catapult magazine

catapult magazine


American Empire?


Sep 23 2004
03:06 pm

I seem to remember a discussion about whether or not the United States is an empire, and whether or not it is reluctant. Anthony Pagden, an eminent historian, presented a very interesting paper on this subject recently at McGill, and I thought some of you would be interested. Here it is—I couldn’t figure out how to include footnotes, so contact me if you want the whole paper:

Empires Old and New- or Is the US Really a Empire?

For a long time now, ?Empire? and ?Imperialism? have been dirty words. Already by 1959, when neither the French nor the British empires had yet quite ceased to exist, Raymond Aaron dismissed ?imperialism? as a ?name given by rivals, or spectators, to the diplomacy of a great power? – something that is that only others did or had. By the 1970s a consensus had emerged in the West, at least in liberal academic circles, that ?Empires?- or at least the empires of European and North-American origin – were merely systems of power that constituted a denial by one people of the rights – above all the right to self determination – of countless others. They had never benefited anyone but their rulers. All of those who live under imperial rule would much rather not have; and sooner or later, they had all risen up and driven out their conquerors.

Very recently this picture has begun to change. Distance has perhaps led a certain enchantment to the view. Now that empires are no more ? the last serious imperial outpost, Hong Kong, vanished in 1997 ? a more nuanced account of their long histories is beginning to be written. It is being discovered that empires, were much better for their subject peoples, and their rulers also much weaker, than was commonly claimed. With the disappearance of the Marxist notion of ?false consciousness? ( and the culturally more self-conscious Gramscian notion of ?hegemony?) it has become less easy to avoid the conclusion that at least some of the colonized collaborated willingly, for at least some of the time with their colonizers, and that some areas of the world have, in the past, benefited from being part of someone else?s ?empire?. ?Empire?, in other words, was not all bad. Ever since 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan a few intrepid voices have even been heard to declare that some empires might in fact have been forces for good.

The revival of interest in empire is not, of course, unrelated to the increasingly belligerent behavior of the current US administration in international affairs, and the widespread assumption that the US has become a new imperial power, reluctantly perhaps at first, but, at least until its recent setback in Iraq, with ever-increasing enthusiasm. Most Americans still feel uncomfortable with the word ?empire? which, forgetting Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, has for long been thought of in terms of the Revolutionary War, and, therefore, as a matter for Europeans. But ever since the mid 1990s the rhetoric of U.S. international relations has become increasingly imperial. ?If we have to use force, it is because we are America?, declared Madeleine Albright in 1998, although taking care not to pronounce the word Empire, ?We are the indispensable nation, We stand tall, We see further into the future?. No British pro-consul could have put it better.

But for all the talk about a new American empire, is the US today really in Niall Ferguson?s words, ?the empire that does not dare to speak its name ? an empire in denial?? What, in any case, is an empire? The word has been used to describe societies as diverse as Mesoamerican tribute-distribution systems, (the so-called Aztec and Inca empires), tribal conquest states (the Mongol and Ottoman Empires), European “composite monarchies” (the Hapsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires) even networks of economic and political clientage (the current relation of the First to the Third world) ? not to mention – which I will do later ? the British empire which combined features of all of these and more. Faced with such diversities, simple definitions will clearly be of very little use. It is, of course, possible to define the word ?empire? so narrowly as to exclude all but the most obvious European (and a few Asian) mega states. On the other hand, defining it so widely that it includes any kind of extensive international power runs the risk of rending the concept entirely un-illuminating.

So let us say that an empire is an extensive state in which one ethnic or tribal group rules, by one means or another, over several others, roughly what the first-century Roman historian Tacitus meant when he spoke of the Roman world as an ?immense body of empire? (immensum imperii corpus). What is clearly crucial for any understanding of ?empire? is that it involves, as the word implies, the exercise of imperium As such, empires have always been more frequent, more extensive, human experiences than tribal territories or nations have ever been. Ever since antiquity large areas of Asia were ruled by imperial states of one kind of another, so too were substantial areas of Africa. Vishanagar, Assyria, Elam, Urartu, Benin, Maori New Zealand, were all, in this sense, empires What the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls the ?quaint Western concept that domination is a spontaneous expression of the nature of society?, is of relatively recent date, and exclusively of European origin.

