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The liberal case for empire Imperialism has a better record of defending minorities and promoting diversity than nation-states do

Never cancelled. The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty

Never cancelled. The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty

October 1, 2020   8 mins

“From the King of Kings of the East and West, the Great Khan… You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire and have purified the earth of the disorders that tainted it. We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies…. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then will kill your children and your old men together.”

So wrote the Mongol leader Hulagu Khan to the Mamluk ruler of Egypt in 1260. Two years earlier, the nomadic horsemen had sacked Baghdad, the river Tigris running black with ink as its libraries were destroyed, ending the city’s golden age with pyramids of skulls built from the slaughter.

Rather unsurprisingly, the Mongols have rather got a bad press from historians, so it seems counterintuitive that a newly published book praised in the Economist cites them as potential role models for the 21st century. Yet it also says something about our time.

Johan Norberg’s Open: The Story of Human Progress makes the argument that many empires were forces for openness, encouraging the spread of ideas and people, along with a certain amount of social mobility. As well as the Roman Empire, which unarguably brought many benefits, Norberg praises Genghis Khan for domestic policies that “would today open him up to accusations of being a politically correct, latte-drinking virtue signaller”. So, when people tell me “I’m just right of Genghis Khan” they actually mean it as a comment on my moderation.

“The Mongols practised ethnic and religious tolerance,” as an Economist review puts it sympathetically: “which is one reason why they were so effective. They promoted skilled fighters, engineers and administrators of all backgrounds. Of the 150,000-strong horde that invaded Europe in 1241, only around a third were ethnic Mongols. Habsburg soldiers were surprised to find that one captured officer was a middle-aged literate Englishman, who had fled persecution for heresy at home and sought refuge among the more open-minded Mongols.”

This line of argument is an interesting indication of where current thinking is moving, since over the course of the 21st century there has been growing sympathy for imperialism among sections of the intelligentsia — and with good reason.

This might seem an odd claim, since on one level empire has never been more controversial. Less than three years ago, some 170 academics signed a letter condemning Oxford University even for presenting a “balance sheet” on the British Empire, stating that they were “alarmed” by such an exercise which lacked “scholarly legitimacy”.

Then there was the case of Bruce Gilley, a political science professor who was published in the peer reviewed journal The World Quarterly arguing that there were many advantages and benefits to colonialism. The article was swiftly retracted, after 16,000 people signed a petition led by fellow academics.

Yet these controversies are not about empires as such, but race and racial supremacy, the most offensive idea to 21st century westerners. Non-European empires often receive quite sympathetic hearings, including two relatively recent BBC documentaries on the Ottomans — and that is because the values of the 21st century global elite align far closer with pre-modern imperial rulers than with the 19th and 20th century rulers of nation-states.

The modern era proper, which we might approximately date from the Battle of Waterloo or the first railways, was the age of the nation. During this period, politics aligned largely on class lines, with a working-class Left pushing for redistribution and equality, and a largely upper and middle-class Right favouring order.

Over the course of the past couple of decades, that has decisively shifted — a process known as the “great realignment” — so that politics is more about values. The leading Right-wing party is now more working-class than the leading Left-wing party, which would have been an absurd idea 20 years ago, but not 200 years ago when the wealthy were less conservative than the masses — as has been the case throughout much of history.

This new divide is sometimes characterised as being between “open” and “closed” societies, the one favouring more freedom of ideas, trade and immigration, the latter opposing outside influences like the proverbial castle raising the drawbridge. It’s an imperfect distinction because of the pejorative undertones of the term — no one thinks of themselves as “closed-minded” — and that is partly why it is so favoured by advocates of globalisation and liberalisation.

Yet there is something to it, and liberals — as opposed to socialists or progressives — are more likely to favour free exchange of ideas, free movement of capital and goods, and especially free movement of people.

And historically, there has been one form of government above all that has done this — empire, the most effective form of globalisation and cultural cross-pollination. The author Laurence Bergreen described the Mongols as “early practitioners of globalisation, seeking to connect the entire world. They were conquerors and marauders, but more than that, they were unifiers.” And because empires are defined by diversity, their mix of languages, cultures and religions, so it is natural that supporters of globalisation might seem more sympathetic. Genghis Khan today would most certainly have read the Economist, even if their solutions might have appeared a bit technocratic for his tastes.

