Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seascape With Methane Plumes

In the wake of last week’s post, I’d meant to plunge straight into the next part of this sequence of posts and talk about the unraveling of American politics. Still, it’s worth remembering that the twilight of America’s global empire is merely an incident in the greater trajectory of the end of the industrial age, and part of that greater trajectory may just have come into sight over the last week.

Some background might be in order. For several years now, it has been possible for ships to sail from the northern Atlantic to the northern Pacific via the Arctic Ocean in late summer and early autumn. In the great days of European maritime exploration, any number of expeditions wrecked themselves in Arctic ice in futile attempts to find the fabled Northwest Passage; now, for the first time in recorded history, it’s a routine trip for a freighter, and as often as not the route is blue water all the way without an ice floe in sight. (Somehow global warming denialists never get around to talking about this.) Last autumn, though, crew members aboard several ships reported seeing, for the first time, patches of sea that appeared to be bubbling, and initial tests indicated that the bubbles were methane.  This was a source of some concern, since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, there’s a great deal of it trapped in formerly frozen sediments in the Arctic, and the risk of massive methane releases from the polar regions has played a substantial role in the last decade or so of discussions of the risks of global warming.

Word of the bubbling ocean up north got briefly into the media, and provoked a fascinating response. The New York Times, for example, published a story that mentioned the reports,and then insisted in strident terms that reputable scientists had proven that the methane plumes were perfectly normal, part of the Arctic Ocean’s slow response to the warming that followed the end of the last ice age. This same “nothing to see here, move along” attitude duly appeared elsewhere in the  media. What makes this fascinating is that the New York Times, not that many years earlier, carried bucketloads of stories about the threat of climate change, including stories that warned about the risk that the thawing out of the Arctic might release plumes of methane into the atmosphere.

Weirdly, this same reversal seems to have guided the response – or more precisely the nonresponse – of the climate change activist community to these same reports.  It might seem reasonable to expect that global warming activists would have leapt on these initial reports as ammunition for their cause; when initial estimates suggested that global warming would melt the glaciers of the Himalayas and deprive India of much of its water supply, certainly, a great deal was made of those claims. Still, that’s not what happened. Instead, a great many people who a few years ago were busily talking about the terrible risk of methane releases from the Arctic suddenly found something else to discuss once those methane releases stopped being a purely theoretical possibility.

Fast forward to this spring. After yet another unseasonably warm Arctic winter, Russian scientists are busy studying the methane releases reported last fall, and initial reports – well, let’s understate things considerably and call them “rather troubling.” Areas of open water up to a kilometer across are fizzing with methane, a condition that one experienced Arctic researcher, Dr. Igor Semiletov, described as completely unprecedented. Another team of researchers, flying a plane with methane sensors over the disintegrating ice cap, has tracked plumes of methane rising into the atmosphere wherever the ice is broken. The amounts detected, they comment, are significant enough to affect global climate.

Is this unsettling news being splashed around by the same mainstream media that, only a few years ago, were somberly warning about the risks of global climate change, and trumpeted from the rooftops by climate change activists as proof that their warnings were justified? Not that I’ve heard. In fact, according to recent media reports, James Lovelock – creator of the Gaia hypothesis and author of books painting worst-case global warming scenarios in spectacularly lurid terms – has just announced that, well, actually, he overstated things dramatically, so did other climate activists such as Al Gore, and global warming actually won’t be as bad as all that.

In order to make sense of this curious reversal, it’s going to be necessary to take a hard look at some of the less creditable dimensions of the climate change movement. I should say first that as far as I can tell, the great majority of ordinary people who got involved in the climate change movement were guided by the most sincere and sensible motives. Dumping billions of tons of fossil carbon into the atmosphere was a dumb idea all along; pretending that all that carbon could be dumped there without disrupting the subtle and complex balance of the world’s climate was even dumber; and the response to those paired stupidities included a great deal that was praiseworthy.

Equally, as far as I can tell, the great majority of scientists whose efforts have helped to prove the reality of anthropogenic climate change have produced honest and competent research, and even the minority that hasn’t met this standard rarely managed to rise, or rather sink, to the levels of cherrypicking, obfuscation, and outright fiction routinely found in climate change denialist literature. That being said, there’s more going on in the world of climate change activism than the honest concern of citizens and the honest labor of researchers, and it’s past time to examine the reasons why the climate change movement got so large and accomplished so little. In the process, we’ll be touching on issues that bear directly on the broader theme I’ve been developing in the last few months, because the rise and fall of climate change activism over the last decade or so has an uncomfortably great deal to do with the mechanisms of empire and the balance of power in a strained and fraying global political system.

Until the end of the 1990s, climate change was simply one more captive issue in the internal politics of industrial nations. The political role of captive issues, and the captive constituencies that correspond to them, is too rarely discussed these days. In the United States, for example, environmental protection is one of the captive issues of the Democratic Party; that party mouths slogans about the environment, and even though those slogans are rarely if ever followed up by concrete policies, environmentalists are expected to vote Democratic, since the Republicans are supposed to be so much worse, and willingly play the part of bogeyman.  The Republican party, in turn, works the same good cop-bad cop routine on its own captive constituencies, such as gun owners and Christian fundamentalists, and count on the Democrats to act out the bogeyman’s role in turn. It’s an ingenious system for neutralizing potential protest, and it plays a major role in maintaining business as usual in the world’s democratic societies.

After the year 2000, though, global climate change got coopted on a grander scale, as the rise of a handful of nonwestern nations to great power status put growing pressure on the United States and its allies. China is the most widely recognized of these, but India and Brazil are also emerging powers; meanwhile Russia, which was briefly subjected to an Anglo-American wealth pump after the collapse of Communism and nearly got bled dry, managed to extract itself in the late 1990s and has been clawing its way back to great power status since then.  Faced with these rising or resurgent powers – the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations, as they were called – the United States and its inner circle of allies have tried a number of gambits to keep them in their former places.

Historically speaking, war is the usual method for settling such issues, but that isn’t a useful option this time around.  Even if nuclear weapons weren’t an issue, and of course they are, I suspect too many people in the Pentagon still remember what happened the last time the US military went head to head with the People’s Liberation Army. (Readers who have no idea what I’m talking about will want to read up on the Korean War.) That left trade policy as the next logical line of defense, and so the late 1990s saw a series of attempts by the US and its allies to use global free trade treaties to put the rest of the world at a permanent economic disadvantage. That effort ran into solid resistance at the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial talks in Seattle, and collapsed completely four years later.

Those of my readers who remember how the WTO talks at Cancun in 2003 crashed and burned may have experienced deja vu when the climate talks at Copenhagen in 2009 did exactly the same thing. The resemblance is not accidental. In the years leading up to the Copenhagen climate talks, the US and its allies argued that it was necessary to replace the Kyoto protocols of 1997 – which mostly restricted carbon emissions from the industrial nations – with a new set that would apply to industrializing countries as well. This was fair enough in the abstract, but the devil was in the details: in this case, the quotas that would place China, India, and other industrializing nations at a permanent disadvantage, and grandfather in the much higher per capita carbon emissions of the United States, Europe and Japan.

