Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes! 2

Colonialism bankrupted the colonial powers.

If thousands of years of recorded history proves anything at all, it proves that mankind really enjoys making war even though war destroys countless lives.  While covering the Boer War, Winston Churchill wrote, "There is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at without result."  Robert E. Lee, both a deeply humane individual and also one of the most ruthlessly effective generals in American history, noticed this disconnect:

It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it.

Normally, even the most bloodthirsty leader doesn't start a war "just because" - he wants to accomplish something useful to himself and his people, whether that be "lebensraum" like Hitler, plunder like the Spanish conquistadors, or even to enhance his opportunities for reproductive success.  The complexity of modern economies combined with the cheapness and effectiveness of modern firearms has created an odd situation: it's no longer possible to carry out a war of plunder because it will cost you more to conquer your enemy than you'll ever squeeze out of him.

This may make the world a more peaceful place on the surface, but it allows governance to be very messy at ground level.  In times past, there was no such thing as a permanently "failed state" or widespread region of anarchy because some better-organized neighbor would spot an opportunity for profit and effect a hostile takeover.

In the first article in this series, we saw how Somalia demonstrates that illiterate thugs armed with cheap AK-47s can prevent a cost-effective Great Power occupation.  Armed citizens can also prevent a local strongman from taking effective control and reorganizing a government from scratch.  The Great Powers mostly don't bother anymore, leaving collapsed countries down in the mud permanently.

Does this mean that, once an incompetent government has destroyed itself, the resulting failed states are "off the map" permanently?  Not necessarily, but that doesn't offer a whole lot of short-term hope for their unfortunate residents.

To Rule, or To Buy?

The railroads, highways, hospitals, airports, and other public structures of Zimbabwe were built during the colonial period, but the governments that took over from the British were unable to maintain their infrastructure.  Outside conquerors won't bother unless there's money to be made; the British, French, Dutch, German, and Belgians tried for centuries to create empires which paid their own way, but except for very limited and temporary situations involving scarce resources, they never really showed a profit.

History shows that many of the biggest empires arose almost accidentally as the result of private enterprise.  The British East India Company was a private trading firm that, at first, had no particular desire to rule India; all they wanted was secure trading bases and protection from piracy at government expense.

The wealth of the Orient was so apparent that all the other Western powers wanted in on the action, leading to a need for naval protection from rival commercial interests.  The European powers started to fight each other on Asian land and try to prop up friendly puppet governments rather like the US and Russia during the cold war.  The various national governments got more and more entangled in defending the interests of wealthy and influential private companies until they discovered they had acquired an empire and might as well admit it.

Unfortunately, declaring an empire also creates obligations to administer and defend it, if only to retain proper imperial status back home in the salons and voting booths of Europe.  Where an individual company might be happy with just extracting whatever it wants and shipping it home, a government with even the slightest pretense towards democracy has to at least look like it's trying to take care of all the residents.  The British built the world's largest railway network in India, created a postal service, built roads, eventually installed an electric and telephone network, all mostly at taxpayer expense.

Fun, but unprofitable.

The "Jewel of the Empire" was a very expensive bauble indeed, and after the crushing burden of WWII, England simply couldn't afford India anymore.  The Empire wasn't conquered, as such; the Brits couldn't pay the bill and their empire got repossessed by its original owners.  If the levels of Indian government debt are any indication, the Indians can barely afford to pay for India either.  One wonders who might repossess it from them?

Slavery Doesn't Pay In A Modern Economy

King Leopold tried a different approach in the Belgian Congo: taking advantage of a brief technological period where a government had modern communications but was able to exclude others from using them, he ran his country's African domains as the utmost of slave states.

Unfortunate residents of the Congo had not even the rights of a slave; you have to pay for a slave so he has value.  Congolese were simply captured at little or no cost, squeezed for whatever work they could do, and disposed of.  A similar economic system operated in the slave-labor camps of Nazi Germany and in North Korea today.

As Kim Jong Il is re-discovering, you cannot effectively run a modern technology-based economy that way.  A modern tractor run by a skilled farmer can operate a farm more cheaply than hundreds of slaves fed starvation rations.  The Belgian Congo collapsed along with Belgium during World War I; it would have fallen apart without the war as the other European powers were beginning to realize the horrors of the system there, but also because it wasn't generating sufficient returns to cover the costs to sending Belgians to manage it when they might have been more useful manning forts at home.

