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Part 6b: Imperialism and fragmentation
By Henry C K Liu

  • Part 1: The race toward barbarism
  • Part 2: That old time religion
  • Part 3: Rule of law vs Confucianism
  • Part 4: Taoism and modernity
  • Part 5: The Enlightenment and modernity
  • Part 6a: Imperialism as modernity

    While Western Europe marched steadily toward integration, the non-Western world was, and continues to be, fragmented for easy exploitation in the name of national self-determination.

    The British and the French incited the Arabs with pan-Arabism against Ottoman rule, in order to divide the Arab nation into fragmented, weak entities dependent on British and French protection and influence. While Asia and South America are finally moving toward regional integration in the 21st century, albeit still slowly, the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa are still fragmented at the mercy of neo-liberal neo-imperialism led by the United States as the new post-Cold War hegemon. For the non-Western world, resistance to Westernization has yet to be recognized as a prerequisite to true modernization. Globalization of Western culture is the most insidious form of cultural imperialism. What is needed may well be a new Ottomanism of political virtue to rescue the Middle East and the Balkans from perpetual Western domination and exploitation.

    The Crimean War (1854-56), like so many of the later Ottoman conflicts with Europe, was instigated not by the Ottomans but by inter-European rivalry. Czarist Russia, Westernized by Peter the Great (1682-1725), was primarily interested in territory as part of a quest for warm-water ports to the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Russia had been gradually annexing Muslim states in Central Asia. By 1854, Russia found itself edging toward the shores of the Black Sea. Anxious to annex territories in Eastern Europe, particularly the Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia (now in modern Moldova and Romania), the Russians forced a war on Ottomanism on the pretext that the Ottomans had granted Catholic France, rather than Greek Orthodox Russia, the right to protect Christian sites in the Holy Land, which the Ottomans controlled.

    The Crimean War was unique in Ottoman history in that the conflict was not motivated, managed or even influenced by Ottoman policy or interests. The war was a European conflict fought on Ottoman territory, with Britain and France allying with the Ottomans in order to protect their own lucrative economic interests in the region from Russian infringement. The war ended badly for the Russians, with unfavorable terms in the Paris Peace of 1856, but the Ottomans as victors fared even worse. From that point onward, the Ottoman Dominion fell under direct European domination and earned the derisive label as "the sick man of Europe". The Crimean War marked the decline in Ottoman morale and self-respect.

    Europeans, for their part, no longer saw the Ottoman state as an equal force as they had three centuries earlier, but as a pliant victim that could be manipulated for larger European purposes. This Eurocentric geopolitics permeated beyond Ottoman territories, throughout the whole world, especially in the final decades of dynastic China.

    The imperialist push from Europe, revived after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, took on new economic and racist dimensions. Colonization took on the added objective of developing new markets for manufactured products of European industrialization, and a self-righteous mission of the White Man's Burden. It differed from the current post-Cold-War neo-imperialism of finance capitalism, in which manufacturing is outsourced to low-wage emerging economies through the globalization of finance controlled from New York, but with the equally self-righteous mission of spreading Western democracy to the non-Western world.

    After the Napoleonic Wars, which had lasted 22 years until the Congress of Vienna in 1814, war-weariness had permeated throughout Britain and Europe. Throughout that time, only Britain had consistently opposed revolutionary France. Other European nations had been defeated by the French grand armies and/or had signed peace treaties with hitherto invincible Napoleon.

    Britain was still recuperating from the huge sacrifice made during the French Wars, which had cost it Stg600 million (British gross domestic product even in 1850, 35 years later, was only Stg570 million). Britain depended on mercantilist trade for survival. Its colonies provided raw materials and a ready market for its manufactured products. Invisible earnings - banking and insurance, what modern economists call factor income - provided rising amounts of incoming cash to the British economy for further industrialization. The two ancient civilizations, the Ottoman Dominion and China, become ideal targets in the British quest for new markets and colonies.

