Britannia Street? Russian, Iranian and Chinese imperialism is what should concern us
Although I am not a monarchist, I cannot help but admire Queen Elizabeth II. The spinster had a job to do, and she’s been doing it — with discipline and dignity — for 70 years. So, I was at least a little moved by the platinum jubilee celebrations in his honor last week.
Everyone knows — at least everyone who’s watched “The Crown” — that certain members of his family made his job harder. More concretely, she reigned over an empire in disintegration, a turn of events that Winston Churchill had anticipated with dismay.
In America, activists smear their nation’s history for ideological and political purposes. In Britain, too, there are those who signal their virtue by denigrating the British Empire as an absolute evil. During the jubilee, they were in the streets demanding “social justice” and a “colonial judgment”. On the statures they spray painted: “Churchill was a racist.”
I am not advocating for the sanitization of history. But, to take just one example, when a group of Oxford scholars launched a project called “Ethics and Empire”, intended to objectively assess the good and the bad brought by British imperialism, the establishment ” politically correct” objected furiously.
In an open letter, 170 scholars said such an attempt to “offset violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits” could have no “scientific legitimacy”.
Empires have ruled most of the world for most of recorded history. With few exceptions, nations have either conquered or been conquered. It was usually better to be among the first.
Which empires were holy? The Aztec Empire? The Umayyad Caliphate? The Yuan dynasty? The Ottoman empire?
At the National University of Mongolia, are professors and students beating themselves up for the sins of Genghis Khan?
“Trying to impose our mindset – let alone our values – on the past is obviously ridiculous, however often tried and well intentioned it is,” wrote Andrew Roberts, the great British historian.
“The legacy of colonialism is not simple but of great complexity, with contradictions – good things and bad,” wrote Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist.
Slavery is one of the most terrible crimes. But that judgment was not obvious to most people in most of the world for most of history. It was Evangelical Christians and Quakers who presented the revolutionary moral argument against slavery, which led to the passage of the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
“And Britain not only abolished this trade for herself, but used her navy to seek to wipe out this trade in every part of the world that the navy could reach,” Douglas Murray writes in his latest book, “ The War on the West”.
Elsewhere – for example, in the Middle East and Africa – slavery persisted – in fact, in some countries it persists to this day.
It strikes me as hypocrisy on steroids that those who identify as anti-imperialists when it comes to the British imperialism of centuries past tend to be indifferent to the imperialism of the present century.
Clearly, President Vladimir Putin is trying to restore the Russian Empire through the military conquest of Ukraine (with more to come if he succeeds).
A Tehran-based empire now dominates the failed state of Lebanon, helps slaughter Syrians, and backs Shiite militias bleeding Iraq and Houthi rebels bleeding Yemen.
The Chinese Communist Party is erasing the culture and religion of Tibetans in their now colonized country and Muslim Uyghurs in occupied Xinjiang.
If you don’t see that the people of Hong Kong were better off under British colonial rule and that the Taiwanese would lose their hard-earned freedoms if Beijing conquered them, you’re not paying attention.
And do you understand that the CCP uses its Belt and Road Initiative to appropriate resources from poor and weak countries through debt traps and elite takeovers? (Russia also exploits African nations, including: Libya, Mozambique, Central African Republic and Mali.)
A final point on the British Empire: it also deserves credit – at least once Churchill became Prime Minister – for its fierce opposition to Hitler’s empire.
Hitler’s ally in Asia was the Empire of Japan, which in the 1930s was committing the most heinous atrocities in Manchuria and other conquered lands.
Although the Second World War ended with an Allied victory, the British lacked the strength to maintain their empire, especially at a time when “self-determination of nations” seemed like an idea whose time had come.
London has passed the torch of global leadership to Washington. Americans accepted responsibility knowing that the alternative was the spread of Soviet imperialism.
The United States attempted to build an “international order” with rules that would apply to all nations, weak and strong, friendly and adversarial. America created the United Nations to promote peace and establish basic human rights everywhere.
As noble as those efforts were, their failure should now be evident. Just two examples: Moscow holding a right of veto in the Security Council, the UN has shown itself impotent in the face of Mr. Putin’s war crimes.
And, after a visit to the People’s Republic of China last month, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, did not dare seriously criticize the regime’s genocidal persecution of Uyghurs.
I am not Anglophile. But it seems clear to me that those who obsess over the failures (however many) of the British imperialists of the past while excusing and even appeasing the imperialists of the present are doing significant damage both to their own nation and to the nations who currently suffer from oppression and exploitation.
I hope that future generations will judge them at least as harshly as they judge their ancestors today. I also hope that the longest reigning British monarch was able to disconnect them and enjoy her party.
• Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Washington Times.