As falls America, so falls Canada?
Americans are raised on a peculiar ideology about themselves, their country, and its history. It’s called “exceptionalism.” It means they are exempt from learning from history, because nothing they do has ever been paralleled or precedented. They do everything for the first time ever in human history. No one and nothing, bears any resemblance to themselves and their history.
What they see as their Providential role in human progress is not a one-time-only affair: they are raised on this national myth.
Recently I ended a column wondering if the proverb about humans learning from our collective history is true. Do we learn from history in the manner of a single individual learning from her or his life experience? No.
There is good reason to say No, and be damned to George Santayana and his too-often-cited remark that “those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” No, Mr. S., it is not for lack of study that we do not learn. It is because nothing ever truly repeats, every event and situation is a never-repeated constellation of people, action, and context, and therefore no major actor in a drama of history feels that he/she must guide themselves by what other people did in the past.
I know from my own experience of my life that “learning from mistakes” is a tortuous process. I learn how to avoid an error I made before only when the entire situation is identical to the previous one. If I can see some difference in the situation – the people involved, their character, place, time, and who I think I am – if any of those ingredients of a present circumstance are not just like the one I made mistakes in, then I will not see that I must treat the past as a lesson.
I can say with sincerity, “This is not like the past, therefore I cannot learn from the past. No lesson from experience can apply in this present circumstance. This time it’s different.”
So, let me continue with my exploration of this insight in the present situation of American imperial decline.
The USA is an empire, right? At least, a Canadian can see this even if Americans deny it. So — study Rome or Britain and learn about imperialism from them, or from Spain or Athens or the Dutch – such are the comments of supposedly well-educated and even profoundly philosophical writers on the affairs of America. Noam Chomsky, Niall Ferguson, Lionel Gelber, and Arnold Toynbee are a few of the authors applying themselves to the question of how America has become the current version of a globe-spanning world empire. Everyone makes some good points. But the net result of using the past to inform and guide the present policy of America or predict its future, is a lot of generality that means rather little.
America is like Britain. Britain in 1960 was an empire unraveling. It had lost the jewel in its crown, India. Ireland was gone. Africa was being de-colonized. Britain was poor. The two wars it fought against Germany before 1950 had impoverished its people, and its economy no longer could support the Pax Britannia of 1910. In a world dominated by two superpowers of continental dimension – the Soviet Russian empire and the USA – the UK was not equal to the task of a great power. Germany and France, two former empires and great powers, had gone down into the second rank of world power, and Britain followed. The UN was to be a global peacekeeping, law-and-order institution instead of empire, and the European Community would be Britain’s economic grounding.
The USA now is coming apart financially, internally, no matter that the evil empire of Soviet Russia is no more. China is not militarily in the least as powerful now as the USSR in 1980, yet America cannot keep hegemony over the globe while China sustains US debt by buying US bonds. The US must lose its domineering role.
But so what if the British Empire declined half a century ago and the USA is doing the same now? How can any event of the previous imperial decline teach American political and military leaders how to let the empire fade?
America’s raw power of violence, the atmospheric power, the naval power, the land power, of its technologies of war, all made more potent by an astounding array of electronic and orbital inventions in 25 years, renders any comparison of former British power to America’s now pretty meaningless; US material power is just so vast.
Niall Ferguson’s book Colossus is a good guide to that. With such overwhelming force, America’s empire is not going to fade as Britain’s did. The UK was ruined by two wars with Germany. America’s war with Germany and cold war with Russia left it with a global monopoly of war-making powers that has not diminished since the Soviet power came apart in 1991. Its drones are unmatched in the skies. Its command of space continues.
Economics do not support America being the world’s only superpower. But the lack of real economic base for the stupendous American military, naval, air, and space power has not meant America has divested itself of the force at its command. The military still absorbs more annual spending than the next 20 nations of earth spend on their armed forces–combined. How the USA can pay for this force is not a question I or anyone I have read can say.
Who can challenge America? No one, on fields of battle. Still, it cannot just invade Iran. There are limits to force. World hegemony has other facets than war-making.
Conclusion: the qualities of their empire are unique, and so history will not give Americans lessons on how to lose empire. In this context, what is Canada to do? Is history a guide to our actions today? Let is review a century of it.
Our role in easing the British Empire into a “Commonwealth of Nations” was significant and merits some praise for our political and diplomatic leaders since 1914. We were firm against involvement of our forces in British imperial adventurism and aggression in Ireland, Africa (e.g. Kenya), India, and Asia (e.g Turkey). We were original in achieving “dominion status” in the empire in 1867, and Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa trod the path we blazed. We urged the Imperial Parliament to issue a statute in 1931 liberating the dominions from British diktat over our external relations. We used our influence to bring the US and UK together in the ABC (America-Britain-Canada) summits of leaders during WWII. At the end of WWII Canada had the fourth-largest forces under arms in the world. We were a key part of the Manhattan Project to create nuclear bombs, and then when Britain and the US were quite willing that we should have the A-bomb, Canada said a quiet no thank-you.