    Trade invariably suffered in a shooting war, so Britain adopted gunboat diplomacy. After 1830, Britain became the "Workshop of the World", needing more raw materials to maintain its growing industries financed with new wealth reaped from overseas, and more markets for the finished goods in a mercantilist trade regime. It also needed safe shipping routes. Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) boasted that he wanted only peace and prestige, a euphemism to justify his gunboat diplomacy to expand illegitimate British interests all over the world. The Opium War (1841) in China, "the sick man of Asia", opened China to Western imperialism. While the British smuggled opium to China from British India, Yankee Clippers from Boston shipped opium from Turkey, grown under British supervision. Much of the profit from opium trade went to Boston and through Boston banks to finance the expansion of the US west.

    The war indemnity of the Opium War in 1841 alone imposed on China the payment to Britain of Stg10 million, Stg3 million of which was for the destruction of confiscated opium. The Opium War opened China to five decades of foreign aggression and exploitation, draining wealth on a massive scale from China to Europe and the United States. In 1900, the war indemnity from an Eight-Power Coalition invasion of China as a result of the xenophobic Boxers Uprising forced China to pay 982 million taels (1 tael = 34 grams) of pure silver at the then market price of three taels per pound sterling, yielding Stg327 million, of which Russia received 29 percent, Germany 20 percent, France 15 percent, Britain 11 percent, Japan 7.7 percent and the US 7.3 percent.

    Still, this was a mere pittance compared with the profits from systemic economic exploitation of China. This massive drain of silver, coupled with mounting structural economic domination and exploitation, regularly transferred wealth out of China for a century, robbing China of the capital resources needed to modernize, which Westerners blamed instead on China's failure to Westernize her "backward" society.

    It was the wealth taken at gunpoint from the non-Western world through imperialism that had fueled the West's modernization, not the Enlightenment, not Western democracy. Westernization was the cause of the non-Western world's demise, not its salvation. Westernization of the non-Western world made resistance to Western gunboat diplomacy ineffective and rendered Western domination a self-fulfilling proposition. This simple fact is still true today - only today, neo-imperialism is called "globalization" and gunboat diplomacy has been replaced with cruise-missile diplomacy.

    In Britain, the Reform Bill of 1832 perpetuated the English medieval system of feudal political rights and rejected the new radical ideas of "equality for all" as espoused by the rhetoric of the French Revolution. Instead of the French system of political representation of equal number of voters under the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, the British held on to the feudal practice of having members of the House of Commons represent land-bound political units such as boroughs and counties, with little regard for population size or for efforts to create equal-size electoral districts. The British suffrage was distributed according to economic substance, reliability and tenure.

    The British prided themselves as successful resistors of modernity and identified as their strength an attachment to tradition. Industrialization put British society on a dialectic path toward a worker revolution, as compared with the French Revolution, which was an aristocratic insurrection against the absolute monarchy, taken over by the bourgeoisie through manipulation of peasant discontent with the aristocracy. Had Louis XVI sided with the peasants instead of the aristocrats, France might have ended up as a constitutional monarchy. The Reform Bill diffused revolutionary energy in Britain and provided a mechanism through which social changes could be managed peacefully and accomplished gradually through legal and political means. The secret of Britain's success was its restraint of the rush toward modernity.

    Socially progressive laws were only gradually enacted over a period of 15 years, such as the 1833 abolition of slavery within the empire; the Factory Act of 1833 forbidding child labor; the 1835 Municipal Act, which broke up the old landed oligarchies; the Mining Act of 1842 forbidding the use of women and of children under 10 in underground mines; and the Ten Hour Act of 1847. The celebrated liberal John Bright, a Quaker and cotton magnate, attacked the Ten Hour Act as "a delusion practiced on the working classes", citing principles of laissez-faire, free markets, free trade and individual liberty for both employers and workers, in rhetoric similar to that used by neo-liberals today in opposition to the adoption of minimum wages and the regulation against sweatshop conditions. The Ten Hour Act stood, and British industry prospered.

