Imperial Shadows I
Miguel Ángel Velasco cmf
Doctor in Educational Sciences
Degree in Systematic Theology
Master in Development and International Relations. UNITAR
2022-2023 will be remembered as years in which the transition to a new world order began to accelerate. Changes in history, even if they have accelerated considerably since the Assyrian Empire (20th CenturyCentury – 609 BC), even from the Roman Empire (27 BC – 1453 AD) to the present day, everything takes time. Let’s leave aside the Spanish Empire, which we can consider concluded more than two centuries ago. The situation of confusion that we are experiencing in today’s geopolitics is rooted in the imperial consciousness that still survives in some countries.
We will first analyze the influence of the imperial past on current world conflicts. Then, we will go on to ask whether it is possible to reconstruct this world of international relations. Finally, we will conclude with a reflection on the role of Catholics in today’s changing times.
- The roots of conflicts in imperial pasts.
The European Union. Europe has longed for centuries for the “idealized unity” it had during the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire is the best example of this desire. It has always been a wish partially fulfilled until, after the Second World War, people like Spinelli, Monnet, Adenauer, or Schuman took up the dream of a Europe without war based on cooperation, economy, and human rights. As a result, there were six countries belonging to the European Coal and Steel Community (1951); today, in 2022, there are 27 EU member countries and seven official candidates to join it.
The dream of a united Europe, against the backdrop of the Empire, has been drastically expanded. The founding countries and the Mediterranean countries have now been joined by countries from the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and what was the Russian Empire until the First World War. Europe, every country, is making a tremendous effort to build, based on Human Rights and democratic principles, a Federation (or confederation at present) of states.
Is an Empire being rebuilt? We could answer yes, but based on the acceptance of shared rules by the member nation-states. No doubt building a conglomerate of countries in this way implies constant tensions, but it is the only way to make with an eye to the future. The EU’s coordinated responses to COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine give us hope for the EU, although it is not free of shocks.
France. The 19th CenturyCentury is, par excellence, the CenturyCentury of the French Empire, filled by the three Napoleons. However, France was present in the Mediterranean since the 13th CenturyCentury with Charles of Anjou in the Indian Ocean, Pacific, Caribbean, Atlantic, and continental territories of America and Asia. French Imperialism left its mark in many places: in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, the partition of Africa and the Middle East, the South China Sea countries, and even the Opium Wars with China. Today, France is still very present in the world’s oceans through its overseas possessions and in Africa through its influence in many nations of this continent. Some countries of the “Francophonie” accuse France of interference in public affairs. France’s behavior can sometimes be described as neo-colonialist. Will it help to make a more significant African presence possible on the international scene?
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Close to the European Union is that country that has always been part of Europe and, simplified if improperly, we call England. The reasons why England left the European Union, after waiting years to be admitted to it, in the face of General de Gaulle’s refusal, are also historical. Imperial England was just that, Imperial for a relatively short time, although very close to the 21st Century. Deep England”, that of the Pound and the British Empire, prevailed over cities like London with its “City,” which saw no reason to separate from the EU and rebuild the imperial dream of the Commonwealth. The death of Queen Elizabeth II, the crash of the pound, and the unfulfilled promises of Boris Johnson have brought many back to the reality of a non-existent imperial England. Let us hope that the enormous strategic mistake of wanting to rebuild the Empire behind the backs of the rest of Europe can be remedied.
Russian Federation. The Empire of Tsar Nicholas II collapsed due to the impossibility of maintaining a feudal regime in 20th CenturyCentury Europe, but also due to the immense loss of lives and territory caused by the successive defeats against Japan (1904-1905) and Germany (Treaty of Brest Litovsk, 1918). The USSR would recover, after World War II, part of what it had lost, only to lose it again with the collapse of the USSR (1990). Vladimir Putin and the so-called “Alcons” of the Soviet Union want to recover relevance and even territories in what were the USSR’s Republics and now sovereign nation-states. That has been one of the most powerful reasons that provoked the invasion of Ukraine (2022), but what seemed, in Putin’s eyes, an easy conquest similar to that of Crimea (2014) has become highly complicated.
