The myth of imperial stability

Benjanim Denison and Andrew Lebovich have a very insightful piece in The Monkey Cage refuting Robert Kaplan‘s argument that neoimperialism will bring stability back to the Middle East.  Many of their points are equally applicable to the debate about whether African states like South Sudan should be placed under neotrusteeship.  Quoting at length because they had so many good points:

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial borders argument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.


The crux of Kaplan’s neoimperial argument is that imperial control over the Middle East promoted more social order and less conflict. This rosy view of imperialism misses the various forms of resistance to foreign rule and the incredible violence of colonial conquest. This is most obvious in areas that faced the most intense forms of settler colonialism, such as South Africa, Kenya or Algeria. In these countries, British and French colonial governments alike faced repeated uprisings. They regularly resorted to brutal and horrific repression and awful legal regimes like the corvée or the indigénat in North and West Africa, statutes that forced colonized peoples to provide labor for the colonial government or gave colonial officials enormous latitude to criminalize many aspects of daily life. Both existed at least in part to regulate labor and exert greater control over colonized peoples. … Imperial “order” often involves almost ceaseless bloodshed and repression, something the United States learned after “liberating” Iraq.


“Empire” is not one constant thing; it’s an idea, acted out by people, in very different ways. And imperial rule doesn’t necessarily deliver stability. The Italians struggled to consolidate rule over Ethiopia, the Ottomans faced resistance in the Balkans, and the British stumbled seriously in attempting to govern Iraq after World War I.

Kaplan and others call for imperialism-lite — without acknowledging that empires aren’t always sunny, stable and successful. Policymakers and scholars alike need accurate historical examinations of imperial rule, and need to stay alert to the ways in which local politics, outside political forces and military intervention affect countries in untold and infinitely complex ways.