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May 1930

Awkward Imperialists
by Reinhold Neibuhr

Empires of the past were established and consolidated by military power. Sometimes, as in the ease of Rome at its best, political genius softened the rigors of military rub and made its exactions sufferable; but the basis of empire was military force. We are living in an economic age, and the significant power is economic rather than military. In moments of crisis the banker may find it necessary to call upon the marines; but the civilized world is fairly well disciplined and permits its life to be ordered and its social and political relationships to be adjusted by the use of economic force without recourse to the more dramatic display of military power.

In such an economic age it is natural that our nation, the wealthiest in the world, should become the real empire of modern civilization. Our imperialism reveals ancient motives, but the technique is new. British imperialism is a halfway house between traditional imperialism and the new American variety. The British Empire was created by the British trader; but the soldier and civil administrator followed in the wake of the trader and consolidated his gains. We are able to dispense with the soldier almost completely; we use hint only in a few undeveloped nations to the south of us. Our empire spreads over Western civilization and establishes its dominion over politically self-respecting nations for whom foreign soldiers would represent insufferable badges of foreign rule, but who are able after a fashion to submit to imperial suasion as long as it is hid behind traditional banking ritual and commercial custom. We are the first empire of the world to establish our sway without legions. Our legions are dollars.

Our empire was developed almost overnight. At the beginning of the World War we were still in debt to the world. Whether, as an unfriendly critic asserts, we 'sluiced gold out of rivers of blood' or were merely the beneficiaries of fortuitous circumstance, our economic relationship to the world was completely altered by the war. We wiped out our debt and put the world in our debt by well-nigh thirty billion dollars in little more than a decade, and we have increased our holdings in the outside world by one to two billion dollars per year.

Some foreign critics suggest that our prosperity rests upon the tribute which we press out of our foreign dependencies. That is hardly accurate, for we have been reinvesting our income from abroad every year. We are not prosperous because we are imperialists; we are imperialists because we are prosperous. Our foreign holdings have supported our prosperity only so far as they have saved us from being glutted by our own gold and goods. Because we were able to invest the difference between our imports and our exports in the outside world we have been able to maintain a tariff policy which seems to defy every canon of  economics. We continue to sell more than we buy and take the notes of the world for the difference. There is hardly a country of Europe the currency of which has not been stabilized by loans from us; even England could bring its pound up to par only by an arrangement for bonding its debt to us which seems ruinous to many Englishmen.

Our economic overlordship through economic penetration is aggravated by the political debts which Europe owes us as a legacy of the war. We have consistently refused to admit any relationship between reparation payments and Inter-Allied debts; but Europe thinks our logic specious. It knows that the bulk of the reparation payments which are pressed out of Germany will find its way into American coffers, only to be reinvested in Europe, particularly in Germany, and increase American power. In the first five years of the working of the Dawes Plan Germany paid $1,990,000,000 in reparations and in the same period borrowed $1,179,000,000 from us. We may expect something like the same process to continue. If it does, we shall own a very considerable part of Germany before the war is finally liquidated. Meanwhile our holdings in other parts of the world are increasing continually.

It is inevitable that men should hate those who hold power over them. They may love the virtuous and admire the brilliant; but they hate the powerful. Hatred is compounded of envy and fear, and power breeds both. The fear is justified because powerful individuals and nations, even when they make benevolent pretensions, are not as generous as their pretensions or even as their intentions. A defect in the  human imagination obscures the mixture of motives which enters into human actions and social policies and makes honest self-analysis almost impossible; and lack of social intelligence prevents the holder of power from gauging the consequence of his actions in the lives of others, particularly if no direct contact is possible. If the envy is not as justified as the fear, it is at least as inevitable. Great power is usually accompanied by special privilege (a proof that it is not wielded as unselfishly as is imagined), and privilege incites envy.

Europe is contemptuous of our culture partly because it is envious of our civilization, for contempt is a nice device for expressing and obscuring envy. It is because powerful individuals and nations must inevitably deal with the hatred of their fellows that imperialism, if long practised, invariably develops a technique for counteracting resentment. Democracy is a device for making power sufferable in a community partly by making it derivative and responsible and partly by giving it the semblance of social responsibility and derivation. Since social intelligence in political communities has never been very high, the semblance of democracy has been almost as efficacious as the reality. In international relations it has not yet been possible to develop such a technique. Nevertheless empires have had some success in assuaging the bitterness and mitigating the resentment which their power created. The budding German Empire failed in this respect and perished. The English imperialists have had better success. Their detractors have attributed their success to their consummate hypocrisy; but while the world is not so intelligent as to be able to detect or to dispense with a certain amount of hypocrisy, the use of power cannot be made sufferable by pretension alone. The English have been the most successful imperialists in the modern world because they do have a genius for politics. Moral pretension is the baser part of that genius; the nobler part is the ability to gauge the interests and reactions of other than your own group so that no interest is pursued until resentment against it issues in social and political violence.

