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Where Imperialism Goes To Die: Lessons From Afghanistan To Ukraine

With multilateral diplomacy in tatters, the fighting gumption of weaker states against aggression by bigger powers is helping end the age of empires.

Man walking past an anti-Putin graffiti on a destroyed wall in

Man walking past an anti-Putin graffiti in Arkhanhelske, near Kherson, Ukraine

Andrés Hoyos


BOGOTÁ — Just a century ago, imperialism was alive and kicking. Today, the nasty habit of marching into other countries is moribund, as can be seen from the plains of Ukraine.

The invasion was part of President Vladimir Putin's decades-long dream of restoring the Russian empire or the Soviet Union, for which he would resort to genocide if need be, like his communist predecessors. Only this time, the targeted victim turned out to be too big a mouthful.

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When Putin leaves, sooner or later, with his tail between his legs, this will have been a sorry end to one of the last illusions of empire — unless, of course, China tries a similar move down the line.

This isn't the only imperialist endeavor to have failed in recent decades (and it has, when you think Putin thought his armies would sweep into Kyiv within days). Afghanistan resisted two invasions, Iraq was the setting of another imperialist disaster, as was Kuwait, with a bit of help from the Yankee sheriff on that occasion. In fact, besides some rather targeted interventions, one would have to move back several more decades to find an example of "victorious" imperialism, for want of better words. Which is very good news.

Death by a thousand cuts

The 21st century world has a stable makeup then. Its constituents, for better or worse, are as they are. Certainly there are some despicable regimes here and there which may fall in the next 20 years or so, though we may be sure their successors will be local, not imposed from outside.

Why is all this happening?

Firstly, invading a country is now more difficult and costly, especially when most people are against it in spite of attempts to distract them with propaganda.

It's our land, and we'll pray, govern, and organize the economy as we see fit.

Also, a century ago, colonial authorities enjoyed a measure of stability, at least until a revolt broke out. But from the early 19th century onwards, occupied nations made use of intermittent crises or the imperial power's weakness to end its occupation for good. That gradually reduced the number of colonial states.

The process has accelerated today so that from the very start, the invaders rarely get a break. They face sabotage, violence and terrorism, however you might interpret those words. The pushback sounds like this: It's our land, and we'll pray, govern, and organize the economy as we see fit. However, while this slogan is good for fighting invaders, it could also easily be weaponized by a home-bred dictator, who'll tell you the exact same thing. Nationalism, then, is crucial to the spread of dictatorships.

U.S. army soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009U.S. army soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009

U.S. Army

Good riddance

Of course, imperialism is more than just marching your armies into another state. There are many ways of pressuring a country to act in one way or another. However, setting up a client regime has become a rarity, and I have a feeling that this tactic of cajoling countries to do your bidding is set to fade even further.

The great powers send their warships to threaten the debtor country. Try it these days and see how that works out.

Consider all the states, like Venezuela, that owe China a lot of money. What will happen if in a few years, the debtor governments refuse to pay or demand a partial cancellation of their debts, arguing there were irregularities in the first place?

A century ago the great powers would send their warships — in what was termed gunboat diplomacy — to threaten and squeeze the debtor country. Try it these days and see how that works out. Many of the world's debts were initially incurred in questionable conditions and with draconian terms, so, frankly, a lot of that money may be as good as gone — and the world is the better for it.

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