The Debate

Robert Kaplan’s Right About Imperialism, Wrong About the Middle East

Imperialism can impose order. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. should pursue empire in the Middle East.

Robert Kaplan’s Right About Imperialism, Wrong About the Middle East
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Kaplan’s latest piece at Foreign Policy, a defense of imperialism, has stirred up quite a storm. There are some positive responses to this article, but much is negative: after all, nobody wishes to be colonized. However, Kaplan’s article raises some interesting and nuanced points worthy of discussion and debate.

First of all, imperialism itself is neither good nor bad, like all other political phenomenon and systems. Its application is dependent on a host of other historical and geographic factors. Like the debate about what system of governance is best for a state, all sorts of answers can be found to the question of whether imperialism is defensible or not. Ottoman imperialism provided a stable framework for much of the Middle East for 400 years, unlike the subsequent French and British imperialisms in that region (although they at least provided more stability than today’s chaos). And in Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire made it possible for dozens of small ethnic groups to join together and become an influential European power. The multiple small states of central Europe and the Balkans would hardly be viable in a security sense today in anything other than the current European order supported by the United States, another empire.

I mentioned the Ottoman Empire to make another point, often forgotten. Empires, conquest, and colonialism are hardly the preserve of Europeans and European-descended countries. This is the default historical situation, and there is hardly a country today whose borders were not formed by warfare and conquest. When Egypt was in the process of being colonized by Great Britain, it was itself carving out a colony in Sudan, for example. The great empires of the Mongols, Arabs, and others were all projects as imperialistic as the British or Russian empires. If European imperialism was any different, it was more successful because of the industrial and fiscal revolutions. You can’t blame imperialism for everything; almost every nation experienced conquest at some point or the other in its history, and all have distinct, unique paths of development today.

Of course, the phenomenon of being conquered was unfortunate and unpleasant for any people. Nor am I trying to excuse the many negative and evil consequences of imperialism, which included looting, massacres, and the like. It does puzzle me that often European powers are criticized for their imperialism, say, in the former Ottoman Empire, when that empire itself was trying to “imperialize” much of Europe throughout its history.

The phenomenon of imperialism itself is amoral, as opposed to the actions of individual empires, which can be good or bad. I do not criticize it because that would be anachronistic, like criticizing the Roman Empire from the modern human rights perspective for allegedly razing Carthage and then salting the ground.

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Another interesting point made by Kaplan is in regards to borders and the necessity for them to emerge naturally. We cannot expect the boundaries of Middle Eastern (or African, or indeed any) states, especially those in conflict, to remain permanent forever — it is like trapping states in dysfunctional boxes, setting the stage for constant warfare.

Arbitrary borders, like those in much of the Middle East, are highly non-viable and are likely to give way to either a patchwork of tribal and sectarian states or empires which are held together by forces of history and tradition that transcend culture and possibly terrain. The medium-sized, self-contained nation-state is a bane in a region as mixed as the Middle East; such states lead to the harsh dominance of one group over others or ethnic cleansing in order to homogenize populations within. In such a context, the dominance of local empires, like that of the Ottomans or Persia makes sense. Nationalism can be a dangerous and deadly phenomenon — it bloodied Europe for a century — that necessities exclusion or formed assimilation for many groups, but the idea of empire provides an antidote to the poison of nationalism by stressing patriotism through loyalty to a shared set of ideas, a royal family, a common civilization, religion, or simply the institutions of the state. A state like India manages to prosper because it has created a sense of identity based off of a common civilization and not ethnic or tribal nationalism. And as Kaplan points out Iran is not too dissimilar from this model.

In the end, the history of all states and civilizations is the history of power and the struggle for security. We need to understand the history of empires and imperialism in this context, with an eye for subtlety, nuance, and various historical, geographic, and cultural circumstances. As Kaplan rightly states, “imperialism bestowed order.” But while I am in agreement with him about the nature of the phenomenon of empire, I am in strong disagreement about his proposed ideas for the region: that America should resort to imperialism in the region.

It would be best if the United States stepped back, for its own benefit and the benefit of the region. American policy for the reestablishment of stability amounts to wishful thinking that eventually viable, democratic, and inclusive governments can be established within the current borders of states like Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. In other words, liberal democracies in nation-states will eventually right the problems of the region and these states will focus more on development rather than sectarian issues. This is simply not going to happen. Even if the United States supports the emergence of new strongmen in these broken states, this only kicks the can down the road.

The Middle East needs some time and space to figure out what’s best for it, to fight it out without interference, and to let something emerge from this chaos in a couple of decades, like Europe did after Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years War. This will necessarily include the aggregation of empires in certain areas adjacent to Turkey, Iran, and possibly Egypt or Arabia, the dissolution of many unviable states, and the emergence of many neutral or balancing, small or medium states in between. Truly, this applies not only to the Middle East, but to other regions of the world too.