Environmental rhetoric has been used for such purposes often enough in the past. One of my college ecology textbooks, copyright 1981, mentions ruefully that attempts to pressure Third World nations into enacting strict environmental protections had come to be recognized by those nations as simply one more round of attempts to keep them in a state of permanent economic dependence. While there was more going on than this – the environmental movement in general, like the climate change activist movement in particular, has always included a large number of idealists with the purest of motives – it’s a safe bet that the Third World nations were broadly correct in their assessment, as none of the industrial nations that exerted the pressure ever proposed, let’s say, to forbid their own nationals from exporting environmentally destructive products to the Third World.

The stakes at Copenhagen, in other words, were rather different from those discussed in the media, and the outcome could have been predicted from the debacle six years earlier at Cancun. When it became clear to the major players that the United States and its allies were not going to get what they wanted, the entire process fell apart, leaving China to seize the initiative and offer a face-saving compromise that committed neither bloc to any limits that matter.  Afterwards, since climate change had failed to keep the BRIC nations at bay, the US dropped the issue like a hot rock; the financial hangover of the housing bubble made climate change lose its appeal to the Democratic Party; and activists suddenly discovered that what they thought was a rising groundswell of support was simply the result of being temporarily funded and used for somebody else’s political advantage.

Claims that large-scale methane releases from the warming Arctic would send the planet’s climate spinning out of control played a significant role in both the domestic and the international rhetoric of climate change during the time the movement was coopted, and got dropped along with the movement once it was no longer useful. The same claims, though, also played a broader role in mobilizing citizen activism and scientific concern, and the reasons why nobody outside the corridors of power is talking about the methane plumes deserves some attention as well.

What’s at work here is the basic structure of contemporary activism itself.  Pick nearly any issue that inspires activism nowadays, and you’ll find that it fits into a strict and stereotyped narrative. It centers on something bad that’s going to get much worse if nothing is done, and the “much worse” generally ends up described in ever more luridly apocalyptic terms as the movement proceeds.  Victory for the movement, in turn, is defined for all practical purposes as preventing the worst case scenarios the movement itself offers up; high-level abstractions such as “peace” and “justice” get a lot of play, but it’s very rare for there to be any kind of meaningful vision of a goal to be sought, much less a pragmatic plan for getting there.  Opposing the bad, for all practical purposes, replaces seeking the good.

Those of my readers who followed the discussion of the tactics of magic in last autumn’s Archdruid Report will doubtless be able to think of several good reasons why this approach is problematic, but there’s another dimension to the problem.  In contemporary activism, the worst case scenarios that play so large a part in the rhetoric are there to pressure people into supporting the movement. In climate change activism, certainly, that was the case. 

Read James Lovelock’s more recent and strident books, or any of the good-sized bookshelf of parallel literature, and you’ll find the claim that failing to support the climate change movement amounts to dooming the planet to a hothouse future in which, by 2100, the sole surviving human beings are a few “breeding pairs” – that’s Lovelock’s phrase – huddled around the tropical shores of the Arctic Ocean, with catastrophic methane releases from the Arctic regions among the driving forces behind that lurid scenario. It’s a compelling image, but once methane plumes actually start boiling up through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, you’ve just lost your rationale for further activism – or, really, for anything else short of jumping off the nearest bridge.

That’s the dilemma in which the news from the Arctic has landed climate activists. Having by and large bought into the idea that once the methane starts rising, it’s all over, they have very few options left. It’s a self-created dilemma, though, because methane releases aren’t a new thing in the planet’s history. If it’s true that, as George Santayana said, those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, it’s equally true that those who forget their paleoecology are condemned not to notice that they’re repeating it – and in this case, as in many others, a good basic knowledge of what happened the last time large scale methane releases coincided with a period of planetary warming.

That wasn’t that long ago, as it happened. The end of the last ice age saw sharp increases in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, the rapid melting of continental glaciers, and a steep rise in global temperature that peaked around 6,000 years ago at levels considerably higher than they are today. A controversial theory, the “clathrate gun” hypothesis, argues that the warming was triggered by massive methane releases from the oceans.  Whether or not that was the major factor, ice cores from Greenland document rising levels of methane in the air around the same time as the stunningly sudden global warming – an increase of more than 15°F in global average temperatures in less than a decade – that triggered the final collapse of the great ice sheets.

The first point to grasp from this is that methane releases aren’t the end of the world. Our ancestors got through the last rounds of it without any sign of massive dieoff, and it’s been argued that the nearly worldwide legends of a great flood may embody a dim folk memory of the vast postglacial floods that took place as the ice melted and the seas rose. For that matter, during most of Earth’s history, the planet has been much hotter than it is now; only a few tens of millions of years ago – yes, that’s practically an eyeblink in deep time – crocodiles sunned themselves on the subtropical shores of Canada’s north coast, at a time when Canada was nearly as close to the North Pole as it is today.  Thus Lovelock’s extreme scenario deserves the label of “alarmist” that he himself put on it in the interview cited above.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a methane spike in the Arctic can simply be ignored. Since the dim folk memories that might be embodied in flood legends are the only records we’ve got for the human experience of abrupt global warming, we simply don’t know how fast the temperature shift might affect, for example, the already unstable Greenland ice sheet, which contains enough water to raise sea level worldwide by around 30 feet.  Some theoretical models argue that Greenland’s ice will melt slowly, while others argue that water pooling beneath the ice could cause huge sections of it to slide off into the sea in short order, filling the North Atlantic first with icebergs, then with meltwater. Which model is correct?  Only Gaia knows, and she ain’t telling.

Equally, we don’t know whether the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will make nearby continental shelves unstable, as it did the last time around, and reproduce the same set of conditions that caused gargantuan tsunamis at the end of the last ice age. There’s abundant evidence for these; one of them, according to recent research, flooded the North Sea and carved the English Channel in a single day around 8000 years ago; we don’t know how soon those might become a factor around the Atlantic basin, or even if they will. It’s unsettling to realize that we may have no way of finding out until the first one hits.

All that’s certain at this point is that something potentially very troubling is happening in Arctic waters,  and the possibility that it might have destructive consequences on a local, regional, or continental scale can’t be ruled out. Panic is the least useful response I can think of, so I’ll say this very quietly: if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so.

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On a different topic, the folks at Scarlet Imprint tell me that they’ve still got a few remaining unsold copies of the handbound deluxe "Black Gold" edition of my book The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil. I know it’s a chunk of money, but there’s something to be said for a book crafted to standards high enough that it’ll still be readable long after industrial civilization has faded into memory. If that interests you, might be worth considering.

