‘Empires Only Fall When They Have to Pay Their Bill’

When I read this by Oscar Wilde I thought that surely one couldn’t characterize such cataclysmic events with a simple one liner but on reflection one can usually add that the financial catastrophe is ignored by those in charge proving again Mair’s Axiom I – you make a serious mistake assuming that people in charge know what the hell they’re doing.

In aftermath of the World War II, three large empires crashed, the British, the Dutch and the French.

Indonesia, occupied by Japan 1942-5, was the improbable legacy of Dutch explorers of the 16th Century; by 1945 the Netherlands had enough problems restoring their domestic economy. By 1949 Indonesia was free although it wasn’t until 1963 that Indonesian New Guinea became Indonesian.

The British Empire was tottering on the brink of collapse after World War I and when India and Pakistan were freed in 1947, the jewel of the imperial crown vanished. It must be said that the British (mostly but not always) made a virtue of necessity by leaving democracy and the “Rule of Law” behind.

The French were more tenacious and it wasn’t until the Battle of Dien Bien Phuin 1954 that the French realized that the colonials didn’t love them as much as they assumed. Its empire finally came to an end when after much bloodshed, Algeria was gracelessly given its freedom.

The common factors of these three collapses was economical – the colonizing nations could no longer maintain a rule by force. Even Churchill was forced to accept that it was ridiculous that Britain could, with a handful if troops, hold onto a faraway sub-continent.

George Santayana observed “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. He could well have had the collapse of empires in mind for Wilde might have added “and when they do start to fall, they go into a state of denial which substantially prolongs and exacerbates the agony”.

At the end of World War II two empires remained; the Soviet Union, heir to the vast Russian empire, and the United States which, as observed in a moment, invented a new kind of empire.

Ronald Reagan didn’t bring down the Soviet Union, bankruptcy did. When the “wall” came down with a thud in 1989, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev faced the independence declarations of many Soviet “satellites” plus its so-called “autonomous republics”. To try to hold on the communist buffer states behind Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” and the dissident Soviet republics was not feasible – there was no money and an industrial sector that didn’t work. An excellent treatise on the state of the Soviet industry of that day can be found in The New Russians by Hedrick Smith meticulously examined the Soviet “system” conducted from 1988 to 1990. The Soviet didn’t lose its empire because it was not powerful enough militarily – Russia remains the 2nd most powerful country in the world – but because it was stony-assed broke.

The United States sees itself as a peaceful nation that abhors empires. During World War II President Franklin Roosevelt combined with the “chattering classes” deplored the British Empire and made it clear that American GIs were not in harm’s way to retain it. After all, wasn’t America the “arsenal of democracy?” America has “no territorial ambitions” it was piously stated. This hardly conforms to examination. Most of what is now the United States was conquered land from American Indians and 1/3 of Mexico.

But that was long ago – hasn’t the US seen the errors of its ways to become an idealistic democracy with a constitution to match?

Not at all. The Monroe Doctrine of 1821 declared that Europe (including Great Britain) should not become entangled in Latin American affairs and that the United States was prepared to go to war to protect the Western Hemisphere from European incursion.

This principle was honoured observed much more in the breach than in practice and led to invasions (Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Philippines and others not to mention Iraq and Panama – twice – Afghanistan and tiny Grenada, never forgetting Viet Nam.)

But times have changed. The United States can invade and stay in the sense of controlling public policy without use of a single soldier. Canada is a good example, the UK perhaps a better one.

Canada, without a single enemy that can attack her, save the US, spends billions of dollars a year to add to American forces where the US requires them whether under the guise of NATO, the Security Council, or just to advance domestic politics.

If one indicia of nationhood is the ability to defend oneself just look at the nations around the world that protect their autonomy by the timely process of asking for and getting the US Navy to sail by. Gunboat diplomacy is alive and well.

As the “Oscar Wilde rule” has hit Washington, the US ability to maintain its empire, as happened in France, the UK and Russia, is rapidly waning – and it’s firmly in denial.

There has arisen a new form of empire based upon Churchill’s stunning speech in Zurich in 1946 calling for close economic ties between ancient foes France and Germany leading to a United States of Europe. (Little remembered is his recommendation that the UK stay out and strengthen English language nations).

Churchill’s motive was clear – Britain had had quite enough of fighting European quarrels going back to Louis XIV and he saw a European financial union as a way to keep European nations from fighting one another and dragging Britain in.

One might weakly say “so far, so good” but in fact the EU has become a huge Ponzi scheme. Many incoming nations have either brought with them, or acquired soon after, weak economies which momentarily prospered with new EU funds but soon needed huge cash bail-outs leaving the few prosperous countries, notably Germany, as reluctant bankers of last resort depending upon expansion to lighten their load.

In 2020 Oscar Wilde (wherever he may be residing and there are differing opinions on that) he will no doubt observe “By 2015 the empires of Britain, France, Russia America, and the European Union were collapsing to become satellites of the Empire of China which has economic bases on every continent and to which the proud old empires are fiscally in thrall”.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

5 Comments

  1. Very well written and a justified idiom. Even if someone doesn’t want to read the article, just contemplating on it—the idiom, I mean– is enough to reflect on history that this simple one liner cannot be doubted in light of the current situation of the US. All one has to do is go back only 100 years and count how many empires fell… British, Soviet, Belgian, Italian, French, Japanese, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish…all because they had to pay bills due to wars that earned them nothing but their collapse. Wars are expensive, peace is cheap.

    And at what turning point is the US? Certainly it cannot survive too long. It is at the crossroads. It is an unsustainable empire because soon its chief creditor is going to ask to be paid its bills.

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  3. That is what makes Oscar Wilde stand apart from the rest. He says in a line what many fail to say in a book. (Although I might just add that Wilde was not and is not considered to be a historian of any sort). When it is said that ‘But times have changed. The United States can invade and stay in the sense of controlling public policy without use of a single soldier.” This in fact refers to what we in the third world have long described as neocolonialism. In the days of Empires the foreign rulers always followed a policy of ‘divide and rule’ i.e creating rifts/strife amongst groups of the local population so that they never even thought of uniting and fighting the foreign ruler. This is how Britain with only a few hundred thousand soldiers was able to hold on to the vast Indian Sub-Continent of millions. However with the economic crunch after the First World War and later the Second World War it could no longer sustain it’s empire and in the early 70’s withdrew entirely from “east of Suez.’ But that unfortunately did not end the sufferings of the common man in the areas vacated by them. A new policy of ‘Unite and rule’ was brought into play. Now the former colonial powers supported ruthless military dictators/strongmen who were used to suppress their own people. It did not – and still does not – matter what methods are employed by these dictators – mass killings, wiping out entire populations of ethnic groups, bleeding the country white by their personal corruption, waging wars against neighbours etc. were all tolerated as long as the dictator was willing to act at the behest of these former imperial masters. Examples abound of such dictators; Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Zia-ul-Haq, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, Saddam Hussein etc. etc. When President Roosevelt was told that Papa Doc had his opponents thrown into the mouths of lava spewing mountains he said “I know Papa Doc is an SOB but he is our SOB.” But know we hope that these days too shall pass off soon and even these neo-colonial empires will come to an end for failing to pay their bill. That may be the only positive outcome of the present economic crisis.

  4. A very true idiom. When an empire has an empty treasury, it becomes a beggar. We have the examples of Mughal empire and then again the Japanese who, after the war decided to go for economic supremacy and not wars. US is fast heading for that point where they will not be able to pay their bills and will have to keep up the war effort to rob others.

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