Only seventy years ago, Great Britain ruled over more than one quarter of the land surface of the planet. It policed, as far as anyone did, the oceans and seas, and it was the most important force in world finance, trade, and economy. All this was a source of national pride and a sense of mission that, for most people, conveniently evaded moral questions about the right of one race or nation to dominate another. Lord Curzon, the ultimate British proconsul, wrote that the British Empire was the greatest instrument for good that the world had ever seen.
Britain is no longer a world power. The colonies, dominions, and protectorates that made up the empire upon which the sun never set, with a few small exceptions, have gone their own way. The Commonwealth still reflects the positive side of imperial relationships, but it is a pale reminder of that legendary world of exploration and trade, of bugles and cavalry charges, of dedicated servants of the empire living out their lives far from home.
Britain is still one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, where the empire’s most conspicuous legacy is a series of apparently unresolvable problems. Palestine, Kashmir, and Cyprus are in a class by themselves for their insolubility. The first UN military observer operations were a response to the violence in Palestine and Kashmir; the first UN peacekeeping force was set up to end the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. The empire also left behind several states or federations made up of incompatible ethnic or religious groups whose mutual hostility created instability and even, occasionally, civil war. Of these, Iraq is currently the most prominent, and the thorniest.
In Ends of British Imperialism, Wm. Roger Louis, the historian of the British Empire and Commonwealth at the University of Texas in Austin, explains in exhilarating detail the complex process of imperial growth and dissolution. In The International Struggle over Iraq, David Malone, currently the Canadian high commissioner in India and formerly president of the International Peace Academy, analyzes the international setting, particularly in the UN Security Council, of the involvement of the United States in Iraq. These two books raise many important issues, among them the question of how far history must dictate the future and how far the United Nations system and the Pax Americana can take over the law-and-order functions of the old imperialism.
In the late-nineteenth-century European scramble for colonies, Africa was colonized almost exclusively for financial gain and prestige, with, as Louis shows, very little serious concern for, or knowledge of, the indigenous African population.1 Although some of the lots drawn in the European scramble, such as the Congo and Ghana, were economically and financially rewarding to the imperialists, most of the new colonial possessions were not. Nor was the desire for colonies only a European fashion. In the Pacific, Japan annexed Korea in 1910, acquired the former German islands in the Pacific north of the equator in the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.