Servitor Imperialism.

Although the golden age of imperialism is long past, the early 21st century has seen a resurgence or perhaps a new form of imperialism in the guise of US-led expeditionary wars to “bring democracy” to rogue or failed states. Besides the wars of occupation waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the not so covert intervention in Libya and ongoing US military activities in places like Somalia, the Sudan, Colombia, the Philippines and Nigeria suggests that far from being an outmoded concept, the notion of neo-imperialist supremacy is alive and well.

A lesser known aspect of imperialism is the role of servitor imperialists. Servitor imperialist were the colonial troops that deployed and fought for their imperial master. The Scots, Welsh, Australians and New Zealanders all played the servitor role for the British Empire, fighting and dying in places like Gallipoli where none of their core national interests were at risk. Unlike mercenaries, these servitor troops fought out of loyalty to the Crown rather than for money. Today the Gurkhas continue to do the same.

Other former great powers such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese also drew troops from their colonies as they attempted to hold on to their global possessions, albeit with mixed success.

In the 20th century the great wars can be seen as existential threats to the way of life of the servitor former colonies and colonial possessions. The Korean conflict and Vietnam war were less so, but the argument was made the global communism was an existential threat to Western capitalist societies and their allies in the developing world. So the servitor troops stumped up in them as well.

Today, it seems that the role of Imperial hegemon is played by the US, but the twist is that its servitor forces are drawn from allied militaries with UN backing and retain relative command autonomy in the field. Australia and New Zealand again are playing their historic role in fighting in conflicts which, if one removes the idea that the conflicts are about eliminating global terrorism, have little to do with their core national interests (and truth be told, while terrorism is a nasty tactic in an unconventional warfare strategy, it poses no existential threat to any but the most fragile of states, so using the threat of global terrorism as an excuse to join foreign conflicts is a bit of a stretch). Here too, the deployment of servitor imperialist troops is done out of allegiance rather than money: Australia and New Zealand perceive that there is an alliance obligation to help the US in its military adventures, one that may or may not be rewarded not so much in kind (as neither OZ and NZ face physical threats to their territorial integrity) but in other areas of bilateral endeavor such as trade or diplomatic negotiations more central to the servitor’s concerns such as climate change or arms control.

In this era the term “imperialism” is fraught. But just because it has become a dirty word in some circles does not mean that it does not exist, or that the practice of playing servitor imperialists to other great powers is not ongoing. What has changed is the guise in which servitor imperialism occurs, with less Imperial ordering and more multinational cover given to the actions of less powerful countries who send troops to fight in the conflicts instigated by their Great Power allies. It as if there is a cultural disposition in some former colonies to want to serve the Master even if there is no longer a colonial leash tying them together.

Thus, for purposes of definition (there is a good body of scholarly literature on the subject), servitor imperialism is a situation where the natives and descendants of subjugated or colonized nations and sub-national political communities pledge fealty and serve in the wars of their Imperial masters even though no core interest of their homeland is at stake or in jeopardy. In the modern servitor neo-imperialist version, former colonies or subjugated nations send their citizens to fight in wars of the new Imperial hegemon when no core interest is at stake. The difference between this syndrome and a proper military alliance is that in the latter there is a common recognized existential threat that militarily binds countries together, whereas the servitor imperialist approach sees benefit in joining non-essential foreign conflicts instigated and prosecuted by neo-imperialist powers for reasons of their own and without regard to the core interests of the servitors. The syndrome is rooted in a cultural disposition to “serve” the master, whether it be old or new. Leninists might say that is playing the role of useful fool in international security affairs, but whatever the case the syndrome appears alive and well in some parts of the world.

I reflect on this because I have noticed a lot of pro-British chicken hawk rhetoric in rightwing NZ blogs about the current tensions with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falklands islands. For those unaware of the issue, in April we will reach the 30th anniversary of the 6 week war between the UK and Argentina over the islands. Although most Argentines have no interest in renewing hostilities and the Argentine military has made no moves to suggest a desire to retake the islands by force, right-wing Nationalists within Argentina have stepped up their bellicose rhetoric. Even thought the Argentine Right fringe is small, it has influence in some political circles, including with the governing Peronist Party. That has forced the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and some provincial authorities (since Argentina is a federal republic) to attempt to placate that part of the electorate with public and diplomatic complaints about the ongoing UK military presence in the archipelago (since the UK controls the South Georgia islands, also re-taken in the 1982 war). For its part the UK media has jumped on tits own Nationalist bandwagon, seeing such things as the Crown Prince’s search and rescue deployment to the Falklands as a reaffirmation of the glory days of Pax Britannica.

