“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana
(T)he United States (has the right) to intervene militarily to secure its "vital interests" which include(d), "ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources”. ~ US National Security Strategy, 1997, known as the Clinton Doctrine.
History goes in cycles.
That might not be apparent in an age where history is falsified, mythologised, and misrepresented almost as it happens, but it is true for all that. And, of course, like all cycles, the same conditions throw up the same consequences, again and again.
I’m reminded, more and more, these days of two past periods. Neither of them was all that long ago, and one doesn’t have to be a specialist historian to be able to understand what I’m talking about.
The first phase is what I’ll call the late imperialist era, circa 1880 to 1910. What was the world like then?
The great scramble for colonies was virtually over. Apart from a few countries, like Afghanistan or Ethiopia, or were too difficult to conquer and administer economically, or were too poor and isolated to make it worth the effort, like Nepal, all of Asia and Africa was colonised by European regimes. China, while nominally independent, was in thrall to Western business interests. Central and much of South America, too, were independent only in name, being treated almost as colonies by the emerging power of the US. There were, in practical terms, no new lands left to conquer and enslave. But the reasons for colonialism did not go away just because there were no new colonies to conquer.
What were these reasons?
First and foremost was the economic engine driving the Industrial Revolution which, actually, gave Europe the ability to colonise the world. This reliance on heavy industry needed two things – a cheap source of raw material to supply the factories, and a guaranteed market for the products of those factories. Colonies supplied both. The natives could be compelled to extract the raw material at low or nonexistent wages, they would be shipped back to the home country for making cloth or whatever, and then the manufactured product would be shipped back to be sold to the natives, who had absolutely no choice in the matter and no alternative market to buy them from.
The second was the need to protect the colonies themselves, and to provide ports of call on the way to the home country for ships to refuel, take on fresh food and water, and so on. This required ports and facilities in strategically located islands and other coastal territories. In turn, both the colonies and the bases needed military forces to garrison them and protect them from local uprisings as well as depredations from other colonial regimes.
Colonialism was, of course, always a capitalism-driven enterprise; and profits had to be not just made but constantly increased, as in all capitalist enterprises. Therefore, since there were no new lands to colonise, the only recourse was to take territories by force from each other. The Spanish American war and the Russo-Japanese war were just two wars of the period the only purpose of which was to take someone else’s colonies. The growing importance of oil as a strategic material made colonies where it was found even more of a valuable possession.
That the colonial regimes were aware of the dangers of a conflagration are evident; they reacted by forming networks of entangling military alliances which theoretically would prevent war by deterring the “other side” from making any aggressive move. Of course, what this actually did was allow the minor participants of one alliance to imagine that they could get away with whatever they wanted to do against the other side, in the expectation that the rest of the alliance would bail them out.
We know where that all ended up – the First World War.
The second phase is the 1930s Fascist period. The First World War destroyed several empires and created a large number of new nations, most of which were small, weak, economically devastated by the war, and filled with huge numbers of demobilised jobless young men with military training. Under these circumstances, they quite naturally gravitated towards right wing Messiahs who promised to lead them out of their troubles. Ethnic and religious minorities served as handy targets for venting their pent up passions, since they were too weak and isolated to fight back. Militaries were built up, history was falsified and mythologised, and the soldier became an object almost of worship. These days most people imagine that Hitler, Franco and Mussolini were the only fascist dictators of the time, but, in reality, almost all of Europe between France and the USSR barring Scandinavia was then controlled by fascist regimes of one stripe or another. And the Western democracies had no problem allying with these fascist regimes at all; it was the fascist regime of Poland getting a guarantee of help from Britain and France that led to the Second World War.
Today, once again, fascist movements are growing all over Europe. The 1990s, like 1919, saw countries splinter or get artificially vivisected, creating a large number of small weak nations filled with jobless and angry young people. Once again fascist political movements raised their heads. Once again they began targeting vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities – Roma and Muslim this time instead of Roma and Jews – as an outlet for popular anger. Once again the “democratic” west allied happily with fascism whenever it suited them, as we saw in 2014 with the Nazis in Ukraine. And once again the West allies with small nations which are therefore encouraged to aggressive behaviour, as we saw in Georgia in 2008, and as we’re seeing again in the Balkans.
And, also, today the neo-colonial project is in full tide in Africa and Asia. Once again, the Europeans and Americans are racing to colonise the world, using cheap labour to suck out raw materials at throwaway prices, working to ensure captive markets, and creating an empire of bases to protect their imperial investments. It’s as though the post-Second World War phase of decolonisation never happened.
So, what we are seeing is a double recurrence of the two historical periods that led to the First and Second World Wars – together. With the logic of capitalist greed still paramount, can we possibly say that a third world war can’t happen again? We are already on the brink of it, in Syria and Ukraine. Only, this time the world is led by people who seem to actually believe that they can “create their own reality”.
Once the war comes, as it almost certainly will, there won’t be anyone left to say “I told you so”.