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End of the World of the Week #19

Nostradamus, who’s featured in the last two weekly Ends of the World here, has also had a remarkable track record for inspiring false prophecies in others – and I’m not just thinking of the cheap  tabloids that trot out newly manufactured prophecies with his name on them every few months. Many Nostradamus researchers have embarrassed themselves once they moved from trying to force-fit quatrains onto the past, and attempted to use the French prophet’s writings to anticipate the future.

One example is Henry C. Roberts, whose The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus saw print in 1994. After careful study of the quatrains, Roberts came to believe that Nostradamus had infallibly predicted a dramatic event in the near future: the election of Edward Kennedy as president of the United States. (You’ll find this prediction on pages 210 and 218 of Roberts’ book.)  Any chance Roberts might have had at a reputation for infallibility went away when Kennedy died in 2009, having never gotten closer to the White House than a failed 1980 run for the Democratic nomination.

Oddly enough, a failed Nostradamus prophecy concerning Edward Kennedy also featured in pop musician Al Stewart’s 1973 piece Nostradamus:

In the new lands of America three brothers now shall come to power
Two alone are born to rule but all must die before their hour

It’s not hard to figure out who’s being discussed, but Edward Kennedy died at the age of 77.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

America: The Price of Supremacy

A complex and self-justifying mythology has grown up around the process by which, during and after the Second World War, the United States made the transition from regional power to global empire. That sort of thing is common enough that it probably belongs on the short list of imperial obsessions—Rome had its imperial myth, as did Spain, Britain, and just about any other empire you care to think of—but the American version of it deserves close attention, because it obscures factors that need to be understood as the American empire hurtles down the curve of its decline.

The mythology runs more or less like this: in the aftermath of the First World War, America withdrew from the international responsibilities it had briefly taken up during that war, refusing to join the League of Nations and distancing itself from global politics. In the vacuum thus formed, the coming of the Great Depression sent the conflicts that drove the world to war in 1914 spinning out of control again. As Japan invaded China and Germany prepared for war, the United States faced a sharp political conflict between isolationists, who more or less wanted to build a wall around the country and shut the rest of the world out, and those who recognized America’s responsibility to the rest of the world. That struggle only came to an end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; thereafter the American people united to win the war. Once it was won, in turn, they refused to repeat the mistake of 1919, and took up the burden of global leadership that America retains to this day.

Thus the mythology. The reality was considerably more complex.

To begin with, the conflict between isolationists and internationalists was far less simple than the myth proposes. The isolationist Republican administrations of the 1920s saw no conflict at all between their rejection of the League of Nations and their enthusiastic use of the US Marines to impose puppet regimes and keep the wealth pump running at full roar all through Central America and the Caribbean. The isolation that the isolationists sought was simply a matter of distancing the US from the lethal quarrels of the Old World. Behind their policies stood a vision of the shape of global politics in the post-British era—a vision that divided the world into separate spheres of influence, each under the control of a major power. Latin America, according to this scheme, was the natural prey of the United States, and that’s where the isolationists focused their attention in the years between the wars. They weren’t the only influential group with that idea; the Japanese government, with its dream of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere that would subject east Asia to Japan’s wealth pump, were tracing out exactly such a sphere of influence.

The internationalists, by contrast, were Anglophiles rather than Anglophobes, and they also liked to imagine the American future on a larger scale, one in which Central American banana republics were hardly worth noticing. The dream of a global empire formed by a future US-British union had never really lost its hold in Anglophile circles, while others less enamored of Britain but no less ambitious had begun to imagine a future in which the United States would be the dominant force, Britain a favored but subordinate partner, and the entire planet would feed into the American wealth pump. Their vision of the post-British world was guided by a field of study you rarely hear discussed these days, the science or pseudoscience of geopolitics, which argued that the distribution of land masses, oceans, and resources could be read as a blueprint for a world empire.

You’ll have to look hard to find information on geopolitics today, unless you have the unusual luck to live near a university library that doesn’t follow the currently fashionable practice of purging its stacks of books tht contain insufficiently modern ideas. If you can find books on the subject, though, it’s worth doing, for much the same reason that rereading Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History is worth doing. In both cases, whether the theories are valid is a minor issue at best; what makes them important is that influential people believed them, and acted on them. In the case of geopolitics, American foreign policy from Pearl Harbor right up to the present is a good deal easier to understand if you grasp the basics of geopolitics.

In the writings of Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer, the two most influential geopoliticians of the first half of the twentieth century, the world can be imagined as a giant bull’s-eye, with a central zone surrounded by three (or, rather, two and a half) bands. The central zone is the Heartland or Pivot Area, and includes most of Eurasia from the eastern European plain straight across to the valley of the Lena River in eastern Siberia. Surrounding this on three sides is the Marginal Crescent, which extends from central Europe across Turley and the Middle East to India, China, and far eastern Siberia. Next are the Outer Crescents—this is the half a band—which consists of the islands and peninsulas around the fringes of Eurasia, one extending from Iceland through Britain to western Europe, the other from Japan through the islands and peninsulas of southeast and southern Asia. Furthest out, separated from the rest by oceans or the Sahara Desert, is the Insular Crescent, which consists of both Americas, Africa south of the Sahara, and Australasia.

The geopoliticians argued that this scheme showed the structure of the coming world empire. In the past, they pointed out, the major wars of the modern Western world had pitted a maritime power in the western Outer Crescent against a land power in the western part of the Marginal Crescent, with the land power gradually shifting east: first France, then Germany. So far, the maritime power (Spain, then Britain) was able to draw on the resources of the Insular Crescent to contain and defeat the land power. As the basis of the land power shifts further east into the Pivot Area, though, access to the resources of continental Eurasia—not to mention access to invasion routes giving access to the rich lands of the Marginal Crescent—would more than make up for the resources available to the maritime power, and allow the land power to become a universal empire. Mackinder put it this way in 1904: “The oversetting of the balance of power in favor of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia would permit of the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight.”

Domination of the Pivot Area, in turn, depends on control of the eastern European plain, and this inspired a thesis of Mackinder’s that received a great deal of attention back in the day: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Mackinder was warning a British audience about the risk that a German empire that managed to seize control of Russia could supplant Britain’s global dominion; Haushofer, writing a couple of decades later, took Mackinder’s fears as a working plan for German world domination. Neither geopolitician seems to have considered the possibility that the Heartland might have imperial designs of its own, or that the insular crescent might turn out to be a far more secure base for the next great maritime power than a small island perched uncomfortably close to the shores of western Europe. Still, that’s what happened.

It probably bears repeating here that whether geopolitics is valid or not is a secondary question for our present purposes. Geopolitics is important here because its ideas seem to have had a major influence on the leaders who launched America along the final phase of its rise to empire, and still appear to govern the grand strategy of the American empire as it approaches its end. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be exploring the geopolitical side of American imperial strategy in a variety of ways, so a little attention to the paragraphs above may be useful. For now, though, what’s important is that the internationalists in American politics between the world wars saw geopolitics as a blueprint for world power,and wanted the structure raised on that blueprint to have “Made in America” written on it. That was a minority view in the 1920s, but it had wealthy and influential backers, who were well positioned to act when circumstances began to shift their way.

