In Defense of Empire

It can ensure stability and protect minorities better than any other form of order. The case for a tempered American imperialism.


In June 1941, during the festival of Shavuot, a mob of Arab soldiers and tribesmen led a pogrom in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad, murdering well over 180 men, women, and children. The pogrom, known locally as the Farhud (“looting”), was documented by the late Baghdadi Jew and Middle East specialist Elie Kedourie in his 1970 book The Chatham House Version and Other Middle-Eastern Studies. Kedourie blamed British authorities for failing to protect the Jews, despite having taken over responsibility for Mesopotamia from the Ottoman Empire more than two decades earlier. He explained that the Jews could “cheerfully acknowledge” the “right of conquest,” whether exercised by the Ottomans or by the British, because “their history had taught them that there lay safety.” But the British failure to enforce the law and provide imperial order was the kind of transgression that ethnic and religious minorities could ill afford: traditionally, imperialism itself, most notably that of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, had protected minorities from the tyranny of the majority. It wasn’t imperialism per se that Kedourie railed against, but weak, ineffectual imperialism.

To be sure, the British had their hands full in Mesopotamia in 1941: given the tendency of the Arab masses toward anti-Western and anti-Zionist ideologies (a tendency that was itself at least in part a reaction to British dominance), colonial authorities were desperate to keep Nazi influence out of the Middle East. As a result, the British ambassador opted for a lighter hand when at a certain point he ought to have used a heavier one. Be that as it may, what is not at issue, as Kedourie correctly stated, is the responsibility that conquest historically carried with it.

Throughout history, governance and relative safety have most often been provided by empires, Western or Eastern. Anarchy reigned in the interregnums. To wit, the British may have failed in Baghdad, Palestine, and elsewhere, but the larger history of the British Empire is one of providing a vast armature of stability, fostered by sea and rail communications, where before there had been demonstrably less stability. In fact, as the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has argued, the British Empire enabled a late-19th- and early-20th-century form of globalization, tragically interrupted by a worldwide depression, two world wars, and a cold war. After that, a new form of globalization took root, made possible by an American naval and air presence across large swaths of the Earth, a presence of undeniably imperial dimensions. Globalization depends upon secure sea lines of communication for trade and energy transfers: without the U.S. Navy, there’d be no globalization, no Davos, period.

But imperialism is now seen by global elites as altogether evil, despite empires’ having offered the most benign form of order for thousands of years, keeping the anarchy of ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war bands to a reasonable minimum. Compared with imperialism, democracy is a new and uncertain phenomenon. Even the two most estimable democracies in modern history, the United States and Great Britain, were empires for long periods. “As both a dream and a fact the American Empire was born before the United States,” writes the mid-20th-century historian of westward expansion Bernard DeVoto. Following their initial settlement, and before their incorporation as states, the western territories were nothing less than imperial possessions of Washington, D.C. No surprise there: imperialism confers a loose and accepted form of sovereignty, occupying a middle ground between anarchy and full state control.

Ancient empires such as Rome, Achaemenid Persia, Mauryan India, and Han China may have been cruel beyond measure, but they were less cruel and delivered more predictability for the average person than did anything beyond their borders. Who says imperialism is necessarily reactionary? Athens, Rome, Venice, and Great Britain were the most enlightened regimes of their day. True, imperialism has often been driven by the pursuit of riches, but that pursuit has in many cases resulted in a hard-earned cosmopolitanism. The early modern empires of Hapsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey were well known for their relative tolerance and protection of minorities, including the Jews. Precisely because the Hapsburg imperialists governed a mélange of ethnic and religious groups stretching from the edge of the Swiss Alps to central Romania, and from the Polish Carpathians to the Adriatic Sea, they abjured ethnic nationalism and sought a universalism almost postmodern in its design. What followed the Hapsburgs were mono-ethnic states and quasi-democracies that persecuted minorities and helped ease the path of Nazism.

All of these empires delivered more peace and stability than the United Nations ever has or probably ever could. Consider, too, the American example. The humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the absence of such interventions in Rwanda and Syria, show American imperialism in action, and in abeyance.

This interpretation of empire is hardly novel; indeed, it is captured in Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” which is not, as is commonly assumed, a declaration of racist aggression, but of the need for America to take up the cause of humanitarianism and good government in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. From Rome’s widespread offer of citizenship to its subject peoples, to France’s offer of a measure of equality to fluent Francophone Africans, to Britain’s arrangement of truces among the Yemeni tribes, to the epic array of agricultural and educational services provided by the Europeans throughout their tropical domains—Britain’s Indian Civil Service stands out—imperialism and enlightenment (albeit self-interested) have often been inextricable.