Truth be told, although Argentina was ceded the Malvinas after its independence from Spain in 1810 (as Spain had control of them until then), the British presence extends back to the 1830s when the few Argentine whalers and sealers resident on the islands were forced  off and the territory proclaimed British. British settlers have had a continuous presence since then and their descendants (now into their eighth generation) consider themselves British subjects. Since possession is 9/10th of the law and the “kelpers” as they are called consider themselves to be part of the UK, it is extremely unlikely that the islands will ever be returned to Argentina.

Argentines know this and except for the Right fringe, accept the verdict of history. In fact, the reason for Argentina’s continued diplomatic protestations about the Malvinas/Falklands is that there are vast oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed around the islands, as well as the fisheries in adjacent waters. Now that technology allows for the exploitation of these resources, Argentines want part of that action. Extending Argentine territorial claims out to the islands (600 nautical miles off shore) allows the Federal Government  to negotiate the commercial aspects of these potentially lucrative resource deposits, and for that to occur Argentina needs diplomatic backing for its claims. Needless to say, the UK has no intention of allowing that to happen.

Thus, while the kelpers are clearly disposed to play the role of servitor imperialists for the UK, it is a bit odd to read all the bluster and anti-Argentine rantings coming out of certain NZ rightwing circles. It is as if they retain their servitor attitudes long after the Empire has faded, something that, with a slight change in orientation, the National government appears to hold as well.


14 thoughts on “Servitor Imperialism.

  1. “The Scots, Welsh, Australians and New Zealanders all played the servitor role for the British Empire”

    The first two would not be servitor since they are British subjects.

    “Thus, while the kelpers are clearly disposed to play the role of servitor imperialists for the UK”

    Again, there is something wrong with your classification. The Islanders are British by virtue of their citizenship so how can they be servitor imperialists?

  2. zed:

    The Scots and Welsh were/are different nations subjugated by the British. Their servitor status stems from that subjugation. The issue of the kelpers is less complicated, as they are indeed of British descent and are British citizens. But otherwise they are British in name only (and archaic British at that, since they share none of modern day Britain’s social characteristics and problems), which combined with the tyranny of distance objectively places them in a colonial situation (since most keepers are native born rather than British migrants). Thus, although a strict interpretation of “colonial” would seemingly exclude these populations from the case sample, their servitor role and attitudes are clear.

  3. Pablo – if it were not for your precision with language I would give you a pass. England is England. Britain includes Scot Irish and Welsh. three of the last three British prime ministers have strong Scottish roots.
    By your logic Texas is not really part of America and thus the bush wars are not really America the hegemon but Texas.
    You could correctly have identified those Irish who fought for Britain in WWII even after independence of their own country.
    That misclassification spoils the theory you are trying to promote.
    I struggle to recognise the inclusion of Nigeria and Colombia is fighting a drug funded insurgency on its own soil. That hardly makes it imperialist. the drug money is American so it seems reasonable that the bill for fighting it is sent in that direction also.
    Simply the idea that UN is an imperialist tool is laughable.
    Our next head of state but one is serving in the falklands. There remains a strong and legitimate cultural connection. Argentina is as you say eying up the oil and has many useful idiots like Sean Penn out there

  4. Phil:

    I have added a definition of the term in the post that encapsulates the concept, and have explained in my reply to zed the reasons why the Scots and Welsh (and Irish) can be considered to have played the role of servitor imperialists at certain times. The point of the post is simply to note the continued servitor imperialist role and attitudes that exist in some countries, NZ and OZ included.

    You are mistaken if you think that US military presence in Colombia is just part of a drug war or that Nigeria is not part of a larger American project that extends beyond fighting Bokum Harum. What I will note is the absurdity of people thinking that the UK and Argentina will go to war again. Unlike in 1982, both are democracies, which means that regardless of right wing nationalist rhetoric on both sides, government leaders need to weigh their actions against the backdrop of public opinion and parliamentary opposition. So regardless of the chicken hawk cheerleading emanating from armchair servitors, it a’int gonna happen.

  5. “…It is as if they retain their servitor attitudes long after the Empire has faded…”

    But what Empire, and has it really faded?

    I was recently on holiday, and on it I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller who turned out to be a German from East Berlin now living in Switzerland (but commutes to London regularly for work) and working in the banking sector. She was on her first holiday to this part of the southern hemisphere. We got on very well, and soon added each other on Facebook where we made the astounding discovery that we already had two mutual friends, one in the UK and one in Thailand. I recount this astonishing tale because while there are seven billion humans, it occurs to me that that subset that speaks English fluently, is under 35, comes from Europe, can afford frequent international travel and works in white collar jobs is a tiny subset indeed. A subset that is much more privileged and integrated into a sort of global super-class than we (who mostly take all those things for granted) might suppose.

