Anerica Is An Empire, It Had Better Start Acting As One

One argument against George W. Bush's policy on Iraq keeps coming up: the charge that he wants America to act like an imperial power. Foreign critics object when America exercises any kind of power, because it draws attention to their own countries' weakness. But the charge of imperial ambitions also sways an American audience, otherwise well disposed to American strength. The United States was born in rebellion against imperial power. In America's political lexicon, "evil" and "empire" sit naturally together.

Nowadays, the same is true in Britain. In a column for The Times of London last week, Matthew Parris, one of Britain's best political commentators—a conservative, by the way, and no instinctive anti-American—explained why he was opposed to war against Iraq. It was not for any of the standard reasons. Iraq probably does have weapons of mass destruction, he says. The war will quite likely go well. Concerns over an Arab backlash are being exaggerated, he reckons: Countries such as Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia might well join a postwar chorus of approval for America's actions.

"I am not afraid that this war will fail," Parris concluded. "I am afraid that it will succeed. I am afraid that it will prove to be the first in an indefinite series of American interventions. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a new empire."

That was interesting because it was so honest. Many of the administration's critics feel the same way, though they may be emphasizing other arguments for now. But one wonders how many of them are ready to say—if it turns out that Iraq really was hiding weapons of mass destruction and the war is a success—"I take it back. Bush was right after all." If the war succeeds, they will still oppose, on principle, the very idea of using force to re-order the world.

This idea unites critics from left to right along the political axis. Like imperialists, liberals want to impose order on the world—but multilaterally, through the United Nations and other such bodies, or not at all. Many conservatives, in contrast, think that trying to impose order beyond America's borders is a fool's errand, whatever the method. Suspicion of imperialism seems to unite not only all varieties of critics, but also those same critics and the administration they are criticizing. The president and his advisers would furiously deny that their plans for Iraq have anything to do with empire.

Is nobody willing to speak up for imperial ambitions—and to say that an American Empire is exactly what the world needs? I know of one such heretic: Deepak Lal, a noted authority on economic development and a professor at the University of California (Los Angeles). As well as being a deep thinker and an erudite cultural and political historian, Lal is Indian, which gives his thoughts on the benefits of empire extra punch. His recent lecture at the American Enterprise Institute was disturbingly persuasive. (You can download the talk, "In Defense of Empires," from the AEI's Web site,

Lal made two main points. The first is that America is already, whether it likes it or not, an imperial power, simply by virtue of its unrivalled economic pre-eminence. The country's vital interests (including much of its property and many of its citizens) crisscross the globe. In its desire to protect and advance those interests, America has as big a stake in international order as Britain did in the 19th century. The United States does not directly rule beyond its borders in the way Britain ran its empire, but it uses its unchallenged power, hard and soft, to take care of its own.

Lal's second point is that if the United States frankly recognizes the responsibilities of this indirect imperial role, it and the world will be better off than if it denies them—as it is inclined to. America's challenge, Lal says, is to run the empire well, but that means first acknowledging its existence: "Wishing the empire would just go away ... is not only to bury one's head in the sand but to actually promote global disorder."

That is what happened between the two world wars. With British hegemony gone, America failed to rule. Trade collapsed, international property rights (which the British Empire was created to establish and police) were eroded, and the world economy spiraled downward. The consequences were disastrous. After 1945, in the light of that experience, America saw the need for leadership, and exercised it after a fashion—but continued to be guided by its moral rejection of empire. So, for instance, a renewed assault on foreigners' property rights in much of Europe and in the former colonies and protectorates of the developing world met with little protest. When Britain and France tried to reverse by force Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, anti-imperialist America scuppered the enterprise.

America designed the New Economic Order to be purportedly multilateral, not hegemonic. The construct performed rather badly, as a result. The regime was founded on the three pillars of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The IMF system of fixed exchange rates soon buckled, then collapsed. The World Bank's efforts to spur development failed in many parts of the developing world, especially in Africa, where property rights and limited government had been repudiated in the name of post-colonial self-determination. And the drive to liberalize trade became increasingly acrimonious because America (unlike Britain in the 19th century) insisted on reciprocity in tariff reduction instead of leading by example (that is, instead of acting unilaterally).

What about the United Nations, the summit of anti-imperialist hopes? The coming weeks will show whether the U.N. is capable of even acting as a partner to the United States in maintaining global security. What is already clear is that, were it not for America's forthright new policy, the U.N. would be doing precisely nothing about the threat to global stability posed by regimes such as Iraq's. So Lal is encouraged by the shift in American attitudes since September 11, 2001. He thinks the country has finally awakened to its responsibility to maintain international order.

Tellingly, this is not the kind of endorsement the administration wants. The president seeks praise not for discharging America's imperial responsibilities, but for championing democracy, liberty, and human rights. Lal would call that a delusion or a pretense—and dangerous in either case. Those values are Western, he argues, not universal. A wise imperial power imposes order; out of order can come cooperation and prosperity, and a lessening of ethnic and other frictions. Seeking to go further and impose values may create a backlash against modernization. This danger is already clear in the Islamic world. Because imperialism dare not speak its name, the administration cloaks its desire to create order in talk about liberty and human rights, hoping to spread American "habits of the heart." But such values are not universally shared. Lal's most unsettling conclusion is that this stance is not just unhelpful but seriously counterproductive.

There is a lot in Lal's analysis to make everybody feel uncomfortable, regardless of the reasons why one is for or against using force against Iraq. Unfortunately, where I find Lal least persuasive is on a point that would otherwise offer some comfort: his idea that modernization can be decoupled from Westernization.

That would be a comforting thought because it suggests that the Islamic world can modernize on its own terms, without feeling that its culture faces obliteration. But is that really plausible, as Lal believes? Suppose he is right to regard individual liberty as a specifically Western value. Can one imagine a country modernizing without liberty? I find that hard. Throughout, Lal rightly emphasizes the importance of property rights and limited government for economic growth—but can you have either without liberty? If these three are inseparable, as it seems to me, and assuming again that Lal is right that individual liberty is a distinctively Western value, then modernization requires Westernization after all.

This puts Lal's prudent imperialist in a bind. Mere security would fail to spread modernization; for that you need Western values as well. So backward societies would fall further behind the West, making order ever harder to maintain. But if it is true that to spread prosperity you also need to spread Western values, then other cultures are indeed under threat, and the risk of a more immediate backlash cannot be avoided. One hopes this is a false dilemma. If you can see how to resolve it, please let me know. Meanwhile, the empire (long may it rule) has an appointment with Saddam.