All that would seem to distinguish the European or Western empires from all of these is size and duration. At its height ? in the second century under the Emperor Trajan ? the Roman empire was the largest society in the world. It reached from the Atlas mountains to Scotland from the Atlantic to the Hindus Valley, a territory of about 5 million square miles.(The continental US is a little over three and half million) with a population which has been estimated at about 55 million. And in some form or another it lasted for more than a millennium. The so-called Catholic Monarchy, when between 1581 and 1640 Spain and Portugal were under a single ruler, reached all the way from China to Mexico, from Southern India to Mozambique, from the shores of the Baltic to coast of North Africa ??Iberian globalization? as it has been called. And this was modest by comparison with the expansion which began in the final decade of the eighteenth century. In 1800 the major European powers, Russia and the United States, between them occupied or controlled some 35% of the surface of the planet, by 1878 they had taken 67% and by 1914 over 84%. These figures are, of course highly suspect. ?Controlled? can mean anything from Algeria or South Africa to the Chinese customs service or the Mandate of Palestine. But they do convey at least a sense of the immense speed of European hegemony. The only conglomerate states which could match this, were the great Asian empires ? the Mughal, the Safavid, the Ottoman, and the Mongol-Chinese. And by the early nineteenth century all of these had fallen under some kind of European political control. All, that is save the Ottoman, the only non-Western empire seriously to threaten the very survival of Europe and the only one to be formally recognized by any European power as an empire; and even that would only survive until 1920 by which time it had been reduced to the territory which is today the modern Republic of Turkey.

Size on this scale and duration clearly matter. The empires of Europe have shaped the modern world in ways which no others have. Whether we like it or not, no modern Western state ? with the possible exception of Switzerland ? has not been actively engaged in some kind of imperial venture at some point in its history, and there is none whose present political culture and the ethnic makeup of whose population is not, to some degree, marked by that experience. Similarly there are very few areas of the world which have not been shaped by the experience of being occupied and controlled for long periods of time by a foreign power ? and this of course applies to Europe, Russia and the United States as much as it does to the once colonized areas of Africa and Asia.

On one point, at least, the post-colonialists are obviously right. It is certainly true that few empires have been acquired peacefully, few have survived for long without the need to suppress opposition, and probably all were initially created in order to supply the metropolis with goods it could not otherwise acquire. In 1918, the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described territorial expansion as ?the purely instinctual inclination towards war and conquest? and relegated this to an earlier atavistic period of human history which he now believed was past. He would have to wait another half century for the final dismemberment of the last of the world?s significant colonial outposts. But on his own terms, he had seen that in the modern world he was about to enter, conquest ? if not war ? could not exist together with the new global economies which he projected for the world after the end of the First World War. And without conquest there could be no empire

But Schumpeter?s view is only part of the picture. War and conquest would have achieved very little if that is all there had been. Force, however great (even modern force) cannot keep a determined people for long against their collective will. The Portuguese learned this in Angola, the French in Algeria, the British in India, Kenya and Cyprus, the Nazis all over most of Europe.

Rome offers, as always, the best example. The longest surviving and on most counts the most successful of the European empires, it has provided, and in some quarters continues to provide, a model and an inspiration to generations of would-be empire builders. And Rome was so successful not only because of its legions, although those were hardly insignificant, but because it had learned very early in its history how to win over its subject peoples. ?An empire?, declared the historian Livy at the end of the first century BC, ?remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it?. And rejoice in it they very largely did. When the Western Empire fell it was destroyed by recently-arrived Gothic tribes from its northern and eastern borders. None of those who lived at the core of the Empire, the Gauls, the Dacians and the Iberians, even the more distant Britons, not to mention all the long-vanished tribes of the Italian peninsula itself, chose rebellion as the Asians and Africans under later European rulers would do. And even the Goths did not wish to bring an end to Roman rule so much as to appropriate it for themselves. When at last in August 410, the Visigoths of Alaric seized and plundered Rome, they did so because its Emperor had refused to allowed them to settle in his domains. ?An able Goth wants to be like a Roman?, Theodoric king of the Ostrogoths once remarked ?only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth?. Rome had had a lot to offer its conquered populations. Architecture, baths, the ability to bring fresh water from distant hills, or to heat the rooms of marble-lined rooms in villas in the wilds of Northumberland. Ultimately, however, its greatest attraction, was citizenship a concept which, in its recognizably modern form, the Romans had invented. It tied together the various peoples of the empire into one, and crucially gave them rights and protection under the law.

