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Imperialism and the Archbishop

27 November 2007

US imperialism has created the worst of all worlds, says the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. I don’t disagree. But when he says that the United States wields its power in a way that is worse than Britain in its imperial heyday, I think he has not studied history enough.

Back at the beginning of 2003, when the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was being planned, I kept thinking of two wars started by British imperialism more than a century earlier, and wondered if any of the US and British war planners was willing to learn any lessons from history.

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Anglo-Boer War twenty years later had as little justification as the Anglo-American war against Iraq in 2003, and both were undertaken with an equally reckless disregard of the consequences. The aim of both was to bring about “regime change” — the first to overthrow King Cetshwayo of Zululand, and the second to overthrow Paul Kruger of the South African Republic.

In the case of the Anglo-Zulu War, the British gave as little thought to the postwar situation as the Americans did in Iraq. The result was caos comparable to that which now prevails in Iraq. Archbishop Rowan Williams is simply wrong: British imperialism was no better. Zululand was divided into 13 principalities which were soon at war with each other and the rump of Cetshwayo’s supporters.

In the Anglo-Boer War there was a similar miscalculation of the strength of the resistance, and that guerrilla warfare would continue long after British troops had made their triumphant entries into Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

And in the first part of 2003 one watched with a sinking hart as the new neo-imperialism pressed forward stubbornly, repeating all the errors of a century earlier. In that the Archbishop was quite wrong. British imperialism in the 19th century was no different to American imperialism in the 21st century.

In the case of the Anglo-Zulu War Lord Carnarvon conceived the idea of a South African confederation along the lines of the one brought about in Canada in 1867. The main obstacle was independent states like the South African Republic and the Zulu Kingdom. So these had to be brought down. The first was invaded with little resistance, but when Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand (after issuing an impossible ultimatum) the invaders were repulsed at the battle of Isandlwana. A second attempt, with three columns, was successful, but no thought had been given to how Zululand was to be governed once the king’s power had been destroyed, and chaos ensued.

clipped from

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the United States wields its power
in a way that is worse than Britain during its imperial heyday.Rowan Williams claimed that America’s attempt to intervene overseas by
“clearing the decks” with a “quick burst of violent action” had led to “the
worst of all worlds”.

He said the crisis was caused not just by America’s actions but also by its
misguided sense of its own mission. He poured scorn on the “chosen nation
myth of America, meaning that what happens in America is very much at the
heart of God’s purpose for humanity”.

  blog it

Since I first blogged about this on my other blog (Notes from underground: US imperialism has created the worst of all worlds) I have read several other blog posts on the same news item.

Some have made a similar point to mine above — that Archbishop Rowan Williams was right about US imperialism, but played down the faults of British imperialism.

Others, who objected to his critique of US imperialism, referred to the way he was appointed. They noted that he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth of the UK on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Some suggested that those who had appointed him should rebuke him, other suggested that it might have been different if he was appointed by the primates of the Anglican Communion.

Even though appointed at the recommendation of Tony Blair, however, Williams has not hesitated to criticize Blair’s policies, since the invasion of Iraq was wholeheartedly supported by Blair. So perhaps the method of appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury has not succeeded in suppressing the prophetic voice of a Christian leader.

Note: the original link (in the clip above) to the full report of the interview did not work. Here is the correct link to the Emel article.

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