The first of these shifts was the Great Depression or, more precisely, the feckless response of both American mainstream political parties to the economic collapse that followed the 1929 stock market crash. In the crucial first years after the crash, Democrats and Republicans alike embraced exactly the same policies they are embracing in today’s economic troubles, with exactly the same lack of success, and showed exactly the same unwillingness to abandon failed policies in the face of economic disaster. Then as now, the federal government launched a program to bail out big banks and corporations—it was called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in those days—and pumped dizzying amounts of money into the upper end of the economy in the belief, real or feigned, that the money would work its way down the pyramid, which of course it didn’t do. Then as now, politicians used the shibboleth of a balanced budget to demand austerity for everybody but the rich, and cut exactly those programs which could have helped families caught by hard times. Then as now, things got worse while the media insisted that they were getting better, and the mounting evidence that policies weren’t working was treated as proof that the same policies had to be pursued even more forcefully.

In many countries, this sort of thinking drove the collapse of democratic governments and the rise of dictators who won absolute power by doing what everyone outside the political establishment knew had to be done. In the United States, that didn’t quite happen. What happened instead was that a faction of dissident Democrats and former Republicans managed to seize control of the Democratic party, which hadn’t won a presidential race since 1916, and put Franklin D. Roosevelt into office in 1932. Roosevelt, like the dictators, was willing to do what the masses demanded: use public funds to provide jobs for the jobless, keep families from losing their homes to foreclosure, and reinvest in the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. It didn’t end the Depression—that had deeper and largely intractable causes, which we’ll discuss later—but it was successful enough that Roosevelt won reelection in 1936 in one of the greatest landslides in American political history.

What made Roosevelt’s ascendancy crucial was that he was a passionate internationalist, and as Europe moved toward war, he and his administration did everything in its power to get America involved. That move faced fierce opposition, and not only among isolationists; a great many Americans believed at the time, and not without reason, that the United States had received essentially nothing in exchange for saving Britain and France in the First World War—neither of the latter two countries, for example, had ever gotten around to paying off their war debts to the US. All through 1940 and 1941, as a result, the Roosevelt adminstration played a high-stakes game of chicken with Germany and Japan, trying to lure one or both nations into a declaration of war or an attack on American interests drastic enough to give him the political momentum to counter the isolationists and launch a second American rescue of England. In the meantime, the US poured money, supplies and arms into the faltering British war effort, stopping just short of active involvement in the fighting until war finally came.

After Pearl Harbor, despite the myth, isolationism didn’t simply go away. Saturation propaganda and the arrest and trial of antiwar activists on a variety of charges, most famously the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, was needed to break the back of the peace movement in the US. Then much the same thing had to be done again on a bigger scale, via a series of Red scares, after Germany and Japan were defeated and the two Allied powers that mattered, the United States and the Soviet Union, started quarreling over the spoils. Still, the internationalists had won once the Soviet Union turned out to be America’s last remaining rival, because the isolationists—who were by and large old-fashioned conservatives—loathed Marxism even more than they loathed the thought of US involvement in Old World quarrels. The Republican Party, which had gone from the party of empire in the 1890s to the party of isolation in opposition to Wilson, proceeded to reinvent itself yet again as more international than the internationalists when it came to opposing “godless Russia.” Meanwhile the occupation forces in Germany and Japan, not to mention those in Britain and a good many of its former colonies, settled down for a long stay.

The official strategy of the US and its allies, as they consolidated their hold on half the world and looked out uneasily across the borders with the half controlled by Russia and its allies, was described by George F. Kennan in a famous 1947 essay as “containment.” What that meant in practice was that the United States established a massive military presence in both eastern and western Outer Crescents, while trying to pry loose Soviet allies and gain influence over neutral nations in the Marginal Crescent, and keeping the Insular Crescent under the control (and subject to the wealth pumps) of the US and its allies; Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, among many others, paid the price of this latter policy.

Like every imperial system, this one has had its ups and downs. It avoided Britain’s successful but costly policy of bringing large regions under direct political control, preferring instead to install compliant local rulers who would keep the wealth pump running in exchange for a small share of the take. It faltered in the 1970s as America’s other empire, the empire of time that paid tribute by way of oil wells, reached its peak production and tipped into permanent decline, and then gambled everything in the next decade on a daring strategy of economic warfare. That gamble paid off spectacularly, wrecking the Soviet Union and fueling the 1990s boom by feeding the nations of eastern Europe into the business end of America’s wealth pump, stripping half a dozen nations to the bare walls under the euphemisms of economic reform and a market economy. For a few years it looked as though Russia itself might be fed into the wealth pump in the same way, before an efficient counterstroke by the Putin administration pulled that prize out of American hands. Meanwhile the rise of China hinted that Mackinder’s thesis might turn out to be overly Eurocentric, and the north China plain might prove to be just as effective a springboard to the resources of the Heartland as the eastern European plain.

Through all this, the basic structure of American empire has remained essentially the same as it was at the end of the Second World War: a global military presence positioned according to the concepts of geopolitics, whether these are relevant or not; a global political system run by local elites propped up by American aid and, when necessary, military force, tasked with keeping the wealth pump going but left mostly to its own devices otherwise; a global economic system that was designed to suck wealth out of the rest of the world and channel it into the United States, but has sprung large and growing leaks in various places and increasingly fails to do its job; and a domestic political system in which a fantastically bloated executive branch headed by an imperial presidency keeps the forms of constitutional government in place, while arrogating to itself most of the functions originally exercised by Congress, and most of the rights originally left to the states and the people. That’s where we are today—in the aging, increasingly brittle, effectively bankrupt, but still immensely powerful global empire of the United States of America.

That’s the empire that is sinking into its twilight as I write these words, and that faces dismemberment and dissolution in the decades ahead. The global supremacy Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of achieving has become a reality, and now the price of that supremacy has to be paid. We’ll begin talking about that next week.

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End of the World of the Week #18

Nostradamus, whose inaccurate prediction of a “Great King of Terror” in the skies in July 1999 was the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, had another wowser to his credit. The first printed edition of his quatrains, which appeared in 1555, included a preface by the author which you won’t find repeated in the many later versions of his work. That’s because he announced that by the year 1732, Europe would be so completely depopulated by floods, alongside a variety of other catastrophes, that much of its farmland would remain untilled for centuries after that time. Two for two...

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

America: The Gasoline War

I apologize in advance to those of my readers who find military history uninteresting. The next part of the story I’m exploring just now, the story of the British Empire’s fall and its replacement by today’s American empire, can’t be understood without a sense of the military realities that drove that process, and the decline and fall of the American empire, the central theme of this series of posts, also has a crucial military dimension.

That dimension starts out, oddly enough, not with defeat but with victory. It’s too rarely realized that an unbroken string of victorious wars is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a nation. Plenty of things could have clobbered the British Empire, and plenty of things contributed, but a strong case can be made that the blowback from too much success was the thing that finally tipped Britain over the edge into imperial collapse.