The possible defeat of Vladimir Putin, convenient for the world’s stability, may also become a global headache. The reason is simple, despite the independence of many nation-states that belonged to the Russian Empire under various denominations, we still have to speak of the Russian Federation as a conglomerate of peoples. They are the “Russian imperial remnants.” The regime’s iron fist created by Putin, similar to the Stalinist one, keeps territories and peoples artificially united. The future of the Russian Federation is in question; the future of one of the few surviving empires is in danger. Will it be possible to make a calm, controlled, peaceful and respectful transition?
The people’s Republic of China. We usually call it China, and, in ancient times, it called itself the Empire of the Center. Indeed, the center of the world and the center of the universe. Once it has opened up to the rest of the world and acquired sufficient “financial muscle,” China’s ambition is to once again realize the feeling of being the “Empire at the Center,” with an international relevance befitting the title. The “Belt and Road” strategy to build trade routes for its products, seeking to influence the countries included in this “New Silk Road,” has been disrupted by COVID-19.
But, even more, important than the problems with the “Belt and Road” (New Silk Road), there is an even bigger problem for the Middle Kingdom. The country’s economic growth is becoming very uneven in terms of geographical areas and ethnic groups within China, and the emerging “middle class” is demanding more and more services to be provided by the state. These services can only be provided through a change in China’s production system, from being the world’s factory to a global innovation center. Still, it is difficult to transform an economy that must provide quality jobs for 1.4 billion people. Moreover, this transformation can only happen through a transitional period with high GDP growth, specifically a constant growth of more than two digits of GDP every year. Still, the expected increase for 2022 is only 4.3%. The problem with this situation is, once again, the danger of social instability in China; unbalanced economic growth with low GDP growth may be the beginning of the disintegration of some regions of the country.
The current proximity to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party requires a calm and peaceful country; this may be why strict security measures are still in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In short, China is facing a severe problem of national unity, which, inevitably, involves an orderly opening of the regime towards one of greater personal freedoms. Moreover, China is undoubted “not in the mood for many adventures” with Russia, with a destabilizing Ukrainian war concerning world trade and China’s strategy of appearing to the world as a country that seeks to give without interest.
The United States of America. For many years, the United States has been called “The Empire.” It was the heir of the European empires, especially the British Empire, but being a renewed and innovative empire. If the British and Dutch empires were basically at the service of the economy of the corresponding metropolis, the United States followed the same path but also created a global system of governance. The creation of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bretton Woods Institutions were the three pillars of world reorganization, complemented by military force.
The USA is also a territorial empire in itself, built from a small nucleus of forced migrants from England and Holland. Little by little, states were created, and lands were gained by conquest, purchase, or invasion. The dream of reaching the Rocky Mountains became the dream of getting to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. The quasi-messianic sentiment of the founders of the United States caused them to define themselves as the biblical “city on the hill” that was to enlighten the world. The people living in the purchased, conquered or invaded territories and migrants from Europe had to make the “American way of life” their own.
The “Civil War” (1861-1865) was the most significant expression of the social tensions between groups and conceptions of society: the developed, industrial North and the rural, slave-owning South.
The internal social tensions of this enormous country have been manifested again recently with the assault on Congress. An assault supported or, at least allowed, by then-President Mr. Donald Trump. The internal division in the USA has taken on the appearance of an internal confrontation that, for some, has its roots in a Civil War that has not been sufficiently overcome. Be that as it may, what is certain is that the cultural diversity of the country and its openness to the global world is causing intense internal confrontations. The “America First” (the first thing to think of the USA) is driving a return to the messianism of yesteryear, the enclosure of the country in itself far from a globalized world, and intolerance towards migrants and those who are different. Let us hope that this country, the first to adopt the values of the French Revolution, will overcome internal tensions based on democratic principles. For now, it seems that the institutions are working properly; we will see what the votes say in the next elections.
Miguel Angel Velasco cmf