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My guest today is Dr. Samir Puri, who is a visiting lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London and has previously taught at Cambridge and John Hopkins.
He joined me for a deep dive into his two most recent books. The first one, The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires Have Shaped the World, explores how empires of the past still influence geopolitics today. And the second one, Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine: Invasion amidst the ashes of empires, published in late August, explores the role of imperialism in Putin’s ultimate decision to invade Ukraine and traces Ukraine’s fate as a nation caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West.
Samir has also served as an international observer at five Ukrainian elections, including during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Soon after the first Donbas war began in 2014, he spent a year in east Ukraine working on both sides of the front line as part of an international ceasefire monitoring mission. Since Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Samir’s analyses of the war have been featured by the BBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- Samir’s background and how it influenced his academic interests
- Defining ‘empire’ and understanding the role of its legacy
- Distinguishing between a formal and informal empire
- The consequences of waning US hegemony and Pax Americana
- The importance of history and lineage to national and individual identity
- Understanding how imperial legacy contributed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
- How Western democracies should navigate their imperial legacy
- The significance of Ukraine for Russia and its imperial legacy
- Proximity to history as crucial in shaping contemporary narratives
- ‘Great power contest’ as the present narrative
- Exploring the structural reasons why Ukraine is currently a warzone
- Understanding NATO and how it might be perceived outside of the alliance
- Samir’s assessment of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine ends
- Exploring the impact of the Russian invasion on Chinese post-imperial aspirations
- Samir’s greatest concern as we head into 2023
Listen to the podcast here
Dr. Samir Puri – Decoding The Echoes Of Empire: How Imperial Legacies Shape Today’s Geopolitics
This is a quick reminder that this is the last episode to be released before the show transitions to a subscription model. That means that apart from any public service-type episodes that will be released in full, this channel would only publish the first half of each episode. To get the full episode, you will need to subscribe to the show’s subscriber feed. Those who wish to support the show with a higher amount have a number of additional options. Importantly, if paying the subscription is simply outside of your budget, please email me as I have an alternate offer.
Also, a reminder that educational institutions that may wish to use any of the future episodes need only to email me, and I’ll make any of them available for your use, free of charge. Let’s go to my chat with Dr. Samir Puri for a deep dive into the impact of empires of the past on the present’s geopolitics. I don’t say this lightly, but having read two of his books, this has been one of the most influential conversations I’ve had to date. Understanding how our pasts shape our present is critical if we are to find enduring solutions to our many geopolitical, regional, and intrastate conflicts. I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I have.
My guest is Dr. Samir Puri, who is a visiting lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London, and who has previously taught at Cambridge and Johns Hopkins. He joins me for a deep dive into his two books. The first one, The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires Have Shaped The World, explores how empires of the past still influence geopolitics now. The second one is Russia’s Road to War With Ukraine: Invasion Amidst the Ashes of Empires, published in late August 2022, explores the role of imperialism in Putin’s ultimate decision to invade Ukraine, and traces Ukraine’s fate as a nation court in a geopolitical tug of war between Russia and the West.
Apart from his economic life, Samir has served as an international observer at five Ukrainian elections, including during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Soon after the first Donbas War began in 2014, he spent a year in East Ukraine working on both sides of the front lines as part of an international ceasefire monitoring mission. Since Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Samir’s analysis of the war has been featured by the BBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets. Samir, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
It’s great to be here. I’m pleased. I am looking forward to the conversation.
Before we get to the dense subject of empires and their residual influencers, maybe we can get a sense of what motivated your journey into the study of international relations in the first instance and then, in particular, the subject of empires.
Sometimes, we’re not conscious of what motivates us in our choices, especially when we’re in our teens and picking choices of universities and first careers. However, if I’ve put the story together, belatedly and very simply, it’s your inherited family background and who you are. My family’s Indian from the 1930s, and my parents were born in East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. It’s a second continent. I was born in the ’80s in London.
Eventually, you put these stories together. Like a lot of migration-focused families, we’re very much future-focused. No one goes, “Let’s trace our family tree.” How did we end up covering three continents? It’s a British empire and you can tell from my accent that it’s the outcome. Off I go to university in the UK and no one asks any questions about my heritage.
However, when you put it together, you realise empires have made not only the world go around, but they’ve also shaped the countries that we live in. That, plus probably a similar theme to many people reading and yourself, there’s always a fascination with war as well, and that comes from a variety of places. I end up working in the UK Foreign Office for six years, and that’s how I ended up working in East Ukraine.Empires have made not only the world go around, but they've also shaped the countries that we live in. Click To Tweet
The books are an outcome of professional and personal experiences, putting it all together. I didn’t want to write an academic book, which is like an encyclopedia. I’m not going to write a biography. I’m not that important or interesting in my right but putting the two together, my lived experiences through migration, through family history, through the war in Ukraine, with these bigger topics, you’ve got something that’s unique and a different way of conveying that information.
Having read both of these books, The Great Imperial Hangover and then Russia’s Road to War With Ukraine was second, I can certainly attest to you having achieved that this is such a huge and dense subject, but what you’ve done is walked us effectively through a history lesson but made it relevant to now. That’s what sparked my interest in this conversation.
We often forget the role history has now. We view the world through the eyes of today. Most of us haven’t been around when these empires existed, and they fell. We don’t think about the residual impact they have on our every day. You also spend some time working in Ukraine as part of the OECD. Why did you do that in the first place? Also, what was that experience like spending some time in Ukraine?
That’s a great place to start because the end of the USSR is probably the end of the world of formal empires. We’ll talk about imperialism, but with regards to Ukraine, I chanced on the opportunity to be an election observer in 2004. I was in my early twenties, and it was one of those jobs that came out of nowhere from someone I met. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Nothing. I’ve just finished university. I’ve got a degree in War Studies.”
Funny enough, I don’t think I’m that employable. I said, “What do you do?” He said, “I’m an election observer, and I recruit British election observers to missions run by the UN, EU, and OECD, which covers Eastern Europe.” That sums up there in 2004. Fast forward ten years, when I was in the foreign office and the war in Ukraine broke out, I volunteered for this civilian observation mission.
It was meant to be verifying a ceasefire, which some readers will be aware is called the Minsk accord, negotiated in Belarus and mediated by the OECD at the working level. It involved driving around in this upland in Land Rovers to deliver patrol reports on how well the ceasefire was being stuck to or not. We weren’t soldiers, but lots of my colleagues were ex-soldiers. The verification of breaches of the ceasefire was quite rudimentary. I can hear a loud bang. Let’s drive the other way to get away from them. I’ve got lots of colleagues on that mission with very finely trained ears.
