Vassals can be good for you

Does Conquest Pay?
August 2, 1996

The answer to the question, according to Peter Liberman, is yes. That answer is firm but heavily qualified - so heavily as to be almost abstract. Liberman's proposition is that "invaders can, in fact, make conquest 'pay' in the limited sense that they can exploit seized industrial economies for their own purposes". To demonstrate this, he has assembled evidence on the productivity and profitability of a number of 20th-century conquests and occupations, of varying rapacity and longevity: the German occupation of Belgium and Luxembourg, 1914-18; the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr-Rhineland, 1923-24; the German occupation of Western Europe, 1940-44; the Japanese empire in East Asia, 1910-45; and the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, 1945-89. From these case studies, "the evidence shows that modern societies can be mobilised intensively in the short run or controlled and 'farmed' in the long run. This is true, however, only for ruthless oppressors. Invaders who are morally, internationally, or economically constrained from applying coercion and repression find their attempts at exploitation foiled by massive popular opposition." The unconstrained, he finds, can pile up an imperial profit, if not with impunity, then with virtually no hope of effective internal resistance.

Some of Liberman's conclusions from this evidence are at once stimulating and dispiriting. During the German occupation of Western Europe, for example, "West Europeans each contributed far more economically to the Nazi war economy than did Poles, Balts, Ukrainians, Russians, Yugoslavians or Greeks", not only because their economies were more productive and their societies more permissive, but also because, with a few heroic exceptions, "West Europeans, for their part, appeared willing to collaborate indefinitely". To be sure, collaboration was dictated by coercion, as Liberman says; but how then to throw off the yoke? "If the German army had remained a loyal and brutal instrument of Nazi policy and the Allies had not come to the rescue, occupied Europe might still be working for the Nazis today."

On this evidence, therefore, invasion and occupation remain more profitable activities than is commonly supposed. Even in the 20th century vassals can be made to pay tribute. Liberman's overall estimate is that in economic terms a surly vassal is worth about half a committed ally - on the face of it, a surprisingly high figure. Conquest, one might say, pays dividends.

These dividends, however, like many other dividends, are something of a distraction, the product of the accountant's sleight of hand. They are measurable, they are perhaps even meaningful, but they are also profoundly misleading. "Profitability" here is narrowly defined - too narrowly - exclusively in terms of the economic costs and benefits of the vassal state (or society) in question. The fact is that, from a wider historical perspective, conquest does not pay. As the author himself points out: "The external costs imposed on conquerors by the international system make most efforts at expansion dangerous and unprofitable. Wilhelmine Germany's invasion of Belgium provoked the British to enter the first world war on the side of the Entente, with devastating consequences. Hitler's aggression also resulted in the defeat and dismemberment of Germany, despite resource cumulativity, because the countervailing coalition was still more powerful. Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia led to a clash with the United States, whose military-industrial strength greatly outweighed that of Japan - not to mention that of the empire. And Soviet domination over Eastern Europe led to the creation of a potent rival alliance, Nato, and a costly arms race" - to say nothing of a much more pervasive competition, in civics as in shopping, which the Soviet system and the Soviet leadership could not in the end sustain.

This is a clever book, but in the end an unconvincing one. It reads as a well-sustained intellectual exercise, in the manner of its mentors, conducted in the high-argumentative, faux-theoretical style characteristic of the staple contributors to the journal International Security, in whose pages it is conveniently excerpted ("The Spoils of Conquest", Fall 1993). Like many of those contributors, this author presents himself with disquieting self-assurance. But what if he is wrong? What if we should return a different answer, or a more doubtful one? What happens when we come up for air, and look around? Does conquest pay in Bosnia, Chechnya, Gaza, Sumatra? "War is waged that peace may be established," wrote St Augustine. "Be therefore peaceful in warring that, by conquering, you may lead to the usefulness of peace those whom you subdue."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Does Conquest Pay?: The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies

Author - Peter Liberman
ISBN - 0 691 02986 5
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 2

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