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The Education Forum

American Imperialism

Linda Colley

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The war in Iraq has had at least one redeeming feature. Along with events in Afghanistan, it has revived serious debate into some of the most important and long-standing issues in history and politics. Type the four words "Iraq", "Afghanistan", "America" and "empire" into Google, for instance, and you get around 3.5 million hits. There are the usual mad bloggers and propaganda rants but there is also a wealth of discussion on offer that expands every day. Is the US an empire? If so, what sort of empire? Is imperialism good or bad, or sometimes both? And, of course: why has it proved so hard for America, the most formidable military and economic power the world has seen, to effect its will? The passion behind this on-screen questioning is evident. So, very often, is a limited understanding of what imperial ventures have usually involved.

In part, this is understandable. Before 1939 most of the world was still ruled by empires of some kind, as had been the case for much of recorded history. Since the second world war and decolonisation, however, most people have drawn their impressions of empire as a mode of rule less from direct experience than from one of two powerful mythologies. Some still veer towards the old, conservative mythology of maps drenched in pink and brave pith-helmeted sahibs doing selfless, transforming work for "native" peoples. But this view has increasingly retreated before a rival, post-colonial mythology. According to this, empires (especially European ones) always rested overwhelmingly on force and invariably provoked desperate resistance that ultimately painfully triumphed. Clearly antagonistic, these two selective visions none the less have something in common. They both make empires out to have been more powerful than historically was often the case.

Some variants and examples of empire have proved powerful and durable. China, for example, is essentially a land-based empire, forged over the centuries by conquest and migration, which has managed to reposition itself as a nation state. And the kind of "informal empire" that Britain ran in parts of the world in the 19th century is also very much with us today. The US has no conventional colonies and may be in trouble in Iraq. But it retains military and naval bases in some 130 countries, and consequently the potential for influence over and intervention in them; and it possesses - as every mighty empire has done - a network of supportive and tractable client states, including, arguably, Britain.

Direct overseas empire, however, has tended to be more uncertain and more vulnerable. As the political scientist Stephen Walt has written, in words that should be inscribed in gold in the Oval Office and at 10 Downing Street, it is "extremely difficult to project power across water and on to a foreign shore". The histories of the old European empires demonstrate this clearly enough. Even at the height of their imperial power, there were countries - such as Afghanistan - where the British were never able to establish themselves successfully; and others - such as Egypt - where their rule was only tenuous. As for India, the jewel in Victoria's Crown Imperial, the British only held on to it for as long as they did by way of an army and police force that were overwhelmingly made up of Indians, and by collaborating with Indian princes who continued to rule a third of the subcontinent.

But the most difficult form of empire by far to carry off successfully - and this is where imperial history becomes acutely relevant - has been the well-meaning, transformative variant. Neocon politicians and intellectuals who are willing to admit to the existence of a US empire, such as Dinesh D'Souza, often argue that American interventionism is better and purer than old-style, Old World imperialisms, because to a unique degree it strives to make the world a better place. Yet such American idealism - which is real enough - represents one of the ways in which present-day foreign policy closely mirrors imperial ventures in the past. Ancient Rome, Qing China, Napoleonic France and conspicuously imperial Britain did not simply invade and occupy other people's lands out of economic greed. In each case, empire was also driven at times by the desire to spread improvement, and to export cultural and political practices that were seen as better, fairer and more civilised.

Viewed this way, George Bush's desire to implant US-style democracy in the Middle East, along with greater religious freedoms, women's rights and the rule of law - by force of arms if necessary - is profoundly reminiscent of past British imperial practices, which may be one reason why Tony Blair and the new Tory leader have supported the project so enthusiastically. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, British imperialists too frequently sought to deploy their power to export representative government, the rule of law, women's education and the abolition of slavery, and sometimes even secured a measure of success.

This week's elections keep open the prospect that Iraq might also ultimately be regarded as a success. But there is an obvious difficulty involved in this kind of aspirational imperialism. It is hard to convince people that you mean them well if you are looking at them down the barrel of a gun. Moreover, imperial idealism frequently loses out to the practicalities of rule. Instead of exporting what they perceived to be rational, modern, humane government to their colonies, the British often found themselves propping up deeply unattractive and corrupt princelings and client rulers because this was the cheapest way of maintaining control. It remains to be seen how far, and how durably, the US will achieve anything better in Iraq.

The gulf between imperial ideals and empire on the ground has customarily proved disillusioning not only for colonial peoples but also for some in the occupying power. In the past, anti-imperialists in Britain, such as Richard Cobden or George Orwell, regularly argued that overseas adventurism was detracting from the nation's decency and liberty. British anti-imperialists also argued, exactly like the author and journalist Chalmers Johnson is doing now in the US, that heavy expenditure on an overseas presence and military action abroad undermined the economic wellbeing of ordinary working people at home.

But, while current events have revived awareness that seeking to remodel other countries can be a difficult and chancey business even for the invaders, there is one respect in which this has come to be true in the present to a degree that never applied in the past. Adam Smith, who distrusted empire, argued that only when "all the different quarters of the world" were able to inspire "mutual fear" would nations finally begin to respect the integrity of each other's borders. In the most horrible of ways, al-Qaida is after a fashion testing this very premise. In the past, the imperialism of the west, like that of the rest, was often difficult - for the doers as well as for their victims; but western states were none the less usually able to dispatch forces overseas against non-western peoples without any fear of being attacked themselves. That kind of immunity is probably now a thing of the past.


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