The world has seen the rise and fall of some 150 empires. That number doesn’t even include the United States, whose unacknowledged empire includes more than 800 military bases in some 70 countries.
Americans are brought up to believe what Woodrow Wilson said after Versailles, that their nation is exceptional and the ‘saviour of the world’, not an imperialistic power.
But after the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the cover of the New York Times magazine happily advised its readers: ‘American Empire: get used to it’. Historian Chalmers Johnson repeatedly deplored the US ‘empire of bases’. Julian Assange described the world’s ‘sole remaining empire’ in terms of United States’ use of economic, military, administrative and diplomatic power ‘not for territorial expansion, but to perpetuate American economic pre-eminence’ (The WikiLeaks Files: the world according to US Empire, introduction: 2015).
The tradition of American imperial expansion began with the Louisiana Purchase; then came the acquisitions of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska; ‘nation-building’ efforts followed in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, with little success. Along the way were dozens of wars and surrogate interventions designed to overthrow non-compliant governments in favour of leaders who would accommodate America’s demands. It was not the superiority of the West’s ideas, values, or religion that won these wars, Samuel Huntington wrote in 1996, but [America’s] ‘superiority in applying organised violence’.
And yet we hear again and again that the United States has ‘kept the peace’ in our region since World War II. If Australians know what is good for us, we are told, we will appreciate the importance to the US of its network of alliance relationships, particularly in the Pacific; of the ‘rules-based international order’; and of free and fair international trade.
That is what Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Lowy Institute on 13 February. The Trump emissary expected Australians to believe alliances matter to an isolationist, protectionist President who wants to scrap them; who tramples on the ICJ, the WTO, NATO, the JCPOA, and on what remains of the international rules-based order. He expected us to have confidence that such an ally will guarantee our security.
Military people like Davidson want Australians to be very afraid. Terrorism having lost much of its power to shock, and Iran being a work in progress, China is the next threat for us to fear. Now, it is constantly referred to as ‘Communist China’. The South China Sea, Huawei, Confucius Institutes, electoral interference, and corona virus help revive atavistic Sinophobia when we thought we were over that. The media get great mileage out of it.
I wrote on this site two years ago: ‘One reason why China has not lost any wars lately is they haven’t fought any. This may be because China, for all its growing military power, knows it can project itself and protect its interests better without fighting’ (8 August 2018). Like other sweeping statements of mine, this needs some qualification.
Since the People’s Republic won its war in 1949, China has used armed force 14 times. These wars include two over Tibet, three over Taiwan and the Straits, two with Vietnam, two with India, and one each in Korea, Burma (Myanmar), Xinjiang, and Zhenbao. Some of these were skirmishes about China’s borders, and others about asserting its influence over close neighbours. It won six, lost two (India 1967 and Vietnam 1979), and three ended with a ceasefire or armistice. China also joined international coalitions with the US against Somalian pirates, in some of the ongoing wars ‘on Terror’, and in Northern Mali. China has one military base abroad, a naval establishment in the port of Dorale, Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.
For belligerence, compare this with the US, which claims to be a peace-loving nation. In fact, for 93 percent of its 239 years to 2017, the US was at war. Only for less than 20 years since 1776, was the US was not fighting somewhere.
Beginning with Korea (1950-53), the US had military operations in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. After Panama in 1961, US forces saw combat in Cuba, Granada, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Granada. From 1978 on, the US fought in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Northwest Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. In Europe, Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia were US war zones from 1992. US action in Africa began with Congo in 1964, followed by Southern Zaire in 1978, then Somalia, Northeast Kenya, Uganda, and Mali. Few of these conflicts resulted in outcomes satisfactory to the US, several are ongoing, and some have produced failed states.
While the US keeps using aggression, China extends its influence by offering economic development. What works? The record speaks for itself.