[Marxism] Recall America's imperial past, understand its present

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 17 07:40:15 MST 2010


Recall America's imperial past, understand its present
Manan Ahmed

Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power
Robert D Kaplan
Random House

Deliberate forgetting, like deliberate remembering (in museums, in 
monuments, in public commemorations) is an integral part of 
political memory and, indeed, in our everyday lives. It is human 
nature to omit parts of our past, or to relegate them behind 
carefully constructed narrative frameworks that avoid excessive 

The imperial and colonial past of the United States of America is 
one such example of this institutional amnesia and would explain 
Donald Rumsfeld's petulant declaration in April 2003 that "we 
don't seek empires … we're not imperialistic, we never have been." 
Rumsfeld was not particularly in conversation with history when he 
made his statement. He was responding, perhaps, to the long list 
of journalists, academics, public-policy thinkers and government 
employees who argued America should embrace its already-present 
empire. An early, and forceful voice, was Niall Ferguson, an 
economic historian, who penned in October 31, 2001 an opinion 
piece entitled "Welcome the new imperialism" which urged a similar 
burden onto the United States. The "new", however, is rather galling.

Starting from the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the 
continental spread of America towards the Pacific is deemed 
neither colonial nor particularly imperialistic. It is the 
conflicts with European powers - France, Spain and England - that 
frame that particular version of the past. Manifest Destiny ("to 
overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free 
development of our yearly multiplying millions" as described in 
1845), once specifically articulated in the 1840s, was abundantly 
realised in the annexations of Texas, Kansas and California. 
Expansion, commerce, some notion of "popular sovereignty 
principle", were clearly marked in the opening up of the seas 
beyond the continent.

Furthermore, the 1856 Guano Islands Act claimed for the United 
States any "unclaimed" island with sufficient supplies of bird 
waste (to be used as fertiliser by American farmers) by any 
American entrepreneur, and this annexation would be defended by 
the US Navy. The list of island territories annexed, claimed or 
contested - Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, and 
so on - is long and scattered around the globe.

The last of these, the Philippines and the Spanish-American War in 
1898 are two particularly glaring omissions in American historical 
memory. It was to mark, and urge towards, a global colonial 
strategy for the United States that the "old India hand" Rudyard 
Kipling penned his The White Man's Burden: United States and the 
Philippine Islands (1899) and sent it directly to Theodore 
Roosevelt, then the governor of New York.

The "silent, sullen peoples" - who await salvation from bondage, 
freedom from the iron rule of kings - watch with trepidation and 
with hope the march of the American imperial might ("The ports ye 
shall not enter / the roads ye shall not tread / Go, make them 
with your living / And mark them with your dead"). The Kipling 
invocation to do empire better has lived on in other inheritors of 
that particular worldview, such as Ferguson. But Kipling himself, 
as a model of a citizen-journalist, firmly attuned to the greater 
glory and greater hubris of his own state, and committed to a deep 
knowledge of the charges of his empire, is now forgotten. Kipling, 
born and employed in British India, was about to embark on a trip 
to the United States and possibly meant his poem to be his calling 
card. As a reporter for the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore 
and Pioneer in Allahabad, he urged that his critiques of the 
failures of imperial strategies were based on his intimate 
knowledge of India: "I met a hundred men on the road to Delhi and 
they were all my brothers" was the epigraph he chose for Life's 

His many short stories, reportage, travelogues were genuinely 
multilingual, multivocal and strove to present all the corruptions 
and contradictions of his imperial age. Yet, he managed to always 
convey a singular vision of greater good - achievable only via a 
united empire - for the populations he called family and 
territories he called home, which were far away from London. That 
need to argue for a better strategy for empire meant, for Kipling, 
a deep involvement for those to whom the empire dictated.

In Letters of Marque (1887) he contrasts the travelling "King of 
Loafers" who has an "unholy knowledge" of the natives via his life 
lived among them with the "Globe Trotters" who claim expertise by 
staying in hotels and who produce nothing but banal observations: 
"With rare and sparkling originality he remarked that India was a 
'big place,' and that there were many things to buy."

Robert D Kaplan is an eminent globetrotter. His list of previous 
publications puts him in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, South 
America, West Africa, North Africa, South Asia and South-east 
Asia. He is also an eminent articulator for the need to do empire 

"Where's the American empire when we need it?", he asked in a long 
essay in The Washington Post on December 3. A heartfelt plea to 
not go gently into that good night ("The American empire has 
always been more structural than spiritual"), Kaplan locates 
American imperial power as a magnetic pole - which attracts 
certain configurations and repels others. In his previous works 
such as Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (1993), The Ends 
of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (1996), and 
the most recent Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of 
American Power (2010) the US empire exists mainly to thwart other 
anarchic forces - political, such as the Soviets, and maybe the 
Chinese; but mainly the historical, the geographical and ethnic.

