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"There are limits to American power"

HE WAS born in the year the Bolshevik revolution shook the world. At 87, Eric Hobsbawm still displays all the analytical skill and prowess that led him to be counted as one of the most important historians ever. "Hitler came to power when Eric Hobsbawm was on his way home from school in Berlin, and the Soviet Union fell while he was giving a seminar in New York. He translated for Che Guevara in Havana, had Christmas dinner with a Soviet spymaster in Budapest and an evening at home with Mahalia Jackson in Chicago," the cover of his recent autobiography, Interesting Times, says about the man. In addition to The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes, Prof. Hobsbawm, who taught until retirement

Eric Hobsbawm

Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Cuban President, Fidel Castro, said that the world was entering a very dangerous phase. Would you agree with such a view?

Prof. Hobsbawm: Yes, and I am afraid what has been happening in the Middle East [West Asia] rather supports this view. My view at the time was that a group of neo-conservative Americans took this opportunity to, in effect, put forward their claim for world hegemony, world domination. They are engaged in pursuing this aim now — limited, at present, only by the fact that it proved much more difficult then they had anticipated. And, that their actual analysis of the facts of the situation was, clearly, very defective.

We see daily reports of violence coming out of Iraq — in this post-invasion phase. Do you feel that the invasion of Iraq demonstrates the limits to American power or do we see this as a demonstration of American power?

About 10 years ago, when I wrote my history of the 20th Century, the situation was such that the developed countries of the North could win any battle they wanted. Translate that into specific terms, the Americans could win any battle that they wanted. The major problem was that of maintaining control on the ground afterwards — largely because the basic stabilising force of empire had become dissipated — namely, the willingness of subjects to accept any effective rule as legitimate rule — which means that even to maintain basic control is much more difficult than it used to be.

A very good example which I then quoted; this was before Iraq, but after the [1991] Gulf war that demonstrated any battle can be won; but not necessarily the peace after that. Compare the situation of Somalia in the imperial period when it produced relatively little problems for the two imperial powers — Great Britain and Italy — you know there were guerrillas, there were people the Brits called mad Mullahs — but, effectively, these were perfectly well-administered colonies largely because the great bulk of the population assumed, if somebody comes in, full of effective power, that's it. But look at Somalia now.

I think that to this extent it demonstrates the limits to American power. That's to say the limits of American capacity to remake the world — not limits to win wars or to create chaos, anarchy, disturbance.

There are different theories about those behind the resistance in Iraq — Al-Qaeda, nationalists, Saddam Hussein's supporters. Would you say that there's a basic force of nationalism at work here?

I don't know. It's perfectly clear that if there's one thing that would probably unite all Iraqis, however they differ among themselves, it is that they don't like to be occupied. To that extent, you might say there is a sort of nationalism, but the thing is that the people that are actually waging an active insurgency, or active resistance, are undoubtedly only a particular part of Iraqis, probably very largely Sunnis in some of the big cities. That doesn't mean that the remainder are in favour of foreign occupation.

In your remarks at the India International Centre, you made some reference to the media. We have the emergence of Al-Jazeera as an alternative means of information, but we also have the embedding of journalists during the Iraq war. One view of the war was provided by the vast majority of the American media — we saw newscasters wearing the American flag on their lapels. Are we largely going to get this one view?

I would say probably not. For one thing, the Internet is relatively uncontrollable. So, to this extent, the ability of people to discover other kinds of views is immeasurably greater than before. You may say that in many parts of the world, the number of people who have access to the Internet is relatively limited although in some countries it is very large. Nevertheless, in fact, the word gets around and, to this extent, modern technology has made it possible to do this. For instance, it was possible in the last days of the Soviet Union for people in Moscow to know what was happening in Moscow simply because people would telephone them, e-mail them from abroad. And, this information could get around ... I think this is a new situation.

It is probably not so easy to have a genuine, wide-distribution, mass media institution like Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera relies effectively on the protection of Al-Qatar and, if it didn't have that protection it couldn't exist. To that extent, the existence of what you might call mini-states, produces an element of independence, a basis for independent news distribution which [was] previously not so common. But, I don't believe that official governments or even class consensus, the elite consensus of particular societies, can completely dominate a situation today.

The most they can do, I think, is to exclude, but the degree of that is something which we'll have to test, for instance, with what happens in China in the next few years because here is a regime which would try to exclude free news.

