Imperial Britain to Communist China: Why Do Rising Powers Misbehave?

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What newly released documents from the UK colony in Kenya say about the rise of the great powers that have followed.

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Four Kenyans protest British colonial-era abuses outside the High Court in London. Reuters

This week, the UK Foreign Office released the first in a series of embarrassing government files from the country's colonial era. The release follows a lawsuit by five Kenyans -- four, once one of the original five died -- claiming they were tortured during the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. The files remind of the relatively recent time when European powers were still relatively free to pursue openly imperial policies, and crimes committed against longstanding colonies barely counted. Some of the papers show, The Guardian reports, that "thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments."

The documents release from the British Foreign Office shouldn't just be an opportunity to point fingers. Though the Kenyans who filed the suit need to be heard, and there ought to be some sort of accountability for colonial crimes, it's a little too easy for those of us in countries with similarly dark pasts to hyperfocus on this one period of British wrongdoing. Colonialism is over, but there are still world powers, and they're still abusing their power. In fact, the exploitations are often similar precisely because the crimes of one superpower often provide the template, or even the impetus, for the abuses of the next powerful state.

A Guardian editor pointed out, "Americans should always resist the easy temptation to take too much moral high ground over the Brits," as "they have their Kenyas" as well, such as slavery or the treatment of Native Americans. It can sometimes seem inevitable that a dominant world power, whether the U.S. or Great Britain or one of the many before and maybe someday after, have some exploitative and even shameful moments in their history. So do most countries, powerful or not.

But it's the exploitative actions of the dominant powers that tend to come back to haunt the wider world. Germany's territorial ambitions, both in the German Empire from 1871 to 1918 and during World War II and its lead-up, were modeled in part on the naked British imperialism of earlier generations. Soviet aggression following World War II had as much to do with watching and experiencing Western European exploitation as it did with Communism and ideology. History sometimes seems to be offered as a justification almost as often as it is offered as an appropriate model.

Part of this phenomenon is that the powerful get to do what they want, and powerful countries tend to want the same things: political, military, or economic control of strategic regions, economic prosperity, etc. But the deeds of onetime powers really do seem to have some effect on the deeds of up-and-coming powers.

Beyond the complex motivations driving, for example, German territorial expansion, there is an overarching pattern. We see it today when developing nations such as India or China protest European and American demands that they make carbon cuts. The "West" industrialized using fossil fuels -- why shouldn't everyone else be able to do the same? To take another example, because the United States developed a nuclear bomb and dropped it on Japan, other countries have used this to reject American demands that they not develop their own nuclear programs.

Right now, we are two years away from the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I -- a great power turning point of sorts, when the German Empire mounted its first serious military challenge to British hegemony, and, though the challenge was unsuccessful and the war ultimately increased the size of the British Empire, the British colonies started to break free. Over the course of the next few decades, maps had to be redrawn quite a few times. By the end of World War II, it was clear neither Britain nor Germany were going to dominate the twentieth century. The Soviet Union and the United States had already been sizing each other up for several years.

This week, there have been two prominent news stories concerning the U.S.-China relationship. The two states, it seems, have been engaging in cyber "war games" through think tanks, the U.S. aware of China's growing power in this area. On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly accused China of assisting North Korea with its missile program.

You don't need to be worried about China's rise (or the West's maybe-decline) to see a familiar, though probably far less dangerous, re-shifting of power dynamics at work. Maybe China arming North Korea would be, from a world peace standpoint, better or worse than the U.S. arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan or the Contras in Nicaragua. Maybe China's expansion into Tibet has some similarities to the U.S. westward expansion into Native Americans' territory. It's tricky to balance out competing perspectives. But the parallels are tough to miss.

Over the next few decades, however, we may get to watch this pattern play out some more. And colonial Britain, after all, also held Hong Kong. The United States isn't the only world power China has fresh in its memory -- and the U.K. Foreign Office release this week probably won't be the last time imperial pasts suddenly become relevant again.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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