“That’s a mortar. That’s 155-millimetre howitzers. That’s MLRS. That’s a Smerch rocket,” all these things that you would then document, and we’d visually identify the presence of armoured vehicles may be in breach of what the two parties signed up to do. We do some humanitarian patrol as well around the degradation and the Donbas living standards. Let me bring all that to a couple of takeaways, which are relevant.
Firstly, your question about the overhang of empire or the hangover, as I call it. This was the post-imperial war that was happening in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 when I was there and in 2022. Delusions of empire around rebuilding not only the Soviet but also the Tsarist empires and how they had their hold over East Ukraine.
The second thing I’d say is it’s been going on for a very long time. It was many years ago that I was there for a year. When I came back to the UK, I switched professions. I became a lecturer at King’s in London. No one had heard of the Donbas. People are like, “Why did you go to the Donbas? What’s the Donbas?” Arguably, if you believe the media, the fate of many geopolitical themes is being decided in the Donbas and Southern Ukraine.
It’s real proof that lots of the themes that some people thought were no longer relevant in the world, in this case, wars of imperial conquest but also, psychologically, how histories of empire mould and shape statesmen and populations. If you can’t get your head around those themes, you cannot understand Russia’s motivation for doing this. I’m not saying I agree with it. I condemn it from the highest rooftops with the loudest of voices, as I do in the book, but you caricature Russian and Putin’s motivations at your peril. You have to understand and you can only understand them through the prism of empire.
That’s a wonderful introduction to what we are going to talk about because that’s one of our greatest failings, as I alluded to. We look at history through the lens of now, and that’s risky, especially when you’re trying to find ways out of particular crises, whether this one or anyone in memory. Before we go any further, how do you define empire? Maybe you can touch on what role empires have played in the macro-level human development story.
It’s a huge topic, and this is why I wrote The Great Imperial Hangover, to walk readers through this massive topic in quite a comprehendible way. The history of the world is inseparable from the history of empires. Those of you who’ve read the Old Testament will know that there are empires in the Old Testament. Eventually, the Roman Empire features in the New Testament. From that point and recorded human history, the world has passed through the phases of these ancient empires.
Then these monotheistic empires, like the empires of Islam and Christianity across Russia’s steppe empires. Also, land-based empires like the Mughals and the Ottomans in India and Turkey, respectively. The ones that resonate, if you’re Australian or British, are the maritime colonial empires from Sir Francis Drake and James Cook all the way to the Handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
That was ultimately a war boot from the Opium Wars of the 19th century that was then handed back to China. The thing that I would say in terms of definition is that you can see with these different types of empires, they have different shapes, different ways of functioning and cover different geographical stretches. However, the big distinction in the academic literature, which I use, is between formal and informal empires.
The formal empire involves conquest, occupation, displacing the locals, subjugating locals and something along those lines. The British Empire used that and it also used informal networks as well, where you leave locals in charge but you dominate them. You control their economies and the trading links. What we have are almost no formal empires. We have lots of informal empires because powerful countries still try to dominate each other by having a controlling or veto stake in their local politics and certainly, in their economies.
Maybe they’re defence arrangements because foreign basing is a thing that gives them security. Whether you call the empire or not is only a matter of taste. I have two more observations on this to round off this answer. The first is the move to informal empires. There are a couple of aberrations still. For example, the Russian attempt to formally annex territory in East Ukraine, but the reason that makes us sit up to take notice is what Russia is doing is so untypical. Wars of imperial conquest do not happen.
That’s why the default mode is informal empire. I talk a lot about how the US has many traits of an informal empire. The second thing to say is the readers are saying, “What about China? What about the Uyghurs? What about Russia itself? What you also have is lots of large modern states that are former empires transformed into states. That’s the reason that China, Russia and the USA are as large as they are, because at some point, probably in the 19th century, they expanded and conquered large chunks of territory.
They call themselves the USA, China and Russian Federation. They are empires in disguise. They don’t call themselves that. I don’t think there’s any equivalence between how the US manages Texas versus how China manages the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province. There’s no equivalent at all. Free choice, for example, of this union is a big distinguisher but the fact they were conquered and that they were brought into the mainstream through settler colonialism, not in recent memory but in history, is a factor.
That’s also why the legacies of empires pervade so much, if not everything, of the politics of these countries, the way they come across and when they accuse each other of hypocrisy. There are all sorts of things. The US will talk about the Uyghurs to China but China will then point out the African-American population, the descendants of slaves are still low on the socioeconomic pecking order. Another legacy of the empire is being flung back. You can see how it shapes modern discourse. That’s the point of the book. It’s not a history book for the sake of history, but it’s about how our history forms the substance of international disputes.
I’m going to going to generalise here, but is it fair to say that the West is broadly Anglo-Saxon and White? Never mind that much like yourself and probably me, we’ve gone to the centres of various empires for our reasons, but it was the pool of the empire. Is it fair to say that the Western Empire doesn’t understand what the rest of the world is feeling because it’s been on the winning side for the better part of 2 or maybe even 3 centuries?
This is one of the most important themes in the world. How do you encourage Western self-awareness around the West’s historical origins? As you rightly point out, how the West is perceived by non-Western and non-English speakers.
Just to put it in there without falling for the far-left trap of White men’s guilt and going to the extremes but having a genuine conversation about this.
That’s the thing. I’m not a far-left wing like, “The West is imperial. I’m oppressed because I’m not White.” Not at all. I loved growing up in the UK. The opportunities supported me. The Prime Minister of the UK is a man with the same ethnic and continental background as me, Rishi Sunak. That’s never going to happen in China.
At no point am I going to tell you that the Western world is somehow the cause of all the world’s evils, but what I’m going to say, and this echoes the way you phrased the question very well, is that because Western supremacy is pretty much under Pax Americana, which has been since the post-Cold War and certainly, the post-World War II period, the US has slipped from being what I call the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world to the disputed heavyweight champion of the world.The US has slipped from being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world to the disputed heavyweight champion of the world. Click To Tweet
We’re moving into a position that it’s not exclusively challenged by China. It’s challenged by the diffusion of global power and influence to many sources of civilisational, cultural and international influence. You only need to look no further at India’s independent reaction to the war in Ukraine to realise that not only India but also Saudi Arabia is refusing to abide by the request to increase oil production through OPEC. Turkey as well still maintains links with Russia.
