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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 24, 2022

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I want to start a discussion here on a historical subject I've never been able to get a decent answer on anywhere else. The question is:

What is going on with how colonialism worked in its heyday versus how difficult it seems to be to conquer and control other countries nowadays?

Back in the heyday, tiny little England controlled something like a quarter of the world, off and on during various periods, including such areas as all of India, most of the Middle East, the original American 13 colonies, Canada, Australia, sometimes hunks of China, various large hunks of Africa, etc. The somewhat larger France controlled other hunks of North America, a bunch of Caribbean islands, large chunks of Africa, and the Middle East, etc. Even tinier Belgium, with a modern-day population of only 11 million, had some pretty big colonies in Africa that they controlled. At the time, they (mostly) seemed to have little trouble controlling these colonies for centuries, sometimes with mostly peaceful means and sometimes with quite brutal violence.

Meanwhile nowadays, mighty continent-striding America can barely keep Iraq and Afghanistan under control for a decade or two. Russia had little better luck in Afghanistan and mostly hasn't done too well in controlling areas other than tiny regions on their borders already at least partially populated with Russians. China doesn't seem to be doing much better. All of the former colonial superpowers can now barely dream of controlling a single hostile city overseas. The British stretched themselves to the limit trying to take the Falklands back, and managed to hold I think it was a city or a small region in Iraq with a lot of help from America. I think France intervened briefly in Mali a decade or so ago, with only limited success.

So ahem, what the hell happened? How did it go from super-easy to super-hard to control a foreign country on the other side of an ocean? Questions about this in Reddit history subs seem to generate mostly uhhs and grunts and vague excuses. I wonder if anyone in here, with mostly more open discussion on tougher topics has any interesting thoughts on the subject?

I'm going to try and synthesize a lot of points that others have brought up and also add my own analysis.

By 'colonialism' I assume you're referring to style of so-called 'exploitative colonialism' of Africa and Asia during the 19th century, I think a poor name that betrays the ideological perspective the dominates the analysis of colonialism today. I think the style of 'settler colonialism' of the Americas etc. are not possible today for more fairly obvious reasons.

I do think many of the below comments are correct that nationalism has played a significant role in making colonialism extremely difficult to enforce in the present day. In the past, there was not a huge amount of difference whether you paid taxes to or have allegiance to a 'local' lord or king, or a foreign lord or king. For example in India, for the Rajas who existed British rule, pragmatically there was not much difference between allegiance to a 'local' Islamic Persianised ruler (Mughals) or to the British. Indeed, many Rajas willingly switched allegiance to the British, which they saw as preferable. By and large, colonial rule was legitimate - the colonial powers couldn't have governed such large amounts of land with such little Western manpower otherwise. This changed with the development of a national identity in the colonial states, which ironically is a Western import. Anti-colonialism is ironically a Western invention. What you see consistently during the decolonisation period was Western educated local elites picking up Western political philosophy (liberalism and socialism too) often during their travels and education in the West, and using that as a basis for decolonisation and nationalism. It's the case for figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Obafemi Awolowo, even Gandhi. Once nationalism took hold in colonial regions, it became socially and politically untenable for a militant minority of the local population to be administered by a group deemed not part of the new national identity (anti-colonial movements usually did not have majority support), regardless of any material benefits. Indeed, many of these countries collapsed immediately after decolonisation. A matter of national pride as it were. This is really no different to the Springtime of Nations, where Italians, Czechs, Hungarians opposed Austrian rule (no matter how nominal), Poles under German rule etc.

Another major factor is that there is just no political will to do colonialism in modern societies. A major motivating factor behind the 19th Century colonialism was the Civilising Mission. While this is often the subject of contemporary revisionism like the term 'exploitative colonialism', there was a strong altruistic motivation to European colonialism. The 19th Century was a period of great intellectual and economic progress, and many Europeans strongly believed they had a moral, often religious imperative to bring this progress and civilisation to the unfortunate primitive peoples of Africa and Asia. Again, their motivations were primarily altruistic, whether you think those motivations have merit or where legitimate is up to the reader. The reality is that with a handful of exceptions, colonialism was actually incredibly expensive for European powers and largely was a net deficit for the coloniser, not a benefit, mostly motivated by colonial prestige and the moral imperative of civilising. Building infrastructure, schools, hospitals and a functioning bureaucracy all from scratch isn't exactly cheap. Otto von Bismark was famously anti-colonial, not out of any compassion for would-be colonised people, but rather he saw it as a significant waste of resources that could be spent on strengthening Germany. Germany would eventually reluctantly join the colonial race anyway due to international peer pressure and prestige. This ties into my own personal theory for why I think decolonisation took hold in not just the colonial states themselves, but also in the Western academia and elite in the mid-20th Century - postwar Europe had been devastated by WW2 and could not afford to maintain its colonies, but needed a moral justification to abandon the colonies, if at least to save face. The decolonial movement was that justification - Western elites had a genuine motivation to promote or at least passively accept decolonisation to absolve themselves of any responsibility they may have had to colonial states and people they governed. Though, this may have come back to bite them decades later, giving fuel to what would one day become the contemporary critical social justice movement and anti-Western sentiment in academia more generally. Kind of like the CIA funding the Mujahideen.

