This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

John Tenniel cartoon from 1862 showing Britannia visiting starving mill workers during the cotton famine

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

From exporting US economic nationalism to rediscovering the 1860s cotton famine, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Steve Bannon’s European Adventure

Ian Buruma
Project Syndicate

After being cast out of the White House and Breitbart News, Stephen K. Bannon, often referred to as the mastermind of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, has vowed to remake Europe. His organization, called “The Movement” and based in Brussels, aims to unite Europe’s right-wing populists and take down the European Union in its current form.

Bannon sees this effort as part of a “war” between populism and “the party of Davos,” between the white, Christian, patriotic “real people” (in the words of his British supporter, Nigel Farage) and the cosmopolitan globalist elites. In the media, at least, Bannon is taken seriously. [continue reading]

Paeans to the “Postwar Order” Won’t Save Us

Stephen Wertheim
War on the Rocks

Quite a specimen appeared in the New York Times two Saturdays ago, though you could be forgiven if you passed it by. In a paid ad, 43 professors of international relations lent their signatures to an open letter entitled “Why We Should Preserve International Institutions and Order.” Not every day do such personages — Harvard’s Joseph Nye, Princeton’s Robert Keohane, and Stanford’s Stephen Krasner, to name a few — go before the public to voice political concerns. But clearly they think the Trumpian times demand it because the president of the United States seems to threaten the very international order that America designed. “Today,” they warn, “the international institutions supporting the postwar order are under attack by President Donald J. Trump.”

Since the ad ran, an online version has amassed more than 500 signatures, and counting. It reads like a who’s who of international relations scholars and international political economists, with some notable holdouts. The quantity and pedigree of the signatories suggests that a new expert foreign-policy consensus has formed in the Trump era — a consensus in favor of defending “the international order formed after World War II,” as the ad calls it. Whom do these professors hope to persuade? [continue reading]

You Live in Robert Lighthizer’s World Now

Quinn Slobodian
Foreign Policy

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, sat through two hours of grilling by Congress, fending off grievances about the Trump trade war’s effects on Alaskan salmon, Maine lobsters, and Delaware chickens. “Nobody is declaring war on Canada,” Lighthizer protested, even as he conceded that the use of Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum was premised indirectly on assessing that country as a national security threat. When pushed on whether he had this assessment vetted by the National Security Council, he demurred that doing so was the Commerce Department’s responsibility, not his own.

Lighthizer’s performance was consumed by such efforts to smooth the ruffled feathers of his congressional inquisitors. Mostly, this involved assuring lawmakers that progress has been made in negotiations with the European Union and trade partners such as Mexico and Canada, and dispelling the impression that new tariffs on China had “stirred up a hornet’s nest of problems in other parts of the world with trusted allies,” as one congressperson put it. And yet it would be a mistake to attribute Lighthizer’s obsequious performance to a lack of self-confidence. The trial lawyer known for having a life-sized portrait of himself in his home has never lacked for the latter. And unlike most others in the Trump administration, he has known what he wants to achieve, and how, from his first day in office. [continue reading]

How Sweet It Is. And How Malignant

Sven Beckert
New York Times

Sweets have invaded the English language the way they have invaded our diet, with almost universally positive connotations. Sweet love, sweet people and sweet deals all suggest pleasant experiences, as do the sugary confections that grace our tables and fill our stores. James Walvin’s new book, “Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity,” will thoroughly disabuse you of such agreeable associations and may make you reluctant to reach for something sweet. Sugar, he shows, is a blood-soaked product that has brought havoc to millions and environmental devastation to large parts of the planet, premature death to the poorest populations in many parts of the world and huge health costs for societies from the United States to India. After reading this book the mere mention of sugar should make you think of slavery and cavities, imperialism and obesity — and remind you to check the label on the products you consume.

Walvin, the author of several books on slavery, takes his readers on a roller-coaster ride through 500 years of history. Sugar, he shows, was rare for most of human history, with sweetness largely derived from fruits and honey. Sugar was believed to have healing properties and in much of the world it was dispensed by apothecaries; consumption of small quantities of sugar was the prerogative of elites. Then, in the 16th century, Europeans seized large territories in the Americas and quickly dedicated much of that acreage to sugar cane. By killing off local inhabitants and enslaving Africans to do the backbreaking labor of tending the sugar plant, European settlers managed to build a huge production complex. Hungry for power and profit, they turned the fertile soils of Brazil, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, St. Domingue and other places to the growing of sugar for European markets by slave labor, producing extraordinary wealth in cities like Bristol, Bordeaux and Boston, and unimaginable misery for millions of enslaved workers. [continue reading]

Mill workers’ poems about 1860s cotton famine rediscovered

Alison Flood

The forgotten voices of Lancashire’s poverty-stricken cotton workers during the US civil war have been heard for the first time in 150 years, after researchers at the University of Exeter unearthed a treasure trove of poetry. Up to 400,000 of the county’s cotton workers were left unemployed when the war stopped cotton from reaching England’s north-west in the 1860s and the mills were closed. Without work, they struggled to put food on the table, and experts from the University of Exeter have discovered that many of them turned to poetry to describe the impact of the cotton famine.

Written between 1861 and 1865, many of the poems are by the workers most affected by the famine. Around a quarter of the 300 poems discovered so far are written in the Lancashire dialect, with some published in local newspapers or simply sent in letters. All the poems were held in local archives and had never been studied or collected. Simon Rennie, who is leading the project, said: “A lot of these poems are anonymous, or signed with initials; some of the writers describe themselves as ‘a boatbuilder’, ‘a millworker’, or ‘an operative’ … What we’ve found here is a significantly different view of a period of history that is already well documented – it’s that sense of history from below. [continue reading]