Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Imperialism Ancient and Modern

Augustus, First Emperor of Rome

Friday lunchtime saw me at the British Academy to attend the conferenceImperialism Ancient and Modern.

Due to a time constraint, I only sat in for one session, a lecture given by Edward Luttwak, a well-known strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Along with his machiavellian book Coup d'Etat: A Practical Manual, he's probably best known for telling the US Senate that the effort to retake Kuwait from the Iraqis during Desert Storm was likely to cost the lives of thirty thousand American troops.

Luttwak drew the analogy between the current situation in Iraq an the original guerrilla or little war between the Spanish peasantry and their French would-be liberators under Napoleon. Although they were the worst-fed people in Europe, not excepting the Russian serfs, these illiterates obeyed the urgings of their priests, who told them that the constitution offered by the French was the work of the devil. "The priests always win in these situations", Luttwak said, saying that the efforts to modernise both Spain and Italy by idealistic armies paradoxically resulted in delaying reform in both countries for over a century. I was going to point out that Iraq has near perfect literacy, but I didn't get time to ask a question.

Admitting that there was an American empire, he argued that it's largely a peaceful process, with Vietnam not succumbing to Coke and American business until the last helicopter had lifted off.

He characterised the military response to the proposed invasion of Iraq as a signal of dissent, as in General Shinseki's estimate of 700,000 troops reflected the scepticism of men who spend their careers planning the conquest of large unstable third-world metropolises.

As Niall Ferguson and others point out, he characterised American expansionism as being subject to pendulum swings of opinion ever since the unresolved debate over the conquest of the Phillippines at the turn of the last century. Under Bush or Kerry, disengagement is certain, he predicted.

Luttwak gave no hostages to fortune in predicting whether America would remain as the sole superpower with abnormally weak rivals or just one great power among several. Regardless of the world situation, the future is most likely to be driven by the internal domestic political processes of the supposed imperial power.

The discussion afterwards was chaired by historian Sir Michael Howard, noted for his disagreement with the terminology of the "War on Terror". Luttwak said that 9/11 changed nothing and that there was, and could be, no war on terrorism. Rather, war remained a process between states and armies. I'm not convinced Luttwak has taken on board to the same extend as Sir Michael, the ramifications both for foreign policy and domestic arrangements of the risks posed by terrorists, even those armed only with conventional weapons.