There is a change in the air, and you can taste it. It’s so different from 1991, when the US corralled a global coalition to fight the Iraqis and kick them out of Kuwait, where the US was the arbiter of global moralism, and it was relatively unquestioned. The US soft power has taken a massive hit under Trump, which is an issue that everyone understands very easily, but the hard power and the hard economic realities of the US are less singularly dominant. It means that when it comes to imperial history, we have to start acquainting ourselves to a variety of contradictory interpretations about Western moral superiority, the origins of Western power and the rights to perpetuate undisputed Western power.
That’s one of those things that is not addressed and something we dare to address because if you dare to question the moral righteousness of Pax Americana, you’re exposing yourself to being thrown into a radical camp or a far-left camp, which is not at all what this is all about. This is a genuine reflection of how history shapes now and how relationships that exist between global powers are shaped by that history. If we don’t understand it, especially with China’s rise, is it fair to say the US demise, or is it a levelling of the playing field?
It seems like a levelling. It’s a readjustment in effect. Some of the harder writers on these topics like Kishore Mahbubani and others say that the historical norm was Indian and Chinese economic dominance of the global economy until a couple of hundred years ago. Whether that’s true or not, especially given the fact India didn’t exist in a unified form and to the same extent until the Marathis under a leader called Shivaji, started to conquer large chunks of it, and it was Mughal-dominated.
You can’t have that same equivalent. Let’s say India from 200 to 300 years ago is the same as India in 2022. The point they’re making is a very general point, which is you’ve gone from a point at which, around the 1800s, the world tipped decisively in favour of the Euro-American dominion to a point at which it’s tipping back. Most inhabitants of this planet are intellectually underequipped to be able to think through the implications of this, conceptualise what this will look like and understand how their nations will comport themselves differently in the very near future.
That’s where the risk of war creeps in. That’s where the risk of opportunists like Putin, who tried to grab something because he estimated that the West is more diminished than it is. He steps in and launches his catastrophic war. That’s where the US hawks are saying that China is aggressive and it’s expansionist. What you need to read behind that is that the US hawks are suffering from status anxiety where the world in which they have become habituated, which is that the USA is number one, looks like it might be challenged.
There’s no mental framework to process what that means to you as a person, especially if you’re a writer or a statesman, if you embody these principles on the global stage and you have a voice. Frankly, even if you’re an ordinary person talking about it to your friends and family, what does it mean to be in a world in which the West’s word will not necessarily be taken at face value but also that its moral authority and the actual physical ability to affect change in the corners of the world will diminish. That leads to a necessity of compromise, but as you see, what the West is trying to do is to still try to belatedly shape the world as much as it possibly can in its image and then fail to understand the world when it doesn’t bend in that particular direction.
How much do the empire and the history of the empire have to do with identity and one’s ideas and relationship to one’s past and lineage? The reason I ask that is because it strikes me as that’s a key feature of what you said. It’s how we negotiate our place in the world, which is all about how the rest of the world sees me but also how I see myself, which to me screams off of one’s identity and self-definition and place in the world.
That’s a key theme of my book. When you’re doing imperial legacy work, especially comparative and different regions, and each chapter looks at a different region or former empire, how do you capture those legacies? One bit is the physical legacy, so the competition of population and the shape of borders. The other is the attitudinal legacy. That’s what you’re getting at with this question. That’s our national instincts, compulsions and the antecedence we’ve got about when our forebears were just or unjust or whether they were treated well or badly.
Some of these superiority complexes might arise, and some of these instincts for vengeance might arise. The final point, which is relevant, is I’m a Brit and you are sitting in Australia. Where in the world do you locate other people like you, your kin? That’s a huge thing that is an outcome of conquest and settlers who’ve moved from one part of the world to the other.
I’m not trying to seek equivalence here, but I’m looking at this thematically. When you look again at the Donbas, you are looking there at Russians who were settled in the Donbas to work in the mining industry a couple of hundred years ago, who, after the imperial collapse, have ended up in a different state, Ukraine versus Russia. This is the East of Ukraine in particular.
There you’ve got this bizarre blood-thirsty moral legitimacy coming from the Kremlin saying, “These are people like us that we need to save.” I can tell you firsthand that a lot of them don’t want to be “saved.” They’re quite happy being Ukrainian, but then a million of them have fled to Russia as refugees. It’s not only Poland, Hungary and Britain but the Western European countries getting Ukrainian refugees. Over a million have fled to Russia because they do identify with Russia. That’s where the complexity arises that we’ve chopped the world up into these nation-states after the end of the empire.
The world is messy in terms of its psychological and attitudinal connections because of the preceding chapters of Imperial history that I tried to compress and go through in a comprehendible way. You do need a bit of a roadmap because it’s like layers of plywood when you think about national histories. More layers keep getting added on, but the previous ones don’t disappear, and that becomes a structural foundation of both the physical and psychological composition of your country.
Also, of that imagined community. I wrote down Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities. It keeps echoing as you’re talking because that seems to feature quite a lot in our narratives of ourselves as no nation or social group in the world is pre-ordained to exist. It only exists because we give it meaning, a name, a flag and a territory. Therefore, it becomes an imagined community. It’s imagined by the people who embrace its existence.
That narrative is constantly in contest with the narratives of other social groups and other imagined communities and those borders. I’m from Bosnia. It’s a country that’s experienced, perhaps not at the scale but something very similar to what Ukraine is experiencing, and that is an extremely violent and brutal war, ethnic cleansing, movement of people and annexation effectively, although indirectly, by regional powers.
That is all in 100 years’ time. Those regions that are under contestation might fully well be justified to have a flag of one or the other given the outcome of these challenges and wars. Hundred of years from 2022, it’ll be history. It’ll be part of that. It’ll be one of those plywood that you’re saying. It would be one of those layers that will create the narrative of that particular social group.
One quick reflection on Ukraine in particular. It’s happening. It’s disturbing and horrendous. It’s beyond the pale. It is also quite a typical post-imperial war. We are in danger of what I call Ukraine exceptionalism, where it is this great autocracy versus democracy battle. The moral principles are at stake, and the Russian regime is unquestionably an aberration of human history. In Russia’s Road to War book, the analogy I draw in the end is with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
At the end of the British Empire, the Turks invaded. They managed to capture 1/3. They probably wanted all of it. We’ve lived with that division in Europe for many years. I would not be surprised if we’re talking about the de facto, if not de jure partition of Ukraine on the basis of conflicting post-imperial visions as to ownership and kinship, as well as the strategic significance of a place.
The Turks and the Russians, for better or for worse, have at least one similarity. They both used to run massive empires. The Tsarist and Soviet for the Russians is the Ottoman for the forebears of the Turks. It is a good thought to keep in mind when you think about the scratch that can’t be itched off once having run grand empires for the forebears. How do you live up to the past of the fact that you were once a great imperial power?