You can trace that effect at work all through the nineteenth century in the steady drumbeat of bungled crises and minor disasters that called forth one brutally efficient response after another from Britain’s immense military machine but never quite taught it to rethink any of its mistakes. A rebellion in India or the Sudan, a war in South Africa or Afghanistan, or whatever else, wherever else, generally began with a series of disastrous reverses for the British side. Usually, though not quite always, this was the doing of the army, the red-coated stepchild of Britain’s military establishment—you’ll notice that it’s the Royal Navy and, nowadays, the Royal Air Force, but not the Royal Army—whose officer corps for generations was where England’s noble families parked their incompetent younger sons.

So a regiment or an army would get slaughtered, a city or a province end up temporarily under the control of the people who lived there, and the British press would start baying for blood; Parliament would bicker decorously, and then immense military force would converge on whatever corner of the planet was to be taught a lesson; meanwhile the British army would work its way down through the list of available commanders, throwing them a few at a time into the crisis, until it finally found one who could figure out how to use overwhelming military and technological superiority to win a war. Once the natives were machine-gunned into submission, in turn, the successful general would head home to London and a peerage, the others would be quietly pensioned off, and every lesson that might prevent the next disaster was promptly forgotten. It was all so far away from London, and each generation of officers in training dutifully read Clausewitz and daydreamed of Waterloo and forgot to notice how fast the world was changing around them.

Not even the First World War managed to shake the serene confidence of Britain’s imperial elite that what worked in the past would continue to work in the future. That time, it wasn’t so far away from London, and the army on the other side wasn’t outnumbered, outgunned, and out of its league.in technological terms. Germany in 1914 was one of the world’s major industrial nations, with a large and extremely competent army. Ironically enough, that army was nearly as hampered by a string of successes as Britain’s was, and tried to repeat its 1870 triumph over France without paying attention to the possibility that the French might be expecting that. They were; the German offensive ground to a halt along a ragged line across northern France and Belgium; Parliament bickered decorously, and then Britain tried the usual trick of overwhelming its enemy with the massed forces of its empire – and that’s when things went haywire, because throwing massed forces against an entrenched enemy equipped with machine guns and modern artillery simply meant that whole regiments were annihilated to gain a few yards of bloodsoaked mud.

Worse, the British army failed to follow its usual practice of cashiering one general after another until it found one who could figure out how to fight. Instead, the same handful of top commanders kept on using the same tactics straight through the war, even when those tactics consistently failed and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of British lives – as they did. The war on the western front turned into a struggle of sheer attrition, which the Allies won because the United States threw its resources, its wealth, and finally its soldiers into the balance. When the victory celebrations were over and the top British commander retired with the traditional peerage, it was all too easy to forget that without a tsunami of American aid, Britain might well have lost the war.

As it was, the First World War very nearly bankrupted the British Empire. The wealth pump had been running too hard for too long, stripping wealth from existing colonies, and the expansion of British economic interests into central Europe couldn’t make up the difference because the war had very nearly bled central Europe dry. Ireland’s successful war of independence in 1919-1921 showed which way the wind was blowing. England had crushed numerous Irish rebellions down through the years, but in the wake of the First World War that was no longer an option; after two years of bitter fighting, British prime minister David Lloyd George, scrambling to stave off full Irish independence, used threats of escalating violence to pressure the Irish provisional government into accepting self-rule under nominal British authority. That turned out to be a stopgap, and a weak one at that Over the next three decades, as Ireland cut its remaining ties with the British Empire, politicians in London merely grumbled and looked away; the resources to do anything else couldn’t be spared from other, more urgent needs. Those of my readers who are keeping track of the larger trajectory being traced in these posts will want to take note: when an empire can no longer afford to maintain control over its oldest and closest subject nations, that empire is circling the drain.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the North Sea, a far more serious challenge was building. Britain’s secondhand victory in the First World War had spared it the need to learn the lessons the war had to teach; Germany’s defeat made those lessons impossible to ignore, and the Versailles Treaty that ended the war fed far too much of Germany’s remaining wealth into the wealth pumps of Britain and France, adding the insult of impoverishment to the injury of defeat. (Since Britain and France both ended the war with huge debts to banks in the United States, quite a bit of that wealth flowed promptly across the Atlantic, where it helped put the roar into the Roaring Twenties.) Through the 1920s, when the German army remained bound by the sharp limits imposed at Versailles, young officers whose names would become famous a few years later talked late into the night about how the war could have been won, and what kind of an army could win it. When they got the chance to build that army – courtesy of a little man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache, whom the foreign press by and large dismissed as a Mussolini wannabe – a frighteningly different mode of making war began to take shape.

What these officers realized, or partly realized, was that the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine had completely redefined the potential shape of war. Britain had converted its fleet from coal to oil in the years just before the First World War, to be sure, and equipped its armies with tanks, trucks, and aircraft, but the strategic vision that directed all these things remained mired in the 19th century. In the minds of military planners in Britian and France – as well, to be fair, as most other countries – the nature of war remained what it had been for centuries: two opposing armies form up, march toward each other, jockey for position, and then fight a battle, and the army that withdraws from the battlefield first has lost; rinse and repeat, until the army, the government, or the nation of one side gives way. The new way of war Germany’s young officers began to sketch out no longer followed those rules. It’s going to be necessary to take an extended look at that difference, partly because the current American way of war is wholly based on the principles those German officers developed, and partly – well, we’ll get to that as we proceed.

Some weeks ago, in a post discussing the American Civil War, I mentioned that the European military attach├ęs who followed the armies and witnessed the battles of that war almost uniformly learned the wrong lesson from it. That’s because they paid attention to the two most famous generals of that war, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and to the part of the war that was closest to Washington DC and the port cities of the eastern seaboard, a rough triangle of of eastern Virginia whose points were at Washington, Richmond, and the sea. The battles fought there after Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac were a close first approximation to the useless slaughter of the western front in the First World War, with one crucial difference: they weren’t useless, from Grant’s and the Union’s perspective, because they formed one part of a broader strategy.

Grant is said to have described that strategy in the homely language he preferred: “I’m going to hold the cat down, and Sherman is going to skin him.” That was exactly what happened, too. Grant’s job was to pin down Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, respectively the Confederacy’s best general and its toughest army, so that neither one could be spared to the more vulnerable western front. Meanwhile Grant’s opposite number, Gen. William T. Sherman, marched an army from Tennessee through Georgia to the sea, and then north through the Carolinas toward Virginia; his job was to shatter the Confederacy’s economic and agricultural systems, cripple its ability to feed and supply its armies, and make it impossible for the South to keep fighting. That was why Sherman’s “bummers” stripped the country bare, leaving behind memories that are still bitter today, and it also explains a detail that rarely gets mentioned in any but the most technical histories of the Civil War: in the course of a months-long campaign that took him through the heartland of the Confederacy, Sherman fought only two significant battles.

