THE EMPIRE OF CIVILIZATION
The Evolution of an Imperial Idea
By Brett Bowden, University of Chicago Press, 304pp.
Reviewed: 6 June 2009.
How often our ears ring from the amplified calls of politicians and lobbyists rousing us to violent or oppressive action “to defend civilization”. The enemy is always barbarian.
By default, “civilization” seems to include whatever we hold dear about the society in which we live – property rights, religion, or football. Brett Bowden invites us to step back and review the slippery range of meanings attached to “civilization” over the centuries, and to follow how the term has been employed politically to justify or motivate the actions of states bent on influencing, dominating, or conquering other states and cultures.
Both terms, “empire” and “civilization”, are worth deconstructing. Bowden can quote a vast array of scholars and practitioners of civilization and empire, from pre-Classical times to the Bush administration in 2008. The citation list would more than fill the space available for this review. The ancient Greeks originated “Western” self-conscious ownership of civilization (“Us”) versus barbarism (“Them”) in recording their wars with the Persians. The East-West paradigm persists today. Bowden begins with the Greeks, but we know that the earliest Sumerian inscriptions and Egyptian hieroglyphs also typically describe any significant enemy as “barbarian” or uncivilized.
Christian Popes later appropriated the theme as basis for launching the Crusades, decreeing that no “uncivilized” nation could possibly deserve, in God’s eyes, to occupy the Holy Land of Palestine.
In the 13th Century, Pope Innocent IV sent ambassadors with letters admonishing to Guyuk, Great Khan of the Mongols, then holding sway over Central Asia. The Pope chided the Great Khan for his uncivilized behaviour in invading Christian lands, and warned him to desist. Guyuk should make a “fitting penance” for his sins, or face the inevitable wrath of God that, unaccountably, had so far been suspended.
Guyuk replied to this ponderous lob with his own theological volley from the net: “Though thou sayest I should become a trembling Christian, worship God and become an ascetic, how knowest thou whom God absolves, in truth to whom he shows mercy? …From the rising of the sun to the setting, all the lands have been made subject to me. Who should do this contrary to the command of God?”
The greater part of this book traces the development of justifications for Western colonialism during the centuries following the Spanish discoveries of the Americas. From the beginning, there were always dissidents who challenged the moral justification of empire and asserted what we would now call the “human rights” of individuals and communities to determine their own destinies, free of subjection.
Mostly, these voices were overruled by louder ones claiming that it was actually a moral obligation, for the “civilized” colonial power to bring enlightenment (Christian or secular) to “savages” or “barbarians” who were capable neither of improving their own state nor of properly utilizing the resources of the land they occupied.
Though barely mentioned, Australia’s own British occupation as terra nullius was an example of that Western imperial consensus. It’s soon apparent that Bowden’s real purpose is critique of the contemporary imperialism espoused by the American neo-cons and their supporters around the world. He traces the history of overt US imperialism across three centuries, whether in the form of territorial conquest or in the guise of a “civilizing mission”, most recently exemplified by the Bush justifications for invasion of Iraq.
By common Western-derived standards, the badge of “civilization” can be awarded only to societies that espouse a set of values much more specific than the original standard of social organization that generated the Latin word “civis” (a citizen of an organised state, sharing rights and obligations). Minimum principles are quoted: “Human rights and the rule of law, representative democracy in governance, economic liberalism and free markets open to international trade and investment, religious and cultural pluralism, and the efficacy of science and technology”.
Bowden describes the economic criteria as, de facto, economic imperialism that is bound to be resisted by a majority of contemporary nation states. In principle, this makes such states candidates for involuntary “civilizing” interventions, either with military backing or through global institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund. Centuries of imperial conquests have been carried out in the name of enforcing Free Trade (if that is not a tautology).
As a Western-oriented critique, the book offers much that is challenging and hard to refute. But as a global analysis there are some large gaps. The assumption of a uni-polar, US-dominated global polity bears more testing, with regard to rising alternative powers such as China or other Asian or global communities that clearly do not accept a “Washington Consensus” for globalization at any more than a tactical level. There is no attention to the sophistication of non-European empires and civilizations east of the Mediterranean, past or present. Nor much recognition of the capacity of multilateral fora, such as the United Nations, to mediate non-imperial state-to-state relations toward a least-worst consensus.
While grand “civilizational” programs feature in political rhetoric, it is often short-term commercial, economic or electoral goals that are top of mind for politicians in day to day decision-making. If “civilization” is constructed as a term of ideology, then the balance between ideology and cynical opportunism merits serious discussion.
Dr Bowden lectures in politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy. His students must find his analysis quite a challenge as they contemplate future deployments in the defence of “civilization” in Australia’s neighbourhood, in Afghanistan, or even in the Northern Territory.
The book is published from Chicago and seems edited for an American readership – references to Australia are rare. It is deeply researched, well argued, and readable despite the density of the material. This is a rewarding read, but not a light one.
Richard Thwaites is a (semi-civilized) Canberra reviewer with some personal history in international negotiations.