Maybe in the 20th century, certainly Russia and Turkey will have felt like losers at some point. There’s a lot of pride that can be unrequited that comes with that that manifests very differently. Nothing’s preordained. The health warning here is the way I do it in the Imperial Hangover book, which is the uniqueness of that journey for the different major parts of the world but the fact that there is a journey and a starting point brings us to where we are with massive psychological hang-ups, as well as practical problems that some countries might perceive in their strategic environments. It’s a substance of disputes and wars between countries.
That is wonderful and so nuanced. I’ll be careful not to quote you on Twitter. Let both you and I be cancelled because how dare you suggest that Ukraine, down the line, at some point, there might be some contested regions. I say that tongue-in-cheek. I wholeheartedly agree with you that nothing can justify what Putin is doing in Ukraine at the moment and the war crimes that are ongoing.
By all accounts, I’ve been very public about this. I certainly wish and exclaim loudly, that Ukraine reserves its right to defend itself and retake all its territories. Whether that happens or not, that’s a different debate. That’s the point you’re trying to highlight that we can’t be caught by the simplicity of the narrative when the situation on the ground and the reality on the ground is something vastly different.
I was going to very wholeheartedly chime in around Twitter. Don’t forget to read a good book. That’s what I always say because Twitter has a horrible way of oversimplifying things. It’s a well-known tool in information warfare, especially for Western populations. There are other platforms that other language groups necessarily use but certainly, for the English language, oversimplification is Twitter’s modus operandi.
With regard to Russia and Ukraine, I’m not making a judgment about the rights and wrongs of it. Ukraine deserves to defend itself and its sovereignty but remember this irony, which is that yes, Ukraine’s fighting to kick out the Russian invaders and banish its Soviet influences. That’s the imperial influence of the Soviet empire in Ukraine. Ukraine from 1991 is the same border as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, the administrative border within the USSR.
There is no way Ukraine is going to emerge from this war with its borders unchallenged and unchanged. It is not going to get back all of its territory. Psychologically, it’s a case of how quickly people move to understand what that is. Once the cycle of fighting starts beating Ukraine, the occupation potential is exhausted.
There’s one thing that I want to pick up on, and then I want to return to the Ukraine proper in the Ukraine book or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine book. You mentioned the historical legacy and even hatred and animosity that’s deeply infused in this idea of empire and history and these multitudes of layers that exist. This superiority complex by the West has been broadly the victor for the better part of the last couple of centuries.
There is this idea that the son should not pay for the sins of the father. We all move on. This, to me, misses the density and context of history that’s so deeply embedded in those who’ve been wrongly done. I wonder what you say to those people, and I’m sure you’ve come across them who say, “The son should not pay for the sins of the father.”
To an extent, the new generations can’t be held accountable for actions that their grandfathers and grandparents took part in. That would be absurd. It’s not practical. Having said that, we are all descendants of the empire. The point I make in the book is that either our forebears were probably the beneficiaries or active empire builders, especially in Western countries or the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people who were subjugated by the empire.We are all descendants of the empire, but the new generations can't be held accountable for actions that their grandfathers and grandparents took part in. Click To Tweet
That’s my experience. My family is not slaves. We have to put this in proportion here, but my wider family always has a love-hate relationship with a certain type of elite Britishers. It’s because the elite Britishers have been very unreflective around these themes and asking these difficult questions. I don’t think for one minute a country like Britain or Australia should self-flagellate to the point of domestic collapse over beating itself up over the past.
However, because the dominant voices have been the White majority population’s voices for many decades, it’s quite belated that there is a catch-up debate in the UK and Australia, whether it’s aboriginal culture and how it’s represented and been suppressed in Australia. In Britain, whether it’s Black Britons and Asian Britons and others whose voices haven’t been reflected.
Before I moved to Singapore, I was asked by someone in Number 10 Downing Street. There was a race commission reporting on ethnic disparity. I was asked as an author and an independent contributor to write a paper on how Britain can reconcile its imperial legacies with its concurrent path. I did strike that middle ground which is I didn’t think that the Black Lives Matter radical end of the argument was going to serve anyone very well.
This is because it brings people up from ethnic minority populations to arguably have a ready-made “I have been victimised. I’ve always been victimis. I’ve got nowhere to go” argument. You can’t also go down, and I don’t mean to take his name since he departed, but he was legendary for his White majoritarian racist view of people who travel around the Commonwealth. They are laughing at people’s expenses because they weren’t the posh European regimes that are within living memory too. As we move forward, this is where countries like the UK and Australia prove their worth as mature democracies.
They refresh their national stories and national narratives and inclusivity to move forward. Certainly, Britain with Rishi Sunak has made a big statement. He’s a millionaire, so be it, but nonetheless, it’s a big statement to show the rest of the world as well that this is not the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in terms of expecting that superiority complex to be able to fly. It won’t fly, but it’s about a very careful bounce. Every post-imperial country has to strike this bounce carefully.
A final thought on this is it should make us very pleased to live in democracies where you have freedom of thought and the ability to challenge China, Russia and, to an extent, Turkey as well. Critical voices around historical interpretation don’t exist, and that’s another issue. That’s ultimately why lots of people in the West are saying, “We will be able to modernise ourselves to be more competitive and appeal positively to the rest of the world.”
Perhaps but at the same time, other parts of the world are going to be able to impose their interpretations of history on their domestic populations and influence other populations. One of the takeaways in the book is that the world comprises lots of conflicting post-imperial narratives that don’t match up because everyone’s got a different interpretation of the rights and the wrongs of the past.
The World Cup is on and I have no doubt you’re probably following it as well. We are seeing that reflected in what you said about democracies embracing it and refreshing, or certainly, the European democracies refreshing their idea of themselves and in the number of players that are of various ethnic minorities in a particular given country and Britain as well.
That’s a key determining feature from the nations that you’ve mentioned like China, Russia and Turkey where those who belong and who are part of the national identity are a lot defined by it as it seems, whereas in some of the Western nations. That’s also one of the wedges that countries like Russia and China have tried to exploit and target even through social media to create tensions and divisions. What are your thoughts on that? Have you noticed that? Have you dabbled into any of that research?
This is the first World Cup I’ve struggled to watch because, in Singapore, the matches are often kicking off after midnight. We’re the best one in the world. It’s hard to quite follow it, but on those wider things, you’ll get a sense here that in the Imperial Hangover book, there are imperial legacies that affect nations domestically and then there are imperial legacies that affect nations at the international level. They’re quite closely interrelated.
Certainly, the composition of the French and English football teams, they are a living and breathing testimony to the imperial histories of those countries, whether it’s North African players or players of North African origin in the French team. In Britain, you’ve got plenty of people with Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. That’s the reason their families probably ended up in the UK hundreds of years ago.
