Americans are stuck with the burden of empire without having chosen it. No wonder they're feeling truculent.by Dominic Lieven / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
The current world order is the heir of European empire. Between the 16th and 20th centuries empire and globalisation were tightly entwined. Europeans turned the Americas and Australasia into new Europes and, above all, new Englands. That is the geopolitical basis for the current domination of the world by the English language and by political and economic ideologies which are mostly of British origin. Under empire a global economic system was created, initially often by force. Its rules were mostly made and enforced by Europeans, although many non-Europeans were co-opted into its networks to their own great profit. Throughout most of the world, non-European elites were converted in varying degrees to European ideologies and customs. Both empire and this first great wave of globalisation were mortally wounded in 1914.
Unlike the aristocratic warriors and the mandarins who were pillars of traditional empire, globalisation favoured cosmopolitan financial and commercial groups. For reasons embedded in Jewish and European history, many of the leading figures in this new elite were Jewish (although in Asia they were often Chinese or Indian). Globalisation reached its peak in the four decades before 1914. So too did the resentments it stirred. Antisemitism had older and more diverse origins, nevertheless globalisation gave it mighty impetus. It is no coincidence that Hitler came from Vienna, a great cosmopolitan capital of empire. Among the empires of the day, the Habsburgs stood out for their protection of the civic, cultural and political rights of minorities, Jews included. Vienna was the city of Jewish financial and intellectual elites, but also of mass immigration of penniless and (to Christian Austrians) deeply alien Galician Jews. The great city of empire, of globalisation and of Jewish culture became also one of the centres of radical nationalism and populist racism.
After 1945 a second phase of globalisation ensued, under US leadership. This time, globalisation was supposed to manage without the help of empire, whose legitimacy had been destroyed by the evils of Hitler’s neoimperial Reich, and by the triumph of democracy as the hegemonic ideology of a US-led world order. Several decades after this new phase of globalisation began, however, some nostalgia for empire is in evidence?both in Britain and the US.
This nostalgia is now being expressed in Britain with a confidence unthinkable 30 years ago. A splendid museum of the British empire has opened in Bristol. Niall Ferguson has just produced a popular book and television series?”Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World”?the thrust of which is that the British did a rather good job. Oxford University Press produced an excellent five-volume history of the British empire in 1998-9, priced with a generosity that implies confidence that these scholarly tomes will sell beyond the purely academic market.
Media and academic fashion shadows a broader renewal of interest in empire. One inspiration for this is the belief that most ex-colonies have failed as independent states. Among the larger colonies, only the former Japanese possessions of Korea and Taiwan have made an unequivocal success of modernisation since 1945. With few exceptions, former colonies in Africa, the Islamic world and South America are perceived as a mess, with expectations far lower than at independence. Blame for this is usually pinned on corrupt and irresponsible government. Ideas of “global governance” and the IMF’s policy of “conditionality” are substitutes for direct imperial rule, which is politically unacceptable and demands a price western voters are reluctant to pay.
In George W Bush’s Washington, renewed interest in empire has a harder ring. The would-be emperors have shown the world the true extent of their power by making an example of Saddam’s regime. In one sense, the Americans have always been imperialists in their conviction that their own ideology and values are superior to all others and have universal validity for all societies. For US foreign policy, the current dogma that only democracies are committed to a peaceful role in international affairs almost necessitates involvement in the domestic politics of other states. This is often taken to be the mark of empire, as distinct from the mere hegemon’s interest in controlling the foreign policy of its clients.
At its most interesting and important, empire has been the political scaffolding upholding some great civilisation. Contemporary America fits this bill. Its power was decisive in the 20th century triumph of a liberal-democratic and liberal-capitalist world order. September 11th was a shocking challenge to that order. If, as is more than probable, weapons of mass destruction (first biological, then chemical and ultimately even nuclear) become available to private groups in the coming generations, then the survival of western, urban civilisation in its present form will be at risk. For that reason, imperial security for a threatened civilisation will remain on the agenda long after Bush’s presidency has ended.
