The great imperial hangover: How colonial legacies shape the world

Local residents close the windows of an apartment building with plywood after Russian shelling in Dobropillya, Donetsk region on April 30, 2022. [AP Photo]

Nothing seems to make any sense and more in the world of geopolitics. Britain is no longer part of the European Union.

The American dollar is losing traction at a time when their bitterest rival, Russia, is embroiled in a war with one of its former allies, Ukraine. In the midst of all this confusion, Russia, China, India and South Africa have teamed up in a new trading bloc, which is not using the dollar as their currency.

If one of Britain’s greatest leader, Winston Churchill, was alive last weekend, he would have cringed in horror. This is because his warning at the height of the British Empire’s glory about granting India independence has been ignored and the consequences were resident at 10 Downing Street.

When King Charles III was being crowned, Rishi Sunak was his Prime minister. It is from Sunak’s current address that Churchill himself chaperoned the British dominion which consisted of 54 colonies, among them, India and declare that he had not become the King’s First minister so as to liquidate the empire.

Sunak is a curious occupant of Downing Street. His parents are originally from India. This is the same country which Churchill is famed to have warned ominously:  

“If Independence is granted to India, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India..”

However, to make sense of what is happening around the World, a former diplomat, Samir Puri has  dissected through the ongoing global political complexities in his seminal book, The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires Have Shaped the World.

“ the world appears to have gone mad ..or to have lost a semblance of regularity  that makes it safe,” writes Puri citing “terrorism, Trump and Brexit as some of the developments that make many people question the coherence of the western world.”

He is of the opinion that although, “we are in the first empire-free millennium in the world history since ancient times, the world is still dominated by the great imperial hangover.”

Underscoring the importance of colonial legacies, Puri postulates that although the world is headed in different direction from the past, the coordinates of its future may already have been set by history.

“Politicians, civil servants and militaries around the world operate on the basis of some sort of pride, not because they naively believe their nations to be infallible, but because national stories will have been intrinsic to the formation of their systems..”

But this is not to say that ethnic mixing of cultures does not have residual effects on legacies which over time chip away some elements of racialist conceptions and consequently erode the notion of an ideal thoroughbred community or nation.

He argues that some of the major empires; Britain, Russia, China and Ottoman empires are still shaping the 21st century through their influence on present generations.

According to the author, Although America was once a colony of Britain, it has found its place in the global balance of power and has been conducting itself like a global empire because of its military, economic and cultural power.

 It is interesting, the author notes, that a country that was born out of imperialism and fought hard liberate itself ended up adopting imperialistic practices.

Although America has since its  birth relentlessly pursued freedom as its cause, its DNA still retained some traces of imperialism and had even conquered Mexico and Native Americans while denying liberty to African slaves.

By sending its soldiers to fight in foreign lands, the author opines that its sons fight and die not for colonies but for outposts, which the US can exert global influence.

He explains that America got a foothold on the global scene during the cold war with pitted capitalism against communism at a time the world was witnessing decolonisation, giving the US military and business interest an opportunity to fill the gaps.

 But the American influence is now waning, as was evidenced under Donald Trump’s presidency as he adopted an introverted look with his America First mantra, ignoring parts of the global that  have traditionally relied on it.

The author had wondered in 2021 when his book was published that by the time America wakes up from the spell cast by Trump whether it would still retain the moral authority around the world where rivals like China and Russia were stepping in to fill its gaps.

In the face of what he perceived America’s waning influence, the author says the global power must relearn to  to share the stage, concluding that to retain the its place, America must stop taking for granted its global appeal but work harder to demonstrate why its different from past great imperial powers.

Britain too is at a cross roads, with its empire dismantled and replaced by the Common Wealth, this fading superpower will have to contend with  the inconvenience of  its past imperial mistreatment of India and China. The tables have been turned and now China is the rising power which is somehow insulated from London’s overtures because its people do not speak English.

Britain, however, has an advantage as it remains the centre of global commerce and  still retains ties with parts of China such as Hong Kong, Dubai and Caribbean islands.

Though some pundits may have condemned Britain to obscurity after Brexit, its economy and education are still highly regarded globally as demonstrated by the 2017 ranking of Britain’s economy as the fifth in the world.

The monarchy, which evokes different emotions to different people around the globe, will, however, have to be subjected to what Puri calls “continual renewal, in order to have any relevance at all to modern Britain, beyond being a historical curiosity.”

To understand the war between Russia and Ukraine the ongoing conflict that has cost thousands of lives, Puri offers the imperial lenses to investigate  the underlying causes  of the relationship between the two sides.

He argues that it is important to understand Russia’s imperial history, its evolution and expansion. He says that the process has been so complex that it is unclear whether Russia created an empire or the process of imperialism created Russia.

This is the only way one can make sense of Eastern Europe without being judgmental against Russia over its action against some of its neighbours such as Ukraine and Crimea.

Russia has been against a number of empires who at one point in history conquered different parts of its territory from 16th century, and how military might such as that of Peter the Great shaped this empire.

This is why Peter the Great schemed how to conquer some territories at a time half of Russian people lived outside its political boundaries. It is at this time that he conquered the Swedes, Ukraine and the Baltic areas .

A century after  the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that dismantled the Russian empire, Puri argues that  the end of the imperial empire did not end Russia’s imperial story. At the height of the cold war, USSR emerged in form of an empire that subjugated a variety of territories .

 Christianity which had been the driving force for the Tzars has since been replaced by communism and even after the disintegration of USSR and the creation of 15 countries has not extinguished the imperial fire or obliterated its DNA.

Perhaps, this explains why the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and modern Russia have all based their politics on loyalty to the ruler, whose traits, manias, phobias  profoundly  impact every sphere of the  lives of their people .

 Even when Russia was at lowest under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin and America was dominating, the behemoth could not afford to be introverted or deny its imperial heritage or history. Deep in the Russian psyche is the pride of its elite, weaned on their motherland’s glorious past.

Rather than demonise Putin for invading Ukraine, Puri sees him as  the vessel through which centuries of Russian great powers expectations have been channeled and predicts “ even after Putin, Russians will require other vessels like him.”

 But even as the most modern and dominant empires fight for relevance today and in future, China is breathing down their necks, after miraculously rising from the ashes of economic ruin in 2008. Since then it has become the largest contributor to global economic growth  and  is being touted by some pundits to be destined to  overtake America.

Projecting an image of peace, china has however been aggressively building what the author calls an informal economic empire through trade, investment and by sending its workers all over the world.

One of China’s signature project is the Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen china fund development projects defying the practice by traditional donor countries of tying their dollars to democracy, human rights and governance issues.

Underscoring the importance of colonial legacies, Puri postulates that although the world is headed in different direction from the past, the coordinates may already have been set by history.