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Exceptionalism of Empire Builders

EXCEPTIONALISM OF EMPIRE BUILDERSAs I translated the piece below by José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes in the June issue of Journal das Notícias História, I was also reading the novel by Dorothy L Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh with the title Thrones, Dominations. An unusual title for a detective story, which is also in some respects a historical novel, since DLS died in 1957, and JPW finished her novel in 1998.

The words in the title come from Book Five of Paradise Lost by John Milton, and they seemed particularly apposite to the sense of the article about today’s empires. Not that I should say anything of the King Anointed, but point out that empires, powerful though they may appear to be, are transient by their very human nature.

Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
If these magnific titles yet remain
Not merely titular, since by decree
Another now hath to himself ingrossed
All power, and us eclipsed under the name
Of King Anointed

The Myths of Exceptionalism in the USA and China

From the beginning of time, the great powers and empires have created stories of exceptionalism in which they saw themselves as special in the world context. That is what the two powers of today are doing at present.

Through all history, great powers and empires have created narratives about their exceptionalism to legitimise their power, both domestically and abroad. Since antiquity, western culture has been full of the distinction between the civilised nations and the barbarians. In the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the European powers had similar stories. The British Empire took the weight described in Rudyard Kipling´s poem The White Man´s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands. Kipling exhorted the USA to share the civilising burden of the white man, in the context of the Spanish American War (during which Spain lost control of both Cuba and the Philippines to the USA). In France, the Third Republic characterised its colonial power as a diffuser of light, of reason and of universalist values.

Today, those stories are discredited. The same cannot be said of the stories of the great powers of the 21st century, USA and China (which is certainly not a historical chance). The American case is better known, because of its cultural proximity with Europe and because of its role in the world since WW2. As Stephen M Walt wrote in his The Myth of American Exceptionalism, the long American catalogue of auto-eulogy is filled with striking metaphors: empire of liberty; brilliant city on a hill; the last and best hope on Earth; leader of the free world; indispensable nation. When the end of the Cold War had left the USA without rivals at that time, this last description was used by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1998. She used it in order to stress the eventual necessity of a military attack on the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, in retaliation for his violation of the UN restrictions for the protection of the Kurds and the Shiites. If we have to use force, it is because we are America, we are the indispensable nation.

Less well known in Europe is Chinese exceptionalism.. Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard Univer sity wrote: The usual arguments in support of this supposed unique characteristic are these: One of the most rooted beliefs in China is that the Chinese are a uniquely pacific people imbued with a long philosophical and cultural tradition which emphasises harmony; and quotations from Confucius that peace and harmony are their most valued characteristics; and the well-known maxim of Sun Tzu, contained in the millennial Art of War that: not fighting and then subjugating the army of the enemy is to be the best among the best. The image is repeated exhaustively by Chinese go- vernment figures. In 2014, Xi Jinping said that there is no invasion gene in the blood of the Chinese people. This interpretation allowed him to project the exceptionalism into the future. The rise of China will be different from that of the other great powers: it will be peaceful.

Like the American narrative, the Chinese narrative must be seen with scepticism. As much in the distant past as in the last century, China has used force against neighbouring states, and against peoples who aren’t Chinese. In Tibet (1959); in India (1962); and in Vietnam (1979), China involved her armies, and these were not actions involving self-defence. Nor in the fifteenth century were the expeditions of Zheng He those of an ambassador for peace. As Geoff Wade shows, it was a maritime proto-colonialism which involved not only cultural exchanges and diplomacy, but also the use (or threat) of military force in Sumatra and Java, in Burma and in Sri Lanka. Obser ving these exceptionalisms from the standpoint of History, they may be seen to be contradictory and to make negative political consequences more likely. In the case of China, the paradox of the belief in a unique peaceful identity is that the more it is expressed, the more it feeds a foreign policy which is prone to the games of realpolitik and the use of force. The exceptionalism of the USA has similar problems. The more convinced the Americans are of their unique character, the more they tend to support the use of force in their external politics. In either case, this position is in consistent with the idea of a nature which is intrinsically both virtuous and just.

Ps Geoff Wade is an academic working in Singapore. He specialises in south and east Asian history.

This piece does nothing to set my mind at rest over the issues facing the world today. I suspect that the USA will expend every effort to preserve their world leadership, and that the Chinese will eventually supersede them. And I also suspect that the process will not be a smooth one. The idea that struck me first after reading this piece was that here was a Portuguese writing about empires and not even referring to the Iberian empires of Spain and Portugal. This may be the first time that I have read a comment by a Portuguese writer on empires, and find that he does not once mention the Portuguese Empire. Did the empire builders of those days have no idea that they were special in some way, or excep tional? I suspect that they did, but that their ideas were not to do with any moral or ethical princi ple or exceptionalism, but more to do with making enough profit, as well as expanding the area of Christianity. D Manuel I certainly had the ambition to ally with the Emperor of Ethiopia in order to attack the Moslem states from the south, and so to re-establish Christian control over Jerusalem. The most potent image of Portuguese expansion into the Indian Ocean was the reply given on the beach at Calicut in 1499, to an amazed Genoese. What had the Portuguese come for, all the way to India? The answer was: Christians and spices

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