At times this ability to see the point of view of others and to allow for their reactions may rise until it achieves a moral quality. Such heights are not frequent in the history of nations, whatever may be possible for individuals; but a politically-minded people, such as the British, can achieve levels of social imagination which give their corporate life a semblance of morality and a reality of political effectiveness.

We are not endowed, as our British brethren, with any such political grace. If the Germans were too much the philosophers and therefore too much absolutists to engage successfully in the relativities of politics, we are too much the engineers. Our power is derived from our engineering ability, and we erroneously assume that the same genius which created it can wield it. It would be untrue to claim that our wealth is due solely to our superiority as engineers. We had a virgin continent to exploit. Energetic and vigorous stocks of the European population came to our shores to supply the energy for its exploitation. The fact that the steam engine and the telegraph were invented before we had fully conquered the continent made it possible to bring the whole of a vast geographic expanse under a central political authority which would prevent political boundaries, irrelevant to the economic unity of the continent, from impeding the flow of  economic life and retarding economic progress. Every circumstance conspired to give us our present economic eminence. Perhaps, if Weber and Tawney are right, even our religion contributed to our prosperity. In America a puritan religion, unhampered by classical or medieval contempt for the man of toil and glorification of the man of leisure, could add moral self-respect to the more obvious incentives of commercial and industrial energy.

But, whatever helped to contribute to our prosperity, we have certainly proved our engineering efficiency. Whether we turned to engineering because a virgin continent first directed our intelligence to the concrete problems of improving the physical circumstances of life, so that, once directed, we continued in that path until the conquest of nature became an end in itself; or whether, as Count Keyserling suggests, we obeyed the impulse of youth for the attainment of the obvious end and the completion of the concrete task; or whether, as Oswald Spengler believes, we are really old Europeans rather than youthful Americans, who turned to extensive activities because our culture was dead, we have certainly surpassed every nation in industrial efficiency and commercial energy.

Without designing or intending the result, we became imperialists by the power of our virtues and our vices. We were forced to conquer foreign markets to prevent the automatic machine from glutting our home markets; we needed foreign investment opportunities to get rid of our surplus wealth, particularly since we had not learned to distribute it more equitably at home; and our industry reached out into the world to feed the maw of the machine with raw materials.

Our resulting imperial power is  administered with singular awkwardness. We hear of the rising tide of resentment against us with a mingled feeling of incredulity and injured innocence. The late Gustav Stresemann quieted his nationalist opponents in the German Reichstag by suggesting that the Young Plan is not the instrument of Germany's enslavement to France, but the method of the whole of Europe for making its economic servitude to America as sufferable as possible. We laugh at such statements, if we know about them, as the chicanery of a harassed statesman. Lord Rothermere protests that Wall Street is a suction pump which sucks in the credit of the world. We attribute such sentiments to the dishonesty of demagogic journalists. Thirty-four nations protest against our tariff bill, and we solemnly declare that we will permit no foreign nation to interfere in our 'domestic' politics. France tries to raise a tariff against our automobiles and we hint justified reprisals. Europe, seething with resentment, suggests a more generous settlement of the war debts. We insist that we can tolerate nothing but a 'businesslike' settlement of this problem and piously hint that our real intention in demanding a settlement of the debts is to prevent Europe from falling into slovenly business habits and straying from the path of economic virtue. We little realize that a businesslike rather than a political settlement of a question is precisely the kind which leaves human and intangible factors out of consideration. We are a business people who know nothing about the intricacies of politics, especially international politics, and in the flush of youthful pride we make no calculations of the reactions to our attitudes in the minds of others.

Our lack of imagination is increased by the fact that we have come into our position of authority too suddenly to adjust ourselves to its responsibilities and that we are geographically too isolated from the world to come into intimate contact with the thought of others. It was only yesterday that we were a youthful nation, conscious of making an adventure in democratic government which the older nations did not quite approve, and we still imagine that it is our virtue rather than our power which the older nations envy. We cannot believe that any of them have outstripped us in the theory and practice of democratic government. We hold ourselves aloof from international councils because we feel ourselves too powerful to be in need of counseling with others, but we are able to practise the deception of imagining that our superior political virtue rather than our superior economic strength makes such abstention possible and advisable.

The remoteness of the bulk of our population from any contact with the foreign world illustrates and accentuates the basic difficulty of modern civilization with its mechanical interdependence and social parochialism. It is unfortunate that the nation which wields the most power should be the one which is geographically most isolated. Our 'provincial' press carries practically no news from abroad. Outside of New York, Philadelphia, and possibly Boston, the newspapers leave their readers blissfully ignorant of the political reactions of other peoples. It is a basic defect in the whole of our Western civilization that it has created economic relationships for gauging the results of which we have devised no means of social education. In this respect we are not much worse or more unfortunate than other nations; but we are by some degrees more ignorant than the British, for instance, and our power is mounting more rapidly than theirs.

