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 Â 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 Â 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.