All the later European empires did the best they could to follow at least part of the example Rome had set them. Even the Spanish in America had, at first, attempted to make alliances with those whom they identified as the local nobility, and maintained until the mid eighteenth century, the claim Americas were legally kingdoms in the same sense as Aragon or Naples, of an extended and composite monarchy. The French, ever since Colbert?s ?Etablissement de la Compagnie des Indes Occidentales? of 1664, simply incorporated the colonies into the Metropolis ? to the degree that the residue of that empire ? the so-called ?Dom-Tom? ? remain today a constitute part of metropolitan France.

Similarly the British in India could never have succeeded in seizing control of the former Mughal empire without the active, and sometimes enthusiastic assistance of the emperors? former subjects. It was this process of absorption, the ambition to create a single community which would embrace, as the Roman empire had done, both the mother country and the inhabitants, both indigenous and settler, of its colonies, which allowed Edmund Burke to speak of the victims of the brutalities of the regime of Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal, as ?our distressed fellow-citizens in India?. Empire was a sacred trust, ?given?, as Burke insisted, ?by an incomprehensible dispensation of Divine providence into our hands?. To abuse it, as Hastings, had done was not merely morally offensive; perhaps more significantly it threatened the very existence of what Burke thought of as ?the civilization of Europe?.

But for all the talk of universal citizenship, the modern European empires were unlike Rome in many crucial respects. They were for one thing much larger, and they were scattered across the globe. Size and discontinuity had, by the mid eighteenth century led to the creation of what the French philosopher and economist, the marquis de Mirabeau, described in 1758, ?a new and monstrous system? which had vainly attempted to combine three distinct types of political association ? or, as he called them ?esprits?- domination, commerce and settlement. The solution to the crises facing all the European overseas powers by the mid eighteenth century, as he saw it, was to abandon both settlement and conquest ? in particular conquest ? in favor of commerce.

He was not alone. For those like Mirabeau, Isaac de Pinto, and their near-contemporary Adam Smith, what in the eighteenth century was called ?the commercial society? seemed to offer an alternative to the older world of belligerent competition, summed up by the word ?conquest?. Commerce became a kind of universal balm which could revive the older increasingly-discredited image of ?empire? and offer a new set of guidelines for its possible future development. For commerce, demanded a relationship between peoples which did not involve dependency of any kind. Instead, on the most optimistic account, the various peoples of the world would now swap new technologies and basic scientific and cultural skills as readily as they would their foodstuffs.

Nothing came of this enlightenment vision of a world made up of “empires of liberty” based on peaceable and equitable trade. For as Smith fully recognized, the European empires were not, nor had ever been, merely means to economic ends; they were also matters of international prestige. Furthermore, as David Hume pointed out, the ?sweet commerce? in which Montesquieu and other had placed such trust was, at best an uncertain panacea for the ills of mankind. In reality states tended to ?look upon their neighbours with a suspicious eye, to consider all trading states as their rivals, and to suppose that it is impossible fro any of them to flourish, but at their expence?.

Hume?s skepticism proved to be all too accurate. It was in the long run more profitable, as both the British and the Dutch discovered in Asia, to exercise direct control over the sources of supply, than it was to trade with them. But the Enlightenment vision of the future transvaluation of empire was finally swept aside not so much by the actual practice of the ?empires of liberty? as by the French Revolution and its aftermath. Initially, of course, the Revolution had no commitment to empire, even to such residues of the French empire which had survived the conclusion of the Seven Years War. But it prepared the way for the Napoleonic empire as inexorably as the Principate had followed the Roman Republic.

Initially the very brevity and bloodiness of Napoleon?s attempt to transform Europe into a series of satellite kingdoms, seemed to the liberals who had suffered from it, Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant in particular, to have rendered all such projects unrepeatable. Now, declared Constant in 1813, ?pleasure and utility? had, ?opposed irony to every real or feigned enthusiasm? of the kind which had always been the driving force behind all modes of imperialism. Napoleon, and above Napoleon?s fall had shown that post-revolutionary politics were to be conducted not in the name of virtue and honour, but in accordance with public opinion. And public opinion, Constant confidently predicted, would have nothing to do with empire. ?The force that a people needs to keep all others in subjection?, he wrote, is today, more than ever, a privilege that cannot last. The nation that aimed at such an empire would place itself in a more dangerous position than the weakest of tribes. It would become the object of universal horror. Every opinion, every desire, every hatred, would threaten it, and sooner or later those hatreds, those opinions, and those desires would explode and engulf it.