You have been reading newspapers, I imagine, at least for 60 years if not more.

Yes. But, of course, newspapers are no longer the central medium.

You think newspapers are in decline?

Oh, yes, at least in the West, they have declined, relatively speaking. As far as the masses are concerned in Western Europe, television is the main news [medium]. That's where the danger lies and, of course, the relative advantage, of having a thing like Al-Jazeera. Dangerous governments say, like, [Silvio] Berlusconi in Italy don't mind having a free press so long as the television isn't free. That's where the real danger is.

Nevertheless, it doesn't mean that news is completely eliminated in the way in which, for instance, it used to be eliminated in old-fashioned authoritarian or totalitarian governments, where you simply could not read anything or hear anything, which was not officially, as it were, permitted.

We have the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism in today's world. Is the threat going to define the next 50 years?

That's what the Americans want. Now that you no longer have the real enemy, you do need an enemy, as it were, in order to be able to mobilise, against whom to mobilise. That was the theory of Huntington, wasn't it? It's going to be a cultural battle till the death of cultures.

I don't believe it. In the first place, Islam is only one part of the world. Islamic problems, the problem of Islamic immigrants or Islamic activities, only affects certain parts [of the world]. For instance, for practical purposes, it simply doesn't arise for most of the American continent.

It happens, at the moment, to be a particularly lively thing. It may become a more lively thing in Europe simply because of the mass of potential immigrants who are Muslims from the Maghreb in France and Spain, and from Turkey in Germany and other places.

There's undoubtedly a considerable suspicion, which is one of the reasons why the debate on whether Turkey should join [the European Union] is very politically explosive. A number of people are afraid of too much of an influx of Muslims.

Even so, I can't believe that this is a major lasting problem. Undoubtedly, given American policy in the Middle East [West Asia], there's only one thing that can be said about the Islamic phenomenon and that is Islam is probably one of the few religions which has continued to expand — and, to expand effectively, without the support of either missionaries or states. Islam happens to be, in some ways, a very simple religion to adopt and, in some ways, a very formidable religion because there's very little you need to do if you convert to Islam ...

The element within Islam of, as it were, the feeling that you are no longer subaltern by being a Muslim, that is an element in the situation which has, perhaps, been underestimated.

Do you see Europe emerging as a power that will challenge the United States?

No. In the first place, Europe isn't a military power. It's got a good English and French Army, which are both quite small. In the second place, at the moment, a military counter-weight to the United States is not thinkable in terms of hi-tech.

The most that is thinkable is for somebody to control some of the global communications systems on which the Americans rely and even that, while it is conceivable that the Chinese might be able to do it, at the moment, I don't think anybody is very anxious, in the short run, to confront the United States.

China is a massive and growing economy with a political system that the United States doesn't like. Is there potential for conflict here or do you see them living and working together?

In theory, one could see, so to speak, living together — peaceful co-existence, as the phrase used to be. In practice, it's not very clear. It depends very largely on American policy I think.

People who live in non-European, Third World countries find it increasingly difficult to travel to the West. If you are in the field of information technology, some country might invite you. In a world, which says it is increasingly globalised, do you see people connected by modern means of communication but otherwise boxed in?

It's difficult to know. Europe has very largely been constructed to keep people out or control the influx. Nevertheless, there has been a substantial influx. There are not very many European countries that do not have, for instance, anything up to nine-ten per cent of the population as immigrant. Once you have that, it is not very easy to completely shut the door ...

The other thing is simply the sheer pressure of people from poor countries trying to get to ... rich countries. It's very marked, for instance, from places like Africa or even parts of Latin America to Europe and, certainly, from Latin America to the United States. I think for political or ideological reasons the United States is making it more difficult to travel.

At the same time, the enormous advantage that the United States and one or two other countries, Canada and Australia have had by opening the doors is such that, if you like, there's a conflict here between the ideological and political interests of the regime and even the economic interests of the corporations and economy ...

I think that for political reasons the cross-border flow of immigrants will be far less than the cross-border flow of other things. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to believe that it can be actually governed back.

We've also seen, for instance, refugees in Australia sewing up their lips after being put in detention centres. You had people actually jumping off ships. We've seen all that as well.

The incentive to migrate is enormous. I haven't seen figures, for instance, of how much agencies for the illegal transport of immigrants can charge, but it's very high because the potential reward of getting jobs in these rich countries is very large.

