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The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland

Year: 2003
Karl Meyer, currently the editor of the World Policy Journal after a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and member of the New York Times editorial board, has written a series of chapters on these countries – pearls strung on a silken string of common theme: how these countries have emerged from imperial domination or preponderance, how they have fared, and how they have coped. In the conclusions to his book the author invites the American policy-makers and the public at large to be more curious of the world beyond the US shores as a precondition for a successful involvement there. This book is a remarkable example of how such curiosity can translate into a thoughtful, understanding view of a vital part of the Eurasian continent in which the US has vital economic and security interests. The author’s views on current US policy in the region are not greatly different from those of many other critics of the rampant unilateralism of the current administration. What is special, however, is the soft-spoken tone and the restrained use of qualifiers, an approach that seems to the reviewer to be more effective than much of the hectoring now taking place on the left. Great Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. have established world-scale empires. The first chapter deals the Anglo-Saxon experience. While not eschewing open warfare and occupation when necessary, both countries have preferred indirect rule. With a difference – while Britain strove to govern while fostering its interests in the region and extracting the economic surplus, the U.S. had a much more limited ambition: its ‘informal empire’ sought to keep other powers out and to give its private economic interests a free run for their money. As a result the U.S. imperial record so far has been less shining than that of Great Britain. In Chapter II, Russia’s penetration of the Central Asian steppes is described in lively detail. Out of these steppes emerged time and again the nomadic pastoralists that repeatedly upset the agricultural civilisations to the south. The great nomadic migrations were the key events that changed historical development of the continent. Powerless to repulse the nomads, the agriculturalists nevertheless managed to overcome them each time through absorption. The horse was the nomad’s means of conquest. But the nomads could not feed the vast herds of horses once on agricultural land – they had to dismount and settle as rulers on the land. Russia was different – if it could withdraw into the forests to the north of the steppes when the hordes invaded the open country, it had no choice but slowly to roll back the invasion in order to regain its economic base. This it did, and in its unyielding quest for safe borders it ended up conquering the steppes all the way to Mongolia. Now that the nomadic danger is no more, Russia can turn west again, and vie for integration in Europe – argues the author. The chapter on Iran is a sad tale of American ignorance, short-sighted greed and selective memory. The way the western powers have dealt over time with Iran is a disgrace. The same tale has now been outlined in more detail by Stephen Kinzer in his recent book: All the Shah’s men: An American coup and the roots of Middle East terror. Wisely the author eschews an all-round assessment of the Pakistani historical experience and focuses in particular on the evolution in the North-West Frontier Province and its links to Afghanistan. He takes the opportunity to pay homage to Abdul Ghaffar Khan, once famous as the ‘frontier Gandhi’. His side-lining at the moment of independence may have lost the region a great chance for a constructive settlement of the borderissues and created the preconditions for the festering cancer of fundamentalism that now afflicts the region. The Afghanistan chapter covers in 20 pages the recent history of this wretched country whose bane has been to have been the object of the grandest imperial delusions or paranoia. That anyone could have believed in earnest that Russia could invade India by marching up the Khyber Pass is mind-boggling. As for the shameful U.S. involvement, it is sufficiently known to require no further comment. The last two chapters deal with the Caucasus on the one side and Central Asia on the other. They provide competent, even inspired glimpses of the political and economic realities and the staggering complexities that bedevil the region. The author is very guarded is assessing the current role of the U.S. in the region. The jumble of underlying motives – from access to oil to containment of Russia, to the war on terrorism – does not bode well for a coherent and long-term approach and a sustained and coherent involvement. In the Epilogue Karl E. Meyer pleads for a multilateral approach to the issue of external presence and influence in the region. Such a presence will be needed to sustain these countries as they struggle to overcome their imperial experience and the lunatic inheritance left behind by the former powers. Wise words – plain common sense – yet unlikely to be heeded by the current administration or remembered by a hypothetical new incumbent. Though the book is written for an American audience, it will be of great benefit to anyone who wants to obtain an overview of the historical and political developments in the region. If one is to fault the book, it is for failing to point out what is ‘at the other side of the hill’ – to paraphrase Wellington’s words. Central Eurasia is not gong to remain the private playground for the U.S. and Russia much longer. China, India, and Europe, the three great continental powers in Eurasia, will successively become more active here – for economic reasons as they compete in earnest for scarce natural resources, but also in response to broader security concerns. If for the U.S. Islamic fundamentalism is a terrorist threat that can be dealt with by military means, the concern of the Eurasian powers goes well beyond the narrow warding off of this threat. Stability in the region can be sustained only if Islam is integrated and becomes a partner in development. In this perspective a military stance might be counterproductive. Accommodation will be needed, and a modus vivendi will have to be sought that may not satisfy the Manichean mindset now prevalent in Washington. There is here the potential for a strategic conflict between the continental powers and the ‘insular’ U.S., a conflict in which Russia, already economically much more tied to Europe than to the U.S., is likely to side with the other regional powers. Geographically isolated, the U.S. may then end up being also politically isolated, just as Great Britain did at the height of its ‘splendid isolation’ stance.
Review by Aldo Matteucci