A thesis that explains how the Cold War, origins of the UN and decolonisation were mutually implicated processes
Mapping the End of Empire by U.S. State Department historian Aiyaz Husain embodies a project that the author himself describes as ‘ambitious’. Aiming to offer a fresh perspective on the end of European colonialism and the attendant rebuilding of the global order at the end of World War II is ambitious indeed. And Husain’s core insight — that policy-framing and diplomacy in London and Washington were shaped as much by material factors as by the mental geographies of the East nurtured by strategists and academics — is so original as to run the risk of appearing eccentric. That hazard is avoided, though, as Husain adequately convinces the reader of the tenability of his thesis that in the post-war period ‘perceptions of geography’ came to shape Anglo-American foreign policy agendas, especially on the question of refugee settlement, drove organisational changes, and ultimately ‘congealed into international bodies like the U.N. Security Council’.
In particular, Husain investigates how British and American perceptions of the greater Middle East and South Asia shaped diplomatic strategies in Palestine and Kashmir and helped flush out French and Dutch rule from elsewhere in the world. One of the author’s chief contributions to the understanding of post-war decolonisation consists in the way he theorises the cardinal distinction between the strategic visions of Britain and the U.S. While British interests were geared toward safeguarding the territorial integrity of a contracting empire and toward minimizing military expenses, America, Husain argues, aspired toward global primacy through peace brokering and decolonisation.
Thus, the conceptual linkage of British foreign policy requirements across myriad colonies gave shape to what Husain calls British ‘regionalism’. It consisted of a strategy that pared down the geographical nodes crucial to the Empire while drawing perceptual linkages among them—such that key parts of the Empire across the Middle East and South Asia were viewed almost as geographically contiguous political units. Conversely, America’s plans envisioned a process of global pacification and decolonisation overseen by the world’s most powerful states. This strategic ‘globalism’, aspiring towards a ‘new era of American primacy’, embodied a geographical vision that stressed the mutual contingency of U.S. security policies and international events and rejected ‘geographical limitations’ as a determinant in policy-making.
Among the main thematic strands of the book, apart from the core argument about the centrality of mental geography to post-War geopolitics, is the author’s engagement with the diverse independence movements in Palestine, Kashmir, the Levant and the East Indies. Indeed, for an Indian readership one of the biggest takeaways from the book would be a different perspective on the post-War scenario around India, Pakistan and the dispute over Kashmir — one that emphasises broader geopolitical factors that impacted the dialectics.Husain’s treatment of independence movements shows that anti-colonial ideology drew from a multitude of intellectual and cultural sources in a way that blended Enlightenment rationalism with shades of identity politics.
Drawing a distinction between British and Continental colonialism, Husain makes the point that unlike the more obstinate French and Dutch colonial powers Britain, under the stewardship of statesmen like Clement Atlee and Ernest Bevin, showed a willingness to reassess the colonial project. However, the book also makes it amply clear that this ‘willingness’ to re-examine colonialism was motivated in large measure by Britain’s own material constraints at the close of the War and by America’s support for self-determination of nations in the interest of its global ambitions.
Another major plank of the book’s thesis consists of Husain’s argument that the histories of the early cold war, the origins of the U.N. and the decolonisation of British and other European empires were mutually implicated processes that formed a ‘grand narrative of sweeping change’ post-1945. Instead of having the historiographies of decolonisation, the cold war and the genesis of the UN as separate academic subfields, it would be reasonable and profitable, Husain argues, to see these processes as being interlinked. Such an approach would reveal, the author points out, how formative processes of postcolonial statehood intersected with nascent superpower rivalry in an emerging multilateral order putatively predicated upon formal cooperation.
One of the book’s many original insights is the author’s contention that geographical perceptions can be used as metrics for gauging what he calls the ‘overseas footprints’ or politico-military ‘overstretch’ of great powers like Britain and the U.S.. Collective official perceptions of geography may serve, Husain argues, to measure a powerful nation’s ‘ideal global footprint’ at a specific moment in history before it crushes under its own weight. Thus, a retrospective analysis of the contrasting colonial policies of Britain and the Continental powers — policies informed by differing geographical visions — might help us understand the U.S.’s strategy in the world today.
The book naturally packs in much information about the geopolitical processes of decolonisation, the formation of the U.N., British and U.S. roles in Jewish settlement and in Kashmir, and about the retrenchment of French and Dutch colonial involvement in the East Indies and the Levant. This wealth of information on international history is moulded into a well-argued thesis of original import. The only thing that might tax the reader somewhat is the abundance in the book of sentences that are a little too dense. This was largely unavoidable, perhaps, given the richness of the subject explored.
The language throughout the volume, however, is relatively free of jargon, although the author takes for granted a decent level of knowledge in the cartography of European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Again, for a highly specialised monograph such as the book embodies this seems inevitable. To sum up, the book is a powerful intervention in the discourse on decolonisation. Moreover, it also helps understand America’s rise to its present global status and the prehistory of some of its current diplomatic policies vis-à-vis the Middle East and South Asia.
In all, Mapping the End of Empire is a valuable contribution to the literature on international history of the post-war period — one that brings out the strategic impact of perceptions of geography and their value for comparative historical analysis.