Could free speech have led to overseas empires?

Tridivesh’s recent post on China’s multilateral struggles got me thinking about the difference between the United States and China when it comes to coalition-building and international affairs more broadly.

I don’t think the Chinese are purposely attempting to smaller countries in debt so that Beijing may have a shorter leash for them. I think Beijing simply doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is proceeding apace with multilateral initiatives like the BRI through a trial-and-error process. Unfortunately, trial-and-error processes only work if there is a mechanism to identify the error that takes place during the trial. In the West, we call this mechanism “free speech.” In China, free speech ruins order and is thus discouraged at best and disposed of at worst.

China’s expansionist efforts will probably, as a result of the lack of free speech, end poorly for the regime. Beijing’s reputation will suffer, and it will have to resort to more coercive tactics to secure its alliances and influence over its smaller neighbors.

This thought process, in turn, got me thinking about how the West came to churn out so many powerful worldwide empires in such a short span of time, and how these empires managed to coexist with each other at various points in time. Given China’s troubles with establishing hegemony, the fact that the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and the United States were able to achieve what they achieved is amazing. Throughout most of history, empires (or wanna-be empires) have sought to expand abroad while keeping order at home, just like China is doing today. In the sixteenth-century West, order at home was rejected in favor of liberty at home, and as a result the few societies that tried liberty ended up being able to afford overseas empires, where order was sought instead of liberty!

The short-sightedness of imperialists continues to astound me. If liberty at home leads to opportunities to establish colonies abroad, why on earth would you try to stamp out liberty in the colonies you’ve been able to establish thanks to liberty? Imagine if the people living in Indonesia, or India, or Algeria, or the Philippines, had all the liberty that Americans and western Europeans had. Alas…

Halliday’s ‘The World’s Twelve Worst Ideas’

I came across a collection of essays and blogs by the late Fred Halliday, entitled Political Journeys (2007), published in the last few years of his life. Halliday, who died in 2010 at only 64 years of age, was one of my professors in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in the mid-nineties. By some standards he was the big departmental star, not only as a researcher, but also as a public intellectual.

Like most professors he was firmly left wing, a former communist who moved somewhat to the centre. To his credit, his teaching was immaculate: you could not tell his political ideas from his lecturing or the extensive international political theory reading list he gave. He was known for his expertise of the Middle East, revolutions, and his feminism. But he was also a good theorist, and his book Rethinking International Relations (1994) is especially a real treat.

While going through Political Journeys my eyes fell on a piece about ‘the world’s twelve worst ideas in 2007’. Most of them still stand, also from a classical liberal and libertarian viewpoint, and warrant a full discussion by themselves. Yet for now I just list them here, in descending order, with short explanations between parentheses when not self-explanatory:

12. human behaviour can be predicted (against the scientific fallacy in the social sciences)

11. the world is speeding up (large areas I human life still consume the same amount of time as ever before, despite acceleration in other areas)

10. we have no need for history

9. we live in a ‘post-feminist epoch’ (still a need for feminism, given the position of women in most parts of the world)

8. markets are a natural phenomenon, which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences (clearly I strongly disagree with Halliday here, although he seems to mix up real free markets and those characterised by government interference)

7. religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life (points to the fight against the influence of religion on public life)

6. in the modern world we do not need utopias (aspiration to a better world as necessary part of the human condition)

5. we should welcome the spread of English as a world language (while practical it comes with cultural arrogance by the Anglo-Saxons)

4. the world is divided into comparable moral blocs or civilisations (there is indeed a set of common values shared across the world)

3. diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics (refutes the idea that diaspora have a special insight into their homeland, and Halliday then points to the negative and backward role in the resolution of the conflicts in their countries of origin)

2. the only thing ‘they’ understand is force (plain colonial and hegemonic thinking)

1. the world’s population problems and the spread of AIDS can be solved by ‘natural’ means (against those who oppose condoms use and other contraceptives)

“The Dutch Empire”

That’s the subject of my weekend column over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

6. The Dutch Empire vied for supremacy with the Portuguese empire, which, beginning in 1580 with the Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal, was a rival Catholic state attempting to establish a global hegemony of its own. The Portuguese were actually the first Europeans to establish trading forts throughout the world, but the aforementioned Iberian Union severely weakened Lisbon’s plans for global hegemony due to the fact that the union made Portugal the junior partner. The Dutch conquered and then established colonial rule at Portuguese colonies on four different continents, and unlike the Portuguese, focused on commercial interests rather than converting the natives to Catholicism and creating a politically connected empire. Because of the commercial nature of the Dutch project, many of the indigenous factions were happy to switch from Portugal to the Netherlands as business partners. And partners they were. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch (as well as the British and French later on) paid rent to local political units on the trading forts they built throughout the world. Such was the nature of power on the world scene before the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Please, read the rest.


  1. What is the cost of “tractable” economic models? Beatrice Cherrier, Undercover Historian
  2. Facts vs. hand-waving in economics Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  3. How factories changed the world Donald Sassoon, New Statesman
  4. Defending the Mughals became a way to defend colonial rule Blake Smith, the Wire