Note that last fact. We just said no to nuclear. No other nation in history has been so self-effacing, I believe.
We demobilized rapidly and resumed our accustomed role as a minor power. We had a praiseworthy role in the creation of the United Nations, and our future Prime Minister Mike Pearson invented the UN peacekeeping force in 1956 to assist Britain and France to exit a stupid imperial adventure during the second Arab-Israel war, when the USA was furious at the old colonial empires’ aggression against Egypt. We have been an upstanding member of both the British Commonwealth of Nations and the Communite Francais of francophone nations.
Can we now do, for the Americans, what we did for the British – help their empire lose its power “gracefully”? I very much doubt we can. The context is irrevocably altered. Nothing is much alike between 1962 and 2012.
We are a major economic power now, more than we were in 1962. The advanced economies of the world – the OECD and Russia, plus the G-20 developing nations too – all envy our stability since the 2008 Wall St. meltdown. Yet we still have a tiny population (for which I am thankful, and I oppose growing it very much.) We need the USA more than all other nations put together, to buy our exports. Our exports are mostly raw commodity. And we have a military that developing nations like Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia or Mexico would find amusing for its insignificant size and strength. That last point might motivate a conservative to wish for more military spending and an enlarged recruitment of our air, naval and army forces, but I hope we do not do that.
Time now for me to unleash my Jeremiad, my prognostications of gloom for Canada as the USA unravels. We will be damaged as that nation’s social inequalities deteriorate into disorder verging on anarchy in certain parts of its national territory. The needs of its economy are so intimately enmeshed with ours that our capitalist, corporate, and banking elite class that truly rules our democracy, will further merge Canada with the USA for supply of the monster American appetite for resources. Canada’s ruling class has been called a “garrison” – meaning, our nation is ruled with democratic institutions but not so much for us as for the needs of the economy dependent on a vast reservoir of water, oil, trees, minerals and hydro-electric energy. When America needs those commodities, we have them to hand. “Our” natural resources will, in the politics we live under, be exploited for an economy of jobs, not for an ecology of natural balances. We will sell what their capital can buy as we always have, and we will benefit by having jobs and by profits for Canadian corporations who will pay minimal taxes to governments.
In short, as the American empire loses relative power and cannot own the planet with overwhelming military force due to its economic decay, Canada will be recruited to uphold that power as long as it can. We will not let America go down, because their decline will be our decline. Our ruling class knows that well. Canadian government has subtly or grossly become more like American; Harper says we are becoming Conservatives.
We can maintain some measure of better social order here because we are not American and have a different culture — guns, crime, ego and hyper-masculine individualism will contribute to the anarchy south of our border. But the signs are all around that our own social and cultural fabric is more like theirs than it was at my birth in 1951. Six decades of saturation in their cultural norms, music, film, literature, and so forth, and six decades of being absorbed by their capital investment after feeble attempts to keep Canada Canadian – the rot really accelerated after Mulroney’s Free Trade deal in 1989 – and there is much less left of a social and political order here that is markedly unlike theirs. Our pattern of shrinking government and shrinking its revenues by under-taxing corporate profit, is a shadow of theirs. Our weakened education and healthcare systems, our clear unwillingness to let students escape crushing debt and patients escape expensive private care when the public hospitals are decayed, are a replica of American issues. Our infrastructures, like theirs, continue to fall apart due to underinvestment, due to under-taxing. Rather than parallel the socialist safety-net welfare-state models of northern and western Europe – as we did from WWII to 1984 – we now take the American way of anarchic egoism in the unregulated market. It’s not as bad here, I fully recognize, yet it’s more like it than used to be.
Last, there is the matter of our new global role as an international policeman for the West. In NATO, we belong to the rich man’s club. We are ready, our Conservative government declares, to be “responsible” as a member of the “rule of law” club for sending force into the poor lands where they need to be taught how to develop.
Our Afghan Mission was the first. We refused Viet Nam, but we have not refused Afghanistan or Libya. Just as the old colonial powers, Britain and France, and the newer empires of the USSR and USA, impose order on the backward lands, now Canada steps up to take its place as a rich nation to help in world-policing imperial missions, with or without the United Nations to approve us. Since the Afghan Mission (a UN-approved action), we have a better-armed military with “blooded soldiers” to send to hot spots. Harper and his minions have expressed contempt for the UN (and for our parliament, did you notice that in 2011?).
He has taken us into clear alignment with an aggressive Israeli policy for the Middle East, one that presages more violence, not less. Will we go there, as we did in 1991 but not in 2003? The future of our once-proud peacekeeping reputation is dark.
Is Canada a place of human betterment? I always thought so. And I know Americans have always thought that about their land and its destiny.
Perhaps I should put the question on the spiritual and mystical plane. It is this: Is Humanity a species capable of cosmic betterment? Maybe the experiment here on earth, replicated I am sure on other planets, is not going to prove positive for the dominant species. Elsewhere there is hope. Here, there is hope too, but less than in 1951…
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer.