This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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

From an imperialism syllabus to rethinking grand strategy, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Imperialism: A Syllabus

Radhika Natarajan and John Munro
Public Books

Opposition to imperialism unites the struggles of our times. From classrooms to city streets, it has never been more essential to engage with the continuing history of imperialism. The urgency of our imperial moment is at once fierce and everywhere to behold: in Indigenous struggles for sovereignty, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movements, opposition to heteropatriarchy, resistance against violent anti-Asian racism, global Black Lives Matter. While some would argue that empires are relics of the past, imperialism continues to shape our contemporary world.

Imperialism denotes the repertoires of power necessary for one entity to maintain control over subject territories and populations. Yesterday and today, the sharpest analyses of imperialism have come from those who have positioned themselves in opposition to empires, and so this syllabus—the product of a conversation between a historian of the United Kingdom and one of the United States—emphasizes approaches to empire that are anti-colonial. To borrow a formulation from the great anti-imperialist writer and intellectual Dionne Brand, no syllabus is neutral. [continue reading]

The Transformative Power of War

Margot Tudor
New Rambler

Is it morally condemnable to propose the beneficial—as well as the damaging— repercussions of war? This is the question that Margaret MacMillan encourages us to ask as she introduces this series of essays, expanded from her 2018 BBC Reith Lectures. MacMillan does not think so, positing that we should see “war and society as partners, locked into a dangerous but also productive relationship”.

As MacMillan’s book shows, war has contributed to a dizzyingly diverse set of changes upon human, animal, and environmental societies, both shaping us and being shaped by our needs. However, despite this impact, she argues that post-war Western societies have become detached from the experiences of warfare, ignorant to its destruction but also its overwhelming power to alter our lives. “Wars have repeatedly changed the course of human history, opening up pathways into the future and closing down others,” MacMillan hypothesizes through a series of counterfactual thought experiments (3). Rather than as an exclusively regressive, “destructive, cruel, and wasteful” event, MacMillan suggests that we conceive of war as a transformative process, capable of inspiring technological innovation and political revolution as well as violent aggression. [continue reading]

Russia’s New Stalin Center evokes pride, and revulsion

Anna Nemtsova
NBC News

BOR, Russia — A few dozen people crowded around a new monument to Josef Stalin in this provincial town in central Russia. As local television news cameras rolled, admirers heaped praise on the late Soviet dictator, and the event’s organizers laid a concrete cornerstone to mark what will become the Stalin Center, a museum and educational center presenting a positive view of the creator of the gulag and the architect of Russia’s mass repressions in the mid-20th century.

“Stalin was the best master. He won the war and built the country from ruins,” Aleksey Zorov, 44, a local businessman who is the sponsor of the new center inaugurated May 8, told NBC News. The public rehabilitation of Stalin’s image reflects the social and political tensions that have gripped Russia in recent months. To some, the memory of Stalin suggests an era of national greatness, and President Vladimir Putin has promoted Stalin’s image as a way to deflect criticism of his own leadership, as he grapples with falling approval ratings, a sluggish economy and accusations of corruption. To others, however, Stalin represents an era of fear and repression that seems all-too familiar in Russia today. Putin’s government has cracked down harshly on pro-democracy protesters, as thousands of people have taken to the streets in support of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. [continue reading]

The Black Refugee Tradition 

Sean Gallagher
Black Perspectives

From October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported over 6,700 people whose country of origin was in Africa or the Caribbean. Those are ICE’s statistics for its fiscal year, and so does not include, for instance, over 1,300 Haitian refugees deported in October – the first four weeks of FY 2021. It does not register several dozen Cameroonian asylum-seekers deported in the final weeks of the Trump administration who have subsequently disappeared in Cameroonian jails as the U.S.-backed government there violently suppresses an Anglophone separatist movement. It also does not count the four or six Black Mauritanians who, on Trump’s last full day as president, were deported back to a country where Black racial slavery persists in defiance of international pressure. It definitely excludes the approximately 900 Haitians who have been deported since Biden took office on January 20, and who have been forcibly returned to the U.S.-backed regime of President Jovenel Moïse, who governs without a legislature and who oversees a nation where 40% of the people face daily food insecurity.

The United States violates multiple international asylum agreements when it detains and deports asylum-seekers. Most seriously, ICE’s deportation of Cameroonians, Haitians, Mauritanians, and others breaks with one of the fundamental guarantees of the Geneva Convention on Refugees: non-refoulement, the right of a refugee to not return to a place where there exists a credible threat to their “life or freedom.” Asylum-seeking thus increasingly drops migrants into transatlantic systems of detention. ICE incarcerates them only to return them to western-backed dictatorships who investigate returnees for ties to internal rebel movements. [continue reading]

‘Grand strategy’ has a bad rep. To fix it, get beyond hard power and traditional statecraft

Christopher McKnight Nichols and David Greenberg
LA Times

The term “grand strategy” has acquired something of a bad reputation in global affairs. It sounds pompous, and as a buzzword, it can serve as a mystification, tempting leaders to formulate glib doctrines or to rely excessively on reputed wise men, like George Kennan or Henry Kissinger. Some have seen it as a cover for American adventurism or even imperialism.

More charitably understood, though, constructing a grand strategy is a way for policymakers to think analytically, with an eye toward long-term goals, about how nations and peoples should engage with one another. It is about conceiving, organizing and operationalizing policies and plans, anticipating obstacles and aligning lofty aspirations with limited means to realize them. Today, President Biden stands poised to revive just this sort of grand strategy. [continue reading]