For the US, empire presents many dilemmas. True empire demands a price in money and blood which democratic metropolitan electorates are very unwilling to pay. This was a key factor in the collapse of European empires after 1945. It explains too why the European empires which lasted for longest (the USSR and Portugal) were run by authoritarian regimes which did not need to ask electorates whether they wished to pay the price. The American electorate will need very good cause to pay even a historically small price to sustain indirect empire through a global network of clients and allies. If, as often happened in former empires, imperial policy undermines these clients and forces a choice between direct imperial rule or allowing territories to become bases for anti-imperial “bandits,” then the price of empire will escalate.
American ideology inhibits paying this price. The American foundation myth is rooted in anti-imperial struggle. Americans never equated their own conquest of a continent and destruction of its native population with European colonialism. Isolationism runs deeper than imperialism in US culture. Moreover, at the very core of empire’s definition is rule without consent over many alien peoples. This flatly contradicts the hegemonic contemporary ideologies of popular sovereignty, democracy and nationalism.
The contemporary American dilemma of empire is not new. Even by the 1850s it was clear that true great powers of the future would require continental-scale resources. But continental scale usually implies multinational populations. In a world where popular sovereignty and ethnic nationalism were becoming the dominant ideologies, how were such polities to be legitimised?
A number of possible strategies existed. The Soviet Union attempted to base itself on a new, universal, supra-ethnic ideology. Sultan Abdul Hamid II tried to save the Ottoman empire by reasserting an Islamic identity which would unite Turks, Arabs and Kurds behind his regime. Many imperial rulers hoped to consolidate as much as possible of the empire into a central ethno-national core?through Russification, Magyarisation and so on. Britain hoped to achieve a consolidation of the white colonies into a Greater British imperial nation by consent. Meanwhile in Austria, the Habsburgs found themselves pioneering principles of multiethnic federation which, in more democratic form, would become crucial elements in later efforts to secure harmony in multiethnic societies. It was towards such a goal that Gorbachev hoped to steer the Soviet Union.
Since all the empires mentioned in the previous paragraph collapsed, maybe the dilemma of empire has no solution in today’s world? Although solutions are not easy, that conclusion would nevertheless be premature. The Chinese, heirs to the greatest of all imperial traditions, have three quarters succeeded in turning their empire into a nation. Meanwhile the EU is, in a sense, engaged in empire-building. To be prosperous, Europe needs a continental-scale market. To have some say in the great global issues of the future it needs to mobilise continental-scale power to balance the US. In the commercial arena it has already done so; through the euro it is seeking to do so in the financial realm too. If Europe is to be taken seriously, it will need to be more “imperial” in the defence and foreign policy sphere as well. Denouncing US power and then running to Washington for help to tidy up its own Balkan backyard encourages justified contempt.
Europe’s elites face the imperial dilemma of how to legitimise government and create effective continental-scale institutions in a world still dominated by democratic and nationalist ideologies. But their difficult task is made easier by the fact that empire’s old nemesis, the nation, is that bit less legitimate than in the past. Twentieth-century Europeans, above all Germans, have seen where the religion of nationalism can lead. The consumption-oriented, postmodern European electorate is, for the moment, less hostile to multiculturalism than its grandparents were, and so more amenable to the advantages of a European “imperial” economy and market. Meanwhile, the military prowess of the people in arms-the Jacobin nation?has lost its meaning in an era where first-world conscript armies are an expensive joke.
If there is an empire in today’s world, it can only be the US. But whether it is useful to think of the US as an empire is a moot point. Since “empire” nowadays is usually just a term of abuse, the debate can easily turn into a useless trading of insults. It is, however, useful to ask what the history of empire can tell one about the nature and vulnerabilities of US power. Moreover, since the question of American empire is, in fact, being asked on many of the world’s streets and in most of its foreign ministries, there is something to be gained from an historian of past empires tackling this issue. Two points must first be emphasised.