Empires have always been cosmopolitan. Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt describes the country in the centuries after Christ as a mixture of influences, a place “where people married across the religious and cultural divide; where reliefs in Egyptian temples could depict strange, winged creatures from Zoroastrian mythology; and where second-generation Persian immigrants could adopt Egyptian nicknames… a dynamic melting pot of peoples and traditions.”

Or there was Spain under the Umayyad Caliphate, where “the emir was served by a well-run cadre led by Umayyad relatives and staffed by Syrians, muwalladun, [Muslims of Spanish descent] Jews, and Mozarabs [Arab-speaking Catholics]”. And yet, as David Levering Lewis of Moorish Spain, its people “coexisted in a flammable symbiosis”.

The Ottoman Empire is perhaps the most cancel-proof: open to racial mixing, with little sense of ethnic supremacy compared to later European empires, and even with powerful people of colour, women and even intersex people right at the top: among the most important figures at the Topkapi Palace were the Chief White Eunuch and the Chief Black Eunuch, and the latter was more powerful (claps).

And yet, like all such empires, it was authoritarian and conservative. People could practise their religion and indeed minority religious leaders were given quasi-official status — so long as they accepted the status quo. Like empires before it, it was a society terrified of changes that might throw the whole delicately-weaved network of peoples into imbalance. With good reason.

It was the very diverse nature of these imperial societies that made them unpromising ground for the political ideas that appeared in the West — liberalism, representative democracy and freedom of religion (and freedom from religion). That these novelties emerged in the far more ethnically-homogenous societies of England, the Netherlands and Scandinavia is not a coincidence, since the nations adjoining the North Sea were characterised by strong institutions, high levels of trust and little fear of competing nationalisms, or what we would now call “identity politics”.

The correlation between diversity and low trust is well-established, and trust is crucial in the formation of civil society and of capitalism, which require strangers to share risks outside of their extended families. Over the 18th century, 130 types of society were created in the British Isles, and some 25,000 clubs sprang up in the English-speaking world. A German resident of London wrote: “Everyone may choose his company according to his liking” and there was nowhere “where a man may live more according to his own mind, or even his whims, than in London”.

The imperial age would begin its decline with the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism, which was originally a modernising and liberal force; as Krishnan Kumar wrote in Visions of Empire, nationalism was allied “with the noble causes of spreading freedom and enlightenment in the world”. Nationalists wished to counter the rule of clerics and princes, who had always seen themselves being above such petty concerns as national identity. As Count-duke Olivares of imperial Spain wrote: “I am not nacional; that is something for children”. This, as Kumar put it, was an “expression typical of the imperial mentality”. The old aristocracy were beyond such low-status beliefs as nationalism — just like their 21st century successors.

Most of all the age of nationalism was tied to the rise of the middle class, just as today nationalism’s fall is linked to its decline, and with the rise of a new globalised tech and finance aristocracy.

Though once aligned with liberalism, nationalism would become intolerant and violent, and its legacy was disastrous for minorities in particular. Today the cities of Eurasia are littered with the ghosts of long-established communities wiped out in the 20th century, in Jewish Krakow, Orthodox Constantinople, Christian Baghdad and elsewhere.

On the treatment of minorities, empires can certainly claim to have a better record than nation-states. European Jews enjoyed great freedom and tolerance under the Habsburgs but when that empire fell, the results were catastrophic. Tragedy also afflicted the Greeks in Alexandria and the Arabs and Persians in Zanzibar, all of whom had to flee when the age of empires came to an end (among the latter was a young Farrokh Bulsara, whose family home in Middlesex had a picture of their former protector, the Queen of England, on the wall).

Today, while national identity is in steep retreat in the west, it has come to be replaced by a form of patriotism for an idea, the “British values” coined by New Labour and repeated by Keir Starmer last week.