To the natural defects of our engineering intelligence, our geographic isolation, and our political youth must be added some inevitable limitations of our cultural and moral heritage. We were cradled in puritanism. Our prosperity has gradually dissipated the individual virtues of self-discipline which puritanism once inculcated, but we are not yet rid of the puritan vices, particularly the lack of social imagination. We have a puritan penchant for oversimplifying moral and social problems. Mr. Garvin of the London Observer has suggested that in complex situations the man who wants to be just and does not know how to be wise is dangerous. That is particularly true, since self-interest is bound to color every conception of justice. The good bishop who recently returned from Europe and declared that Europe would not be so poor if it only stopped drinking, and that lie would oppose any generosity in the settlement of debts as long as there was a possibility of the resulting savings being used for more drinking, is really a quite significant American type. The banker will probably not agree with the bishop on the particular virtue which is supposed to have made us prosperous, but he will be equally certain that virtue is the basis of our prosperity. It has always been the habit of fortunate people to ascribe their luck or their fortune to their own moral qualities rather than to any inscrutability of history, and our fortune-favored nation has developed this habit with the greatest possible consistency.

There has been sonic progress in the sophistication of American political thought in the past decades, a progress which is roughly symbolized by the difference between a Bryan and a Hoover: but it is significant that even  a cosmopolitan in the Presidential chair does not venture beyond the traditional attitudes which American statesmen have taken toward world problems. We still maintain the fiction that nothing but the love of peace actuates our foreign policy. A certain amount of hypocrisy which varies between honest self-deception and conscious dishonesty characterizes the life of every nation. Thus Mr. Hoover supports the traditional American insistence on the right to trade with belligerents in time of war with the humanitarian proposal that food ships be exempted from blockade, and Mr. Mac1onald defends the traditional British position on the freedom of the seas with the suggestion that in the next war there can be no neutrals and therefore no issue on this old bone of contention between England and America. Both suggestions have a measure of justification, but both are really rationalizations of national interests and traditions and therefore not quite sincere.

The conscious and unconscious insincerities of statesmen and nations have always resulted in a measure of cynicism in international relations. If the world is growing particularly cynical about our moral pretensions, that may be partly due, not to our hypocrisy, but to our momentary eminence. Yet it does seem that our puritan background has made us more than ordinarily naïve in dealing with the complexities of modern international life. We make simple moral judgments, remain unconscious of the self-interest which colors them, support them with an enthusiasm which derives from our waning but still influential evangelical piety, and are surprised that our contemporaries will not accept us as saviors of the world. There has been no better revelation of the awkwardness of our imperialism  and the naïvete of our political intelligence than our enthusiasm for the Kellogg outlawry-of-war pact. We offered it to the nations in the certain conviction that we were once more assuming 'moral leadership' in the Western world. It really did express our honest desire for peace. But it also revealed our unwillingness to count the price which peace costs. Our outlawry enthusiasts suggested that Britain imperiled the usefulness of the pact by her reservations in regard to her empire, while we ostensibly offered it without reservations and therefore with purer intention. Yet the debate in the Senate did clearly establish reservations hi regard to the Monroe Doctrine and proved that we were just as anxious as Britain to protect our imperial interests. Meanwhile we remained as uncompromising as ever in regard to the war debts, a matter which Europe rightfully regards as more important to the peace of the world than any covenant.

The fact is that our political naïvete betrays us into sentimentality, and sentimentality always looks like idealism from an inside perspective and like hypocrisy from an outside one. Our present passion for disarmament is honest enough; but the success of our efforts means that Britain has definitely capitulated to our supremacy and  has recognized that it is better to admit us to naval parity than to run the risk of falling out with us by insisting on her probably justified need of greater naval protection Anything which avoids conflict between Britain and America is undoubtedly a net gain in international affairs; but the rest of the world will regard this amity with a certain measure of cynicism and hint that it must deal with an Anglo-Saxon empire rather than with a purely American one.

We shall remain the economic overlords of the Western world and prove ourselves uncompromising on anything which touches the essentials of our empire. No one knows what the future may hold in store for us. The fate of imperialists is always uncertain, and awkward imperialists run a double hazard. Responsibility sometimes forces the development of latent capacities, and it may be that we shall learn political grace and acquire a technique adequate for the problems before us in time to be saved from disaster. A decade of world responsibility does not offer sufficient evidence for any bold generalizations. But such evidence as is available certainly does not encourage the faith that we shall develop a political genius equal to the responsibilities thrust upon its by our imperial power.

Volume 145, No. 5, pp. 670–675