    The 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, which had protected domestic agriculture controlled by the landed gentry, reaffirmed the evolutionary consequences of the Reform Bill by an alliance between factory workers who wanted lower food prices, and their new industrialist employers in support of free trade. Henceforth, free trade became British national policy, and the need for imported food became the popular justification for empire, which was to be upheld by control of the sea by an unrivaled British navy. The Age of the New Imperialism thus was born by transferring British-European feudal systems of privileges overseas to the non-Western World. There was nothing modern about it.

    Between 1405 and 1433, a period when China possessed the world's most advanced seafaring technology, the navigator/sailor Zheng He, a Muslim Chinese, explored the seas not for imperialistic expansion but to satisfy the Ming Court's demand for exotic commodities from distant lands. Zheng even brought back from Africa giraffes, ostriches and zebras. Yet the Ming Court abruptly stopped Chinese navigational adventure in 1433, after the death of Zheng. This history baffles Western observers, whose later experience in the West associates navigational adventure with empire-building.

    For 28 years (1405-33), Zheng commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries, through Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In 1420, the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe. A great fleet of big ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men each, set sail in July 1405, almost a century before Christopher Columbus's voyage to America. There were great treasure ships more than 90 meters long and 45m wide, the biggest being 134m long and 57m across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers. Columbus's Santa Maria was only 26m long. Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.

    Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, artisans, medical men and meteorologists, but only a small number of soldiers. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods and books. The fleet sailed along China's coast to Champa, close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java and Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back, it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calcutta in India and several other countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He's second and third voyages taken shortly after followed roughly the same route.

    In the autumn of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng's ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le. In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the visiting foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar and may have reached Mozambique.

    The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast. Loaded with Chinese silk and porcelain, the junks visited ports around the Indian Ocean. Here, Arab and African merchants exchanged spices, ivory, medicines, rare woods, and pearls so eagerly sought by the Chinese imperial court. Zheng He died in the 10th year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Xuande (1433) and was buried in the southern outskirts of Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing. Inscribed on top of the tomb are the Arabic words "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great"). Unlike Columbus and Vasco da Gama, Zheng He did not found any colonies for a Chinese empire. Nor did China turn its seafaring technology into empire-building as the British did in the 19th century.

    China never had an empire structure in the Western concept of the term as exemplified by the Roman Empire or the British Empire. Chinese territorial expansion was more along the line of the Ottoman Dominion or the European Union today, with the eager peripheral aspired to join a reluctant center for obvious benefits. Much of the historical expansion of China took place when China was under "Barbarian" occupation, such as the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty and the Manchurian Qing Dynasty. The ruling dynastic houses of "barbaric" origin were inevitably assimilated into Chinese culture, much like the way the Germanic House of Battenberg (Windsor) in Britain adopted British culture.

    In this respect, the Chinese Empire was different from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in which the diverse population was never homogenized and the ruling house remained exclusively Germanic in ethnicity and French in culture. Nor was it similar to the British Empire, for similar reasons. Whenever China was strong and prosperous in history, Chinese foreign policy tended to be isolationist, fending off intruders, rather than expansionist for conquest, as the European new monarchies did. When China became weak and poor in the 19th century from Western imperialism, foreign partition plots took the form of thinly disguised separatism movements. The Ottoman Dominion had many common characteristics with dynastic China.

    The concept of Great Powers in geopolitics was formalized during the Congress of Vienna of 1814, which produced a European balance of power among the four European Great Powers - Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia. France, represented by the great diplomat Talleyrand, exploited the rift between the victors over the Poland-Saxon question to re-enter the diplomatic game as a power in its own right. With Napoleon defeated and the abolition of the Continental System - the precursor of the European Union, with industrialization financed through capitalism at home not for the benefit of the people but for the further enhancement of the propertied class - with no effective rival left for overseas domination, and a virtual monopoly of naval power, Britain embarked on its century of hegemonic superpower predominance, which lasted from 1814 to 1914 and finally deferred to the United States after World War II.

