One of my earliest memories is of being taken in 1924 to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on the outskirts of London. Although the Wembley Exhibition presented, with a banality that was widely commented on even at the time,1 an imperial dream that was already melting away, a surprising number of people in England still believed that the British Empire was the world’s only hope of order and decency. With the Depression quite a few serious people briefly saw the Soviet model as the best way forward, and in the mid-1930s others gave more than lip service to Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.2
Dreams of world order come and go. After World War II there was a brief interlude when the United States led governments and peoples throughout the world in the belief that a new era of peace, disarmament, and the rule of law could emerge through working together in the United Nations. The cold war soon blighted that vision, and the world was frozen for forty years in the balance of nuclear terror. The end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union caught most people by surprise, and they were followed by a brief period of euphoria in which optimistic notions circulated, many of them inspired by the apparent success of the first Gulf War. Among them were President George H.W. Bush’s “new world order,” Madeleine Albright’s “assertive multilateralism,” and a short-lived but widespread belief that the UN had at last come into its own. The century ended in general disillusionment over the prevailing disorder and violence. The events of September 11, 2001, and the reaction of the administration of President George W. Bush have so far dominated the twenty-first century’s discussion of world order and have already inspired a large and growing literature.
The United States is by far the richest and most powerful country in history, so its policies and actions are naturally of worldwide concern. Its newly proclaimed unilateralist doctrine of preventive or preemptive war, with no tolerance for potential military rivals, would have seized the world’s attention even if Washington was not already acting on it. The occupation of Iraq, a vast increase in US military spending, Washington’s rejection of important international treaties, and its unconcealed contempt for international organizations and conventions have created uproar and foreboding in many parts of the world. Words like imperialism and hegemony, however inappropriate, have regained their old currency; worldwide demonstrations have been organized, and jihads have intensified. Whether the Bush doctrines are likely, in the long run, to become more, or less, dangerous both to the United States and to other nations is as yet unclear. Experience in Iraq and elsewhere may already be diluting some of the enthusiasm of the Bush administration’s ideologues and modifying US policy on Iraq and North Korea; but the image of a unilateralist superpower that is both defensive and aggressive remains an obsession in the world at large.
How relevant is it to speculate whether the United States will repeat the experience of former great empires—expand, get overextended, and collapse? The British Empire is as good a reference point for this question as any, ruling as it did less than one hundred years ago one quarter of the earth’s land surface and controlling the seas and oceans as well as the world economy. Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is a wonderfully readable book, a dazzling conflation of political, military, social, and economic history, enlivened with fascinating characters and anecdotes and splendid illustrations. (It was also a television series.) Ferguson’s historical trivia are a constant pleasure. David Livingstone sailed the 2,500 treacherous miles from Mombasa to Bombay in a small, flat-bottomed river steamer. The very shortsighted General Herbert Horatio Kitchener’s shooting dogs were called Bang, Miss, and Damn. Adolf Hitler’s favorite movie was Lives of the Bengal Lancers.
Ferguson’s intention, he writes, was “to write the history of globalization as it was promoted by Great Britain and her colonies.” His book underscores the dissimilarities between the British and American experience. The growth of the British Empire, however haphazard, was an unabashed exercise in economic exploitation, conquest, and colonization. In the age of Malthus colonies were also a useful overflow from their very small homeland for surplus Brits. Between 1600 and 1950 twenty million people emigrated from Britain and, in Ferguson’s words, “turned whole continents white.” Imperial Britain was a great exporter both of people and of capital. The United States, traditionally reluctant about ruling others, has been largely an importer both of immigrants and of capital. Is it possible to have an empire, in the old sense of the word, without colonization?
British confidence, not to say arrogance, grew as imperial expansion merged conveniently with a self-appointed mission to redeem the world. “We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race,” Cecil Rhodes proclaimed. According to Ferguson, Sir Edwin Montagu, a secretary of state for India who was skeptical about imperial policy, “commented drily he would like to hear some arguments against Britain’s annexing the whole world.” Nothing quite like that has been heard from George W. Bush’s Washington—at least not yet.
Military superiority and the ruthless use of overwhelming force are a hallmark of both histories. In 1898 at Omdurman, which Ferguson calls the apogee of the Victorian empire, the British, with the help of the Maxim gun, slaughtered or wounded some 45,000 of the Mahdi’s army of 52,000. Only forty-eight British died in “that mechanical scattering of death which the polite nations of the earth have brought to such monstrous perfection.” Winston Churchill’s words—he was an eyewitness—evoke vividly more recent exercises in military and technological overkill.
