From US imperial dreams of Greenland to the imperial myths behind Brexit, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
From his love of tariffs to his racial view of the world, Donald Trump is the nineteenth-century president America never had. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal offered another piece of evidence suggesting that the 45th president is a man out of time: the president, it turns out, has frequently mused aloud about buying Greenland from Denmark. (Greenland, although largely self-governing, is alongside Denmark and the Faroe Islands one of the three constituent countries of the Kingdom of Denmark.)
Like Trump’s racism and trade policies, there’s a precedent for American officials trying to buy territory. Most Americans know, vaguely, that the United States acquired much of its territory by buying it. Some acquisitions, like the Louisiana Purchase, are well enough known to be the subject of TV ads. Others are more obscure, like when Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and other Southerners pressed for the purchase of enough of northern Mexico to support the construction of a Southern transcontinental railway. In fact, buying Greenland has been tried seriously twice. But the changes in international relations since then make it a far worse idea than it was at the time. The first time came during the administration of President Andrew Johnson. William Seward, a Lincoln holdover, used Johnson’s distraction over Reconstruction to pursue his longstanding goals of territorial expansion. [continue reading]
Gaby Del Valle
In his prime-time show in August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared that his opposition to immigration partly stems from his deep love for the environment. Instead of banning helium balloons, plastic straws, and other “things that bring ordinary people joy,” Carlson suggested, liberals would be better advised to get tough on immigration. “I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration: It produces a huge amount of litter—a huge amount of litter,” Carlson said. “And I mean that with total sincerity.”
Carlson’s comment was mostly lost amid the uproar over the separation and indefinite detention of migrant children and their families at the US-Mexican border. But those who did catch it found themselves a bit confused about his point. “It’s unclear whether Carlson was equating migrants themselves with trash or making an assumption about the litter they produce when they enter the country,” wrote Salon’s Rachel Leah. “The latter seems odd, and the former undoubtedly bigoted and hateful.” Odd as it may seem, though, Carlson was indeed implying that undocumented immigrants pose a serious threat to the country’s ecosystems. In doing so, he was continuing—perhaps inadvertently—a century-old tradition of American politicians, philanthropists, and public figures blaming immigrants for the country’s environmental woes. [continue reading]
Aug. 16 is Statehood Day in Hawaii, marking 60 years since Hawaii’s admission to the union. That event came six decades after the United States annexed the islands as a territory, following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by American settlers five years earlier. Although Hawaii was part of the United States, for decades Congress stalled on granting statehood because the majority of its residents were Asian, not white.
That changed in the 1950s, when the geopolitical importance of the islands and an emerging narrative framing Asians as a “model minority” accelerated demands for statehood. The cause of statehood was embraced by racial liberals who believed racism in the United States was damaging the nation’s reputation abroad and social cohesion at home. They argued that Asians in Hawaii were a boon to the nation rather than a liability, and that they deserved statehood because of their usefulness to the national project. [continue reading]
Chad P. Bown and Douglas A. Irwin
Donald Trump has been true to his word. After excoriating free trade while campaigning for the U.S. presidency, he has made economic nationalism a centerpiece of his agenda in office. His administration has pulled out of some trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and renegotiated others, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Many of Trump’s actions, such as the tariffs he has imposed on steel and aluminum, amount to overt protectionism and have hurt the U.S. economy. Others have had less obvious, but no less damaging, effects. By flouting international trade rules, the administration has diminished the country’s standing in the world and led other governments to consider using the same tools to limit trade arbitrarily. It has taken deliberate steps to weaken the World Trade Organization (WTO)—some of which will permanently damage the multilateral trading system. And in its boldest move, it is trying to use trade policy to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies.
A future U.S. administration that wants to chart a more traditional course on trade will be able to undo some of the damage and start repairing the United States’ tattered reputation as a reliable trading partner. In some respects, however, there will be no going back. The Trump administration’s attacks on the WTO and the expansive legal rationalizations it has given for many of its protectionist actions threaten to pull apart the unified global trading system. And on China, it has become clear that the administration is bent on severing, not fixing, the relationship. The separation of the world’s two largest economies would trigger a global realignment. Other countries would be forced to choose between rival trade blocs. Even if Trump loses reelection in 2020, global trade will never be the same. [continue reading]
Alex Von Tunzelmann
For more than three years, the world has watched Britain attempt to act on the result of its 2016 referendum and leave the European Union. Yet while the causes of the Brexit vote were complex, the causes of the catastrophic handling of the Brexit process might be familiar to anyone versed in imperial and postimperial history. They stem from what appears to be a belief in British exceptionalism: the idea that Britain is inherently different from, and superior to, other nations and empires.
Margaret Thatcher asserted British exceptionalism with regard to the EU in a 1988 speech, and each of the past three prime ministers has approached the EU from that standpoint—believing that Britain deserves preferential treatment and more-than-equal status. They have all also believed in their own personal exceptionalism. David Cameron believed he could win the referendum and thereby head off the electoral threat to his party from the right. He did not. Theresa May believed she could turn a narrow 52–48 vote in favor of leaving into a mandate for a “hard Brexit” in which Britain got everything it wanted and gave up nothing. She did not. Now Boris Johnson is voluntarily manufacturing a crisis over no deal—in which Britain would leave the EU without any agreement on the rules and regulations governing how it would trade and work with the bloc—that could send damaging shock waves through Britain, Ireland, and the rest of the EU. [continue reading]