On the other hand, you’ve got more civilisational-defined states. In China, to be Chinese, you tend to have to become Chinese. Ethnic diversity doesn’t work at all in those contexts in the way it does in the West. However, there’s also something about the style of empire that contributes to population composition. The British and the French, the Dutch and the Belgians had maritime colonial empires, which meant that they straddled different continents.
That also meant that when the empires ended, there were oceans and seas to separate them. Whether it’s the Mediterranean between France and Algeria whether it’s the two oceans between India and the United Kingdom. That’s very different from conquest through adjacency which is the mode of expansion the land empires tend to pursue like the Russian, Ottoman and others.
Also, a couple of big implications there. One is for ethnic diversity. The diversity is likely to be of adjacent populations in these countries. Russia is a living testimony to this, and so is China. The other is that when the empire collapses, there’s no ability to separate oneself in perpetuity. One only needs to think of whether it’s the Balkans and how it still has legacies of Russian, Hungarian, Ottoman and other empires.
They’re still very proximate geographically. They’re not that far away. Russia and Ukraine are right next to each other. That’s one of the big differences, and that’s why going into studying the different types of empires, different ways they’ve ended, and the different ways in which they’ve affected population compositions and relations between the successor states of these empires is a very worthwhile endeavour if you want to understand the world.
That’s a good pivot also to Russia’s Road to War with Ukraine, the second book that we talked about in this episode. Perhaps it’s a good place to start to give our audience a bit of a reflection as to what the role and significance of Ukraine are in Imperial Russia because that’s something that’s broadly misunderstood. Perhaps it’s a good launching platform for us to dive a little bit deeper into where we are.
The thing about Ukraine is that it was the Soviet Socialist Republic above any other that was core to certainly the Soviet identification with its empire. Without Ukraine, the USSR was going to collapse. It was Ukraine’s departure or desire to become fully independent in the early 1990s. It was one of the final nails in the coffin of the idea of the USSR. Why is it so central? The reason is a mixture of economic and cultural.
I’ve worked in not quite every bit of Ukraine. I’ve been to Lviv and Donetsk. They’re very far away, to put it this way, from West to East. I’ve been to the centre. I’ve been to the South. I’ve been to the North. It’s a very varied country but one of the things that is unmistakable is the fact that the Russian empire has deeply shaped the patterns of economic life in Ukraine over many centuries.
The meteorological industry and the mining industry in the East are an outcome of what was the Russian Tsarist Empire’s industrial revolution that then gave way to the discovery of oil and gas. In the Soviet period, Ukraine became a transit route for the oil and gas that Europeans had been heating their homes and powering their vehicles and factories.
There are many other parts of economic interdependence as well, like rocketry and missiles, the defence industry and all the rest of it. There was quite an intermingled Russian imperial economic arrangement between what we see as a Russian Federation and the territory of Ukraine. That’s created some issues. That also had gone hand-in-hand with the facts I mentioned earlier. There were lots of Russian speakers and lots of Russians resettled, especially to East Ukraine, from the 18th century onwards to run these endeavours.
What’s typical in empires is that you don’t create jobs with the locals. You may create slave jobs with the locals, but you populate the better jobs with settlers that you send out to represent kith and kin. None of this justifies Russia’s desire to hang onto Ukraine, but it helps to explain where some of the psychological hang-ups have appeared within Putin but not only Putin. It’s within a whole bunch of Russians at the elite level, opinion formers and people like Aleksandr Dugin, who’s become a bit more famous after his daughter was assassinated in a car bomb.
I quote him in both of my books, his translated work on conceptualising what the Russian Empire means in the present day, but people like Dugin and Putin both convey the obvious point that the imperial collapse was only a few years ago and the USSR. It’s well within living memory, and that’s another factor around imperial legacies in proximity to them.
Never believe by the way anyone who says in a British context, “Why do you non-White Brits complain about the British Empire? Do you see me complaining about being enslaved by the Romans?” Yes, the Romans did occupy Britannia, as it was nearly 2,000 years ago, but I’m sorry. When it comes to imperial legacies, proximity to history matters massively. Living memory is the most proximate but also within generational memories. My parent’s experience of this matters too.
That’s where the hang-ups come from. That’s where the messy populations being separated from each other also come from as well. It’s also the moment of maximum peril that period in the Twilight of Empire and after it where you realise that there are scores to be settled. There are people who felt that the way that the empire ended did not reflect the right vision for that particular territory.
Another point that stands out there is the proximity to history. That’s also the more proximate. The easier it can be flamed and served as fuel for segregation division because it’s so close that it’s within living memory that it can inflame people.
No one ever told me in Britain to cite the Roman Empire as a point of anger towards Italians in an England football match. It doesn’t matter. It has zero emotional traction. The cults, the descendants and the forebears of some people in Britain were subjugated by the Romans, but it doesn’t matter. There is no formula, but something I do look at in the book is that four generations is roughly where something from history slips from memory to memorialisation. When it moves to memorialisation, you actively have to sustain a memory of it through cultural events and trying to reconstruct things because no one can relate to those situations that are still alive.
I’ve heard it said so many times, including in my household that had Tito’s legacy in Yugoslavia survived one more generation, we wouldn’t have had what we had. That speaks to that point because there were still people in the ’90s who had a living memory of what had happened in World War II between the various ethnic groups. I’m not sure how long and how many years four generations are. I don’t know what the kind of measuring gas stick is for four generations. I’m guessing probably 20 or 30 years. That makes sense because it was close enough in living memory.
Let me illustrate that tangibly for everyone through the figure of the departed Queen Elizabeth II who pretty much spanned about those four generations dying in her ’90s and being born in the 1920s. Her passing is a very interesting marker of the passage away from the high era of Western colonial domination around the world.
Queen Victoria presided over the expansion of the British Empire to its apex, as all Australians will know for a fact. The Victorian era is dominant in shaping reality for lots of cultural and historical memories in Australia and the ways of doing things. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II presided over the dismantling of the empire, and that’s one of the ways to understand how quickly the world has changed.
She was removed as head of state from one of the Caribbean countries because they want to become a republic. That is another little stark indicator of how the world is becoming much more aware, at least when it comes to Western imperial legacies. I am not challenging them but not buying the benign, this is all in the name of everyone’s advantage and advancement.
That’s the readjustment. It’s not like the West is morally evil. In a way, no one else. It’s not at all. By far, the Russians are more barbaric than anything the West is doing but it’s that ability to readjust and to be nimble in your self-awareness and your presentation to the rest of the world if the Western world wants to meaningfully compete with the other centres of power that are emerging.
