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New Left Review 15, May-June 2002

The sacking of the Emperor’s Summer Palace in Beijing by an Anglo-French expeditionary force was one of the high-points of nineteenth-century imperialism. The lucidity of its perpetrator, Elgin, offers a paradoxical contrast with the chorus of apologists for Anglo-American interventions today.



Imperialism today is emerging, freshly refurbished, as the progressive answer to problems of planetary disorder. Discarding conventional euphemisms, official ideologues and establishment media—from Blair’s former factotum for international security in Prospect, to opinion-makers in the Financial Times and Foreign Affairs—now openly celebrate the return of Western empire across the world. [1] Robert Cooper, ‘The Next Empire’, Prospect, October 2001; Martin Wolf, ‘The Need for a New Imperialism’, Financial Times, 9 October 2001; Sebastian Mallaby, ‘The Reluctant Imperialist’, Foreign Affairs, March–April 2002. Devoted in the service of human rights and free markets, military operations proceed without compunction for their consequences. As bombs rain down on the civilian populations of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, or Palestinians are buried in their homes, the drawl is at best of ‘collateral damage’—which, indeed, one enthusiast has complained was ‘almost pedantically avoided’ in Operation Enduring Freedom. [2] Christopher Hitchens, ‘The Ends of War’, The Nation, 17 December 2001. By comparison with such contemporary sensibility, the frankly colonial warfare of the nineteenth century could at times hold a more honourable record. If its agents were equally certain in the moral superiority of their mission, a few, at least, were troubled by the misery they caused.

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John Newsinger, ‘Elgin in China’, NLR 15: £3

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