Like Smith, Constant, also believed that commerce, that ?civilized calculation? as he described it, would come to control all future relationships between people. Nearly a century later Schumpeter, expressed, in characteristically unquestioning terms, the same conviction. ?It may be stated as beyond controversy? he declared, ?that where free trade prevails no class has an interest in forcible expansion as such?.

What separated Schumpeter from Constant, however, was another phase of imperial expansion which had been more atavist even than the one Constant hoped he had seen the last of. For what, in fact, followed the final defeat of Napoleon, was not a return to the enlightenment status quo ante, but instead the emergence of modern nationalism. After the Congress of Vienna the newly self-conscious European states and subsequently the new nations of Europe – Belgium (founded in 1831), Italy in 1861, and the German Empire in 1876, – all began to compete with on another for the status, as well of course, for the economic gains, which empire was thought to bestow. ?Public opinion? far from turning an ironical eye on the imperialistic pretensions of the new, and not so new nations, embraced them with enthusiasm. National prestige was, for instance, the main grounds on which Tocqueville ? who should have know better – supported the French invasion of Algeria in 1830. In the eyes of the French their occupation might have any number of benefits for both the settlers and the Arab population. Above all it would bring ?civilization? in which Tocqueville, like Constant, like John Stuart Mill was as firm a believer as his enlightened predecessors had been. But the immediate motive was to re-establish the image of a France which was still tarnished by the defeat of Napoleon, and the hope ? unfulfilled as it turned out – that a quick victory might allow the unpopular government of Charles X, victory at the polls.

The new imperialism turned out to be very different to the kind of ?empire of liberty? for which Burke and Smith and Mirabeau had argued. No ?sacred trust? was involved here. Only, in Joseph Conrad?s famous description of it, ?the taking away [of the earth] from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves?. In the new nationalist calculus, the more of this earth you could take away, the greater you became. ?The people who colonize the most?, wrote the French imperial theorist, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, in 1874, ?is the first amongst all peoples?. Imperialism had indeed , as Lord Curzon, the overbearing Viceroy of India, remarked in 1899, now become ?the faith of a nation?.

There was also something else that was new about the new imperialism. With the exception of the Spanish, the earlier European powers had been only marginally concerned with changing the lives, beliefs and customs of peoples whose lands they had occupied. Missionaries, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran even Calvinist were present in British and French America, and even in British, French and Dutch Asia, but their activities were always of secondary importance, and generally looked upon by the civilian authorities as something of a nuisance. In the nineteenth century, however, Africa and even in India, became the testing grounds for a new missionary zeal. Driven partly by Christian ideals, partly by a belief in the overwhelming superiority of European culture, it sought to make of the world one world, Christian, liberal, and ultimately since none of the virtues peddled by the missionaries could be sustained in any other kind of society, commercial and industrial.

In this new vision of empire, Rudyard Kipling?s ?new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child? had not merely to be ruled, they had to be ruled in their own interest – however much they might resent it and first – and drawn to recognize that one way of life, was the inevitable goal of all mankind. This was not so much empire as exploitation or even as cooperation. It was empire as tutelage. And it implied, inevitably and inescapably, that one day all the peoples of all the European empires would be self-governing. ?By good government?, Lord Macaulay had declared as early as 1833, we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that having become instructed in European knowledge they may, in some future age, demand European institutions?. He did not know when this would come about, but he was certain that when it did ?it will be the proudest day in English history?.

Nationalist-imperialism brought to the fore a question which had been simmering for a long time. What, in the modern world, precisely was the nature of empire, as imperium? Ever since 1648, the modern nation-state has been one in which sovereignty ? imperium ? has been regarded as indivisible. The monarchs of Europe had spent centuries wresting authority from nobles, bishops, towns, guilds, military orders and any number of quasi independent, quasi sovereign bodies. Indivisibility had been one of the shibboleths of pre-Revolutionary Europe, and one which the Revolution had gone on to place at the centre of the conception of the modern state. The modern person is an rights-bearing individual, but ? as the D?claration des droits de l?homme et du citoyen 1791 had made clear – he or she is so only by virtue of being citizen of a single indivisible state.