    For Britain, the Crimean War was part of the Eastern Question of how to solve the problems posed by the continuing territorial erosion of the Ottoman Dominion, which had been going on since the 1780s and the time of the ministry of Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). To maintain the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Dominion for the purpose of more effectively exploiting its vast resources had become one of the principles of Britain's foreign policy. By the Convention of Balta Liman (1838), Britain had won widespread concessions from the Sublime Porte (French for Sublime Gate), as the Europeans called the Ottoman government, that included special rates on most of the raw materials sold to Britain throughout the Ottoman Dominion, and a host of other benefits, grants, acknowledgements and extraterritoriality, known as capitulations, that gave Britain a very privileged position in the dominion. Unlike the capitulations granted to France as an Ottoman ally against the Holy Roman Empire three centuries earlier, the capitulations granted to Britain were in the form of unequal treaties by a government under duress.

    Consequently, Britain felt that it was essential to keep control over the Mediterranean sea routes and to preserve the Ottoman Dominion as a barrier against further Russian expansion. A similar anti-Russian calculation was central to British opposition to imperialist partition of China. Britain promoted free trade, which favored British national interests, as a universal truth that would lead to world peace and prosperity. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had set the course of Britain as a free-trade nation.

    By encouraging other nations to turn to free trade, Britain was attempting to increase its own wealth and dominance because its economy was more advance in the exploitation of trade and, as Friedrich List has pointed out, that it was the nature of trade that once other nations fell behind in trade, they could never catch up with the hegemonic leader. The British boasted that they had the "secret of civilization" and wanted to export their political and economic system to the rest of the world through a network of local elites acting as compradors for British interest in its colonies and spheres of interest. It is a strategy that the United States inherited after World War II, particularly after the Cold War, in the name of promoting, through trade, allegedly superior American values, vaguely identified as democracy and free-market entrepreneurship.

    During this period of European balance of power, the Ottoman sultans hoped to turn their weakness into strength by exploiting inter-European rivalry, a policy that had been successfully practiced by Suleyman three centuries earlier. But with the loss of political and economic independence on the part of the Ottomans under the New Imperialism, such a policy only reduced the Ottoman Dominion deeper into semi-colonial status, further dependent on Franco-British pleasure. The dominion had become much weaker after the loss of territory to Russia, from the separatist creation of new nations dependent on foreign powers within the dominion, and from British and French economic domination. Sultan Abd al-Majid (reigned 1839-61), son and successor of Mahmud II, relied heavily on foreign aid to help him hold the remainder of his dominion together rather than embarking on a struggle of resistance against foreign domination.

    In 1799, Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman military officer from the Albanian region, commanded an army in an unsuccessful attempt to drive Napoleon from Egypt. As pasha of Egypt after 1805, he was virtually autonomous of his titular overlord, the Ottoman sultan. He Westernized his armed forces and administration, created Westernized schools for children of the elite, and began many public works, particularly irrigation projects with foreign loans, to be paid back with resultant agricultural output. The cost of these Westernization reforms weighed heavily on the peasants but brought them few benefits. In 1811, he exterminated the leaders of the Mamluks, who had ruled Egypt almost uninterruptedly since 1250. The Mamluks were a warrior caste dominant in Egypt and influential in the Middle East for more than 700 years. Islamic rulers created this warrior caste by collecting non-Muslim slave boys and training them as cavalry soldiers especially loyal to their owner and each other. They converted to Islam in the course of their training. With his son, Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali conducted successful campaigns in Arabia against the Wahhabis. In 1820, he sent his armies to conquer Sudan. He scored great successes fighting for the Ottoman sultan in Greece until the British, French, and Russians combined to defeat his fleet at Navarino in 1827.

    The sultan, Mahmud II, to secure the intervention the Muhammad Ali in the Greek revolt, had promised to grant him the governorship of Syria. When the sultan refused to hand over the province, Muhammad Ali invaded Syria. In 1839, he rebelled against his Ottoman overlord in Asia Minor, but was forced to desist when he lost the support of France and was threatened by united European opposition, checked by the intervention (1840-41) of Britain, Russia, and Austria. In a compromise arrangement, the Ottoman sultan made the governorship of Egypt hereditary in Muhammad Ali's line. Muhammad Ali retired from office in 1848 because of insanity.

