The oldest of the world’s many empires is said to be the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, 4000 years ago. By their very nature, they have been built with invasions. For much of human history, no justification was needed for these conquests, other than might-is-right arguments. This is famously expressed by Thucydides in the Peloponnesian Wars, when Athenians tell the much weaker Melians: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
When did we come to realize that might-makes-right is a morally defective stance, and imperialism is objectionable? Perhaps the shift began in Ancient Rome when Tacitus criticized the Roman conquest of Britain in his treatise Agricola. Or maybe the anti-imperialist ethos was truly born when 16th century Spanish theologian Francisco de Victoria formulated a theory of just war, and in so doing, expressed serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Be that as it may, one thing is clear: while empires have existed throughout the whole world for four millennia, the moral questioning of imperialism only began among Western colonial powers. And it came as no surprise that when the last of these empires began to crumble in the last 300 years, anti-colonialist leaders relied on Western intellectual traditions to challenge their colonial overlords.
But this is not acknowledged by woke activists. In their narrative, Western conquests are the only ones to ever deserve blame. As per woke mythologies, Pope Urban II was little more than a thug who sparked the Crusades in 1095 —a series of military campaigns to retake Jerusalem from Muslim rulers. But somehow, the prior Islamic conquest of Palestine gets a free pass from the woke thought-police.
This double standard is now once again applied. Ever since the death of George Floyd, statues of 19th century British imperialists—such as Cecil Rhodes— have been toppled.
But when it comes to the most visible imperialist of the 21st century, the woke are more cautious. Needless to say, that imperialist is Vladimir Putin. For, what is Russia’s approach to Ukraine, if not sheer imperialism? An important concept in anti-imperialist ideology is sovereignty: each nation is entitled to make its own decisions, including which military alliance to join. Clearly, Putin ignores this principle for Ukraine.
The usual suspects in the far-left have bent over backwards to try to excuse Putin, because ultimately, anyone who confronts the West deserves some sort of defence.
Noam Chomsky — the same intellectual who has been relentlessly critical of American interventions abroad — has argued that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was illegal. But he seems eager to excuse it by adding that “even apart from strong internal support for the annexation, Crimea is historically Russian; it has Russia’s only warm-water port, the home of Russia’s fleet; and has enormous strategic significance.”
The woke are not willing to challenge this sugar-coating of Russian imperialism, because Chomsky is too big a saint in their religion. Interestingly, the woke are willing to challenge Russian imperialism — if the defence of Putin comes from alleged white supremacists. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has claimed that Putin “just wants to keep his western borders secure”. Predictably, the liberal media has bombarded Carlson with criticism, even though they remained silent when Chomsky made similar statements.
When it comes to Putin and Russian imperialism, it seems the woke have a very ambivalent position. On the one hand, they are reluctant to criticize a strongman who to a large extent, is attempting to carve a new Soviet Union — the same power that in the old days, confronted Reagan and Thatcher, and (hypocritically) stood for anti-colonialism in Africa.
On the other hand, given the woke’s obsession with race, the fact that Russia is a white-majority country gives them second thoughts about excusing their expansionism. The woke are disturbed by white empires but are far less concerned with empires of colour. While wokesters come hard on Tucker Carlson for seemingly excusing Russia, they leave Lebron James alone when he tries to sugar-coat China’s abuses. And make no mistake: Chinese imperialism is as bad as Russian imperialism, if not worse. The occupation of Tibet, the internment of Uyghurs and the suppression of Hong Kong activists should serve as reminders.
To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, identity politics poisons everything. Anti-imperialism is a reasonable stance. Sadly, in recent times anti-imperialism has proven to be a farce. Whereas sincere anti-imperialists would criticize all empires, the woke criticize empires, depending on two identity-based criteria: the colour of the skin of the imperialists and the political ideology of those who criticize the empire.