American global enterprise was mixed with politics from the start, or at least from the moment that President Wilson addressed a convention of salesmen in Detroit in 1916, telling them that America’s “democracy of business” had to take the lead in “the struggle for the peaceful conquest of the world.” — “On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy,” by Eric Hobsbawm

America’s struggle for conquest of the world has been anything but peaceful. Any worthwhile account of the 1919 Versailles Conference — a Babel of unlimited revanchist score-settling into which Woodrow Wilson barged, trumpeting his 14 Points like a circus clown, comic relief between lethal knife-throwing acts — recognizes Wilson’s ludicrous salesmanship there as a subtle accelerant of the inevitable Second World War. Wilson carried out his mission with the tone-deaf presumption of superiority that has determined America’s behavior in the world ever since. His naiveté typified an obstinate American conviction of “innocence” and noble purpose which, were the United States an adolescent male, would be diagnosed as either sociopathy or autism, or both.

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On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

By Eric Hobsbawm

Pantheon, 128 pages

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Eric Hobsbawm’s “On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy” serves as a (mostly) post-9/11 epilogue to Hobsbawm’s magisterial “The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, which spans the “Short 20th Century” from the outbreak of World War I through the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Ivan Berend of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences minted the “Short 20th Century” as a concept; Hobsbawm has given it wide currency.) One of Hobsbawm’s many virtues as a historian is his continuity of focus: Though one of “On Empire’s” four sections was written before the event that supposedly changed the entire world, Hobsbawm’s perspective encompasses the long view, in which 9/11 can be viewed as a tripwire for an undoubtedly short-lived program of hegemonic American dominance in the world, in the same sense that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand precipitated World War I — it would’ve happened anyway, but simply needed a sensational event to set it into motion. (It is a relief not to encounter, for once, the obligatory longueur of valedictory mourning about 9/11, and the by now implicit assumption that the 9/11 attacks were uniquely tragic because they occurred in America rather than in some unimportant country Americans have never heard of.)

Hobsbawm’s short book telegraphs so much insight that its brevity is deceptive — his preface is a shapely essay in itself, and establishes some important premises woven throughout the sections that follow.

The first of these is that free-market globalization has spread, and heightened, social and economic disparities, both within sovereign states and internationally, even if it has, to a limited extent, reduced extreme poverty in many distressed areas.

Hobsbawm observes that “the impact of globalization is felt most by those who benefit from it least,” and cites the baleful effects of outsourcing labor on wage and salary earners in the developed countries. It has compromised living standards in advanced countries by forcing their labor forces in all income categories to compete with those of countries where equally qualified but drastically less compensated workers can be used.

While globalization has so far occurred on a fairly small scale, its impact has been massive, including that of immigration into developed countries: This has become a significant problem despite its statistically unimpressive numbers. Hobsbawm cites figures from the KOF Index of Economic Globalization: In the ranking of countries affected economically by immigration in the past eight or so years, the United States is in 39th place, Germany 40th, China 55th, Brazil 60th, South Korea 62nd, Japan 67th and India 105th — figures on “social globalization” are higher in all these countries except Brazil. In the developed world, however, only Britain figures in the top 10 for both social and economic globalization.

“On Empire” covers the period 2000-2006, which has been dominated by the United States’ assertion of global hegemony following the 9/11 attacks, its repudiation of previously accepted international agreements, and its assertion of the right to launch wars of aggression and other military attacks whenever it wishes. The Iraq war reflects the unreality of this imperial-minded overreach.

While a case has frequently been made for military interventions by great powers on behalf of human rights, Hobsbawm avers that militarily strong states like the U.S. may indeed intervene in ways that coincide with the wishes of human rights advocates, and certainly recognize the propaganda value in doing so, but whatever human rights advances happen to occur as a result are always incidental — intervention is, io ipso, an assertion of the right to intervene.

The case for intervention rests on flawed assumptions — for instance, that intolerable conditions like massacre or ethnic cleansing demand it, that no other methods exist to deal with such calamities and that the benefits far exceed the costs. This may sometimes be true, as in two instances Hobsbawm identifies: Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to end the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978 and Tanzania’s removal of Idi Amin from power in Uganda in 1979. (Tellingly, both the United States and China supported Pol Pot throughout the Vietnamese intervention.) Quite as often, intervention may only make matters worse.

The ill-named U.S. “coalition” invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 were not at all humanitarian in nature, but were sold to the public on a number of pretexts, including humanitarian ones, primarily as the only method of removing — Hobsbawm’s term of choice — “unsavory regimes.” Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were readily ousted from power, but neither war has resulted in victory or the purported goal of “establishing democratic values.” In Iraq, certainly, the population lives in worse conditions than existed before the U.S. invasion. (The U.S. armed Saddam Hussein throughout the Iraq-Iran war and even provided him with the chemical weapons he used against the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. With regard to the Taliban, the U.S. didn’t mind negotiating with it before 9/11, after the Taliban’s criminal destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and murderous imposition of sharia law on its population, or even for some weeks afterward — contingent on its surrender of Osama bin Laden — on behalf of American oil and gas companies that wished to run a pipeline from the Central Asian republics to the sea across Afghanistan.) What Hobsbawm properly calls the imperialism of human rights presumes that barbaric regimes can’t be changed by internal forces, a concept left over from the Cold War effort against “totalitarianism” that should have been abandoned when the USSR collapsed — a collapse that was itself brought about by internal instability, rather than outside intervention. Moreover, there have been many examples of democratization generated by indigenous forces within previously authoritarian countries in Asia and South America.