Such a strong notion of sovereignty could apply, however, only within Europe. In the world beyond things were very different. It had been impossible for any empire to thrive without sharing power with either local settler elites or with the local inhabitants. As Henry Maine, a renowned jurist and historian and Law Member of the Viceroy of India?s Council, had declared in 1887, ?Sovereignty has always been regarded as divisible in international law?. Failure to cede this point had after all been the prime cause of the American Revolution, had almost driven the French settlers of St. Domingue, Guadeloupe and Martinique into the waiting arms of the British and, after 1810 was to be the prime cause of the revolt of the Spanish colonies in South America.

Nowhere was the question of divided sovereignty so acute as in the British Empire, which has, inevitably, and largely because of linguistic and cultural rather than structural or political affinities, been held up as the model for the United States. By the early nineteenth century the British Empire, so called had become larger and more widespread, and consequently more varied, than that of any of its rivals or indeed any if its predecessors.

What the division of sovereignty implied was obvious enough in India, where the British could never have survived for so long without the active cooperation of most of the Indian population. It was less obvious in Africa ? although even here ? at least in the north – the British, the French and the Germans tended to adopt some form of what came to called ?indirect rule?. It was very clearly problematic in the Middle East. As the Ottoman Empire weakened the European great powers picked it apart piece by piece, setting up client and puppet governments. In these areas settlement was never even contemplated. These were to be protectorates, mandates under nominal and in fact extensive, British rule. What was clear was that, if it was to survive at all, it could insist on no single constitutional identity. ?I know of no example of it either in ancient or modern history?. Wrote Disraeli in 1878. ?No Caesar or Charlemagne ever presided over a dominion so peculiar?. It was this peculiarity which led the historian Sir Robert Seeley in 1883 to make his famous remark that it seemed as if England had, ?conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind?.

Nothing could be further removed from the present position of the United States. Is then the United States really an empire? I think that if we take another look at the history of the European empires the answer must be no. It is often assumed that because America clearly possesses the military capability to become an empire, such overseas interests it does have, must necessarily be imperial ones. But if military muscle had been all that was required to make an empire neither Rome nor Britain ? to name only two ? would have been one. Contrary to the popular image of ?empire?, most were, in fact, for most of their histories fragile structures, always dependent upon their subject peoples for survival. Universal citizenship was not created out of generosity. It was created out of need. ?What else proved fatal to Sparta and Athens in spite of their power in arms,?, the emperor Claudius asked the Roman Senate when it attempted to deny citizenship to the Gauls in Italy, ?but their policy of holding the conquered aloof as alien-born?? The legions of the Roman Empire were manned and frequently commanded by such alien-born, and by the second century even the Emperors themselves were frequently non-Italian by birth. Without Indian bureaucrats, Indian judges and above all Indian soldiers, the British Raj would have remained a private trading company. At the battle of Plassey in 1757, which marked the beginning of the East-India Company?s political ascendancy over the Mughal Empire, twice as many Indians as Europeans fought on the British side.

It is true that, today, Iraq and Afghanistan look remarkably like British protectorates, since the U.S. in fact shares sovereignty with the civilian governments of both places since whatever ?sovereignty? might be thought to entail, control over the armed forces has been an indispensable ?mark? (as they used to say) of it since at least the sixteenth century. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out (repeatedly) the American presence in Iraq looks set to repeat the 72 year-long British occupation of Egypt. But for all that Egypt?s independence was, in Lord Salisbury?s words, a ?screaming farce? Egypt was never held to be in any way part of the Empire, and certainly neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are held to part of any American polity, however, defined. It is also true that the U.S. like the ?liberal? empires of the nineteenth century Britain and France, is broadly committed to the liberal-democratic view that democracy is the only possible form of government for humankind, and that it is its duty to export it. It too, has a mission, and a burden, even if it not quite as Kipling imagined it to be. As with the earlier British (and French) views on the subject this mission is also linked to the realization that a world of liberal democracies will be a safer and more profitable place for those places which are already democracies. What, with few exceptions it is not committed to, is the view that Empire – the exercise of imperium – is the best, or even a possible, way to achieve this.

In a number of crucial respects the US is, indeed, very un-imperial. It has no significant overseas settler populations in any of its fourteen formal dependencies, as all previous European empires had, and no obvious desire to acquire any. It does not conceive its hegemony beyond its borders as constituting a form of citizenship. It exercises no direct rule anywhere outside these areas; and it has always attempted to extricate itself as swiftly as possible from anything which looks as if it were about to develop into even indirect rule. This has, of course, been one of the criticisms. By failing to recognize what it truly is ? the argument goes – the US, like every patient in denial, is making an unholy mess of everything it handles. This is probably true of Iraq where either nothing, or something a great deal more robust and far more costly, would have been preferable. But that would be true only on strategic grounds.