    The new Ottoman sultan, Abd al-Majid, was advised by the British to introduce Western reforms. Two decrees (1839, 1856) led to many superficial changes but did not have fundamental or permanent effect. Confident in receiving British and French support, Abd al-Majid in 1853 resisted the Russian claim to act as protector of the Greek Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Dominion. He had allowed the dominion to weaken because history had shown that a legitimate cause could always get help from a superior source, a cardinal principle of Ottomanism. What he failed to understand was that the New Imperialism was fundamentally indifferent to the Ottoman doctrine of universal virtue and justice. Europe supported the sultan not because it considered it a just cause, but because European powers benefited from such a policy over a despised race.

    Russia found the Ottoman Dominion vulnerable in resisting Russian access to the Istanbul Straits - the Bosporus as the West calls it, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles - for easy passage into the Mediterranean. Britain, jealously guarding its mastery of the sea, considered it imperative that Russia must be kept out of the Mediterranean, and the sultan knew it. He continued to play off one European power against another. Russia had shown that it was always going to take any opportunity to probe into Turkish territory; Britain's policy was that the Russians needed firm handling to prevent them from invading Turkey. It was thought that the Russians were not prepared to go to war with Britain over Ottoman territory.

    The failure of the 1848 Revolutions turned Europe backward in a retreat from modernity. The balance-of-power diplomacy since 1815 became inoperative as reactionary governments and despotic leaders took hold in Europe, exemplified by Napoleon III in France. Power politics derived from bourgeois dictatorship replaced issues of social justice, political legitimacy and international balance of power.

    By 1850, Britain's sensitivity to the Eastern Question increased because India, which had been subjugated and maintained with a mere 75,000 British troops, had become the most important part of the Empire - a key economic asset and the "jewel in the Crown" - as a result of imperialist free trade and overseas expansion. India was a source of raw materials and a populous market, and above all a living demonstration in support of the British superiority complex. Britain feared any threat to the overland rail route to India. A century of the British policy of maintaining the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Dominion on behalf of British interests in the Middle East and the Balkans was shaping up as a conflict to its policy on India.

    Napoleon III, the bourgeois Emperor of the French, needed glory through expansionism to uphold the meaning of the "Second Empire", which was ideologically different from the universal monarchist aim of the First Empire. All through the 1840s, the pacifist government of British prime minister George Hamilton Gordon Aberdeen had given Czar Nicholar I the strong impression that Britain would not go to war over the Ottoman Dominion, which encouraged Russia to probe farther south.

    In 1815, Britain had been seen in Europe as the principal agent in defeating France militarily, through the successful activities of the Royal Navy and then Arthur Wellesley Wellington's army in the peninsular campaign and later in Europe, economically through providing gold to its allies and supplies to the allied armies and diplomatically through the establishment and maintenance of four anti-Napoleon coalitions. Britain was anxious to enhance its European status after Waterloo and regarded itself as a major force on the international scene. Of all European nations, Britain's political system was the only one that had remained intact throughout the French Wars. Other crowned heads had been removed from their thrones; countries had had their systems of government overturned and replaced, sometimes several times in the period. In Britain, it was felt that only Britain was stable enough to pull Europe together again, because of its conservatism, not its modernity.

    Europe was looking to Britain to slow the process of modernization. Britain could not afford to distance itself from Europe because of the proximity of potentially huge markets and the fact that continental instability, particularly the march toward modernity, would adversely impact its domestic affairs.

