The Death of Conquest

March 1, 2003 Topic: Great Powers Tags: BusinessSuperpower

The Death of Conquest

Mini Teaser: We don't "do" conquest anymore--but the new anti-conquest norm has had several unforeseen consequences. Some are proving very worrisome.

by Author(s): Anna Simons

There have been at least two elephants in the room since September 11, 2001. The one nobody wants to arouse is Islam; the one nobody wants to acknowledge is conquest. We don't "do" conquest anymore. Our presumptions seem to be that we shouldn't do it, and that we can't do it. Thus in the polymorphous scholarship and commentary that have appeared since last September 11, those who would influence policy argue over the lures of pre-emption and the limits of power. They debate a putative U.S. imperial role and reflect on the predicates of American history. But old-fashioned conquest, in which ground is seized and populations are controlled against their will for extended periods, is never raised as a policy option. The world community, such as it is, has come to oppose utterly wars fought overtly and permanently to occupy, subjugate or seize another country or its population. This represents a genuine if frequently overlooked new norm of international politics.

World War II is the obvious watershed for this new norm. That war was initiated by those bent on literal conquest on the grandest scale, and once they were beaten the Allies came up with all sorts of safeguards to prevent conquerors from ever again being able to contemplate such a project. Nuclear weapons soon came to represent another deterrent in our anti-conquest arsenal, and the creation of the United Nations yet another. Indeed, the UN exists only because member states agree that territorial sovereignty is so inviolate that cross-border invasion should be a punishable offense. The rapid dissolution of the vast British and French colonial empires after World War II was to some degree a result of the new anti-conquest norm, but it also contributed to it by illustrating the impermanence and costly trouble of imperial control.

The very nature of the Cold War drove a further nail in conquest's coffin. Given the specter of mutually assured destruction, both we and the Soviets realized, privately at least, that neither side could pursue the outright conquest of the other; thus all military competition shifted toward the proxy (in places like Vietnam) and the symbolic (with arcane calculations of warheads and throw-weight). Besides, it was communism we opposed, so that "to win" the Cold War came to mean undermining (or overwhelming) an ideology and its trappings, not conquering Russia or subjugating Russians. The very fact that international politics at its most consequential level was conducted for over half a century without reference to the possibility of literal conquest had huge implications that we have yet to recognize, let alone fully digest.

The broad consensus against conquest has not, of course, abolished entirely the urge to conquer--witness the Argentine invasion of the Falklands and Iraq's incursion into Kuwait. But it has made clear that international wars of conquest stand an excellent chance of being forcefully sanctioned or opposed by powers acting under the aegis of "the international community."

Other factors, too, have discounted the relative significance of sheer military force--and one of these is the way today's greatest power, the United States, conceives of military force relative to other forms of power. We are a corporate republic, a capitalist juggernaut whose expansionist impulses are gladly sublimated in capturing markets and extending our economic reach. Like the Hellenes before us, we tend to colonize via commerce and culture, no matter how shamelessly materialist our version of the latter may be.

Whether our particular genius to show others how they, too, can release their inner consumer selves makes us economic imperialists is debatable. But we are clearly not conquerors in the classic imperial sense. We do not seek permanent physical control. We are neither interested in forcibly subjugating nor in forcibly absorbing foreign populations. We do not exact tribute. Nor do we force anyone to labor on our behalf. Perhaps most significant but least appreciated, we also do not militarily seize or appropriate anything without offering compensation. Together, these attitudes and the behaviors they sire reflect as profound a shift in the nature of human relations, never mind the modus operandi of the pre-eminent global power, as any that has occurred since the debut of conquest thousands of years ago.

The fact that literal conquest is no longer an imaginable war aim has had all sorts of unintended consequences. In a cruel twist of irony, there is even a way to connect Al-Qaeda's aims--and its methods--to our abolition of conquest. Let us now tend to these effects and connections.

Conquest, the West and the Rest

To explain what a radical disjuncture our antipathy toward conquest truly represents requires a brief foray through the historiography of warfare. Military historians usually present this history in terms of a singular progression: first came stone tools, then bronze, then iron, then steel, and now we've got beams of light. According to this line of thinking, different peoples have simply gotten stuck at different places along this trajectory, which explains why Masai warriors still carry spears and the Yanamamo cannot sufficiently defend themselves or their rainforest. Even when military historians turn to organizational issues, like the recruitment and deployment of a military, they usually make it seem as though humans have steadily moved on a single track from the simple to the complex.

Essay Types: Essay