Grant got the glory, and earned it fairly, but Sherman may have been the 19th century’s most innovative military thinker. When he came face to face with a Confederate army, whenever the strategic situation allowed, he evaded it, slipped past it, got behind it, and threatened its lines of communication and supply, forcing it to retreat in disarray. Long before anyone else, he grasped that it’s not necessary to fight a pitched battle to win a war, and that a force that can move fast, get behind its enemy, and target the vulnerable territory behind the lines can cripple the ability of the other side to wage war at all. Most of a century later, that approach to war came to be called “blitzkrieg;” today it’s the basis of the Airland Battle Doctrine, the core of American military strategy.

I’ve come to think that those German officers who talked late into the night in the 1920s may have remembered Sherman, and realized that what he did with infantry on foot could be done far more effectively with tanks, airplanes, and infantry loaded into trucks. When 1940 came and a rearmed Germany set out to even the score with Britain and France, certainly, the strategy the German high command chose was for all practical purposes the same one that Grant and Sherman used to shatter the Confederacy. The British and French set out to refight the First World War, moving their armies into northern France to contain an expected German thrust through Belgium. The Germans made that thrust with part of their force, pinning down the Allied armies – holding the cat, in Grant’s metaphor. Then, once the Allies were fully engaged, the rest of the German force drove through the rugged Ardennes hills, got behind the Allied lines, and proceeded to skin the cat with aplomb. Less than two months later, France had surrendered, and the British forces had suffered a humiliating defeat, fleeing across the Channel from Dunkirk and leaving their tanks, artillery, and everything else behind.

Meanwhile, around the same time that those young German officers were sitting up late at night and talking strategy, another coterie of young officers on the other side of the Eurasian continent was doing much the same thing, with equally dramatic results. Japan didn’t have the advantage of a recent defeat to draw on, but the humiliating events of 1854, when American gunboats had forced Japan to open its ports to American merchants and reverse a centuries-old policy of economic localization, left a lasting scar on Japanese memories. Aware that the alternative was subjugation by one of the existing imperial powers, Japan’s leaders frantically built up a modern military and the industrial economy that was necessary to give it teeth; a short and successful war with the Russian Empire, in which the Japanese fleet crushed its Russian rivals in two flawlessly executed naval battles, duly followed; but the young officers of the Imperial Navy recognized soon after the First World War that the day of the battleship was over, and embraced the possibilities of naval air power at a time when most other nations with navies still thought that aircraft carriers were a waste of time.

My American readers doubtless remember how these preparations affected the United States on December 7, 1941 and the days that followed, but they may not be aware that British forces in the Pacific suffered a series of equally disastrous and humiliating defeats. Once again, the cause was simply that Japan had noticed and embraced the new military possibilities that petroleum and the internal combustion engine made possible, and Britain had not. Fortified naval bases that were essential to British strategy in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, and were considered invulnerable in London, fell into Japanese hands like ripe fruit. Perhaps the best display of the mismatch, though, was the doomed voyage of the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse, the two most powerful British naval vessels in the southwestern Pacific, which sailed from Singapore the day after Pearl Harbor to attack a Japanese landing force up the Malay coast. It was a move straight out of Alfred Thayer Mahan, but the Japanese were no longer playing Mahan’s game; the ships were promptly spotted and sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers.

The war that followed is usually called the Second World War, but it might more usefully be given a different name: the Gasoline War. That’s partly because the stunning initial victories of the two Axis powers that counted came from a grasp of what gasoline engines could do in war – Mussolini’s Italy never did figure out the revolution in warfare that petroleum made possible, and so got the stuffing pounded out of it early and often. It’s partly, also, because a great deal of the strategy of the war on all sides focused on access to petroleum – the two Allied powers that counted, the United States and the Soviet Union, had immense petroleum reserves, while the Axis had none, and the attempts of the latter to seize oilfields and the former to prevent that from happening shaped much of the war. Finally, it’s because victory in that war went to those who were able to bring the most petroleum-based energy to bear on the battlefield. While Germany and Japan could manage that, they remained in the ascendant; once the United States and Soviet Union applied the same methods using their much more abundant oil supplies, the Axis was doomed.

And the British Empire? It’s considered utterly impolite to talk about what happened to it in straightforward terms, but a thought experiment may be useful.

Imagine, then, that the twists and turns of history that brought the United States into two world wars on Britain’s side had gone the other way. Perhaps it was the Venezuela crisis of 1895, mentioned in last week’s post, or one of the other flashpoints in British-American relations that were successfully dodged by statesmen on both sides. It really doesn’t matter; the key detail is that in 1914 and thereafter, in this alternate history, the Anglophobes rather than the Anglophiles defined America’s response to the coming of war in Europe, and Britain was left twisting in the wind. Imagine that Germany won in 1918, and that a later German leader – let’s suppose it was the young Kaiser Wilhelm III, son of the conqueror of France – went to war in 1939 against a crippled British Empire and forced Britain to surrender. What would have happened then?

The potential war aims of any of Britain’s early 20th century rivals are easy enough to imagine or, for that matter, to look up. First, the British Empire would have been dismantled, such portions of it as the conquering nation wanted would have been seized, other parts would have been allowed self-government under the overall control of the new imperial power, and a few token colonies would be left under British control where that suited the conqueror’s interests. Second, the British government would become a permanent and subordinate ally of the new imperial power. Third, Britain’s military would have been reduced to a fraction of its previous size, and the British government would be obligated to provide troops and ships to support the new imperial power when the latter decided on a military adventure. Fourth, Britain would be expected to pay a large sum of money as reparations for the costs of the war. Finally, to guarantee all these things, the British government would have been forced to accept an occupying force in Britain, and permanent military bases would be signed over to the new imperial power in Britain and its remaining colonies. That, by and large, is what happened to defeated nations in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now compare that list to the relations between Great Britain and the United States from 1945 to the present. That’s the thing that can’t be mentioned to this day in polite company: the British empire ended in the early 1940s when the United States conquered and occupied Britain. It was a bloodless conquest, like the German conquest of Denmark or Luxembourg, and since the alternative was submitting to Nazi Germany, the British by and large made the best of it. Still, none of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers would have tolerated for a moment the thought of foreign troops being garrisoned on British soil, which is where thousands of US military personnel are garrisoned as I write these words. That’s only one of the lasting legacies of the Gasoline War.

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End of the World of the Week #17

Since this week’s post is on the long side, this week’s End of the World can be told briefly. The prophet is Michel de Nostredame, better known these days as Nostradamus; here’s one of the quatrains from The Centuries, his famous book of prophecies:

In the year 1999 and seven months
From the sky will come a great king of terror
To resuscitate the great king of Angouleme;
Before and after, Mars reigns at his will.

Did you see the Great King of Terror in July of 1999? Neither did I.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

America: The Eagle and the Lion

I’ve commented more than once in these essays on the way that so many people on the leftward end of today’s American politics act as though America’s current empire is unique in the history of the world, either in scale, malevolence, or some combination of the two. In any form, this notion is impressively absurd, and it presupposes an equally impressive ignorance of history; still, I’ve come to think that there may be an unexpected factor behind that bit of historical blindness.