The Chinese have figured out how to avoid the drawbacks of empire.  Instead of invading and taking over African failed states as the Western colonialists once did, the Chinese simply bribe African dictators who rule countries with natural resources the Chinese will need in the future.  The Chinese are using their huge trove of US Treasury bonds to buy their way into Africa whenever three criteria are met:

  • The country has desirable natural resources

  • The leadership is amenable to fiscally-expressed reason - that is, they'll stay bought

  • The leadership has enough control to protect a handful of primary-resource industrial facilities, like mines and oil wells, and the bare minimum of transportation links to get the product to the seacoast.  This condition isn't absolutely necessary because the Chinese can supply their own protection if need be.

Once the Chinese pay off the leaders, they install the necessary infrastructure, generally using skilled Chinese labor imported for the purpose.  Instead of benefiting the general populace as the English investors did, the Chinese facilities are intended strictly to support the Chinese need for raw materials.

At best, a handful of locals might get jobs operating the infrastructure after it's put in place, such as a train engineer or miner.  There will be no opportunity for these African nations to develop the engineering talent required to build their own industrial base, much less to receive or invest the profits from mining in moving up the value chain as Europe and North America once did.

On the face of things, this model is simple capitalism at work: the African country still has an African dictator with a cabinet composed of all his relatives.  No Chinaman is running any African government department or commanding any African army regiment; they simply pay money to purchase goods and operating rights that they desire and which the dictator is willing to sell.

Because of Chinese diplomatic cover and the fact that they really don't give two hoots about all those fiddly little human rights issues Western nations like to whine about, the Chinese are well on their way to creating a profitable African empire composed of monopoly economic control without any of the downsides of having to administer or defend it.

So what if the mine uses slave labor?  It's run by the official African government; go complain to them.  So what if there's no education or healthcare worthy of the name?  By all means, offer the African government foreign aid, more power to you Western do-gooders!  Meanwhile, the ore ships sail home to China.

The Chinese goal is to capture all of the value-add back home in China by doing the manufacturing and processing there; the only ones to benefit besides the kleptocrats who sell out their nations are Swiss bankers who hide the money.

Once the Chinese lock up the ruling elites with golden handcuffs, the only way we'll be able to get at any of the resources will be via very expensive and messy regime change which would put us right back in the Somalia problem, where the costs are more than the returns.

The Dark Side of Successful Colonization

Thus far, it sounds like we're arguing that it's impossible to have a traditional colonial empire that works economically.  But, you might ask, how can that be?  Some of the most economically successful modern nations were once European colonies: the United States, Canada, and Australia.  Can't we just look back in history to how those places were run, and copy that example?

Sure you could; the trouble is, in today's world anybody who tried to follow these examples of successful colonization would have the entire rest of the world intervening to stop them.  Successful colonies like the settlements which became North America have one thing in common: they had very few indigenous inhabitants, and the few they had were pretty much exterminated by the incoming colonials.

Australia was inhabited sparsely and the original North Americans Indians were systematically destroyed, both by accident and by design.  Descendants of the original inhabitants survive only in isolated pockets, utterly insignificant numerically, politically, militarily, and economically.  Their absence from the scene made it possible for the colonizers to make a profit after invading.

India and Africa had far too many natives to kill; those empires didn't pay and were eventually abandoned.  The Mayan and Incan empires of Central and South America were weakened by smallpox and other diseases brought by the Europeans, but there were far more Mayans and Incans in the first place than there ever were North American Indians.  The diseases combined with the European gunpowder monopoly meant that the natives could be conquered, but enough natives survived that they still needed to be ruled.  To this day, South America, which retains a significant population descended from the original inhabitants, is less prosperous than North America, where the original inhabitants were all but eliminated.

The wiping out of existing populations is merely a working-out of the well understood process of natural selection as applied to populations and societies.  Tamerlane and Genghis Khan are said to have wiped out many cities and even populations during their conquests, and Alexander the Great's march from Greece to India didn't do anyone he met along the way much good.  We remember the conquerors vividly and the conquered only vaguely if at all.

The Chinese economic conquest of Africa is war by other means - paying off the rulers gives the Chinese all the benefits of having wiped out the natives without their having to take the trouble to do that.  We'll soon know if bribing the rulers and giving them the occasional bit of assistance here and there to help them "maintain order" costs less than full-scale conquest.  This sort of commerce-based colonization won't help the natives any more than King Leopold's method of squeezing value form the Congo helped the Congolese, but at least the Swiss banks who handle the dictator's bribe money will make out well.

Having discussed the consequences of a lack of conquering heroes to fix failed states, the next article explores some other ways a failed state or society might possibly be put right.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
There are problems with the Chinese approach:

Tensions Over Chinese Mining Venture in Peru
A long-festering conflict in a mining town does not square well with China's portrayal of its rising profile in Latin America, in which everyone benefits.

Strikes, work stoppages, conflict, etc.
August 15, 2010 6:03 AM
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