Empires and Spheres of Influence


“The War demonstrated to the world, including ourselves, that the British Empire was not an abstraction but a living force to be reckoned with.” David Lloyd George, 1921

Tony Blinken, US national security adviser, has said of Russia’s aspirations: “We continue to reject the notion of a sphere of influence. We continue to stand by the right of sovereign democracies to choose their own alliances. (2014)

World history courses cover the rise and fall of empires. A related concept is “spheres of influence’, which examines how countries control other parts of the world without directly administering them. I note them here and will discuss them further in a future posting.

Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain had empires which they ruled in various ways, and the Soviet Union had a sphere of pretty direct interest in parts of Eastern Europe but also in Cuba and North Korea. Vietnam went from being part of the French Empire to the Chinese sphere of interest to an independent country with no love for either the French or Chinese. China can be considered either a country or a series of regions over which it exerts considerable influence. It is now trying to extend that influence to maritime regions in the South China Sea.

Like friction between tectonic plates, conflict occurs when empires or spheres of influence come into contact. Today Russia and the West are in conflict in the lands of western Russia and eastern Europe. In the Middle East the unrest is more like a civil war within the Muslim faith which spills over to other regions. Where does the world stand today and how might the influence of different countries expand and contract? I start by examining the experience of the British Empire.

Personal experience

I was educated in the 1940s in English classrooms where maps of the world had large areas coloured red designating the British Empire. While the heyday of the Empire was all over by then, and had been on a sharp decline since 1918, this was not the impression given to us. Reference would often be made to Churchill’s remark that he was not going “to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire”. That is exactly what his and other governments did in the postwar years.

After schooling I undertook national service in Kenya during the Mau Mau period which turned out to be a step to Kenyan independence, although that was not how we saw it at the time. Remarkably, when Kenyans took over they encouraged the white settlers to stay and manage their farms and businesses. Jomo Kenyatta, who had been imprisoned for a number of years, could have forced them to leave, but didn’t. Today his son is president. In neighbouring Uganda, African leaders expelled many of the Asians living there, and in Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), the nature of post-colonial rule is well known with adverse consequences for all races, except for supporters of the current regime. All three African countries remained part of the Commonwealth as did India and Pakistan. Burma, now Myanmar, did not, and left in 1949.

Since the 1950s, I have lived in and visited other parts of the once British Empire now called The Commonwealth of Nations. Originally named the British Commonwealth, British was dropped from the title, and currently two member countries were never part of the empire. It was General Jan Smuts who suggested the name “commonwealth” to reflect a grouping of countries which shared common values, and similar judicial and governing systems.

I have lived in Canada since 1955, for the past 44 years in Ottawa where the British presence is paramount in the parliamentary and judicial systems. Streets, parks, bridges and holidays are named after British connections, as are parts of the Canadian armed forces. The same is true for other parts of Canada, especially in British Columbia. Just south of Ottawa is New England, smothered with names connecting to the homes of the rebellious colonists. Although the British lost its empire, it’s influence is pervasive in many parts of the world. Living in and visits to Australia, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and the US have illustrated this for me for those parts of the world once coloured red.

The empire’s former physical presence is only part of the story. Its spread throughout the world was also driven by commercial ties across the Atlantic to North America and with settler colonies, and to parts of South America with no settlement but trade and investment relationships. In Asia, there was less need for settlers, only soldiers and civil servants, but the lure of trade drove the British to the Indian sub-continent where its influence remains, as well as to places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.

Ownership of the Suez Canal and a presence in Egypt was driven by the need to keep control of trade routes to the east. In Afghanistan, Britain fought and lost three wars in an attempt to deter Russian southward expansion which might threaten its trade route to the east. Similar pressures exist today in the South Caucasus and the “stans.” Russia is supportive of the Assad regime in Syria in order to retain trade access to the south, and is worried about the Russian fighters from regions such as Chechyna, who are fighting for ISIS/ISIL, and support separation from Russia.

There is an extensive and ongoing literature on the impact of the British Empire on today’s world, and I am familiar with all the negative assessments. Below, I lay out a counterfactual situation. What is a likely alternative to what would have happened in the absence of a British imperial presence? Here one must travel like Phineas Fog to make a realistic evaluation.

Todays context

Two countries not colonized by European powers are Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Britain, Russia and the US have tried several times since 1800 in the case of Afghanistan and all have failed. That piece of real estate remains a tribal society with economic prosperity, such as exists, based on the growth and sale of opium. Maybe a bit of imperialism might have helped raise living standards for Afghanis. Italy had a go in Ethiopia and failed. Today that society is not a shining example of prosperity and respect for human rights. The same could be said about Somalia which was only lightly touched by imperialism.

At the other extreme are the settler colonies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and the thirteen American colonies which later transformed into the US. These are the societies to which refugees from developing countries migrate either legally or illegally. The British Empire shaped and settled these countries.

The Indian subcontinent has good and less good stories to recount. India has emerged as a middle power since independence in 1949. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have mixed records. It is doubtful that India could have coalesced into a unified country without the commercial and political influence which the empire had. Gandhi who trained and worked as a lawyer in England had a healthy respect for the British legal system.

Malaysia and Singapore have respectable economic and political records, the latter today a highly successful city state, not unlike Hong Kong, now part of China but with a more open political system than occurs on the mainland. While the British Empire did not extend politically to China, it did have commercial ties including the promotion of opium imports in order to pay for the goods imported to the UK from China. The empire had no direct political involvement in Japan, although indirectly it did through the US occupation after WW2.

In South America, Great Britain had what some call an invisible empire by way of trade and investment. Whatever system rules there today is not a result of direct British involvement. A similar conclusion relates to Russia.

It is to Africa that the critics of Empire especially point to as an example of the harm caused by imperialism, British and other. Africa is a large area with a number of countries and developmental experiences, some worse than others. Even if one accepts that British involvement did not do good job, it’s performance was better than that of Belgium and Portugal. But it is now at least 50 years since many African countries have had independence and the performance of local elites has done little to improve the local situation despite the examples which are available elsewhere in the world, and which other developing countries have followed.

There are horror stories to recount in places like the Congo, Rwanda, the Sudan, Nigeria, parts of West Africa, Libya and Zimbabwe. Arguably, the cause may not be too much but too little imperialism of the right sort. When a global tour is taken of where the British Empire prevailed in former times, selective choice of the naughty bits fails to tell the complete story. A reading of the African section of the weekly Economist often describes a depressing series of events in many parts of Africa. Mauritius, Botswana and South Africa have positive records.

In contrast to those who finger the British Empire for the lack of development in many parts of the world, I think the evidence points in the opposite direction. But mainly if in the case of Africa, Great Britain had not colonized parts of the continent, other countries would have. Tribal regions living in a peaceful state with respect for human rights was never the case and would not have existed today. An agreed upon counterfactual is necessary for any debate on this topic.


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