    Britain had adopted the principle of balance of power after the defeat of Napoleon, with itself as first among equals, in an attempt to prevent the domination of Europe by any one other power, and to prevent the march of modernity from again destabilizing Europe. In the past and at various times, different nations had dominated Europe - Spain, France, and Austria-Hungary in particular - with consequences that ended up in war. The Treaty of Paris in 1815 and the settlement at the Congress of Vienna of 1814 ensured that there were no spectacular winners or losers from the French Wars. Britain wanted to maintain the status quo of 1815, not to herald a new modern age. Britain wanted to contain France through cooperation with the other powers. This was a priority in 1815, a policy that was shared by all other European nations.

    Later, this policy became a British national prejudice that caused it to fail to note the rise of Prussia. Britain was almost paranoid about a possible replay of French expansionism in the name of modernity, whether it was diplomatic, territorial, economic or through hegemonic influence. Britain tried to keep France pinned down within its borders because France was seen as the most radical and dangerous nation in Europe that could challenge British hegemony. This policy toward France was backward-looking and was maintained for far too long. Even by 1850, the British Foreign Office was still virtually blind to the rise of Prussia, which steadily emerged as a greater threat to the peace and stability of Europe than France. Prussia under Otto von Bismarck was able to delude Britain diplomatically.

    In 1875, the Slavic peoples living in the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina were encouraged by the Western European powers to rise up against Ottomanism. The decline of the Ottomans led two independent, neighboring Slavic states, Montenegro and Serbia, to aid the rebellion. Within a year, the rebellion spread to the Ottoman province of Bulgaria. The rebellion was part of a larger Pan-Slavic movement that had as its goal the unification of all Slavic peoples, most of whom were under the control of Austria, Germany, and the Ottoman Dominion, into a single political unity under the protection of Russia. Anxious also to conquer the Ottomans themselves and seize Istanbul, the Russians allied with the Slavic rebels Serbia and Montenegro and declared war against the Ottomans.

    The war went against the Ottomans, and by 1878 they had to sue for peace. Under the peace treaty, the Ottomans had to free all the Balkan provinces, including Bosnia, Herzegovina and Bulgaria. Russia also took substantial amounts of Ottoman territory as "payment" for the war. The Ottomans fell out of the picture, but the Russian victory produced a European crisis over the expansion of Russia. By the early 20th century, the Ottoman Dominion in Europe had receded to a small coastal plain between Edirne and Istanbul. One measure of the losses: before 1850, about 50 percent of all Ottoman subjects lived in the Balkans, while in 1906, the European provinces held only 20 percent of the total.

    Foreign wars on the Balkan frontiers, sometimes against the Hapsburgs but especially against Russia, continued to shred Ottoman domains. Within the dominion, many provincial notables during the 18th century had enjoyed substantial degrees of autonomy while acknowledging the titular legitimacy of Ottomanism and the Ottoman state. Seldom, if ever, had rebels sought to break out of or destroy Ottomanism. There had been revolts, but generally these had worked within the Ottoman system, claiming as their goal the rectification of problems within the Ottoman realm, such as the reduction of taxes or restoration of provincial justice. But in the 19th century - in the Balkan, Anatolian, and the Arab provinces alike - movements emerged that actively sought to separate particular areas from Ottomanism and Ottoman rule to establish independent, sovereign states subordinate to no higher political authority, except European protection.

    Further, in almost every instance, one or another Western European powers supported the anti-Ottomanism revolts of the 19th century, and Western assistance was crucial to the success of all separatist movements. Thus the 19th century was different in that many of the territorial losses resulted from revolts and rebellions on the part of Ottoman subjects against their suzerain or sovereign occurred with the direct instigation and support of European imperialism.

    The 18th century had closed with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 to strike at British interests in the Middle East, having successfully evaded Horatio Nelson's fleet to take Malta on the way to Egypt. Napoleon won a brilliant battle over the Mamluks in the Battle of the Pyramids in July 1798. But the invasion was cut short when the French fleet was destroyed by Nelson in Aboukir Bay. Napoleon returned to France in 1799. In the turmoil, Muhammad Ali eventually seized power in 1805 and established himself as master of Egypt. During his reign (until his death in 1848), Muhammad Ali built up a formidable military that threatened the European balance of power and the Ottomans' hold on the sultanate itself. Egypt embarked on a separate course for the remainder of Ottoman history. It remained the sultan's nominal possession after the British occupation in 1882 but, in 1914, formally became part of the British empire with the Ottoman entry into World War I on the German and Austro-Hungarian side.