Compete is the right word. Let me ask you this, what are we competing for?
The great phrase is we had the global war on terror, which was my 6 or 7 years in the UK Foreign Office. That was a framework around which national security discourse in the West. Policymaking was focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and 9/11. We have a great power contest. Isn’t that interesting that we’ve got another new catchphrase?
You always need marketing to be able to focus minds both within your population as well as your policymaking and national security communities. What are we competing for? Ultimately, what we’re competing for is the ability to be a gatekeeper in the world at large, an arbiter of right and wrong. These are the granter of permission to actions outside of our borders.Ultimately, what we're competing for is the ability to be a gatekeeper in the world at large, an arbiter of right and wrong. Click To Tweet
That is ultimately quite an abstract way of defining global influence, but because we don’t live in a world of conquest, the West is not going to go and conquer somewhere else. It’s going to look to preserve its influence around the world. It’s going to look to preserve its power to intervene and prevent things from happening. The means end up taking over from the ends because the means then become a way in which you organise your economic and philosophical discussions and arrangements.
I say economic and philosophical because economics is how you spend your money. It’s how you position military forces around the world. It’s where you look to invest. It’s where you look to attract business and foreign students to a university. It’s all these things to build those global connections to look like you are a global influencer but it’s also philosophical because it has to be a guiding principle behind why you are bothering to do this. This is very fertile territory to explore because we are going to be exploring this, whether we like it or not, for the rest of our lifetimes as this readjustment occurs, whether the world becomes less mono-culturally Western-influenced, I think it is fair to say.
That’s also a narrative that we hear quite a lot coming out of the Kremlin as well in the sense that the end of a unipolar world is over and that we find ourselves in a multipolar world. In many ways, I agree with Kremlin on anything is true. Going by what you are saying is also very true, which is why Ukraine is a particularly interesting case study. You rightly point out in your book loud and clear that Putin’s war cannot be justified.
There’s nothing that NATO or Ukraine might have done in the past or at any point along this journey that would justify what he’s doing. I want to emphasise that again, loud and clear. However, you do also place some blame on NATO and the US in particular and their less-than-ideal approach to Ukraine. I find this a fascinating thread in the book. What did you mean by that?
Thanks for providing that caveat, because that is it. This is a heinous war. Having lived in Donbas myself, I’ve got friends who are suffering. One of the best things I did with the book was I got a couple of interpreters who worked with us in the OECD mission in East Ukraine. They’re Donbas natives. They’ve both fled from Ukraine. I gave them a bit of translation work for the book.
That was nice to reengage with them to the extent that it can be someone who’s not there. I have spent a lot of time trying to think about how heinous and horrible this is for Ukrainians. The book is written in that spirit. However, because it’s written with the price that Ukrainians are paying as a foremost thought in my mind, I want to see how Ukrainians are let down by the big empire-like structures that are to its East and West.
Historically, Ukrainian leaders or most of the leaders adorn bank notes. I won’t go into the deep history here. Serhii Plokhy, the Ukrainian-American writer, is very good at detail, and I draw on his book. Ukrainian leaders in the past have had to side with one empire or another. Sometimes they side with the Russians against the Swedes and the Poles. Other times, they’ve tried to side with the Poles against the Russians. They have a revenge list for imperialist Russia, and they have an expanding NATO alliance.
I’m not saying there’s any equivalence between the two, but the Ukrainians have had to drive in the middle lane without being pulled into either verge or have very much tried to move from the middle lane to one side. Ukraine’s political decisions have oscillated around this. We should remind ourselves that Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the Maidan Revolution, was corrupt. He was open to Kremlin influence. He was also legally elected in 2010.
As someone who’s been an election observer in Ukraine, I can point to the fact that the international monitors in 2010 pointed out that Yanukovych was legally elected. He had a soft message with regard to Russia. He didn’t have much enthusiasm to join NATO. He had some more enthusiasm to join the EU but the tragedy of Ukraine’s politics in the 10 or 15-year stretch that I focus on the detail is the dissent of mutual exclusivity in its foreign policy choices. It cannot be in both the Russian and the NATO camps.
It has made bids in the past to join NATO. It’s been let down. There are documents that I’ve found and they’re not difficult to find that show US policymakers in the past encouraging Ukraine’s NATO bid. NATO directly took in enhancing its corporation with Ukraine that have been misunderstood and miscalculated by the Kremlin as a path to full membership.
I’m not making a moral judgment over Ukraine’s right to join NATO or not. I’m making a practical judgment as someone who worked in diplomacy in the past. The signalling of these moves to tighten your grip on NATO, the cost that then rises for Ukraine’s insecurity because they will never get NATO collective defence. Biden ruled that out from day one of this invasion in February 2022. They will not fight in Ukraine or fight to defend NATO territory, which is outside.
However, the moves to cultivate a relationship with NATO and try to join one day have angered the Russians. Given Putin, what he thinks is grounding is not to justify the evasion, but I always say it’s not provocation, it’s motivation. What’s motivating him to do this other than his pathologies? It’s this move of Ukraine to the Western camp.
The last observation on this is I don’t think Ukraine for its territoriality to be guaranteed sovereignty to be protected before this invasion. It could either exclusively be in the West or the Russian camp. In a fairytale land where everything is lovely, it should have been a bridge between East and West, in which it’s the influences of the Polish and Austria-Hungarian empires of the past are very prevalent in Lviv. The influence of Russia and the Russian Empire is very prevalent in Donetsk. Somehow, Kyiv’s political leadership was able to maintain favorable connections with both East and West. That’s a fairytale.
The hard reality of geopolitics is that Ukraine was both encouraged and felt the need to make mutually exclusive choices in its foreign policy and security arrangements. That’s one of the other ways that we need to understand why war has come to Ukraine as well as Putin’s nasty, evil and Hitler for the 21st century. Sure, but you just need Twitter to see that. You look at your memes as your moral compass. It’s heinous, but the structural reasons and the post-imperial reasons around why Ukraine is and will be a war zone for the foreseeable future of Ukraine’s suffering come down to foreign policy choices when you are located next to a pair of behemoths, NATO and Russia.
You talk about the dangling of the carrot quite a lot, and that’s something that is not discussed because you mention that there’s been a carrot dangled to Ukraine, both from the EU as well as NATO. If you accept that as truth or explore the truth of that through the evolution of this crisis and problems since the fall of the Soviet Union, you face the risk of being thrown into the Putinist camp or the anti-Ukraine or the anti-NATO camp, which is something I’ve experienced myself.