I think we may have a distinction here between what you might say, the class of the educated with specialised functions and the ordinary bulk of non-qualified immigrants, essentially for labour seeking. There's no doubt that even up to the present, globalisation has been slowed down enormously in this one respect and will continue undoubtedly to be much more slow because the resistance to it is very great, not least the mass resistance in receiving countries — rightly or wrongly. But I cannot see that it can be stopped.

You have referred to globalisation beginning in the 16th Century. Would you say that the transport of Indian indentured labour to countries as far away as Fiji was part of this globalising trend?

Well, I suppose, yes, in the sense that the transport of slaves and, eventually, indentured labour after the abolition of slavery, is a form of the creation of a global economy. I think, nevertheless, this is different from the present currents of migration.

In those days, it went, as it were, from one backward place to places, which required imperial development — Guyana, Trinidad, Mauritius.

At the moment, the major thing [migration] is from poor countries to richer countries — let's say from India to England and America. That is the new situation ... I think that this is not so widely appreciated in Asia because the nature of cross-border migration in Asia is of a different kind.

Can you tell us when you last came to India and your impressions about this country?

I've only been to India twice. Once, in 1968 or thereabouts, when I was here for about a month, travelling around the country and, second, about four or five years ago, I came as a tourist, but this time South India, where I had not previously been.

It is impossible for me to compare after about two or three days in Delhi on straightforward impression.

If I had to compare, I would compare by what I read, what people tell me, not by personal impression ...

In your conversations with Antonio Polito, published as The New Century, you refer to India as a regional power and that you didn't see it emerging as world power for the next 50 years ...

It's difficult to tell because, clearly, since that time [the book was published in 1999], India, in terms of economic growth, has done much better. Here again, as a historian, I am in no position to speculate about this. I would have thought, actually, neither India nor China would aim to be world powers in the sense of which the United Kingdom was a world power in the days of the empire and the Americans are now.

I would say that even the Chinese have a long tradition of being, as it were, a leading power in the world. I do not think in terms of world domination in the way in which they may well consider that one of these days it will be the greatest economy in the world ... and that will have a spin-off on the political ...

As for the future of India, it obviously has a great future; a much greater future in the 21st Century even than, I think, most Indians would have dreamed of in the first 30-40 years of independence. That seems to be clear. But, exactly, what the political shape or political implications of this rise of India as an economic, a cultural, and for that matter, simply as the largest state, demographically speaking, is going to be.

As we move ahead in many areas, we've also seen the phenomenon of communalism. Do you see the rise of communal forces in India as threat to its syncretic tradition and its nationhood?

Yes. I think, obviously, the rise of identity groups of one kind or another, is at odds with the development of big, territorial states, which, after all, until recently, were the basic unit of government, of administration, of practically everything ... there are countries in which these, clearly, have threatened the existence of states — firstly, of course, in weak states, which the Americans call the failed or failing states.

But, not only there. At one time, one could honestly say are we absolutely certain, that in 50 years time, there will be single United Kingdom or a single Spain? I don't know. I think the most dangerous issue at the moment isn't so much the revival of nationalism ... but the revival of communalism in the religious sense.

That, I think, is dangerous and it is not confined to any one religion. The extent to which revival of religion is a mass phenomenon is not so clear. In a way, fundamentalists, in a literal sense, are minorities, quite large minorities; but I don't quite think they've actually been majorities.

But fundamentalists have been extremely good at seizing power. And once they've seized power, then a great many things follow. That's where the danger is. Nevertheless, this is a thing that, on the whole, I don't think many of us, or any of us, really predicted, and it's a very worrying phenomenon.

I notice this even in things like Buddhism — in places like Sri Lanka it developed a kind of nationalist, militant edge, which, really, very few people would have thought off.

It was believed that with material progress, religious differences would get reduced. That doesn't seem to have happened.

It's clear that we [historians] underestimated the continued role of religiosity or the belief in rituals and all the rest of it.

One of the reasons why we underestimated it was because we didn't pay enough attention to gender history. Everybody knew, for instance, that women were more pious than men, at least in Europe and continue to be, but because people didn't take this seriously enough ... we didn't really inquire into the role of this kind of motivations not only among particular groups, but generally. Very difficult to overlook it now.


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