Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Empire: forgive and forget?

The word empire has been in the news recently, and with good reason. With an election underway in the US which will (once again) determine how America projects itself in the world, the widespread reaction to a single film has placed those men and women who embody America’s power around the world in highly dangerous and precarious situations.

Some indeed have tragically lost their lives in Benghazi.

They have been cast as empire builders. In a broadcast on Al Jazeera a protesters in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli screamed ‘America’s empire will pay for this insult’ and around the same time a statement from senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati concluded that the film would intensify hatred towards America’s ‘stupidity’.

The perception of America as an all-powerful empire, unafraid to enforce its will, has haunted US diplomats in almost every global posting for decades. But this characterisation is always a particular headache when working in the Middle East, or to more precise, in Muslim countries in the Middle East. In spite of the charm and communications abilities of successive US presidents such as Obama and Clinton, America has failed to explain its vision for the region to those who actually live there; US diplomats would still be justified in feeling misunderstood in the region.

What’s changed in recent weeks is that the attacks in Muslim countries against US facilities will worry decision-makers in Washington that misunderstanding is becoming an ever shorter step from outright hatred.

How did America acquire its image of global bully and enemy of Islam? Is it simply because America is the largest, and strongest, target for the outpouring of anger and discontent within fragile Muslim countries? Possibly. But global dominance by one country isn’t new. Indeed, the cold war was one of a small number of unique periods in history when more than one country projected comparable influence around the world.

Many of those protestors who are so outraged at the insulting and offensive film will no doubt cite America’s wars against Islam in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and its steadfast support for Israel as evidence of its aggressive empire building. It is a very easy case to make, and who knows what history will make of these US foreign policy decisions.

One thing that history has shown is that empires don’t like to admit where they have made mistakes; and as the historian Erna Paris observes, the stories of empires can be much like the stories of our own lives: threaded through with ‘remembered fact and fiction’.

That comment could just as easily be made of Britain’s approach to understanding its historical pursuit of empire. Indeed, trade union activist Owen Jones recently called for a collective ‘owning up’ to our imperial past.

But is that kind of humility just an over-simplistic historical readjustment, a way of facing up to reality decades, or centuries, after the acts of imperial violence took place? For sure if there was a time for that discussion to take place then the summer that Britain was hosting the Olympics probably wasn’t it.

It is very easy to call for apologies with hindsight. I’m not sure that an apology for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even a renunciation of its support for an independent Jewish state in the Middle East would heal the open wounds in America’s relationships with many of the protesters currently rioting outside their embassies and consulates across the Muslim world.

Whatever the solution is, the two candidates for the biggest job in global politics had both better come up with an answer soon, or America risks convincing another generation of people in the Middle East to fear and misunderstand its global influence.

David Chaplin writes the Progressive Internationalism column for Progress

Photo credit: Freedom House

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David Chaplin

writes the Progressive Internationalism column for Progress


  • There is no need to apologise for islamists who just waited for an opportunity to attack US embassies and to burn US and Israel flags in the streets of London. Obama showed how weak he is as a leader with his reaction to the events. This is regardless to the contents of the movie, which me be offensive or not.

    Do you know any other religion which can’t tolerate any form of criticism and reacts with terror and violence? Did you ever see Jewish or Christian believers attacking embassies after biased reports on religious affairs in British media?

    We in the west need to stop being apologetic and stand up to what we believe in, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, unless we want to be back in the stone age.

  • It is all very well to be critical of Islam, but get your facts right first. The United States and Britain bear main responsibility for the dissension in the Middle East. Prior to World War 2 the population of Palestine was 85% Muslim, mainly Arabs, with the rest a mixture of Jews(8%), Christian and others. Britain held the Mandate of that part of the Middle East and – despite many options – arbitrarily decided that Palestine would be (in part) to the new home for the European Jews. Holocaust guilt placed a large part in the decision. Immediately after the War the Jewish population rose sharplely in anticipation. A 1948 UN mandate divided the land – grossly unfairly – but even before that came into effect over three major towns and over 2000 Palestinian villages had been destroyed by Zionist forces, making over half of the Palestinan population homeless before the State of Israel was created on May 14th 1948. Israel now is a forminable military power, ranking with Britain and France, with over 200 nuclear warheads. It receives a sizeable grant each year from the United States, and regular supplies of military equipment. There are now over 5-million Palestinian refugees scattered over the Middle East, now second and third generations, who with other Muslims understandably resent the support given to Israel by the Western powers. International Law dictates that refugees have the right to return to their homeland, but Israel doesn’t bother about such niceties. Is it surprising that the US and Britain are resented?

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