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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #36 (September 2-8, 2003), page 13.

Discontent in the Dust


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

By Karl E. Meyer

Public Affairs Books, 2003

Hardcover, 272 pages, $26.00

By Douglas Spangle

The late 19th century was the heyday of Western empire-building. Huge tracts of the world were awarded to nations such as Germany, Belgium, and Italy — who proceeded to operate their prizes like forced-labor camps. The luster, however, soon wore off, as the people of these territories developed a sense of self-determination. After the First World War tore holes in a score of European empires, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing worried that the sense of self-determination amongst former colonies would "cost thousands of lives." After the tumultuous 20th century, we’re still dealing with the collision of self-determination and colonialism: Iraq was ripped by Britain from Ottoman Turkey; Afghanistan was a stubborn pebble caught between the British and Russian empires; Liberia was a colony settled by former slaves from America; the Congo was once King Leopold of Belgium’s private ivory preserve (see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

Following up on his previous book, Tournament of Shadows, a history of the Great Game of Empire in Asia, Karl E. Meyer draws out more generally the process of colonialism and its effects, largely in Asia and Africa, through the 20th century, from its aforementioned heyday in the 19th, right up to the doorstep of the present — he invokes 9/11 in his prologue. He makes it abundantly clear how much the current administration’s foreign policy is an inheritance from the old imperialism of kings, queens, Kaisers, and tsars.

In fact, it’s a bit depressing to wonder how much of an advance our current foreign policy — commercial interest backed by military force — represents over that which produced past actions in the Philippines, Cuba, and Vietnam. But perhaps I should just stick to reviewing the book at hand rather than editorializing.

Meyer presents a concise and convenient account of his subject. His research is extensive and merits respect. He writes clearly if not especially memorably, and impeccably organizes his material; if his treatment lacks the sprawl and swashbuckle of Peter Hopkirk’s Great Game books, Meyer’s thesis is easy enough to follow from the time of Queen Victoria all the way to that of George W. Bush. Meddling and hegemony by dominant countries produces discord and discontent among the peoples who are dominated. The Dust of Empire is a clear warning in this regard, as valuable as a bank of road flares around a fifteen-car pile-up.

The face of the world is littered with the debris of fallen imperiums. Apropos the disintegration of the French colonial holdings in Africa, Charles de Gaulle is said to have referred cavalierly to African independence as "the dust of empire." He may have mistaken dragons’ teeth for dust. If you look down closely enough into that dry-rot and crumbling stuff, maybe you can see something, something with scales and claws, beady eyes and sharp little fangs, beginning to stir.


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