Kaplan argues for a new cartography of empire - one that takes as 
its centre the Indian Ocean world. This configuration, which he 
holds was the key to the European colonial hegemony, has fallen 
out of America's strategic sights during the last half of the 20th 
century and the first decade of the new century.

While America has focused on the Middle East or Central Asia, a 
new world order is emerging in the port sites of Oman, Yemen, 
Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Somalia, 
Zanzibar. This world order, which is a revival of medieval and 
early modern trade networks, is being financed by the Chinese, in 
a blatant effort to project soft power throughout the Indian Ocean 
(to become a "two-ocean" empire).

India is the only contender in this space, and as both of these 
emergent world powers divide up the ports, the supply routes, the 
fuel and tank depots, America will lurk uneasily in the 
background, despite having both aerial and naval superiority. In 
this network, lies for Kaplan, the emergence of a new global class 
of African and Asian merchants and consumers who are key to both 
military and civilisational domination. Kaplan argues that the 
struggle is not for military hegemony between China and America, 
but a co-existence that emulates patterns of habitations that have 
been centuries in the making. To buttress his claim, Kaplan 
travels to ports and cities that feed into the Indian Ocean trade 
and presents an uneasy mixture of academic analysis and 
first-person narrative.

Kaplan's central thesis, of an Indian Ocean oikoumene comes 
largely from the work of historian Janet L Abu-Lughoud - whose 
Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350 is cited 
numerous times and provides Kaplan with the bulwark of an 
Arab-Asian trading network across the Indian Ocean - and from the 
anthropologist Clifford Geertz - from whose nuanced Islam 
Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968) 
Kaplan emerges with the highly problematic dialectic "Desert 
Islam" versus "Tropical Islam". Between these central texts, 
Kaplan reproduces in a prose both clunky and confused a wide array 
of secondary academic scholarship, academic talks, academics who 
talk to him, and policy and position papers.

The various contradictions and examples of ill-digested 
scholarship that mark Kaplan's pages cannot truly be appreciated 
without reproducing entire chunks of pages. To this reader, they 
appear not to be contradictions or confusions in Kaplan's thought, 
but simply the efforts of a studious neophyte, eager to marshal 
everything he has read - and he has read everything - into the 
narrative. This makes for headache inducing; historical fact after 
political factoid after cultural stereotype constantly clashing on 
the page.

A more fruitful exercise would be to deal specifically with two 
intertwined thematic underpinnings of Monsoon: geography and 
civilisation. As Kaplan writes: "Geography rules", "Geography 
encompasses", we remain at the "mercy of geography". Geography 
also guides, dictates, determines. It is impersonal, but "politics 
must follow geography," as does culture. Geography determines 
"national character." The desert is one such manifestation of an 
over-determining geography. The desert is dry, "unforgiving", 
"violent", "constricting", gives its people "extremities of 
thought", "chaotic". As such, the desert not only contains such 
anthropomorphic qualities, it formulates them in those who come 
near it, or live in it - to provide a one-sentence summary: 
"Indeed, the deeper and broader the desert, potentially the more 
unstable and violent the state". It is in this cradle that Islam 
is born.

He contrasts this with the world of the ocean. The ocean is wet, 
"encompassing", "stimulating", "a global agglomeration", 
"culturally sophisticated". It is when Islam comes into contact 
with this geographical force that it develops from "Desert Islam" 
to "Tropical Islam" - representing precisely the qualities which 
Kaplan imbues in the respective geographical features. In its 
essentialising of diversity, and diversification of essentially 
material realities, Kaplan's dichotomy - yes, the two Islams are 
at war with each other - beggars belief. Not to mention, it 
beggars geography. How exactly will he explain Egypt, one wonders.

He is misreading not only Geertz's careful ethnographies of 
agrarian practices in Morocco and Indonesia, he is contradicting 
his own deeply held beliefs. Because, for Kaplan, geography isn't 
really all that powerful. It must bow before the will of man. Now, 
granted in Kaplan's reading only a handful of men - historically 
speaking - have been capable enough to stand up to geography's 
predestination. These men, and the regimes they built, are 
fulsomely praised by Kaplan. These men have much in common: they 
are brutal, in thought and in acts, men of action and few words, 
men who make the right decision even at the cost of righteous 
moral claims.