Firstly, empire in the past often prevailed partly because it provided many public goods. It preserved order and peace over vast stretches of the globe. It often facilitated the spread of trade and ideas over long distances. It was usually more pluralist than the modern nation state in its tolerance for multiethnicity and multiculturalism. It was also often associated with the greatest civilisations in history, which could not have flowered without its assistance.
The second point is that empire came in many very different forms. The word “empire” itself has had many meanings even in English, let alone in translation. Some historical empires were much closer to alliance systems than to “states,” in the contemporary understanding of the word. The relationship between an Achaemenid emperor and his regional satraps was nearer to that of George W Bush and the king of Saudi Arabia than that of a US president and the governor of Idaho.
Whether or not it is worthwhile to call the US an empire, it certainly is interesting to ask which particular empires and imperial traditions America resembles. In one sense, the US is closest to the British and the Dutch empires of modern capitalism which created the global capitalist economy. In other respects it is much closer to some of the great land empires of antiquity. This is not just because of the obvious (although crucial) point that the US is an empire of continental scale and resources. It is also because of the nature of US collective identity. This is above all defined by ideology, culture and political loyalty. In this sense, it is much closer to Roman and Ottoman imperial identities than to ethnically defined English or Dutch ones. This has an impact on attitudes towards assimilating outsiders into its own community and allowing them access to elite status and power. Even in the 2nd century AD, many emperors and most senators were not Roman, often not even Italian. The parallels with the US, and the stark contrast to the British and Dutch empires, are clear.
My own understanding of empire is simple and broad: empire is a very great power which is crucial to the regional and global order of an era. Beyond that, an empire rules over wide territories and many peoples. Finally, empire is not based on the consent of those it governs. Historically, this seldom distinguished empire from other polities, which very seldom rested on the explicit consent of their subjects. But the distinction did become important after 1789, and was in time to prove fatal for empire’s legitimacy.
The US fits some aspects of this definition of empire better than others. The US president rules with the consent of the US people and this sharply constrains his imperial possibilities. If America presents an imperial face, it is to the outside world.
But American power in the world has to be seen within the context of globalisation. Contemporary economics and technology mean that US power penetrates much more deeply than did the power of many empires. By imperial standards, British rule in India was quite deeply rooted; nevertheless, most Indian peasants probably never saw a British official in the whole history of the Raj. By contrast, the global capitalist economy and the values portrayed on US television penetrate and challenge most of the world’s villages. Global challenge meets a global response. The Wahhabis attacked the periphery of the Ottoman empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for a time even cutting it off from Medina and Mecca, two crucial sources of imperial legitimacy. Other Islamic fundamentalists struck at the peripheries of the 19th-century British empire. Modern communications enable their descendants to strike civilian targets in the heart of “empire.”
The realities of globalisation help to explain some of the misunderstandings at the core of the debate about American empire. For some peoples, uninvited US power seems an ever-present reality in their lives. They call it imperialism. For their part, the American people never volunteered to accept empire’s burdens and certainly do not want to rule other countries. The US cannot withdraw from the global economy, however; it cannot reduce the impact of its culture, and it cannot even build walls to guarantee its security. Americans are stuck with the burdens of empire without having consented to bear them. It is not surprising that this leaves them in a truculent and bewildered mood, especially when empire’s burdens are brought home in the savage style of 11th September. Bewilderment is increased by the fact that it is hard within contemporary ideology to think in terms of “good empire.” As was true of some previous empires, much of what the US brings to the world is valuable, which by no means ensures that it will be welcome to the peoples, let alone the vested interests, which it challenges.