Like Britain in the nineteenth century, the US today certainly wishes to impose its political values on the rest of the world. It has done so ever since it became a real possibility that it might be able to do so. As Harry Truman put it, comparing America to, in rapid succession, Achaemenid Persia, Macedonian Greece, Antonine Rome and Victorian Britain: the ?whole world [had to] adopt the American system?, by which he meant, roughly, what George W. Bush means by ?freedom? democratic institutions and free-trade. This was nothing new. The phrase ?American system? is taken, knowingly or un-knowingly, from Alexander Hamilton who firmly believed that the new Republic should one day be able to ?concur in erecting one great American system superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence and able to dictate the terms of the connections between the old world and the new?. What was new about Truman?s version was what came next ?For the American system?, he continued, ?could only survive ?by becoming a world system?. What for Hamilton was to have become a feature of international relations, for Truman was to be nothing less than a world culture.

But even making the rest of the world adopt the ?American system?, did not mean, as it had for all the other empires Truman cited, ruling the rest of the world. For Truman assumed, as has every American administration since, that the world?s ?others? no longer needed to be led and cajoled until one day they come to ?demand? , as Macaulay would have it, democratic intuitions. All humanity was capable of recognizing that democracy, or ?freedom?, will always be in its own best interests. All that has ever prevented some peoples from grasping this simple truth, are the actions of those, who for reasons, always malevolent, of their own wish to prevent them from doing so. The role of the US is then to eliminate these internal obstacles, to establish the conditions necessary for democracy and then retreat. This, rather than ?empire? serves its objective which, like that of any democratic state is to ensure its own survival, and the enhancement of its own ways of life.

There can be little doubt that this assumption has been the cause of the failure of establish democratic regimes from Iraq to El Salvador- that together with a very simple view of what ?democracy? entails. Humanity is not, as Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, destined to find, in the last instance, democracy more enticing than any other alternative. You may not need to be an American to embrace democracy. But you certainly need to be much closer in your beliefs and cultural expectations to America than most of the populations of the Middle East currently are. Tocqueville had made a similar point about Algeria. It would have been impossible to make Algeria into a modern nation without ?civilizing? the Arabs, he argued, and it would be impossible to achieve that unless Algeria was made into, not a ?colony?, but ?an extension of France itself on the far side of the Mediterranean?. The French government chose to ignore him and made it into a colony nonetheless.

But that has never been an option for the United States. If only because the United States is the one modern nation in which no division of sovereignty is, at least conceptually possible. The mainland United States, was never, except briefly by Jefferson and Hamilton, considered to be an ?empire? but always a ?nation?. This implied that any territories it might acquire overseas had, like Hawaii, to be incorporated fully into the nation as a state, either that or it had to be returned to its native rulers. What no American administration has been willing to tolerate, or to tolerate for long, is any kind of colonialism. Even so resolute an imperialist as Teddy Roosevelt could not image turning Cuba or the Philippines into colonies. (Such de facto colonies as do exist, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Samoa etc., are also too small to cause much offense.)

What the proponents of a more forceful imperial policy on the part of the U.S. overlook is that if America is ?in denial? it is so for a very good reason. To become a true empire, as even the British were at the end of the nineteenth century, it would have to change radically the nature of its political culture. For, in the end liberal democracy (as most of the western world now conceives it) and a liberal empire (as Tocqueville and Mill conceived it) are incompatible. ?Freedom? as Arnaldo Momigliano pointed out ? propos of Herodotus? opposition of Greek freedom and Persian tyranny ?required power, because power is a condition of freedom, but power proved, in fact unobtainable without ruling others?. Burke and Smith understood this, as did Mill and Tocqueville. Bu they unlike the U.S. had no problem with ?ruling others?. ?Empires of liberty? were empires which existed to enforce the virtues and advantages which accompanied free or liberal government in places which otherwise would be in Mill?s language ?barbarous?. They did not exist, to confer free or liberal government directly on those places. The time might indeed come when their inhabitants would demand European institutions, but as even Macaulay knew, when that happened the empire would be at an end.

