The End of Imperial History?

Neil Thompson

The European empires in 1914.

The European empires in 1914; Andrew0921 via Wikimedia Commons

World War II dealt a death-blow to the European colonial system, and the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991 completed the decolonisation of global politics. As the world gets progressively less Euro-centric, some of these lines are now beginning to vanish entirely. 2014 has seen the crumbling of two sets of imperial-era borders between sovereign fragments of what used to be a larger imperial whole. The military successes of the still-expanding Islamic State (IS) militant group are perpetually in the headlines. Meanwhile in Ukraine there has also been a swift return to low-level violence after a truce agreed between President Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko frays. Imperial boundaries in the former Soviet Union (FSU), Africa and Middle East have long become “lines in the sand” in many places; some are now vanishing like the bygone great powers that created them. In the case of Ukraine, the Soviet-era borders splitting the industrialised Donets Basin region (commonly known as the Donbass) between today’s Russian Federation and the Soviet successor state of Ukraine are looking weak. The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, where the insurgency against Kiev is strongest, are culturally, economically and historically linked to the Rostov oblast just across the Russian border. That means Donetsk’s miners have been tracking the progress of their colleagues’ living standards across in Russia. They have been doing much better, despite the corruption of the Russian governing system. Meanwhile in 2009, Ukraine’s real GDP was only 60 percent of what it was in 1989, two years before the Soviet collapse. That mixture of history and economic geography helps explains why these two oblasts have risen when other parts of Ukraine with a significant Russian-speaking population have not.


Ukrainian protestor aims a rifle during clashes in Kiev in February 2014.

Ukrainian protestor aims a rifle during clashes in Kiev in February 2014; Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons




If Ukraine reflects the recently divided loyalties of the former Russian empire, the postcolonial states of Iraq and Syria have always had odd borders that do not reflect the preferences of many who reside inside them. For four hundred years Iraq and Syria were part of the Ottoman Empire, before it was dismembered by predatory European powers after World War I. Now in Iraq the military successes of IS have effectively abolished the border between Damascus and Bagdad, raising the distant possibly of a unified Sunni Arab area emerging from bits of both. The break-up of central authority in Iraq and Syria also allowed the “Syrian” and “Iraqi” Kurds the freedom to form their own autonomous zones. The threat these might move towards political union one day with Turkey’s Kurdish areas is now undermining a united NATO front against IS. In none of these three cases does the putative state follow anything like the pre-existing colonial borders.


Rather they reflect the brutal ethnic or communal balance of power on the ground. When IS first erupted into Mosul in the summer, Iraq’s Kurds seized the disputed city of Kirkuk and announced they would organise a referendum on independence. In Ukraine, President Putin manipulated territorial anomalies created by the breakup of the USSR into successor states to forcibly bolt the Crimean peninsula back onto Russia and encouraged other Ukrainian regions to form little bandit statelets. He then carefully regulated the amount of Russian aid they received to ensure that their rebellions could neither succeed nor be entirely quenched by Kiev. The US and European states have reacted negatively to both the geopolitical developments mentioned above. Absent from the discussion over Iraq and Ukraine however, is whether these conflicts constitute special cases, or if the boundaries created by European imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries are just becoming geopolitically irrelevant more generally. Most of our attention is still focused on picking who the “bad guys” are and talking about how to help “our” team.


I would argue that there are no “bad guys” per say; what we are witnessing is the organic realignment of political relationships in regions that the West is no longer in a position to interfere with. This is not always a fair or just process. More hopefully, I also believe that because the history of the break-up of the 20th century’s multinational European empires is one where most ethnic groups tended to get a state of their own somewhere they formed a majority, the future of the vast majority of today’s states and their citizens is safe enough. In power, and inside a complex economically interdependent international system that also valued sovereignty, most titular nationalities in postcolonial states have adapted more-or-less peacefully to the presence of minorities in “their” state and vice versa. The modern-day Republic of Armenia is extremely unlikely to go to war with Turkey to reclaim “Western Armenia” for example. The result is a world where most of the borders being challenged are unjust imperial-era ones, but most of the post-imperial states accept their borders as they are. Even when a second post-independence split has occurred, violence has still usually been about resolving old injustices rather than entirely redrawing the map. For example, since independence from Serbia, the Republic of Kosovo has not merged with Albania, despite being an ethnically Albanian majority state in its own right and having close linguistic and clan ties with northern Albanians. Kosovars wanted to separate from Serbia, not become Albanians.


In the 21st century substantial support for actually erasing imperialist boundaries comes from within two shrinking groups; firstly it can come from members of the formerly dominant power, if their community is split by a boundary with a newly independent state. Examples such as Serbs in northern Kosovo or ethnic Russians in the FSU come to mind; Russia is also adjacent to its former possessions, unlike most European countries. The absorption of the Crimean peninsula by the Kremlin was popular amongst ordinary Russians and not unpopular among ethnic Russians in Crimea. Support for the war in south-eastern Ukraine is weaker, but strong enough to sustain a Kremlin-backed low-level insurgency by ethnic Russians and Russian nationalist volunteers. The second example of communities wanting to start afresh is where groups are stateless and oppressed. The Armenians were a classic case in the 20th century; the Kurds, the Palestinians and the Rohingya are modern-day examples. In Iraq the IS ‘Caliphate’ has only gained popularity with local Sunni Arabs since 2011. Then the Sunni-dominated uprising began in Syria and the regime of former Shi’a strongman Nuri al-Maliki failed its chance to grant mainstream representation in the new Iraqi politic to Iraqi Sunnis.


The formation of a Sunni Arab confessional state in the Levant has only come to seem attractive as a result of the simultaneous disenfranchisement of Sunnis on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot borders and its roots are shallow. When Sunni Arabs were in charge in Iraq they did not attempt to forcibly merge with Sunni parts of Syria, despite the existence of cross-border tribal ties. I therefore predict that the real lesson of Iraq and Ukraine is that the contemporary problems the old European order still causes will gradually be resolved inside the modern system of postcolonial states, yet without Western tutelage. Western states did not predict these crises and have been unable to resolve them with their traditional tools. The borders laid down by Europeans will largely remain, but the West’s ability to act as their guarantor, as the US did in the first Gulf War, is now gone forever.

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