This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

James Gillray’s 1805 cartoon, The Plumb Pudding in Danger, depicts prime minister William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte carving up the world Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images
James Gillray’s 1805 cartoon, The Plumb Pudding in Danger, depicts prime minister William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte carving up the world Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the great unraveling of the world order to the myth of western civilization, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Donald Trump’s victory challenges the global liberal order

Financial Times

Mr Trump’s campaign appealed to nativism, isolationism and protectionism. He railed against immigrants and vowed to build a vast wall to keep them out, at Mexico’s expense. He castigated allies in Europe and Asia, disavowing decades of foreign policy doctrine by suggesting Japan and South Korea could go nuclear to counter security threats from China. He cosied up to Vladimir Putin, coming close to being an apologist for the Kremlin. And he pledged to tear up trade agreements such as Nafta and the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to protect and reclaim American manufacturing jobs.

Mr Trump’s sweeping rhetoric and compulsive tweeting resonated among millions of Americans who have felt marginalised by globalisation. In the US, as told by Mr Trump, globalisation and free trade have rewarded only a privileged few. There is a kernel of truth in Mr Trump’s generalisations, to which more centrist leaders have given too little notice. Inequality has risen and median incomes have stagnated or fallen in recent years, especially among those without a college degree. [continue reading]

Atlantic Freedoms

Laurent Dubois

Here is the challenge: to write a history of modern political thought and culture that can simultaneously – and equally – embody and communicate the perspectives of those who arrived in Virginia in the hold of the slave ship São João Bautista, of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Napoleon Bonaparte, of Andrew Jackson and Harriet Tubman. While such a project might seem quixotic, we have to try. That is the political history that we’ll need in order to construct a future politics that moves beyond the legacies of racial slavery, rather than perpetually dwelling with them. The field of ‘Atlantic History’, which has expanded dramatically in the past decades, is the thing that will enable us to do it.

That the United States was born of a history of conquest and settlement that brought people from Europe and Africa across the Atlantic is, of course, an unavoidable part of the nation’s history. More broadly, this is the story of all the Americas, though the particular ways in which European, African and Native American peoples became intertwined in the process varies greatly from place to place. The questions posed by Atlantic History are about how to tell that story. Who do we place at the centre of this history? What categories of analysis should we use, and what social, economic and institutional structures should we focus on? [continue reading]

Trump’s foreign policy a threat to peace


The election of Donald Trump has been welcomed by autocrats and demagogues across the world, from Moscow to the Philippines. The reaction of democratic leaders, especially in Europe, has on the contrary been a mixture of awe, anxiety and an effort to put a brave face on an event that might threaten a rules-based world order. This is the first daunting question raised by America’s choice of a man whose only experience in international relations has been as a real estate investor, and whose presidential campaign was marked by utterances which reflected either ignorance or disdain for what the US has traditionally stood for in the world.

Trump has called Nato “obsolete”, he wants to upend free trade, he has fawned over autocrats, he has suggested Japan and South Korea should develop nuclear weapons, he has criticised the Iran nuclear deal, he wants a wall on the border with Mexico, he believes the fight against terrorism can include torture and he cares not one bit about climate change. And that is only what is known about Trump’s foreign policy programme – that is, if he actually has one. [continue reading]

Britain’s Empire Strikes Back

Mihir Sharma

It’s hardly surprising that Theresa May’s first bilateral summit outside Europe was with India’s Narendra Modi. Like almost everything else May has done since taking office, the visit has been all about Brexit. Nor is it surprising that May flies back to London disappointed and chastened. It was painfully visible on her trip that post-Brexit Britain still hasn’t learned that it no longer carries the economic heft to win deals on its own terms. And until Britain works out what sort of economy it intends to be, nobody is going to be interested in investing in its future either.

The prospect of a revived “special relationship” with India was one slightly Orientalist leitmotif of the victorious Leave campaign. Great Britain hardly needs these cantankerous continentals, the Leavers argued; the grateful nations of the Commonwealth — and especially its most populous and dynamic component, India — would once again open their bustling bazaars to British goods, easily making up for any lost markets in Europe. May flew to New Delhi with 33 captains of British industry, hailing the dawn of a new “age of opportunity.” She promised that deals would be signed on the visit that “created and secured jobs at home” and “demonstrated market confidence in the strength of the British economy.” [continue reading]

There is no such thing as western civilisation

Kwame Anthony Appia

Someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western civilisation, and he replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Like many of the best stories, alas, this one is probably apocryphal; but also like many of the best stories, it has survived because it has the flavour of truth. But my own response would have been very different: I think you should give up the very idea of western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time. I hesitate to disagree with even the Gandhi of legend, but I believe western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and western culture is no improvement.

One reason for the confusions “western culture” spawns comes from confusions about the west. We have used the expression “the west” to do very different jobs. Rudyard Kipling, England’s poet of empire, wrote, “Oh, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”, contrasting Europe and Asia, but ignoring everywhere else. During the cold war, “the west” was one side of the iron curtain; “the east” its opposite and enemy. This usage, too, effectively disregarded most of the world. Often, in recent years, “the west” means the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America. The opposite here is a non-western world in Africa, Asia and Latin America – now dubbed “the global south” – though many people in Latin America will claim a western inheritance, too. This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that “western” here can look simply like a euphemism for white. [continue reading]

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