As other comments have also mentioned, contemporary Western states just don't do colonialism correctly, in large part caused by ideological and political concerns. To use the common America and Afghanistan (or Iraq) example, the 'correct' or functional way to do colonialism is to copy what the British did, ally with local elites, prop them up, arm them, and help them destroy their enemies, but otherwise keep local governance structures intact (the British were more than happy for local allied chiefs, shieks or rajas to govern their own territory as long as they kept to certain conditions. This is not what the Americans did or tried to do - instead, they tried to completely supplant local government structures by installing a completely foreign, Western style liberal democracy in those states that has no legitimacy and collapses under its own weight. Part of the reason for this is that America is so narcissistic that it thinks that remaking the world into America-style liberal democracies ("spreading democracy/freedom") is just the Greatest Thing Ever, but also because functional British style colonialism would never fly in the ideological waters the West is currently in - human rights, self determination, colonialism creating 'evil' hierarchies and so on. So the Americans have to try and do 'non-colonial colonialism' which obviously doesn't work.

Another thing to consider is that 21st century societies simply don't operate in the same way a 19th century society does, and we shouldn't expect contemporary colonialism to resemble previous colonialism. Obviously, this brings in the neo-colonialism debate. To simplify greatly, modern service economies and financial systems and multinational corporations may have made old boots-on-the-ground colonialism redundant. Why do you need to literally, physically control the governance of states in Africa when you can achieve the same effect from a distance with IMF loans? And it's not just the West - what China is doing could also be called neo-colonialism as well, least of all with the Belt and Road Initiative, where China will indebt half of Africa to China and basically have control of all their finances.

I'm not convinced by the (military) technology arguments put forward by many of the other commenters here. There are several reasons for this. First, the vast majority of European colonialism in the 19th century was not done through military conquest, but primarily through diplomatic means and gaining the allegiance of local elites. This is not to say there was no war, but there was very little compared to the scale we're talking about. You can perhaps make an argument that there was still a lot of indirect military conquest as Western powers would arm and fund elites favorable to them who would then conquer their rivals, but this is both indirect, and negates a lot of the apparent technological advantage by using an intermediary. Secondly, many of the colonised states weren't actually that far behind the Europeans in military technology. India in particular was home to the 'Gunpowder Empire' of the Mughals who were very familiar with advanced firearms long before Crown rule in India. The British defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan war is another good example of this. Third, even when the Europeans had a clear military technology advantage, it still wasn't a clearly decisive factor. The clearest example of this was the Anglo-Zulu War, where the Zulus nearly beat the British despite only having mostly iron-age technology. Fourth, it's not clear to me that the technological disparity between, for example, the British Empire and Iraq in 19th century is larger than it is between the USA and Iraq today. The Americans have a level of military sophistication that is miles ahead of anyone in the Global South. The Americans steamrolled Saddam's forces in 2003. But in my opinion, colonialism was never really a question of military might or technology, but of governance and legitimacy. This is not to say military technology provided no edge for the Europeans, but I think it is generally overstated. Which leads me to my next point:

I might be convinced that technological superiority might be a reason for 19th century colonial success if the technological superiority being described was social, political and economic technology, rather than military technology. Simply put, the Europeans were generally far better administrators, in many cases building a functioning, large-scale administrative system where previously there had only been anarchic tribal and ethnic conflict. The Europeans brought with them engineering, medicine, rule of law and so on, which did wonders for their legitimacy. This gap in social/economic technology between the Europeans and colonial states in the 19th century is still probably larger than the Europeans and even the most dysfunctional post-colonial state (e.g. Somalia) today, though I might be convinced otherwise.

