Anglosphere: The logic of empire

By JAMES C. BENNETT   |   Jan. 11, 2003 at 6:50 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Fueled by confrontation and the prospect of conflict from Korea to the Middle East, commentators from right to left are speaking of the United States as empire more and more. From the left, (and occasionally from the right by mavericks such as Pat Buchanan) the United States is accused of being an empire already, and that is assumed to be a bad thing. More novel are the voices on the right, such as the American Max Boot or the English Peter Hitchens, arguing that America has acquired, de facto, many of the attributes of empire, and that this should be both welcomed and formally acknowledged.

At the same time, the rising generation of British historians, particularly Niall Ferguson and David Cannadine, have begun a reassessment of the experience of the British Empire. The empire's history had been written first by its promoters and celebrators, and was, as could be expected, triumphalist. The second wave of history was that written by its critics, many of them Marxist. Both schools tended to assert that the empire was the principal contributor to, if not the cause of, the wealth and power of Britain.

It is only now that Hong Kong, the last economically significant remnant of the empire, has finally been let go that people seem to be freed to take a third and more objective look at the phenomenon. This look does not automatically assume the empire was a net contributor to Britain's wealth, particularly in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, it focuses on the political, cultural, and strategic uses of empire to various groups and interests, both in Britain and in the empire. It may in fact be true that the Second British Empire was effect rather than cause; a vast outdoor relief program for the aristocracy paid for by the wealth accumulated by Britain's leading position in the Industrial Revolution.

The key to both the historical question of the Second British Empire and the issue of whether the United States today has, or should be, creating an empire, is the question of whether any political system beyond national scale should be thought of as an empire at all, in the classical sense. In empires prior to the Industrial Revolution, the issues were simple. Empires typically consisted of a metropolitan center commanding a wide variety of tributary provinces, which might or might not be ethnically distinct from the metropolis.

Economically, the provinces supported the metropolis, usually very directly. The provinces paid taxes in money or in kind; cash or food flowed from the provinces to the center. The paradigmatic case was Rome's rule over Egypt: Rome sent soldiers; Egypt sent grain; the Roman populace ate the bread the Egyptians grew and sent. Rome exploited Egypt and existed thereby.

The First British Empire, primarily the Caribbean and North America, contained some relations of that nature. British planters seized the sugar islands and Southern plantation lands, and imported slaves to work them. They sent the sugar to England and the slaves lived at bare subsistence level: classic pre-industrial empire. However, already a difference had emerged. The sugar colonies provided luxuries sold for cash; the metropolis produced more than enough basic foodstuffs to feed itself, thanks to the Agricultural Revolution that had begun the take effect in the 17th and 18th centuries. Britain profited from the First Empire but did not depend upon it.

The Industrial Revolution changed the picture for good. By the early 19th century, the wealth of the industrial sector began to eclipse that of the old sugar islands. American independence had cut off the mainland plantation lands. Money still spoke in Parliament, but the voice of dissenting abolitionist factory-owners now spoke louder, with their newfound riches, than the old planter classes. It was this change that made gradual abolition politically possible.

Subsequent imperial acquisitions were justified on a mix of trade, strategic, and humanitarian grounds. Markets, natural resources, naval bases, and the need to rescue the natives from various situations were all arguments frequently used in various combinations. However, none of these real or imagined benefits ever became proven equivalents to the old agricultural exploitation benefits.

Markets could almost always be kept open by means far cheaper than annexations. Access to resources was dependent more on overall control of the sea than formal control of real estate: Germany's formal control of Cameroon or Tanganyika gave them no benefits in World War I, while Britain was free to import from the rest of the world, because it and not Germany controlled the sea lanes. If colonies provided cheaper resources than free-trading independent states, then the era following decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s should have seen rising resource prices; for the most part, increased competition drove them down, even eventually in petroleum.

Ancient Rome needed to maintain political control over its provinces to keep the grain ships coming. Modern America is awash in surplus grain from its own fields, which it gives away to the Third World. This brings up the interesting question: if the United States is to have an empire, what is the point of it? All of the dynamics which made the British Empire unlike classical ones, and ultimately dispensable with no ill economic effects to the metropolis, (quite the contrary, actually) are still in place, and in fact have continued to accelerate. Every commercial and industrial need of empire can be, and generally is being achieved by far less dramatic and far less costly means. NATO, the World Trade Organization, and Organization for Economic Coordination and Development render the same benefits today to the United States that the Imperial General Staff and the Colonial Office once did to Britain, with far less cost and far less antagonism.

Some leftists maintain that these institutions do, collectively, constitute an effective empire. But this is mere word games; a mild hegemony is not empire. The United States hesitates to act imperially even the areas of greatest sensitivity to its security: any historical empire worth the name would have replaced Castro with a governor-general in Havana decades ago.

The only real excuse for anything like an empire these days is to secure those areas of the world that can be characterized as failed states or regions of ethnic conflict than cannot be resolved within the currently existing frame of reference. Advocates of empire for the United States should consider the following possible cases:

Would they be willing to consider creating a permanent assumption of U.S. authority in Liberia, a country that was created by Americans, and is in some respects our mess to clean up? The amount of military force and administrative capacity needed to create civil peace, provided the commitment to stay were convincing, would be trivial, while the benefits, humanitarian and otherwise, would be substantial. It would be the thing the land needs most, and is least likely to get, left to itself.

Similarly, would they be willing to contemplate making Israel a state or territory of the United States, again, permanently? The United States extends a security guarantee to Israel little short of what it extends to its own national territory, but the Israeli government has the ability to make that guarantee more or less difficult by its actions, in a way a U.S. state government does not. The logic of empire would demand that Israel be brought under formal control as the price of its guarantee. This would be the end of the Zionist dream in some respects, but would guarantee the security of Israelis as no other action could.

I raise both of these cases not as serious proposals but as examples to try to concretize the question of what empire might mean in the 21st century. It is more likely that the mild hegemony currently enjoyed by the United States as a by-product of its technological, financial, and social successes is as much empire as most Americans are willing to contemplate, or pay for. It is also more likely that the future lies in the further development of the international cooperative links such as NATO and the North American Free Trade Agreement into organizations that are more loose commonwealth than empire.

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