    At the same moment that Muhammad Ali was seizing control of the southeastern corners of the Ottoman Dominion, the Serbs in the northwestern corner rebelled in 1804. Instead of appealing to the sultan to correct abuses at the hands of the local administration, Serb rebels turned to Russia for aid. A complex struggle involving the two powers and Serb separatists evolved. By 1817, hereditary rule by a Serbian prince had been established and from that date, in reality, Serbia was a state separate from the Ottoman Dominion, falling into the Russian sphere of influence. Legally it became so only in 1878, as a result of the Congress of Berlin. In a sense, this pattern from direct rule to vassalage to independence reversed that of the process of Ottomanism. Other losses derived from the more familiar pattern of war with Russia, ending with a formal agreement, as instanced by the 1812 Treaty of Bucharest that acknowledged the loss of Bessarabia.

    The overall pattern in the Balkans was confusing in detail but clear in overall direction. Often a revolt would meet with success with the Russians driving very deep into the southern Balkans. But aroused Western concern, fearful of Ottoman disintegration or Russian success, would convene a gathering to undo the extreme results but allow some losses of Ottoman territory to ensue. The 1829 Treaty of Adrianople typified this pattern. In 1828, Russian armies, while winning major victories in eastern Anatolia, drove down through the western Black Sea areas, through Varna, captured the former Ottoman capital of Edirne on the present-day border of Turkey and Bulgaria and seemed poised to attack Istanbul itself. Nonetheless, despite the decisive victories, Russia yielded up nearly all of its conquests, settling for a few small pieces of land and actual but not formal Ottoman withdrawal from Moldavia and Walachia.

    The "Eastern question" continued to be addressed in the manner over the course of the 19th century. On the one hand, many European leaders came to understand the grave risks total Ottoman collapse posed to the general peace held together by a delicate balance of power. Thus they agreed to seek to maintain Ottoman territorial integrity, reversing the potentially devastating results of war at the negotiating table and, in 1856, admitting the Ottoman state into the "Concert of Nations". Thus, the European consensus that the old empire should be maintained, tottering but intact, helped preserve the Ottoman state. The same policy applied to the Open Door policy for China by Western imperialist powers. On the other hand, through their wars and support of the separatist goals of rebellious Ottoman subjects, European powers abetted the very process of fragmentation that they feared and were seeking to avoid. Nationalism was fanned as a weapon only against collapsing empires, not rising ones.

    The 1821-30 Greek war of independence clearly illustrates the central role of international geopolitics in the revolts against the sultan. After failing to suppress the Greek rebels, Sultan Mahmut II in 1824 invited Muhammad Ali Pasha to intervene with his powerful navy and army. When the Greek rebellion appeared to be over, in 1827, the combined British, French and Russian fleets annihilated the Egyptian navy at Navarino, and three years later the 1830 Treaty of London forced the Ottomans to acknowledge the formation of a new state, in the southern area of modern Greece.

    This sequence of events in turn led to a near takeover of the Ottoman Dominion by Muhammad Ali Pasha. Believing that his help against the Greek rebels entitled him to the Syrian provinces, Muhammad Ali sent his son Ibrahim Pasha against his Ottoman overlord in 1832. Conquering Acre, Damascus, and Aleppo, the Egyptian army won another major victory at Konya in central Anatolia and seemed poised to capture Istanbul (as Russia had been just three years before). In an irony of geopolitics, the Russian nemesis landed its troops between Muhammad Ali's army and Istanbul and became the Ottomans' savior. The century-old foreign foe thwarted a major domestic rebel's intent of overthrowing Ottoman rule. Fearing that a strong new dynasty leading a powerful state would become its neighbor, the Russians backed the Ottomans and signed the 1833 Treaty of Hunkiar Iskelesi to confirm their protection. The Ottomans fell from the status of a rival to the status of a Russian protectorate.