    In many ways middle class New Zealanders are part of an integrated global ruling class that is every bit as tiny and fabulously privileged compared to the vast bulk of the population as the pre-Great War European aristocracy. Therefore should the idea that those on the right – who at the least perceive themselves to be part of and beneficiaries of the system that created this super-class – might have a colonial servitor attitude to an ongoing global super-empire be that surprising?

  6. Pablo, I know you hate “nitpicking” but I think you mean “archipelago” not “atoll” when talking about the Falklands and South Georgia.

    I think we have to go a step further. Australia and NZ were not ‘servitor imperialists’ somehow duped into the Imperial project by mean ‘ole Britain. They were imperialists, no qualification needed. It’s true that the average Ozzie or Kiwi digger in Gallipolli wasn’t really well served by the Imperial project, but nor was the average British tommy or French grognard. Both New Zealand and Australia were keen to gobble up territories in the Pacific in pretty much exactly the same way that the UK did. The only real difference was scale.

    One of the most offensive parts of the Gallipolli myth is that it attempts to set up pakeha New Zealanders as victims of Imperialism, not beneficiaries of it.

  7. Hugh:

    Indeed you are correct about the proper terminology and the correction has been made.

    As for OZ and NZ being full-fledged imperialists, perhaps in their immediate patch yes, but further afield no. And even the sad history of Antipodean interventionism in the Southwestern Pacific came as much at the behest of foreign powers as it did out of any indigenous strategic perspective. But your point is taken.

  8. Pablo, I think you’re wrong about NZ’s imperialist adventures being done at the behest of London. London was mostly indifferent to, and sometimes faintly annoyed by, the whole Western Samoan “project”.

  9. Hugh, so what you’re saying is that the European imperial leaderships were even dumber than I thought? After all, at roughly the same time NZ stole Germany’s Samoan colony, Japan was helping itself to Germany’s concession in Qingdao and Micronesian colonies. It had already colonised Korea (1910) and had forced the Qing Empire to cede Taiwan in 1895 and was just as keen to carve up China as the US and the big European empires. London must’ve been perfectly well aware of Japan’s expansionism.

    Or (hastily dreamed up consipracy theory alert), considering the British concession at Weihaiwei (modern Weihai; used to recruit the Chinese Labour Corps) was such a short distance from the German concession at Qingdao, was there an understanding between London and Tokyo about how Germany’s Asian and Pacific colonies were to be handled?

  10. I’ll second Hugh on the whole “NZ’s imperialist adventures” angle: when the government of New Zealand signalled it’s intention to take control of the Cook Islands, the then leaders of the Cook Islands petitioned Westminster to take control instead (given New Zealand’s bad reputation of being colonial masters, Westminster was considered a safer bet). Westminster declined, noting that the UK wasn’t really interested in Empire anymore, but they did signal Wellington that they would be watching how the takeover went.

  11. Chris, your question seems to be based on the idea that New Zealand gobbling up Western Samoa was somehow an effective counter to Japanese imperialism.

    I don’t really see how that was the case.

  12. In addition to the servitor imperialist attitude that abounds on certain blogs (and in the minds of many of our politicians) supporting Britain’s continued occupation of the islands, blatant racism adds fuel to the loyalist fire in their bellies.

    Also, I would take minor issue with your claim that it is “extremely unlikely” for Argentina to reclaim the islands.

    History shows again and again that, given time, national interests and allegiances change, so I would never say never to an eventual resolution that sees Argentina regain its righful ownership.

    For example, it could well be that before those deep sea fields of oil and gas can be exploited, global actions to mitigate against climate change may see those resources once again become uneconomic to exploit, and future British governments may seek to remove this particular irritant from its political agenda.

    And if we don’t act to reduce emissions, well, with then-certain multi-metre sea level rise, what’s going to be left to argue over eventually, anyway?

  13. It seems hooliganism, materialism or militarism (especially counter-jihadism) – or an unholy alliance of all the above – are the symptoms of a post-imperialist identity crisis that feels the desperate need to dominate anything that moves. The English soccer casuals and their English Defence League spin-off, and the US Tea Party movement are the most obvious cases in point.

  14. I should also add that the “servitor imperialists” as described by Pablo come across as cargo-cultists in the post-colonial world. Closer to home, it’s pretty easy to see it in the obsession with a US-NZ-FTA and the related desire to weaken the anti-nuclear policy, in defiance of all reason.

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