To conclude, I want to link to the article the Case for Colonialism by Bruce Gilley, which I have previously posted on /r/theMotte, rebuts much of the anti-colonialist literature. While not explicitly about the topic at hand, its arguments are highly relevant.

What bothers me some about this is what seems to me like contradictions. Was the key to colonialism leaving the locals alone as long as they paid up ("otherwise keep local governance structures intact"), or actively trying to change their values ("bring this progress and civilisation to the unfortunate primitive peoples of Africa and Asia")?

Are we saying the Right Way to do Afghanistan would have been to let 'em keep their women in burquas and girls' schools closed and other such things, just pay us some taxes and give up any international terrorists who particularly annoy us? I guess I could buy that, though I'm not sure it's what 19th century Britain would do. (Also, 19th century Britain did fight Afghanistan, though I haven't read much on why and how it went)

I could see Iraq as being a "Civilising Mission" thing - the word at the time was, we knock off Saddam and bring 'em Democracy, Whiskey, and Sexy and they'll just love us right away and it'll go great. Was the problem the lack of widespread and long-lasting zeal about that mission, or that it just plain didn't work?

I could certainly buy something about the spread of nationalism in the would-be colonized countries being a big part of the reason. I do wonder how well the timeline for that spread matches the spread of nationalism in Europe itself.

Thanks for the article, I'll take a look at that later.

Was the key to colonialism leaving the locals alone as long as they paid up ("otherwise keep local governance structures intact"), or actively trying to change their values ("bring this progress and civilisation to the unfortunate primitive peoples of Africa and Asia")?

As contradictory as it sounds, it was both. The Europeans, and particularly the British, were smart administrators and governors. They knew how to adapt to local political and cultural circumstances while promoting their own political and social goals in a way that contemporary Western states seem to be unable to do. The majority of the British Empire in Africa and Asia was administered via indirect rule. In 1947, even after centuries of British rule (both Company and Crown) and the gradual annexation of many of the Princely States (including the doctrine of lapse), the Princely States still consisted of ~40% of British India by land. But the Princely States weren't just some isolationist islands in the middle of British India, however. They had railways build through them, hospitals and Western schools etc. The difference is that the British worked with the local Rajas who still had a great deal of autonomy and authority. Over decades, many of the Rajas would actually give up significant autonomy and give more authority to the British because it was simply more convenient for them. This general approach was true of other parts of the British Empire, and the European colonisers more generally.

It was not the American approach of storming in to a country, creating a new Western-style liberal democratic government from nothing and expecting everyone to instantly to like it. To use another historical comparison, even when the British (under Company rule) did militarily conquer the Sikh Empire, which was their largest military expansion of the British Rule in India, they did not immediately put the whole region under direct rule, but rather restored many Rajas in the former territory of the Sikh Empire.

Are we saying the Right Way to do Afghanistan would have been to let 'em keep their women in burquas and girls' schools closed and other such things, just pay us some taxes and give up any international terrorists who particularly annoy us? I guess I could buy that, though I'm not sure it's what 19th century Britain would do.

Yes and no. The Right Way to do things would certainly to have have more tacit, been less gung-ho about the whole thing and curb their excessive moralizing. Did you know that the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan has a provision that 25% of the seats of the Afghan Parliament are to be reserved exclusively for women? Such a provision would be extremely controversial in many Western states, let alone extremely Islamic conservative Afghanistan. The Americans should at the very least not expect to remake Afghanistan overnight, which is seemingly exactly what they thought they could do. To emphasise the point from above, European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries was a gradual process that involved slow integration and change while using indirect rule and local institutions.

I could see Iraq as being a "Civilising Mission" thing - the word at the time was, we knock off Saddam and bring 'em Democracy, Whiskey, and Sexy and they'll just love us right away and it'll go great. Was the problem the lack of widespread and long-lasting zeal about that mission, or that it just plain didn't work?

A while back, I saw an interview that Condoleezza Rice gave to the Hoover Institution in which they discussed the Iraq War. In the interview, Rice basically just straight out admitted that the Bush administration and the US military has no idea what they were getting themselves into in terms of local politics. They had very little knowledge of local power dynamics, local tribal conflicts and alliances, or any kind of understanding of the local Iraqi political and social circumstances in general. The attitude of the Americans seem to literally have been more or less exactly what you describe - 'the Iraqis are just like Americans, crying out for American democracy, if we topple the Saddam and install a democratic government everything will just kind of work itself out'. I doubt the British even in the height of their power were ever so naive and arrogant. Again, you can't change a country and its culture overnight.