What is it that allows a State to believe that it is superior to all others, and can, as a consequence, impose its ideas on other Nation States, through militarily or economic invasion?

What is the thinking process that is behind the chauvinism of the dominant nations? Let’s call it “Manifest Destiny” – the concept used widely in the USA – for the sake of brevity.

I want to focus on three countries in this article. Manifest Destiny is a concrete conception for the USA, Israel and Britain; the ruling cadres of each of these countries have understood their position in the world as ‘above the rest’, as superior.

Manifest Destiny is a peculiar idea for the rest of us. What it means, crudely, is that their culture and society has been especially blessed by their God. God has decided that their people and their lands have been ‘chosen’. God is behind them in all their works, and in the American and British case led them to develop powerful Christian Missionary movements to ‘spread the good word of God’. In all three examples I use here, the States have behaved as if they are above regulatory international law.

In every case these belief systems arise out of a long history. I became aware of Manifest Destiny during my readings on American history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, peoples from Europe crossed the Atlantic in the sailing boats of that age. The journey was indeed hazardous, and it is likely that many were drowned at sea. The Atlantic crossing from Europe to the Americas has never been simple in sailing boats. When the immigrants eventually arrived they blessed God for their safe arrival, and considered that God had decided that they must be a special people. The Old Testament of the Christian Bible provided the evidence that was needed for these ideas to become firmly fixed.

Being blessed by God has been part of the American psyche ever since. The Christian religion in the USA has always had a strong messianic flavour, not found anywhere else. I remember sitting next to a lady on an internal flight, who was reading from an extra large Bible. I could not resist asking her about her beliefs. Her outpourings were deeply foreign to my ear, and only later did I find how common such an experience was all over the USA. American Manifest Destiny has provided the framework for the justification for the slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries: over the last 65 years has provided the rationale for the Americans to invade other peoples without moral hindrance; the grounds, that the American way of life is superior to all others.

The British never had a concept of Manifest Destiny, in the sense of the USA. But like the USA, the peoples of Great Britain have firmly believed that they were and many today still believe that they are a Great Nation. As a very young man about to travel to the Middle East and India, in the early 1960s, the last words of my parents were, ” remember Roger, you are always British”. These words reverberated in my ears for many years. When I arrived in India, I asked myself if we were such a an upright and moral people, how was it that India had been left in such deep poverty?

The roots of these British beliefs did not arise in the same manner as the Americans crossing the Atlantic. Rather they arose out of a long history, of winning wars against the Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, and later from defeating the Indian Mogul Empire in the 17th century. British racism provided the base for these sets of beliefs.

Like the Americans after us, we developed a powerful set of missionary movements that spread the “good Word of God across the world”. The Christian missionaries were the moral forces that were used to justify our colonial invasions. Missionaries from all sects of Christianity set up schools and welfare centres. Most of the leaders of the new countries which were set up after the 1960s had experienced missionary schooling. Many had had their own indigenous names altered to Christian names, they had been taught that their peoples had no history worth learning, that British history was all that was worth while. The missionary movement was a powerful attempt to deracinate a whole people, as Fanon and others have expressed so powerfully.

The British colonial invasions were based on a set of beliefs, a Manifest Destiny, using other terms. For roughly 150 years, they considered their way of life superior to all others. Roughly from the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, until 1945, the British considered that their Empire was superior to all other ways of life on earth. As we celebrate the ends of both the 1914/18 and 1939/45 wars we ought to remember that these wars were fought primarily, but not solely, to defeat Germany, who also wanted to be a great colonial power like Britain. Germany was the “contender” state at the time as China is the contender today.

That we won both wars, but lost our dominant position in the world to the USA’ was the ultimate irony, rarely expressed today.

The British view of their Manifest Destiny was based firmly on their economy; the first to develop the steam engine and capitalism ahead of all other peoples of the world. While they never described their culture or themselves as Manifest Destiny, they behaved in precisely the manner of the Americans over the last 60 years. They believed themselves to be a superior people, blessed by God. This belief system was held together by racism, the belief that the British were a superior “race” compared too what we now term peoples of colour.

British racism, with its superiority-inferiority axiom, did not suddenly appear after 1815,. Britain had long been involved in the slave trade for the previous 200 years. Racism simply became the sine qua non of British identity outside the shores of our island. British racism was given substance from the work of Charles Darwin and his concept , “the survival of the fittest.” That this was scientific work based on observation of animals and birds, was no impediment for the concept being carried over to human beings. The survival of the fittest became us, the British people, the common sense of the time, the ideological underpinning of racism, the elemental supports for the colonial invasions of the late 19 century and early 20th century.

It is clear from this discussion that modern colonial empires, based on capitalist economies, where one nation state invades another, and attempts to impose its laws, and its way of life requires some pretty strange ideas. Manifest Destiny is of course an arrogance, an assumption, that God is by your side, a major and essential prerequisite. An arrogance that has special and long roots in each countries history.

Israel’s Manifest Destiny, has different roots to either the USA or Britain, but has many similar consequences. The State of Israel has a survival myth similar in kind to the USA, ‘survival across the Atlantic’. The Israeli survival mythology is focused around the Jews of Western European, and the Nazi Holocaust. That Jews survived the Holocaust, and then created the State of Israel, revived the Hebrew language and “made the desert bloom” is the centrepiece of Israel’s Manifest Destiny. How else can you explain this ‘miracle’, if Jews had not been specially blessed by God? Like the early Americans, the Israeli Jews found religious justification in the Old Testament.

It follows from this line of thought that the Palestinian people whose land had to be colonised in order to make way for the Jewish people had to be removed. Just as 150 and more years before this event, the American Indians had to be removed and decimated in an earlier conquest, so now the Palestinians had to be removed.

From a very early stage of Israeli colonisation,the more foresighted Israeli immigrants realised that they could not live in peace with the Arab neighbours without a dominant military presence. As a tiny people, this invasion needed partners, and was provided in part by the Europeans and today by the Americans. Israel has as a consequence built up a formidable military presence. The centrepiece for young Israelis is their time in the armed forces. Israel has developed a very large cache of nuclear weapons, and some think is the most dangerous country on Earth. Israeli ambitions to become the dominant power in the Middle East under the Americans is being played out as I write. Israeli ambitions to become a great imperial nation has few boundaries.

The one major difference is that Israel has never used an army of missionaries. The Jewish religion has always been bound through more old fashioned methods, of ritual and matriarchal lineage. To become Jewish, in a Jewish environment is not on offer, is not a matter of conversion, from non-Jewish religious antecedents, unlike Islam or Christianity.

The USA, Israel and Britain have a deep psychological inbred belief of the superiority of their culture,language and politics. These beliefs have been sufficient to justify their attempts to make the world in their own image. That Britain failed so abundantly, after the slaughter of two world wars, has never been sufficient for her to rethink her place in the world. The Americans and Israeli peoples are still in the process of proving that their Manifest Destiny will in the end be worthless, but before that phase of world polices is complete too many people will have had to loose their lives.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Roger van Zwanenberg

Dr Roger van Zwanenberg is the former managing director of Pluto Books.

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