    During the 1830s, Muhammad Ali controlled a section of southeast Anatolia and most of the Arab provinces and, in 1838, threatened to declare his own independence. The Ottomans attacked his forces in Syria, but were crushed and again rescued, this time by a coalition of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia (but not France). These clashes stripped Muhammad Ali of all his gains - Crete and Syria as well as the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina - leaving him only hereditary control of Egypt as compensation.

    The lesson seemed clear. The Western powers were unwilling to permit the emergence of a dynamic and powerful Egyptian state that threatened Ottoman stability and the international balance of power. Muhammad Ali did not become the master of the Middle East in significant measure because the European states would not allow it. Much of current US policy toward Iraq can be understood in a similar light.

    The severance from the Ottoman state of its Egyptian province entered a final phase in 1869, when the Egyptian ruler, the Khedive Ismail, presided over the opening of the Suez Canal under British protection, with the world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida". The canal brought British occupation of the province by 1882. Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt in 1914, nearly four centuries after the armies of Sultan Selim I had entered Cairo and incorporated the Mamluk empire into the Ottoman Dominion.

    The Eastern Question revealed the diplomacy after the Ottoman-Russian war of 1877-78 that triggered major territorial losses for the Ottomans. In the first round of negotiations, Russia forced the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of San Stefano, creating a gigantic zone of Russian puppet states in the Balkans reaching to the Aegean Sea itself. Such a settlement would have vastly enlarged the Russian area of dominance and influence and destroyed the European balance of power.

    Bismarck, the German chancellor who was the leading statesman of the age and in history, and who after 1871 had feared that another European war would jeopardize the new German Empire, proclaimed himself an "honest broker" seeking peace and no territorial advantage for Germany and convened the Powers in Berlin. There the assembled diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Berlin, which took away most of the Russian gains and parceled out Ottoman lands to other treaty signatories as door prizes. Serbia, Montenegro and Romania all became "independent" states under Austrian protection. Bosnia and Herzegovina were lost in reality to Hapsburg administration but remained nominally Ottoman, until their final break in 1908, when they were annexed by Austria. The Greater Bulgaria of the San Stefano Agreement was reduced, one-third becoming independent and the balance remaining under qualified and precarious Ottoman control. Romania and Russia settled territorial disputes between them, with the former obtaining the Dobruja mouth of the Danube and yielding southern Bessarabia to Russia in exchange. Other provisions included the cession to Russia of pieces of eastern Anatolia and to Britain the island of Cyprus, a strategic naval base to protect the Suez Canal and lifeline to India. France was appeased by being allowed to occupy Tunis.

    The Treaty of Berlin in 1878 shows the hegemonic power of Europe over the whole world during the last part of the 19th century, able to impose its wishes on the world with little resistance from non-Europeans, drawing lines on maps and deciding the fate of peoples and nations with impunity for the benefit of Europeans. It would do so again on many more major occasions - for example, partitioning Africa in 1884, the near-partition of China and the partition of the Middle East and the Balkans after World War I.

    With historic consequences, the peoples of both Western Europe and the non-Western partitioned lands falsely concluded that military strength/weakness implied cultural, moral and religious strength/weakness. The victims were brainwashed to believe that their failure to modernize their armed forces was the result of their cultural backwardness and as such had brought them a deserved fate of foreign domination. Western barbarism is misconstrued as modernization, and Westernization is seen to have been ordained as the only path to modernization for the non-Western world, rather than the cultural suicide that it actually was. The fateful history of oligarchic Sparta's conquest over Athens, the model of Greek democracy, during the Peloponnesian War, which set Western civilization on the wrong path, has been repeated globally age after age, all the way into modernity.

    Next: Imperialism resisted

    Henry C K Liu
    is chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group.

    (Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
    Oct 11, 2003


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