Intervention has also been justified by a delusional belief that major cultural changes can be effected by force when conditions don’t already exist that make such changes acceptable and where local populations can readily adapt to them. Democratic values and human rights, Hobsbawm points out, aren’t comparable to technological imports of immediate usefulness; you can bring technologies to places that don’t have them, but democratic political values aren’t the same things as cell phones or factory robotics.

The U.S. came late to real imperialist ambition, though it was endemic in the American attitude from the country’s inception, beginning with the slaughter of the continent’s aboriginals. When Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917, virtually all European states were “part of empires in the traditional monarchical or the nineteenth-century colonial sense” with the exceptions of Switzerland, the three Scandinavian countries and some Balkan countries recently detached from the Ottoman Empire; so were all of Africa, the Pacific islands and Asia, with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Thailand.

The Great War demolished the Habsburg empire and the remnants of the Ottoman empire; if not for the Bolshevik Revolution, the czarist empire would have dissolved as well. The Second World War finished off German imperialism and the colonial empires of Britain, Japan, France, Holland, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. It also ended the formal colonialism attempted by the United States in places like the Philippines.

The Cold War maintained a kind of world order in a condition that was neither clearly peace nor clearly war, through the existence of two superpowers armed with massive nuclear arsenals; since the end of the Soviet empire, we’ve been living in a curious void of No World Order.

Globalization itself guarantees that there will be no new empires; in earlier eras of Western imperialism, “Westernization” offered the sole model for weak states to modernize and strengthen themselves, and the Western empires could rely on the good will of local elites in their colonies. The West remained the model, even in places that overturned imperial rule such as India and Egypt.

This is no longer the case. As Hobsbawm writes, “South Korea has little to learn from the United States, which imports its software experts from India and exports its office work to Sri Lanka, while Brazil produces not only coffee but executive jets.”

A further check on any resurgence of empire is that would-be subjects will no longer be obedient. Military power is not enough to control even national territories — examples abound, including Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Colombia, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the 21st century,” writes Hobsbawm, who has a knack for understatement.

Hobsbawm divides “the age of extremes” to the present into a period centered on Germany (1914-1945), the era of superpower stalemate (1945-1989), and the present era, absent any international power arrangement.

In this period, violence that qualifies as warfare no longer belongs exclusively to governments. Contentious groups have no commonality besides their willingness to use violence. Tensions obscured in the earlier periods by world war have surfaced in lethal fashion, thanks partly to the unlimited availability of weapons and the abandonment of any rules governing warfare.

While the world wars involved whole populations of warring countries, only 5 percent of casualties in WWI were civilians; in WWII the figure rose to 66 percent. In the “little wars” since then, civilian casualties account for 80-90 percent of the dead. Military actions aren’t carried out by conscripts, but micro-armies equipped with high-tech weaponry. Further, the severity of purely military operations has been minor compared with their effects on civilians — Hobsbawm cites the “modest” two-week war between India and Pakistan over Bangladeshi independence producing a refugee population of 10 million. In Africa, armed fighting occurring between only some few thousands created 7 million refugees.

In effect there is no legible difference between war and peace, at least by World War I standards, decided by the Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907 — when combatants wore uniforms and war between sovereign states was formally declared at a beginning and a peace treaty was signed at the end of armed conflict.

World War II dispensed with both declarations and treaties. Today, peace and war are meaningless terms vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Israel, Lebanon and Syria, or Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, as the U.S. continued bombing Iraq right up until its invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Muddying the war-peace distinction further is the use of war to describe “the war on drugs,” “the war on terror” and the conflation of policing actions with war. “Terror” is a tactic and not a tangible enemy. A war on terror can never come to any perceptible end, just as a “war on drugs” fails to even define what a drug is, much less how a war on drugs could ever be brought to a conclusion. (Many things that are called drugs are used in the daily practice of medicine, and every hamlet and town in the United States has something called a drugstore. Even if this “war” were qualified as a war against “illegal drugs” or “drug trafficking,” the absurdity of its ever reaching a conclusion should be obvious to any sentient being.)

“The role of international bodies must be rethought,” Hobsbawm tells us. Yes, there are international authorities: the U.N., the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the World Trade Organization. But none of them has any effective power except what it’s given by cooperating states. International law, of course, is enforceable only against the weaker states by the stronger ones, ergo “war crimes tribunals,” in the absence of any internationally binding agreements, may bring some kinds of war criminals to trial, while other kinds of war criminals conduct such tribunals.

To summarize, Hobsbawm does not see the century ahead in a particularly roseate hue, though he does think the 21st century may turn out less bloody than the 20th — without, however, cessation of armed violence all over the world. We’ll simply have smaller wars on smaller stages, producing disproportionately large amounts of suffering. There is also, needless to say, the chance of another world war when China achieves superpower-hood, sometime further along in the decades ahead, though this largely depends on what we do now about the mess we’re in.

The same has to be said for the issues of global warming and the possibility of catastrophic pandemics: ecological depredation and the effect it has on human societies will depend largely on whether or not any functional global order is achieved in the years to come.

Hobsbawm states what can be known and what reasonably can be inferred from empirical facts, and leaves the business of prophecy to boutique historians like Francis Fukayama and Paul Johnson. Hobsbawm is the indispensable historian who never tries to outguess his own subject before it becomes his own subject.

Gary Indiana, a novelist and critic, is the author, most recently, of “Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt.” His novels include “Resentment: A Comedy.” His new book on Andy Warhol and a volume of his selected essays will be published later this year by Basic Books.

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