I have no doubt you also have experienced, given the fact that you are critical of certain, particularly US policy, where you quote some rather colourful language of certain American diplomats as to who’s going to be ruling Ukraine and who will be deciding that. Can you explore that a little bit more in detail? That’s something that’s oftentimes missed. This dangling of this carrot was always too far for Ukraine.
Ukraine has a right to join NATO and the EU. I’m not saying it doesn’t but I’m looking at the consequences of trying to join both failing and leaving yourself exposed. That’s all I’m looking at and that’s the story of the last many years with regards to the US. This is one of the things that the war on terror has probably made us forget. The George W. Bush administration, as well as invading Iraq and occupying Afghanistan to no real end in either place was also heavily ideological in Eastern Europe.
I can see why George W. was probably carrying on the legacy of his father in helping democracy to be fostered in parts of Eastern Europe. The question was, “How far was too far?” I don’t think there’s a problem with NATO or EU expansion or with Poland and others. There’s an issue though that Ukraine, as we’ve talked about in the past, was perceived culturally and economically very close to Russia’s historical experience. It’s a very patronising and condescending perception in Russia, perhaps.
However, that was part of the material reality. When you look back, especially at Dick Cheney’s language in 2008 and I “saw” one of his speeches, it’s bonkers in terms of NATO having the right to expand into Ukraine and Georgia and try to stop our kind of language. What’s changed is that in the early to mid-2000s, the US unipolarity was undisputed. This goes back to one of our early themes. It is somewhat disputed, if not utterly disputed, in some parts of the world.
What the US hasn’t done, certainly publicly and maybe is doing it privately, is update its assumptions about democratisation and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe that were held in the ’90s and the early 2000s. I “worked by” speeches by Madeleine Albright that stroked orbit around the wisdom of NATO expansion. There is a great book by a Johns Hopkins professor called Mary Sarotte called Not One Inch, which talks about NATO expansion. There’s a lot of scholarly work and documentary work that I can draw on to look at these themes, and I encourage the reader to form their conclusions.
Ultimately, was it responsible to encourage NATO expansion with regard to Ukraine when the actual dynamics of the alliance politically meant that consensus to admit Ukraine was always elusive? Were there better arrangements in a hypothetical sense for Eastern Europe’s political and security arrangements, especially in the early post-Cold War period, the ’90s and the early 2000s, that would’ve better guaranteed Ukraine’s security, or was there an inevitability that Putin is a monster and he is about to invade?
I don’t think there was any inevitability in what’s happened in 2022. The situation for Ukraine decayed quite worryingly and gradually over about 15 or 20 years in terms of the viability of its ability to protect itself. Here’s the final point on this. There are a lot of people who have been killed, maimed and traumatised by this war. That is what I think about. It’s not about the rights and wrongs because you joined NATO or the EU.
The fact of the matter is there are tens of thousands of people dead and hundreds of thousands of people injured on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. It is a catastrophe for a generation in these countries. That is a horrible situation for Ukraine to be coming out of this. Even if it “wins,” it will be devastated by this war materially and in population terms and psychologically. This is a catastrophe. We should understand in the round the structural conditions as to how this catastrophe should occur and not just begin and end with Putin’s evil.
It’s a catastrophe for one but a legacy for at least four as you rightly pointed out. That’s also important to remember that although this war will end at some point, its legacy will be felt by a number of generations because the narratives will be passed on. You mentioned what motivates Putin but what has motivated the US, in particular, NATO more broadly to perpetuate this NATO expansion?
NATO expansion is not the singular focus of the book. To the extent that one can discern, NATO was not abolished at the end of the Cold War as a hedge against the possible rearmament and return of Russia. You could argue that NATO expansion perpetuated this and was a sensible hedge against this. Honestly, you could probably divide the world’s population in two on this. I’m not going to try to resolve that debate or dispute. Believe it or not, NATO expansion is a bit like a piece of abstract art. You can see in it what you want and in the guarantee of the protection of my country, the UK and others who’ve joined it.
What I’d say is this. NATO is perceived differently outside of the broad US alliance structure that also includes countries like Australia, Japan and others than it is inside of that structure. There’s a warm, fuzzy, benign presentation of what NATO is. It’s a defensive alliance. It’s a voluntary club. There are op-eds written in this outside the structure of the Western world. They are saying, “NATO ran an ineffectual occupation of Afghanistan for a very long period. It was the enabling vehicle for offensive action and regime change in Libya. How can you say it’s a defensive alliance?”
It’s too complex an entity to be able to come to a singular judgment with regard to it. However, in terms of what’s motivating the NATO expansion, part of it is inertia and the feeling that for the Western world, it’s been a very effective tool for guaranteeing American integration into European defence arrangements. What we will have to face is some of Donald Trump’s arguments about the Europeans paying for their defence are not going to go away.
The Ukraine war has exacerbated tensions around how Germany’s self-perception and outside perception within the West. It is unsustainable as a country that is moving beyond its historical legacies of the World War II era. That slips outside of living memory to paying more for Europe’s defence, but there is no military culture in Germany to how that is being built upon.
We may see NATO evolve very dramatically in the future simply on the basis of European self-sufficiency around defence. If that happens, NATO may then reduce its significance to being the enabler for joint Europe-American military action when that’s required, as well as the ultimate collective guarantee for European security under the US as the nuclear umbrella.
However, NATO appears to be far more important because of the fact that there is a deficiency in Europe’s ability to defend itself. Putin’s invasion means that more countries want to join NATO. The very expansion he wanted to prevent is happening. The last point is the expansion he wanted to prevent is Ukraine’s and Georgia’s memberships of NATO. I’m sure he is annoyed that Sweden and Finland want to join.
That is not as core to Putin’s understanding of Russia’s right to be a great power. In some respects, he’ll think, “So what? They’re already very tightly integrated into NATO.” What Putin’s going to try to do is turn Russia’s veto vote against Ukraine’s foreign policy direction into a generational undertaking for future Russian policymakers. How does he do that? I don’t know. I don’t think there will be any letup in this idea that Ukraine is free to make its choices in its intact form. The Russians continually find ways to prevent that from being the case.
We’re taking that one step further and also, in a way, taking this conversation towards its end. What do you see then as the most efficient and perhaps the least destructive and, most importantly, the most enduring path to peace?
One thing that Ukraine is still going to do is it’s still going to fight to recapture territory. The most enduring path to peace is understanding, at which point, its ability to retake territory becomes too costly and difficult to continually support from the outside. It’s because ultimately, Ukraine’s war effort is foreign-funded and foreign arms. Understandably, their economy is wrecked, and they will have probably gone through all their ammunition stocks at a rate that detailed military analysts are amazed.
