The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.
From the late 1500s AD into the 17th century, European ocean-going countries embarked on a long era of conquest distinguished by the subjugation of foreign powers and war over control of commerce. This was implemented by force of arms, mostly naval projection, with a primary intention of monopolizing global trade.
The main players in these events were the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch. Fortified seaports and fortresses were built as far and wide as the East Indies, throughout the Western Pacific, and ultimately ending in the Americas. This provided the ability to supply and act as staging points for projection of power in these regions.
This practice was originally driven by the desire to control the lucrative East Indies spice trade but had shifting commercial objectives as the preferred commodities available to the markets changed over time. One thing, however, remained consistent during this period in that no amount of brutality was spared in the name of control of the commerce. Greed superseded humanitarian considerations.
The Dutch East India Company (known as Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, in Dutch) was founded in 1602 and granted a 21-year monopoly to carry out trade activities in Asia. The VOC had quasi-governmental powers including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.
Statistically, the VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in the Asia trade. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC sent almost a million Europeans on 4,785 ships to work in the Asia trade. For their efforts they netted more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods. By contrast, the rest of Europe combined sent only 882,412 people from 1500 to 1795. The fleet of the English (later British) East India Company, the VOC’s nearest competitor, was a distant second to its total traffic with 2,690 ships and a mere one-fifth the tonnage of goods carried by the VOC. The VOC enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly through most of the 17th century.1
An interesting correlation to today would be a military industrial complex that becomes intertwined with the economy and a necessary driver of it. A detailed analysis prepared by one of the Dutch East India Company’s senior merchants, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, for the Directors of the company held an illuminating note:
“Your honors should know by experience that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favor of Your Honors’ own weapons, and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade, so that we cannot carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.” - Coen2
The parallels are striking, notwithstanding some differences. While the Dutch East India Company was the leading entity competing with a handful of other nations to control global trade, today some view it as a single dominant power with many vassal states. This singular dominant power projects military naval might across the world’s oceans protecting ocean-faring trade rights of all nations and allowing global trade to flourish since World War II.
The USS John C. Stennis, Nimitz class (left), alongside the British HMS Illustrious (right)
The blue water navy of the Unites States of America is unmatched in tonnage and power projection. While other countries do possess air craft carriers, their size and ordnance delivery capabilities are dwarfed by American carriers. Russia has a single carrier that displaces a little over 55,000 tons at full load, and so does China. Comparing these single carriers to the ten nuclear carrier taskforces of the US is a stark contrast. Allies of the US also field some carriers but nothing approaching the size of US carriers as can be seen from the picture of the HMS Illustrious above.
The most recent of the US carrier fleet are the Ford class nuclear-powered “supercarriers” that displace approaching 100,000 tons of water, can carry up to 90 aircraft, and can operate for extended periods at sea without having to stop in a port. The dual nuclear reactors of the Ford class carriers can produce as much as 300MW of power each and propel the ship in excess of 30 knots.
These mobile “fortresses at sea” provide the United States unparalleled power projection through the world. In addition, the US has military personnel in over 130 countries according to former Congressman Ron Paul,3 and as of 2010 the US maintained 662 military bases in 38 foreign countries.4
“Endless money forms the sinews of war.” - Cicero
A former US official from the Treasury office, who would have had a front row seat to help determine his perspective, claims that virtually all western nations are essentially vassal states to the United States. He also claims that the military industrial complex of the United States is the most powerful political lobby within Washington and has vast influence over American politics. If his assertions are correct, then the perpetual war – weapons manufacture – and more wars trade is as healthy now as it was at the height of the Dutch East India company’s rule, only today it is a vastly larger and more powerful empire.
Going as far back as 1776, if you were to pick any year since then, you would have a 91% chance that the US was involved in a war or other military conflict during that year.5 During the cold war, the Pentagon’s great enemy was the USSR, which justified annual defense budgets for defense spending. After the cold war ended, the Pentagon needed a new enemy, and a war on terrorism fit the bill nicely.
This has evolved into a continual state of warfare since the US presence in Afghanistan began in 2001.
Now US officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry claim that:
“We’re engaged in a major counterterrorism operation. I think war is the wrong terminology and analogy, but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity…”6
Regardless of what name is used, the fact remains that the sinews of war are indeed still funding great pools of profit if you are a US defense contractor. In the last ten years there has not been a single year that the US has not spent at least a half trillion dollars of taxpayer money on lucrative payouts for the defense industry.
So how, one might ask, does this matter now?
For that we have to again look at history. The Dutch East India Company was unmatched in its time in terms of power projection and influence over the global economy. This obviously did not last, but the reasons for this are an interesting confluence of events.
There are three primary reasons for the decline of the VOC’s global military industrial complex-trade empire. The first is that due to rampant and systemic corruption within the company itself, there was a slow deterioration of coherence and motivation among the company’s trade officers overseas. This lead to a continual bleeding of company resources and the diminished loyalty of distant colonies. Second, major shifts in the geopolitics of Asia led to a loss of control of key military installations and prevented consistent power projection in the affected regions. Finally, in a mostly uninterrupted span of 70 years, the company paid out dividends in excess of its earnings which contributed to its final collapse and insolvency.
One could make similar connections today. The first is exemplified by the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is expected to attract the membership of some 35+ countries by the deadline of March 31st.7 Much to the dismay and open rebuke of the United States, many of these are US allies including the UK, France, Germany, Luxembourg, New Zealand, and important Middle East countries. As of this posting, Australia, Isreal, and others have joined as well.
For major Asian geopolitical changes, one needs look no further than the continually growing relationship between China and Russia. An argument can be made that these two nations have moved beyond alliance to more of a symbiotic relationship. Looking at trade, energy, and military deals as well as coordinated military exercises, it is clear that these two countries are moving closer and closer to each other’s orbit. The new energy pipeline and rail networks currently planned are intended to physically integrate the two countries into a single massive network spanning all of Asia (and Europe).
Finally, the fiscal house of the great empire of the United States is in terrible shape. The expenditures of what could be argued as several generations of government officials spending far more than is supported by tax receipts has placed the nation in a precarious position. With an estimated $18.163 Trillion in debt, this works out to an incredible debt per taxpayer of $154,109. I could go on and add all the ugly details about unfunded obligations that dwarf these figures, but I am fairly certain you are already aware of how bad this is.
Alas, the Dutch East India Company did enjoy almost undisputed hegemony for nearly 200 years, and its transition was not an overnight affair.
1 Dutch East India Company
2 A Splendid Exchange, William J. Bernstein
3 Ron Paul – US Military
4 Department of Defense Base Structure Report Defense Report
5 Wars – US
6 Wars – US (2)
7 Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank