October 25, 2011


American imperialism? Please: The upside to the U.S. leaving Iraq is that it should quell the nonsensical talk about empire-building (Jonah Goldberg, October 25, 2011, LA Times)

Critics of U.S. foreign policy have long caterwauled about American "empire." The term is used as an epithet by both the isolationist left and right, as a more coldly descriptive term by such mainstream thinkers as Niall Ferguson and Lawrence Kaplan, and with celebratory enthusiasm by some foreign policy neoconservatives like Max Boot.

The charge in recent times has centered on the Middle East, specifically Iraq.

The problem is, contemporary America isn't an empire, at least not in any conventional or traditional sense.

Your typical empire invades countries to seize their resources, impose political control and levy taxes. That was true of every empire from the ancient Romans to the Brits and the Soviets.

That was never the case with Iraq. For all the blood-for-oil nonsense, if America wanted Iraq's oil it could have saved a lot of blood and simply bought it. Saddam Hussein would have been happy to cut a deal if we only lifted our sanctions. Indeed, the U.S. oil industry never lobbied for an invasion, but it did lobby for an end to sanctions. We never levied taxes in Iraq either. Indeed, we're left holding the tab for the liberation.

And we most certainly are not in political control of Iraq.

Queen Victoria's Secret: a review of EMPIRE: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power By Niall Ferguson.  (Margaret MacMillan, NY Times Book Review)

The notion of empire can also be useful. The historian John Lewis Gaddis, for example, argues that empire, as the power that one type of people and society exercises over other, different, ones, is crucial to analyzing the cold war and indeed the workings of international relations. He is onto something, it seems to me, if only because the convenient fiction that governs relations among states at the diplomatic level -- that they are all independent and sovereign -- is so clearly at odds with reality. The United States and minuscule Guinea both sit on the United Nations Security Council but we all know which one counts.

In the cold war, although it somehow escaped the notice of much of the left, the Soviet Union had a very old-fashioned empire, with direct control of subject peoples. The United States had its empire as well -- the Western European countries, Israel, Canada, nations that largely but not entirely of their own volition decided to place themselves under American protection and leadership. ''Empire by invitation,'' as one student of the period describes it.

Niall Ferguson goes even farther. A young British historian who has made a name for himself with masterly studies of banking and finance, as well as an iconoclastic account of World War I in which he contended that Britain would have been much better off to have stayed out, he argues here that empires can be a positive force. They can provide the necessary framework in which good things, from globalization to uncorrupt government, happen. He has little patience with liberal guilt about imperialism or the exercise of power. The time has come, he asserts, for the United States to think seriously about swallowing its deeply ingrained distaste for colonies and take up, well, if not the white man's burden, then that of the civilized world.

His model is the British Empire. True, the slave trade was appalling, the hunting down of aborigines in Tasmania genocide. On the other hand, the British Empire spread wealth and technology. It allowed the free movement of capital and labor.

As it happens, I just finished reading Mr. Ferguson's book and it seems to me that Mr. Gaddis's standard for what constitutes an empire could provide some much needed clarity both to the author and to Mr. Goldberg.  Remove the notion of day-to-day exercise of governance and substitute the more basic notion of the exercise of power over peoples and nations and it is pretty inarguable that America is an empire.  For example, Iraq today has a form of government that we find acceptable as a result of our having removed one that we found unacceptable.  We, of course, believe that in choosing to ape our popular sovereignty model the Iraqis have been swayed by the power of our ideas, but the deeper reality, contrary to Mr. Goldberg's assertion, is that were they to decide to adopt an Islamicist model we'd remove that regime too. 

As Ms MacMillan notes, Mr. Ferguson, in his book, seeks to absolve Britain of the downsides of imperialism by celebrating the upsides--the exportation of the Anglospheric model to the colonies.  But then he frets about America supposedly not embracing its role as inheritor of the British imperial mantle.  In point of fact, American history is little more than the story of the extension of the Anglospheric model to every corner of the globe.  We just happen to have effected this with less of the downside baggage than the Mother country did.  So, rather than governing Iraq as a colony for a hundred years, before being shamed into leaving--a la Britain in India--we stayed only so long as needed to establish stability.  And not only did the Iraqis adopt our system but the example of replacing a dictatorship with democracy has spread like wildfire across the region.  In the end, our empire is just as powerful as ever the British was, if not moreso.  The absence of a Foreign Service bureaucracy to administer that empire is a mark of strength, not one of weakness.

Posted by at October 25, 2011 3:03 PM

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