The British revolutionized global communications with steamships (cutting the average transatlantic voyage from six weeks to ten days), railroads, which, for example, helped to unify India, and later with the telegraph and the undersea cable (made possible by gutta-percha from Malaya). Having greatly profited in the eighteenth century from the slave trade, they led the movement for its abolition in the nineteenth. They enforced global free trade, built a worldwide logistical system, and became the world’s banker. (Between 1865 and 1914 there was more British capital in the United States than in Britain.) The empire established a global economic and legal system and provided an example of uncorrupt colonial government. Ferguson writes that in the end the cost of the twentieth-century empire to Britain vastly exceeded its benefits. (In 1921, the annual cost of running Iraq, £23 million, exceeded the health budget for the entire United Kingdom.) Of course movements for independence, and their supporters in the United Kingdom, strongly contributed to the dissolution, but the foundations of the empire had been economic, and in the end those foundations were eaten up by the expense of two world wars.
The United States has assumed a global burden—not just fighting terrorism and rogue states, but spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy, as well as being the world’s indispensable nation when peace and order are seriously challenged. Like the British Empire before it, Ferguson comments, the United States “unfailingly acts in the name of liberty, even when its own self-interest is manifestly uppermost.” But for all its size and wealth, the United States, in Ferguson’s view,
lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security. It is an empire, in short, that dare not speak its name…. Perhaps the reality is that the Americans have taken our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it.
This thoroughly British conclusion perhaps underestimates the basic fact that Americans don’t want to be Romans, let alone Britons, and in any case powerful new anti-imperial forces have emerged since Britannia ruled the waves. In American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Di-plomacy, Andrew J. Bacevich assails what he calls the myth of the reluctant superpower. There was, he maintains, always a common American vision of growth and expansion, rooted in calculations of political and economic self-interest. “Who can doubt,” he quotes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “that there is an American empire?—an ‘informal’ empire, not colonial in polity, but still richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread around the luckless planet.” Moreover there has always been a general belief in the United States that the American tradition, with its individual freedom, popular government, and market economics, is also the best design for all humanity. American leaders, as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, view themselves as the “tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.”
The primary national objective of economic growth at home and abroad implies continuous expansion, but not necessarily imperialism. The recent rejection of containment and deterrence along with the militarization of US foreign policy has resulted in a military expansionism which, with its desperate desire to get out of newly occupied areas as soon as possible, seems defensive in its rhetoric and very unlike the old imperialism. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s post-9/11 mention of the opportunity to “refashion the world,” which had a whiff of the old imperialism, now looks rather less practicable.
“The conceit,” Bacevich concludes, “that America is by its very nature innocent of imperial pretensions has become not only untenable but also counterproductive: it impedes efforts to gauge realistically the challenges facing the United States as a liberal democracy intent on presiding over a global order in which American values and American power enjoy pride of place.” Bacevich would like the US to act openly as a benevolent superpower and seems frustrated it does not do so.
Indeed the current policies of the United States provide plenty to think about without worrying whether they are imperialistic or not. The really important question is how the United States will use its power in the future, and how the world will react to it. In 1945 the United States, then incomparably the richest and most powerful country in the world, chose, with the admiring support of most other nations, to try to exercise its power and influence through a new international system that was largely its own creation. That experiment, the United Nations, was soon paralyzed by the cold war and has never regained the wholehearted American support that it enjoyed in its early years. Nearly sixty years later, the exceptionalist policy of the George W. Bush administration is the antithesis of the United States’ 1945 concept of how to use its overwhelming power.
It would be hard to imagine a better, or more readable, analysis of United States policy over the last fifty years than Clyde Prestowitz’s Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. His book is particularly valuable coming as it does from a traditional conservative with wide diplomatic and commercial experience. Prestowitz, who negotiated trade agreements in Reagan’s Commerce Department and now runs his own economic strategy institute in Washington, has a talent for making the most complex questions intelligible and fascinating, and he has a broad working knowledge of the issues as well as a deep understanding of the people he has talked to all over the world.
In Empire, Niall Ferguson mentions an equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales made entirely of Canadian butter. ↩
The New York Times obituary (August 14, 2003) of Lady Diana Mosley, one of the Mitford sisters, quotes her as saying, in 2000, of Adolf Hitler, "I was very fond of him. Very, very fond."↩
In Empire, Niall Ferguson mentions an equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales made entirely of Canadian butter. ↩
The New York Times obituary (August 14, 2003) of Lady Diana Mosley, one of the Mitford sisters, quotes her as saying, in 2000, of Adolf Hitler, “I was very fond of him. Very, very fond.”↩