Why Empires Strike Out

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For a concept on which, one had naively supposed, the sun had set when the last British Governor of Hong Kong sailed out of the city's harbor in 1997, imperialism is having one heck of a comeback. At the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City last week, a standing-room-only crowd gathered to hear Niall Ferguson. The Scottish historian is enjoying rock-star status with his new book, Empire, which argues that British colonial rule was a jolly good thing and that a new American empire would do well to learn its lessons. In the sacred texts of neoconservatism, imperialism is everywhere. Six articles in the latest issue of the National Interest deal with the subject. In the Weekly Standard, Max Boot — whose recent book, The Savage Wars of Peace, kicked off the whole fad — concedes that "formal empire is passe" while arguing that in carrying out President Bush's policy of democratizing Iraq, "it would be a grave mistake to look for an early 'exit strategy.'" The length of time U.S. troops would have to stay in Iraq, Boot writes confidently, "will have to be measured in years, not months."

Lord. I've not seen such a fashion for improving the lot of those who live in less happy lands since I was a child in Britain memorizing what bits of the empire sent what goods to the mother country (Malaya, rubber; the Gold Coast, cocoa; Bengal, jute). And I confess I get queasy at the memories and deeply uneasy that the U.S. may be about to embark on a voyage to disappointment.

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Members of the Bush Administration, of course, are not so crass as to admit that their aims in Iraq are imperialist. Yet U.S. soldiers are already finding themselves in situations miserably familiar to those of the old imperial powers. Take the deaths last week in Fallujah. Young soldiers firing on demonstrators among whom agents provocateurs with weapons may (or may not) have been hiding — we've seen this movie before, from India to Algeria to Ireland. Many of the Administration's statements on Iraq reveal a cast of mind last exercised by those with ostrich-feather plumes on their hats. Iraqis, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently, will "figure out a way to manage their affairs" that will be "consistent with the principles that we set out." (Those principles, just so you know, don't extend to an "Iranian-type government," which, quoth the good Secretary, "ain't gonna happen.")

What is one to make of all this? In one sense, nothing at all. As Ferguson has argued, the U.S. doesn't seem prepared to make the long-term commitment of resources and talent to its imperial possessions that, for better or worse, Britain did. But let's pretend the U.S. really is prepared to send its best and brightest to help rebuild Iraq. And let's concede, as Ferguson contends, that "liberal imperialism," with its free flow of capital and goods, really can help poor countries grow richer. Would the U.S. be wise to commit itself to such a vocation?

No, it wouldn't. For starters, the concept of "liberal imperialism" is history written by the victors. For those on its receiving end, imperialism — whatever its economic benefits may have been — meant one thing: rule by someone else. It is beyond the bounds of human generosity for such a state to continue for long; occupation breeds resentment no matter how well-intentioned. In the mid-1990s I met many people in Hong Kong who appreciated the benefits British rule had brought; it was hard to find anyone who wanted such rule to continue indefinitely.

Second, imperialism pollutes the imperial nation. I grew up in Liverpool when it was one of the British Empire's great ports. Its docks were full of ships laden with palm oil and sugarcane, with liners bound for Cape Town and Colombo. You might think, to read some of imperialism's apologists, that such a familiarity with exotic climes would have bred a reverence for foreign cultures, as if every child of empire wanted to do something noble, like translate the Bhagavad Gita or teach for a year in Sierra Leone. Sadly, not so. In Britain, the imperialist adventure produced a belief that Britons were better than anyone with dark skin. In my hometown, imperialism bred a pervasive racism. When John Barnes, a great black soccer player, first played for Liverpool, the fans greeted him by throwing bananas on the field and making monkey noises. This was not in the 1950s but in 1987.

So forgive me if I don't join the new fad. Nations need time to develop institutions that guarantee liberty and prosperity. It took France around 90 years to go from violent revolution to a settled bourgeois democracy. All countries make mistakes, and wise ones will seek help and protection from outside their borders. But let the help they seek be of their own volition, let the mistakes they make be of their own making — and let imperialism stay where it should have been left, as a subject of enjoyable books and speeches.