The factor? The complete inability of most Americans today to take Britain seriously.

Americans these days, by and large, think of Britain in much the same terms that the British think of Luxembourg: a darling little country, quaint and colorful, and of interest mostly as a destination for touristm—oh, and they’re stuck in a strategic position, poor dears, so we had to send the troops over there a few times, didn’t we? If the technology existed to project the average American’s notions about Britain onto a screen, you’d get to see a giddy collage of Big Ben, Befeaters, half-timbered houses, ivy-covered castles inhabited by ivy-covered aristocrats, Her Majesty the Queen imitating everybody’s grandmama as she waves to the crowd, and a mishmash of misremembered history in which King Arthur, Robin Hood, the other Queen Elizabeth, Lord Peter Wimsey, Jeeves, and maybe a blushing war bride or two, all jostle one another against the backdrop of a green, pleasant, and very small land.

Mind you, America functions as the same sort of projection screen for fantasies in the British imagination. Most of a decade ago, while visiting England, my wife and I stopped at a supermarket in St. Albans to pick up travel food. Out in front was one of those rides for small children that give parents something to use as a bribe for good behavior inside the store, the sort that rumble and lurch around without actually going anywhere; the vehicle that did the rumbling and lurching was a little plastic convertible with the roof down, and in front of it, to fuel the riders’ imaginations, was a flat panel with a landscape meant to represent America: on one side, a desert fitted out with some badly rendered saguaro cactus and a cow skull; on the other, a city consisting entirely of skyscrapers; straight ahead, a sweep of cowboy-infested plain with mountains in the distance, and a long straight road that vanished into infinity. It was a fascinating glimpse at the other side of a complex cultural relationship.

No doubt it doesn’t help Britons understand America much to have images of that latter kind stuck in memory. I’m guessing this because of the corrosive effects of the corresponding American imagery of Britain, not merely Americans’ understanding of Britain, but on their understanding of the last three centuries of world history, not to mention the nature of modern empire. As long as my American readers think of Britain as a cute little country, all this is out of reach.

It’s out of reach because until quite recently, as history goes, Britain was not a cute little country. It was an arrogant, ruthless, rapacious global hyperpower with the world’s largest and most technically sophisticated military machine and the largest empire in human history. Around a quarter of the world’s land surface, and roughly the same fraction of the human race, was ruled outright from London, and anyone in that empire who objected to this state of affairs too loudly could expect to have their attitude adjusted by the business end of a Maxim machine gun. The world’s maritime transportation routes—then as now, the primary arteries of global trade—existed subject to the whim of the Royal Navy; when patriotic Britons belted out “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves,” they were stating the single most important fact of 19th and early 20th century economics and geopolitics.

It’s become fashionable in recent years, among a certain faction of historians, to paint the British Empire as a global force for good and a model for all the things to which more recent empires—yes, the United States is the usual target for these exercises—ought to aspire. In reality, though, the British Empire exercised its power with a breathtaking amorality. Consider the Opium Wars, in 1839-42 and 1856-60. Britain bombarded civilian targets along the Chinese coasts and followed this up with a full-scale invasion, not once but twice, to force the Chinese government to reverse its decision to ban the import of opium and try to control what was then a pervasive and hugely destructive drug problem in China. To the British, the fact that British merchants could make plenty of money at China’s expense by selling opium to Chinese addicts was enough to justify what, even by today’s loose standards, was an unusually blatant abuse of power. That’s not a part of British history you’ll find discussed much these days; nor, for that matter, is it usually remembered that concentration camps were invented by the British, and used with great enthusiasm (and a substantial death toll), during the Boer War of 1899-1902.

Now of course it’s only fair to say that this is the way all the European empires of the 19th century behaved; Britain may have had far and away the biggest empire, but it was no worse than most and significantly better than some. It’s equally fair to note that as the age of European empire peaked and began its decline, and the first two non-European nations began to establish significant empires—those were the United States and Japan, for those who weren’t paying attention—they didn’t behave any better. Empire is a brutal business, and the notion that moral considerations ought to guide the behavior of the great powers is usually a talking point wielded by declining empires, which no longer have the resources to conquer other countries, to criticize the rising powers that will eventually supplant them. Still, this last point is getting well ahead of our story.

When the United States began taking its first uneasy steps down the road to empire in the last decade of the 19th century, modern notions of cute little England were nowhere to be found in the American consciousness. To a great many Americans, in fact, Britain was almost by definition the national enemy. The American national anthem, remember, commemorates the defense of an American fort against a British invasion force; the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 played a much larger role in the nation’s collective imagination than they do today, when the bicentennial of the latter war is slipping past almost completely unnoticed; on a more immediately pragmatic level, a great many Americans worried about their nation’s northern border, and the possibility that the hostile superpower that ruled the other side of that border might someday decide to send an invasion force south to reclaim its former colonies. As late as the 1930s, in fact, the standard scenario for the US Army’s annual exercises each summer was defense against a British invasion from Canada.

I don’t know that meaningful polls were ever done, but these Anglophobe attitudes were probably shared by a majority of Americans in the 1890s. There was also an Anglophile minority. America’s enduring cultural divide between the poor, patriotic, and Christian hinterlands and the wealthy, internationalist, and skeptical coastal cities had, during those years, attitudes toward Britain as a core litmus test; one side celebrated the Fourth of July with a noticeable animus toward the redcoats and their Union Jack, and talked earnestly about the evils of free trade and the plight of the Irish, while the other kept up with the latest British literary and intellectual news, copied London fashions, and faked an English accent when they thought they could get away with it.

Behind these vagaries lay a serious question. As the United States took control of its first handful of overseas colonies, naval bases, and treaty ports, it was venturing into a world that was dominated by British fleets and, more broadly, by British political and economic power. By the 1890s, the major powers had already begun to sort themselves out loosely into pro- and anti-British factions, though it was by no means certain who would end up on which side; until the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, informed opinion considered France as likely to end up as Britain’s enemy as her ally. The question that faced America’s people and politicians in the years between 1890 and 1917 was whether to ally with Britain or with the younger powers, notably Germany, that were pretty clearly headed toward a confrontation with the British Empire.

It really could have gone either way. In 1895, Britain and America very nearly ended up at war over the border between British Guiana and Venezuela. The Venezuelan government, at that time an ally of the United States, appealed to President Grover Cleveland to pressure Britain into arbitration; the Cleveland administration did exactly that, in belligerent language; British prime minister Lord Salisbury responded dismissively; public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic yelled for war. It took the sudden outbreak of a new crisis in South Africa—the Jameson Raid, one of the foreshocks of the Boer War—to provide enough of a distraction for passions to moderate and cooler heads to prevail.