You need to stop. This one is 155. This one is 7.62-millimetre bullets or ammunition on the number of weeks of high-intensity conventional warfare because we haven’t seen this kind of conventional warfare in so long. There is a continual need to support Ukraine to do this, but there’s a point to make a judgment around when the costs start to exceed the benefits for Ukraine as well as for those who are backing Ukraine.There is a continual need to support Ukraine, but there's a point to make a judgment around when the costs start to exceed the benefits for Ukraine as well as for those who are backing it. Click To Tweet
The thing that is always cancelled on Twitter, which is negotiation, will have to return because there will have to be some kind of negotiator’s path to ending this conflict. I mentioned Cyprus. De facto, not de jure partition. Ukraine may never recognise the fact that it’s lost Crimea and parts of Donbas. The idea is that Ukraine’s going to campaign into Crimea, and the military is going to campaign into where I was previously living in Donetsk city when those places have been under Russian occupation coming to a decade. It’s a Russian possession. In Crimea’s case, for several years, it is slightly fanciful.
What we may find is that Zelenskyy goes from being a hero to an anti-hero within some Ukrainian constituencies because he’s selling out the country. Zelenskyy has got a domestic rationale to continue the war because he’ll always look like he’s resisting the Russians. However, perpetual war at this intensity in 2022 is not possible. It’s too high a tempo. We might see a trailing off of the conflict. We might see it petering out without any formal negotiations. We might see negotiations. Those are the only paths that we can expect 2023 to lead.
If asked to design an endearing settlement, I would pick Cyprus as my model because there are some diplomatic fudges around sovereignty and territoriality that have recognised the partially successful Turkish invasion. It’s because Russians aren’t going to go anywhere. They’re going to build nurture bases. They’re going to occupy the parts of Ukraine that they occupy, and they’re going to fight hard to keep them. It doesn’t mean we have to give in to that, but at some point, those ground realities will start to take over.
The population has been homogenised in many ways. Ethnic cleansing in all its forms has certainly taken shape across those various occupied parts and that will take its toll as well. My last question, and staying with the theme of empires, what lessons can the West draw from what we are seeing unfold in Ukraine when it comes time to talk and think about China and China’s imperial desires or wishes? Maybe not imperial but post-imperial desires. What can we learn?
We need to apply our lessons very carefully. Another part of the Imperial Hangover book is to say, “Let’s not draw casual analogies that look nice on tweets and op-eds.” Let’s look at the imperial experience of these major countries for their sake and understand how the legacies are always different. The one comparison is more structural about the world. There are historical grievances that countries would not have been empowered to pursue in the era of undisputed US and Germany. They may feel they’re a little bit more empowered to do now.
China with regards to Taiwan and also, in its way, albeit domestically with Hong Kong and the suppression of the protests, that’s an expression of injustices that the Chinese leadership and dominant Chinese narratives like to tell themselves around things around the Opium Wars, things around Western colonisation and things around wars with the Japanese empire in the past. Taiwan was a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945.
The lesson is about different historical narratives powering countries through these choices in ways that cannot be influenced by Western historical narratives. The practical lessons of when there’s an invasion or what kind of invasion, there are no lessons because the Chinese will draw their conclusions about a very unique set of circumstances around Taiwan and maritime power versus land power because there’s the Taiwan Strait. It’s not very large, but it separates mainland China from Taiwan.
The other lesson that we need to keep in mind is this lesson of conflicting post-imperial narrative. Whenever the Western world will try to censor what China says about its activities regarding Hong Kong or Taiwan, the Chinese will come back and point out things that the West has done in the past. I’m not picking sides on that, but to give you one very quick example, the British government was livid over the repression of protests in Hong Kong years ago.
The Chinese ambassador to the UK and London pointed out that there were no free elections in the Crown colony of Hong Kong until the very end. I’m not saying that that is an argument to take at face value. It’s propaganda, but the comebacks and the pushbacks are all there. You’ll hear things like, “Japan is going to help defend Taiwan against the Chinese. Japan is an occupied country because the Americans have got however many hundreds of thousands of personnel in Okinawa.” You’ll hear these things which you would never have heard in a strong way many years ago in a way that would challenge these disputes.
In the Cold War, there was a lot of this going around, but we’ve got a real sense that the rise of China will empower not only China but other countries. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been dramatically influenced by his assessment of the world moving to a more Asian-centric space. He’s buttressed his economy against Western sanctions by trading more with India and China. That is another one of the big lessons that we’ve got. When the West uses sanctions, and the West militarily backs the wrong party, the challenger to the West will find ways around workarounds that maybe didn’t exist in such a way in past decades.
Maybe a second last question. Given everything we’ve talked about, I feel like that’s an important question to ask somebody like you who’s devoted so much of their professional career and cognitive power to understanding geopolitics at a macro level. What do you lose sleep over?
It was the initial bit of the Russian invasion. When you see cities that you used to live in being pummelled, and people write on Facebook about fleeing, as much as an outsider could, I felt like you’re somewhat traumatised by this, albeit you’re on the other side of the world. The time difference meant us staying up unhealthy hours and watching whether the Ukrainians would lose Kyiv. That was the big thing, and that made me lose sleep.
To a more general level, what concerns me the most is how to find spaces to articulate these themes without being accused of being a sympathiser for the wrong side. That is quite troubling. You can like democracies all you want. You can hate the Russians and the Chinese for all they’re worth, but ultimately, this great grand global readjustment that’s happening means that we need to be able to articulate middle-ground perspectives, compromise perspectives and coexistence perspectives. What makes me lose sleep is even in our democracies, there are concerted efforts to close down our spaces to have these conversations. That’s the biggest concern I have at the moment.
As a show host who’s trying to walk down the middle ground, I can’t agree enough. On that note, Samir, I always knew, having read both of your books, you have done a remarkable job of bridging such a dense subject of empire to our lay audience, which is what I am. I’m not a historian. I haven’t studied empires to this extent ever, but I’m enriched by having read both of your books.
It’s given me so much more context and munition to explore these subjects with a little bit more nuance than I have previously. I thank you for writing them. I encourage my audience to have a look at them. They are certainly worth reading. On that note, I know I’ve taken up a lot of your time, so thank you very much.
Maz, thank you so much. What a great conversation. You are too kind regarding the books. Please do pick them up. They are there to allow you to form your informed decisions about the world. I’m so glad that you took out from them, especially the Hangover book, exactly what it was intended to do. It’s to give you that historical context so when you are next scrolling through the news, you understand the bit that they don’t tell you in the news, which is where history has led to these disputes, misunderstandings and conflicts.
Thanks a lot.