Imperialism? Many Americans hoped that World War I would end the age of imperialism that had led to much of Asia and Africa being divvied up into colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence. But as Lenin would correctly note in his wartime polemic, Imperialism, the conflict was in fact a war of imperial redivision. And the Sykes-Picot agreement and what happened after the war proved that to be the case.
After the war, the great powers resorted to various subterfuges (for instance, League of Nations mandates) to maintain their hold over new or former colonies; or they adopted a neo-imperial strategy pioneered by the British in Egypt of fostering client states staffed by locals, but under the quiet control of their embassies. If the locals didn’t do as they were told, the troops were brought in. It wasn’t imperialism in the sense that the word began to be used in the 1880s, but it was a continuation of the age of empire.
These forms of great power intervention lingered in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe, in the decades after World War II, but they disappeared by the end of cold war, except in the Middle East, where they endured due to the importance of oil to the world economy and to national militaries. When the United States became the principal outside power in the region after the British announced their withdrawal in February 1947, it also assumed a version of the British neo-imperial strategy.
The United States does not have colonies in the region, but it does have client states, or protectorates, whose governments it defends and sometimes sustains in exchange for access to their oil, or in exchange to their acquiescence to American objectives in the region. As the United States demonstrated in January 1991, it will go to war to protect these states. Or as it demonstrated in 2003, it will go to war to punish nations that defy it. American relations with these states, most of which have autocratic regimes, has largely had to be conducted in secret for fear of inflaming the regime’s subjects, many of whom resent their control. So in this respect, secret diplomacy has remained endemic. And the Wikileaks revelations are in the spirit of past attempts to expose the older imperialism and its newer variations.
Is this kind of intervention a worthy target for these kind of leaks—the way that the Sykes-Picot agreement or the war in Vietnam was? After World War II, the United States justified its interventionism on the grounds of cold war necessity; and recently it has invoked the threat of radical Islamic terror. Radical Islam and its war against the United States can in turn be traced to American support for oil autocracies—Al Qaeda was borne out of opposition to American bases on Saudi soil—and America’s extensive support for Israel. Does America need to create client states in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to protect its citizens from Al Qaeda? Or from other threats? I am not going to get into these questions, but the fact that they are questions indicates why so many people around the world have been more focused on the Wikileaks rather than the Wikileaker.