Still, it’s significant that Cleveland, who was ready to challenge Britain even at the cost of war, was also the last effective opponent of American empire to be elected President. McKinley, elected in 1896, personally opposed imperial expansion but lacked the strength to counter the rising popularity of the pro-empire faction, and his assassination in 1901 handed the presidency to Theodore Roosevelt, a passionate imperialist and an equally passionate Anglophile, as well as a personal friend and disciple of naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. From 1901 until 1912, the presidency was in the hands of enthusiastic imperialists, and until 1920, of Anglophiles; during this same period, America and Britain settled their remaining differences and moved gradually into an informal alliance that the First World War would make official.

A significant number of people in both countries, for that matter, envisioned something considerably closer than alliance. In a Sherlock Holmes story published in 1892, “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” Arthur Conan Doyle had his famous detective say, “I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.” Doyle was far from the only intellectual on either side of the Atlantic to raise that prospect. Americans on the Anglophile end of the national spectrum, as often as not, felt they had more in common with the British upper classes than with the culture of the Anglophobe end.

Britons, for their part, had good reason to want the United States on Britain’s side. Those in Britain who dismissed the United States as an irrelevance in international politics received a series of abrupt awakenings in the half century following 1860, as the Civil War demonstrated America’s ability to fight an extended land war on a continental scale, the explosive growth of US industry and technology put Britain’s industrial dominance at risk, and the remarkably swift production of a world-class navy after 1890 gave notice that the United States was rapidly approaching the same ability to project force worldwide that the British Navy considered its private property. British politicians thus made conciliating the United States a central element of policy from 1890 onward, a decision that almost certainly saved Britain from defeat once war came.

What very few people grasped in the years before the First World War, in fact, was just how brittle the British Empire had become, and how badly it would turn out to need help from across the Atlantic. The root of the trouble was that perennial bane of empires, the long-term impact of the wealth pump on the subject nations that were being fed into its intake. The torrent of wealth that Britain extracted from its global empire left its subject nations starved of capital, and this put a limit on how long the torrent would keep on flowing. At the same time, the rise of Germany had forced Britain into a horrifically expensive arms race, especially at sea, where rapid advances in naval technology gave each generation of warships a shelf life of not much more than a decade before it had to be replaced, at steadily increasing cost. Thus Britain was being squeezed at both ends; income from its imperial possessions was faltering, while the cost of defending those possessions and countering potential rivals was soaring.

Then war came, and Britain found out the hard way that it had invested far too much of its military budget in the wrong things. The mighty British battleship fleet spent most of the war sitting in port, waiting for the smaller German fleet to come out and fight; the German fleet finally did so in 1916, the inconclusive Battle of Jutland followed, and then both fleets returned to port and basically sat out the rest of the war. Meanwhile, British naval forces had to improvise ways to counter the depredations of German submarines, while the land war turned into a nightmare of trench warfare for which the British army was utterly unprepared.

Very nearly the only thing that kept the Allies going through the First World War was American aid. Until 1917, that came under a flag of neutrality—public opinion in America was forcefully opposed to involvement in the bloodbath in Europe—but US President Woodrow Wilson, a passionate Anglophile, arranged for Britain, France, and Russia to borrow immense sums of money from American banks to pay for food and munitions, while shutting out Germany and its allies. When the war reached crisis in 1917—Germany succeeded in that year in knocking Russia out of the war, and was preparing to turn its whole military force against the Western Front—American neutrality went out the window.

Wilson won reelection in 1916 under the slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War,” but with Britain on the ropes, he did a 180° spin of a kind familiar to more recent observers of American politics. He got a declaration of war from Congress, sent the first of what would eventually be 1.2 million American soldiers into the meatgrinder of the Western Front, and backed up that force with a sharply accelerated program of financial and military aid for the remaining Allies. Those steps provided the edge that allowed the battered Allied armies to stand their ground against Germany’s final offensive, then turned the tide and ramped up the pressure until Germany was forced to sue for peace.

In the wake of the Allied victory, Wilson launched an ambitious program to create a new world order centered on a permanent Anglo-American alliance and locked into place by a new international organization, the League of Nations. Wilson’s rush to war and his attempt to weave the United States into a global system of entangling alliances, though, alienated far too many people back home; Congress decisively rejected US involvement in the League of Nations, and the 1920 presidential election was an overwhelming victory for the Anglophobe majority. For the next twenty years, the United States did its level best to stay out of transatlantic politics, and concentrated instead on establishing its control over Latin America. We’ll talk about the consequences of that move, and America’s final embrace of global empire, in next week’s post.

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Some of The Archdruid Report’s readers may be interested to hear about a new book of mine that’s just out from Weiser Books, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology. It’s on a subject I don’t usually discuss in this blog, my own spiritual and, to use an unpopular term, religious beliefs; that is to say, it applies seven essential concepts of ecology—wholeness, flow, balance, limits, cause and effect, distinct modes of being, and evolution—to those basic questions of human life that spiritual and religious teachings are meant to address. Yes, it’s as unusual as it sounds, but a bridge between spirituality and ecology, it seems to me, is one of the great needs of the present, and that’s what this book tries to provide, at least in outline.

Thanks to the folks at Weiser, readers of this blog get a 30% discount off the price of the book when ordering it off the Weiser Books website. The code to use at checkout, to get the discount, is MYST.

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End of the World of the Week #16

It’s always a challenge to take ideas from one culture and import them into a very different culture, without reducing them to nonsense. Promoters of the current belief that the Mayan calendar’s rollover in 2012 predicts the end of the world, a great transformation in consciousness, or any other of the modern pop culture notions applied to it might want to keep this in mind. One good example of the sort of thing that can happen when the difficulties of translation aren’t recognized may be found in the career of Hong Xiuquan.

Hong was a farmer’s son in Guangdong province in southern China, one of countless upwardly mobile young men in the middle years of the 19th century who aspired to an official position through the traditional Chinese process of competitive examination in the Confucian classics. Despite repeated attempts, though, he failed to get a sufficiently high score. It was after his first failure that he met a Christian missionary and got from him an assortment of religious pamphlets and Chinese translations of parts of the Bible.

After his final failure in the examinations, the ideas he absorbed from the missionary literature began to shape his thinking in strange ways, as he reinterpreted Christian concepts in terms drawn from Chinese folk religion. By 1837 he was preaching his own unique version of Christianity to a growing audience. Eventually he came to see himself as the younger brother of Jesus, God’s second son, who had been sent to Earth to purify China of the worship of demons. His proclamation of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace did not prevent him from organizing armed bands of followers, and when the Chinese imperial government took exception to this, Hong responded by proclaiming himself Heavenly King and going to war.

Twelve years and more than twenty million casualties later, Hong’s Heavenly Kingdom was finally defeated by government forces backed by European "technical advisors," to use a slightly later euphemism. Hong’s decomposed body was found by government troops in his palace in Nanjing; the sources differ as to whether he committed suicide by drinking poison or fell victim to an illness. His religion does not seem to have survived him.

—story from Apocalypse Not