism is coming back into fashion. The Falklands campaign has given some people a nasty shock, and not just General Galtieri and his friends. What Mrs. Thatcher’s resolve seemed to say is that there is a limit to what the developed nations, however high-minded, will put up with from the less developed, particularly when the latter choose to flex their muscles for purely nationalistic reasons. The misleading impression conveyed by the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and the granting of independence to so many excolonies in the immediate aftermath was that all sovereign states were equal, had the right and freedom to behave identically, and would be punished for overstepping the limits of good behavior by collective international sanction. What the late Seventies and early Eighties imply, by contrast, is that there is a world-wide system of local pecking orders, understood in a visceral way by all, and that those who peck where custom does not welcome them had better have sharp beaks.

It is the merit of Willmott’s and Kiernan’s studies that they take it for granted that the world is one of hierarchies, moral or economic or both, and are concerned chiefly to demonstrate such hierarchies at work. Gilpin and Smith are really doing something different: ridding themselves in public of the academic hypocrisies that shield professors—though that does not matter—but presumably also their students, which does matter, from a realistic view of how the world works.

This Issue

September 23, 1982