In the end, perhaps, what Smith, Constant and then Schumpeter all prophesied has finally come to pass. Commerce has finally replaced conquest. True it is commerce stripped of almost all its eighteenth-century attributes of benevolence, but it is commerce nonetheless. For the world of democracies which the U.S. is trying to hold together against its enemies, first communism and now a looser coalition of anti-democratic anti-Western forces broadly called ?terrorists"? is first and foremost dependent upon international trade. And what best serves international commence are federations ? such as the European Union ? and trading partnerships ? the OECD or NAFTA ? not empires.

In Paradise and Power America and Europe in the New World Order – a booklet which gained much more attention than it deserved – Robert Kagan boasted that whereas the ?old? Europeans had moved beyond ?power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation.a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Immanuel Kant?s ?perpetual peace, the United States remains mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic Hobbesian world where international rules are unreliable, and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.
It is difficult to know just what Kagan takes ?Kant? and ?Hobbes? to stand for. But on any reasoned understanding of the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant, he would seem to have inverted the objectives of the ?Europeans? and the ?Americans?. For it is the Europeans (or at least some of them) who, by attempting to isolate the European Union as far as possible from all forms of external conflict which are considered to pose no immediate domestic threat, who are the true Hobbesians. And in most respects the objectives of Kant?s essay Perpetual Peace, a philosophical sketch of 1795 are, mutatis mutandis, what the current US government is trying to achieve.
Kant argued that the peoples of the world would never be at peace so long as the existing world powers ? what he called ?universal monarchies? ? were locked into internecine competition with one another. They had, he said, to be persuaded to join a league for their own mutual protection. To make this possible, however, it was not enough to rely upon international trade agreements or international peace treaties, because in the long run the parties to such agreements will only honour them if they are perceived to be in their own interests. A true world federation could only come about once all the states of the world shared a common political order, what he called ?representative republicanism?. Only then would they all have the same interests and only then would those interests be primarily to avoid warfare. The reason he believed this to be so was that such societies were the only ones in which human beings were treated as ends not means, and in which, therefore, no people would ever go to war to satisfy the greed or ambition of their rulers. With due allowance for what Kant meant by republicanism -which is often very far from modern liberal democracy ? and the huge differences between the late eighteenth century and the early twenty-first. this is roughly the vision the United States has of the world: a union of democracies, not certainly equal in size or power but all committed to a common goal ? the furtherance of prosperity and peace through free trade. The members of this union have the right to defend themselves against aggressors who do not yet belong and it could be argued that in the pursuit of defense, they are also entitled to do the best to cajole what today are called ?rogue states? to mend their ways sufficiently to be admitted. This we may assume is what Truman had in mind when he said that the ?American system? could only survive ?by becoming a world system? (Not that I imagine that Truman got this idea from Kant.)

For Kant?s ?cosmopolitan right? was not merely defensive. It was precisely the right to the kind of harmonious environment in which it was possible to pursue, what Kant valued most highly, namely the interdependence of all human societies. This indisputably ?liberal order? still depended ?on the possession and use of military might? But there would be no permanent, clearly identifiable perpetual enemy; only dissidents, ?rogues? states if you will and the perverse malice of the excluded. Kant was also not, as Kagan seems to imply, some kind of high-minded idealist. He was in fact very suspicious of high-mindedness of any kind. ?This rational idea of a peaceful, even if not friendly, thoroughgoing community of all the nations on the earth?, he wrote, ?is not a philanthropic (ethical) principle, but a principle having to do with rights?. And it could just as well be the creation of a nation of devils if needs be. It was based quite as firmly upon a calculation of reasonable self-interest, as was Hobbes? suggestion for exiting from the ?war of all against all?. Kant, however, was also aware that bringing human beings to understand just what is was which was in their own self-interest would always be a long arduous task, and that the cosmopolitan right lay still some distance in the future. It still does. But in my view Kant?s cosmopolitanism captures the final objective of the modern ?global? state system ? of which the US is undoubtedly, for the moment at least, the key player – far better than the term ?empire?. Perhaps what we now need is not an attempt to revive the flagging fortunes of the term ?empire?, but instead an entirely new vocabulary to describe the kind of political associations which, in their own very different ways both the United States and the European Union are becoming as, slowly but inexorably (in their own very different ways) they replace the nation states out of which they have grown.


Oct 15 2004
02:27 pm

Thanks, Dan.