The first post-imperial American presidency since World War II telegraphs nothing so much as exhaustion.

However patronizing this may sound, the European imperialists could be eminently practical men, becoming proficient at the native languages and enhancing area expertise. Nazis and Communists, by contrast, were imperialists only secondarily; they were primarily radical utopians who sought racial and ideological submission. Thus, the critique that imperialism constitutes evil and nothing more is, broadly speaking, lazy and ahistorical, dependent as it often is on the very worst examples, such as the Belgians in the 19th-century Congo and the Russians throughout modern history in Eurasia.

Nevertheless, the critique that imperialism constitutes bad American foreign policy has serious merit: the real problem with imperialism is not that it is evil, but rather that it is too expensive and therefore a problematic grand strategy for a country like the United States. Many an empire has collapsed because of the burden of conquest. It is one thing to acknowledge the positive attributes of Rome or Hapsburg Austria; it is quite another to justify every military intervention that is considered by elites in Washington.

Thus, the debate Americans should be having is the following: Is an imperial-like foreign policy sustainable? I use the term imperial-like because, while the United States has no colonies, its global responsibilities, particularly in the military sphere, burden it with the expenses and frustrations of empires of old. Caution: those who say such a foreign policy is unsustainable are not necessarily isolationists. Alas, isolationism is increasingly used as a slur against those who might only be recommending restraint in certain circumstances.

Once that caution is acknowledged, the debate gets really interesting. To repeat, the critique of imperialism as expensive and unsustainable is not easily dismissed. As for the critique that imperialism merely constitutes evil: while that line of thinking is not serious, it does get at a crucial logic regarding the American Experience. That logic goes like this: America is unique in history. The United States may have strayed into empire during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the resultant war in the Philippines. And it may have become an imperial Leviathan of sorts in the wake of World War II. At root, however, the United States was never meant to be an empire, but rather that proverbial city on a hill, offering an example to the rest of the world rather than sending its military in search of dragons to slay.

This, as it happens, is more or less the position of the Obama administration. The first post-imperial American presidency since World War II telegraphs nothing so much as exhaustion with world affairs. Obama essentially wants regional powers (such as Japan in Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East) to rely less on the United States in maintaining local power balances. And he wants to keep America’s enemies at bay through the use of inexpensive drones rather than the deployment of ground forces.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s energetic diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran and Israel-Palestine might seem like a brave effort to set the Middle East’s house in order, thereby facilitating the so-called American pivot to Asia. And yet, Kerry appears to be neglecting Asia in the meantime, and no one believes that Iran, Israel, or Palestine will suffer negative consequences from the U.S. if negotiations fail. Once lifted, the toughest sanctions on Iran will not be reinstated. Israel can always depend on its legions of support in Congress, and the Palestinians have nothing to fear from Obama. The dread of imperial-like retribution that accompanied Henry Kissinger’s 1970s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East is nowhere apparent. Kerry, unlike Kissinger, has articulated no grand strategy or even a basic strategic conception.

Rather than Obama’s post-imperialism, in which the secretary of state appears like a lonely and wayward operator encumbered by an apathetic White House, I maintain that a tempered imperialism is now preferable.

No other power or constellation of powers is able to provide even a fraction of the global order provided by the United States. U.S. air and sea dominance preserves the peace, such as it exists, in Asia and the Greater Middle East. American military force, reasonably deployed, is what ultimately protects democracies as diverse as Poland, Israel, and Taiwan from being overrun by enemies. If America sharply retrenched its air and sea forces, while starving its land forces of adequate supplies and training, the world would be a far more anarchic place, with adverse repercussions for the American homeland.

Rome, Parthia, and Hapsburg Austria were great precisely because they gave significant parts of the world a modicum of imperial order that they would not otherwise have enjoyed. America must presently do likewise, particularly in East Asia, the geographic heartland of the world economy and the home of American treaty allies.

This by no means obliges the American military to repair complex and populous Islamic countries that lack critical components of civil society. America must roam the world with its ships and planes, but be very wary of where it gets involved on the ground. And it must initiate military hostilities only when an overwhelming national interest is threatened. Otherwise, it should limit its involvement to economic inducements and robust diplomacy—diplomacy that exerts every possible pressure in order to prevent widespread atrocities in parts of the world, such as central Africa, that are not, in the orthodox sense, strategic.

That, I submit, would be a policy direction that internalizes both the drawbacks and the benefits of imperialism, not as it has been conventionally thought of, but as it has actually been practiced throughout history.