These are men like Alfonso d'Alburuerque, the 16th-century 
Portuguese conqueror of the Indian Ocean; Robert Clive, the 
18th-century governor of the East India Company and the conqueror 
of Bengal; the current Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and the current 
President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, as well as the faceless 
men who run China. Kaplan finds that such men, carved new 
destinies out of blood and sweat (mostly blood) for their 
historically afflicted regions and are to be praised, even 
emulated. After describing the horrors inflicted by the Portuguese 
in their conquest of India, Kaplan concludes: "Indeed, there is 
much the United States can learn from the positive side of the 
Portuguese national character, with many Catholic converts and the 
persistence of the Portuguese language in places like Sri Lanka 
and the Maluccas".

The most glaring lack, in Kaplan's imagination for the empire, is 
ultimately his inability to actually know. The languages, the 
customs, the rhythms, the cultures of places he visits, from Oman 
to Gwadar, to Kolkata, to Dhaka, to Zanzibar remain out of his 
purview. He makes a valiant effort to let historical writing, act 
as a substitute for his incomprehensibility of the present: "Here, 
along a coast so empty that you can almost hear the echo of the 
camel hooves of Alexander's army, you lose yourself in geology." 
He is often surprised ("Miniature donkeys emerging from the 
sea!"), often overwhelmed (by the poverty on display in Dhaka and 
in Zanzibar) and always dependent on others to explain to him the 
significance of what he observes. The significance of what he does 
observe, and what he argues for in Monsoon is what is at stake for 
most readers of his book. Kaplan is, after all like Kipling, 
offering prescriptives to the American empire, whether he 
considers America an empire per se.

Kaplan forgets that America and Americans remain intimately 
intertwined with lives in the Indian Ocean world. In its 
long-storied past, Elihu Yale - who founded Yale University, the 
birthplace of American Indology - was a governor of the East India 
Company. The opium trade network which sustained the East India 
Company coffers in the mid-19th century by supplying Bengal-raised 
opium to China was also remitted through American cotton. And in 
its tumultuous present - the drones which fly over Afghanistan and 
Pakistan dispensing justice, reportedly use bases in Balochistan.

Neither those American mercantile interests nor the drones receive 
any mention from Kaplan. He also forgets that his argument for 
American engagement is suspiciously similar to his argument for 
supporting the Iraq War. The after-effects of Iraq linger 
throughout his pages, but are explicitly commented on only once, 
and in relation to the conditions in Pakistan: "Because Pakistan 
and its stability had figured so prominently in Bush's foreign 
policy, the lack of improvement here constituted an indictment of 
his strategy, and an indictment of the diversion of resources to 
Iraq, a war I had supported early on". The significance of what he 
observes, and what he argues for in Monsoon cannot be unmoored 
from this compromised position as a herald of a false dawn of 
democracy in Iraq. The only lesson he has learnt is to temper his 
claims for democracy - he praises military rule in Bangladesh as a 
viable option - and to add a note of caution to American power.

Hence, this is a text with a vague unease with an unqualified 
notion of American empire - and to clarify here, not an unease 
with empire itself. This unease is perhaps the dominant factor in 
the largely conciliatory gesture Kaplan maintains towards China (a 
state whose economy and military are not at par with the United 
States but which has shown an intellectual awareness that 
outsmarts the US). He argues that China can easily be considered a 
"partner" that can be counted on to maintain a precarious balance 
of power in the Indian Ocean. This balance is necessary to 
reintegrate places like Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Zanzibar into 
the global commercial classes and to bring closer the two faces of 

The policy readers of this book will find it sober reading. The 
empire, which does listen to Robert Kaplan, will surely invite him 
to speak to groups with shiny brass and shinier domes. The 
historians reading this book will have less cause to be 
charitable. The now-standard collapse of lived history from 
"Alexander the Great" to "us" would be laughable if it wasn't so 

Again and again, centuries disappear from Kaplan's narrative as 
routinely elaborated customs and practices are relegated to either 
geographic determinism or something called "Desert Islam". Those 
inhabitants of the climes in which Kaplan locates his narrative 
will have more than ample reason to be offended by his caricatures 
or by his invocations to the healing power of violence - be it 
Robert Clive or Sultan Qaboos. In this, however, Kaplan is neither 
unique nor exemplary in a pantheon of great American commentators 
which stretches from Thomas L Friedman to Fareed Zakaria. The 
empire requires a particular kind of information, alone.

What is more glaringly at stake is that nearly eight years after 
the invasion of Iraq and under a new administration in the White 
House, the "debate" of the global war on terror remains stuck in 
the same analytical framework as it did in 2001. Contrasting 
Robert Kaplan in 2010 with Niall Ferguson from 2001 is an exercise 
akin to examining a patient suffering from a fugue state: the 
amnesia is stark and starkly present.

Manan Ahmed is a historian of Pakistan at Freie Universitat 
Berlin. He blogs at Chapati Mystery.

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