Democracy is also a source of confusion. The American political class believes that democracy is inherently peaceable and un-imperialist. There is some truth in this. Democracy does not go to war for fun or for status in the style of old-fashioned warrior-aristocracies. But even modern US history yields the example of the war between the Union and the Confederacy. No doubt neither were perfect democratic nation states since both denied votes to women, indigenous Americans and (often even in the Union) to blacks. By those standards, democracy barely existed anywhere before 1945. Nevertheless, both the Union and the Confederacy were sustained by massive popular and electoral commitment, and were far closer to democratic nation states than almost any other polities of their era. Far from inhibiting conflict, this made it more total and terrible.
Behind the claims for democracy often lies a very Enlightenment (and very American) optimism about human nature, if unrestrained by wicked elites and superstitions. But the Anglophone white settler democracies of the 19th and 20th centuries were the most democratic yet also among the most racist polities of their time. The economic and cultural interests of indigenous peoples were usually safer under bureaucratic or aristocratic imperial rule than under settler democracy. This would have surprised neither Fran-cesco Guicciardini nor David Hume, both of whom argued that the worst of all fates was to be the subject of a republic of citizens. Nor were Anglophone settlers particularly wicked in this respect. Algerian natives fared better under the military rule of Napoleon III than under the democratic Third Republic, for all the latter’s incantations about liberty, fraternity and equality. In an increasingly integrated global economy which rests on huge imbalances of power between first and third worlds, it remains anything but self-evident that democracy in the first world guarantees third-world interests.
What does the history of empire tell one about the vulnerability of US empire and the current global order? One way to answer this question is to think in terms of sources of imperial power. In The Sources of Social Power, Michael Mann identified four: military, political, economic and ideological/cultural. In my own book on empire I added geopolitical and demographic power .
Take military power; the US is perhaps where Britain was in 1825. As with the British case after finally defeating France in the wars of 1689-1815, the American empire can for a time live securely at an historically low cost. In time the challenges will mount and so will the costs, as happened to 20th-century Britain. The issue will then become whether American society has the intelligence, the will and the cohesiveness to meet these challenges.
In terms of ideological power one point to note is that the ideology of US empire is democratic and egalitarian, but the world we live in is more unequal than it was in 1500, when explicitly inegalitarian ideologies ruled. The history of empire suggests trouble when ideology and reality diverge too far.
Many modern phenomena cut across my sources of imperial power in contradictory ways. Take, for example, the role of women in America today. Mobilising female brainpower and ambition is a huge additional source of economic power. It is also often a source of US ideological power, given its attractiveness to middle-class foreign women (although sometimes the exact opposite for their men).
On the other hand, demography is also power: if women no longer need to derive status and security mainly from marriage and motherhood then the birth rate will decline dramatically. For most of the last 300 years, European numbers have grown relative to the peoples of other continents. Since 1945 that pattern has been dramatically reversed, with important consequences for the balance of power in the world. Here, however, US ideological power may prove relevant. Immigration is part of US identity. If Roman parallels hold good, it will not matter if most Americans are not white in 2200, so long as they are “conquered” for US ideology and culture.
To predict how long American “empire” will last is impossible. The history of empire is the story of the unexpected. In the early 630s, the rulers of Byzantium had as much reason for imperial triumphalism as Washington does after victory in the cold war. The age-old Persian enemy had been overthrown after years of conflict. But within a few years of this triumph a new source of ideological power?Islam?exploded out of Arabia’s deserts and nearly brought the empire to its knees. Given the speed with which technology is moving, there is more reason now to expect the unexpected than was the case in the 630s.
Nevertheless, in some areas continuity reigns. On the eve of the 20th century, the American geopolitical thinker, Alfred Mahan, wrote that in the long run the ability of Anglo-American civilisation to sustain its global hegemony depended on its success in winning over the nascent Asian middle classes to its values. That remains true. Even if they stick together, Americans and west Europeans will be hard pressed to sustain global stability on their own. But bringing 1.25bn Chinese into the first world will be a formidable challenge. Making the Chinese state an equal partner in a US-dominated world may pose problems no less difficult than integrating imperial Germany into the British-dominated global order of 1900. The “great game” of empire is far from over.