As Tony Blair said in 1997: “I am a British patriot…The Britain in my vision is not Britain turning its back on the world. We are a leader of nations or nothing.” Yet what he is patriotic for is a set of values, an imperial, not a nationalist, idea. As Krishnan Kumar put it: “Imperialist ideologies are universalistic, not particularistic. That difference has to be borne in mind. Imperial peoples do not, unlike nationalists, celebrate themselves; they celebrate the causes of which they are the agents or carriers.”

Likewise if America is defined by a creed — “it is who we are”, as Barack Obama said of diversity — then that makes it less recognisable as the nation of the founding fathers and more what Rashid Dar called “a progressive caliphate”, a polity arranged around a belief system.

Nations don’t have “values”. In Nationalism and the History of Ideas, John Breuilly observed that “Nationalists are highly inward-looking. They tend to celebrate themselves — ‘we English,’ ‘we Germans,’ ‘we French’ — simply for their good fortune in being who they are, rather than for any cause or purpose in the world that might justify their existence.”

So as western societies become multicultural, they have also come to resurrect imperial models of government, with officials working among the “community” performing a similar role to that of the Ottoman millet system — repressing ethnic conflict and injustice while also imposing ideological conformity and loyalty to the empire. Faith leaders are not just tolerated but given sway over their self-appointed communities, but anyone who offends the values of the state — by, say, expressing opposition to homosexuality too openly — is deemed beyond the pale.

Because of their vulnerability, multicultural empires must also become less hospitable towards dissenting ideas. As the United States has become more imperial, so Americans have become much less tolerant of opposing beliefs because majority ethnic nationalism, usually described as racism or “white supremacy”, threatens the fabric of society just as it haunted past empires.

That today empire is such a controversial issue is not because the rule of sultans or khans offends our principles, but because of the same ethnic politics that once plagued multicultural empires and now play a large part in American and European political life.

Everywhere, as western nation-states have evolved into modern empires, so liberalism and democracy have begun to diverge, with populist movements arising to defend “the people”, the ethnic majority, against elites who resemble imperial governors trying to protect social peace (and their own interests).

As Kumar wrote: “In the case of empires, one of the most important is to recognize the danger of nationalism, not just of the subject peoples but, perhaps even more, of the ruling people themselves. The moment the ruling people start stressing their own national identity, whether as Turks, Austrians, Russians, English, or French, that is the moment empire begins to decline… The national principle denies the imperial principle.”

And it is this question, between the new imperialism and the old nationalism, that now defines western political life in the 21st century.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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Μαργαρίτα Τάντση
Μαργαρίτα Τάντση
3 years ago

I have to point to two issues:
1) The melting pot of civilizations in the regions of Egypt started with Alexander the Great who initiated the policy of mixing identities. He married twice with Persian daughters of local kings and encouraged his soldiers to marry local girls as well. He was even accused by many Greeks that he adapted the Persian way of life, hence questioning the supremacy of the greek worldview.
The centuries that followed, known as Hellenistic Years and involved the kingdoms of his successors, converted all regions of modern Greece, Turkey (Turks had not arrived yet from the depths of East), Syria, Iran, Egypt etc, to a huge melting pot that soon was conquered by the Romans. A major factor that contributed to the interaction between all this people is the dominance of the greek as common language (the New Testament is the proof of it).
2) The Ottoman Empire is differently perceived by those who lived as its subjects. Yes they used people of different origin to serve their purposes.This was a practice put in place to serve their interests and not because of respect to liberal values.
For example, on occasional raids they violently took from their families mail children aged 8-9 and put them in facilities near the palace to train them as soldiers. This troops were the more loyal to the Sultan because of the brainwash they had been suffered. Consequently, furiously fought against Greeks sometimes their own families. How liberal is that?
Last notice, in the region of modern Greece civilization thrived for thousands of years under the impact of successive empires (Greek, Hellenistic years, Roman and Byzantine). Under the last Ottoman occupation, that lasted almost 500 years, civilization in Greece literally faded out with the repercussions still visible. The border line of the Ottoman empire was river Danube. I dare you to compare Budapest (outside Ottoman Empire) with Belgrade (inside Ottoman empire). The traces of both times are still there.