»  National Review

September 1st, 2003

  An Empire Like No Other


Here on my desk I have a 1924 atlas of the world that belonged to my grandfather, an Englishman. Its actual title is: The British Empire Universities Up-to-date Atlas-guide to the British Commonwealth of Nations and Foreign Countries. The book is divided into three sections. First, of course, are the maps, 136 pages of them. Then comes "British Commonwealth of Nations: Descriptive and Statistical Notes," covering 97 pages. Finally there are 56 pages on "Foreign Countries: Descriptive and Statistical Notes."

Published as it was at the very high tide of British imperialism, this atlas is an instructive document. Even its title is instructive, with its hint of "Empire" yielding to the more diffident "Commonwealth," as actual British political control over self-governing "white dominions" like Australia and South Africa became ever more theoretical. These dominions were not recognized as free countries within the Commonwealth until 1926, and this status was not confirmed by statute until 1931. Lesser places were still colonies, protectorates, mandates, or possessions; and India was an Empire all by itself.

This confusion of nomenclature betrayed a weakening of confidence. While the British Empire described in Grandad's atlas was indeed at its maximum geographical extent, the high point of imperial self-assurance had passed a quarter century earlier. The bumptious innocence of Victorian imperialism was long lost. Doubt and cynicism had fixed their clammy grip on the British, at least on the educated classes — 1924 was also the year that E.M. Forster published A Passage to India. The imperial idea soldiered on for a surprisingly long time, though. I am merely middle-aged, but I have a very dim memory from my English childhood of an Empire Day — May 24 — when the entire elementary school I attended was formed up in the playground to sing (and I can still sing it; it was one of the first songs I learned) "There'll Always Be an England."

Red, white and blue —
What does it mean to you?
Surely you're proud,
Shout it loud:
Britons awake!
The Empire, too —
We can depend on you.
Freedom remains;
These are the chains
Nothing can break.

Britain's was not the only empire extant in 1924. Take the very first map in Grandad's atlas — "The World: Colonial Powers and Communications. " The British Empire is colored pink, of course. There are also distinctive colors for the imperial possessions of France, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States. (This map is unfortunately marred by a jagged circumnavigating line in blue ball-point ink, added by a small boy who had just discovered with delight Jules Verne's book Around the World in Eighty Days and wanted to follow Phileas Fogg and Passepartout on their travels …)

The inclusion of the United States in that list of imperial powers is a little disconcerting to us Americans, accustomed as we are to think of ourselves as a nation radically hostile to the very notion of imperialism. There are those U.S. possessions, though, colored a delicate shade of green: The Philippines, "Porto Rico," Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, the Panama Canal Zone. The United States was in the business of twentieth-century imperialism along with those other nations identified on my 1924 map, and with some not identified, or recently out of the game: Japan, Belgium, Turkey, Russia, China, Denmark.

Not all Americans were happy about this. An Anti-Imperialist League had been formed to fight the annexation of the Philippines in 1898, with worthies like Andrew Carnegie and Samuel Gompers among its promoters. Our imperial adventures were carefully cloaked with talk of "tutelage" and "protection." Not for us the plumed helmets and durbars of brazen, "official" imperialism, as practiced by the European powers. The American style was reserved, apologetic, and respectful. We planted no settlers, transported no convicts, established no Colonial Office, and always insisted that our occupation of other people's land overseas was temporary, and entirely against our better instincts. In most cases, we meant it.

And now our thoughts are turning — with proper republican reluctance, but turning none the less — toward the necessity for a new imperialism. Since that dreadful day two years ago, it has dawned on large numbers of Americans that dysfunctional states in remote places can be dire and immediate threats to us. Third-world sinkholes can no longer be left to fester in their own backwardness. It is necessary, simply as a matter of our own self-interest, for us to go into them and sort out their affairs. More recent events have got some of us thinking that the threats are not limited to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The Clinton administrations's declaration three years ago that AIDS is a threat to our national security, was much scoffed at. (I know it was; I did some of the scoffing myself.) On reflection, though, and particularly following the SARS epidemic, it is hard to argue with the proposition that public health issues in benighted parts of the world might indeed be of pressing concern to Americans.

Few of us believe these matters can be left to international agencies like the U.N. to deal with. In certain special circumstances — where there is no strategic interest on the part of important powers, no bitter dispute over sovereignty, and some long-standing sense of nationhood to build on — the U.N. can help matters along, as it has in Cambodia. In places where America's interests are at stake, however, and in conflict with other nations', and where national feeling is divided, or artificial, or non-existent, so that patriotic native elites cannot easily take control of the situation, we need to act in our own interests. It is not likely that we shall be able to restrict our actions just to diplomacy, or to in-and-out police action. The trumpets are sounding: we are called to our imperial duty: we must take up the White Man's Burden. (A phrase that should never be printed without noting Kipling's definition of "white man," given in 1897:  "The race speaking the English tongue, with a high birth rate and a low murder rate, living quietly under Laws which are neither bought nor sold.")


In doing so, the question arises: have we anything to learn from the British experience? At first sight, the imperial impulse seems very different in our two cases. For us, the main driving force is concern for our own security. For them, it was commercial and demographic: merchants in search of new markets, emigrants in search of new land. There are, however, some similarities to be noted between our own present movement towards imperial "meddling" in other people's countries and the British experience of 150 years ago.

There is, for example, the ambivalence with which we approach the whole topic. So it was with Britain. The acquisition of the British Empire was not a planned project backed by unanimous national enthusiasm. Hostility to imperialism had a fine pedigree in Britain, among both Tories and Whigs: Doctor Johnson and Adam Smith were both anti-imperialists. One of the most influential groups in mid-19th century Britain, the Manchester liberals, opposed imperial adventures on Free Trade principles. There was no national consensus for the creation of the British Empire. It all happened, as the historian J.R. Seeley famously remarked, "in a fit of absence of mind." One thing led to another. Sometimes trade followed the flag; at least as often, the flag followed trade — and not always trade of a respectable kind, as when the Royal Navy was dispatched to obtain "satisfaction and reparation" for the Chinese seizure of opium at Canton, and ended up acquiring Hong Kong.

Another similarity can be seen in the arguments being advanced for the new imperialism. The principal motives are, as I said, different; the people of 19th-century Britain did not face the possibility of their cities being destroyed by terrorist gangs from Afghanistan or Mesopotamia. There is, though, a parallel to be seen in the fact that both Left and Right in the present-day U.S.A. are keen on intervention — though, of course, from different motives and via different means. Our Left wishes us to join together with other nations in these ventures, for the common good, and out of mainly humanitarian motives. We conservatives, on the other hand, have America's own interests at the front of our minds, and are not much inclined to seek help from other nations, or to believe that such help would be forthcoming if sought. There is an approximate echo here of 19th-century parliamentary debates, Disraeli the pragmatic champion of Britain's interests, Gladstone fired by outrage at the inhumanity and injustice suffered by the peoples of distant places.

That humanitarian element in British imperialism bears some closer examination. It has been forgotten, or glossed over, in the anti-imperialist fervor of the past few decades. Certainly the British imperial enterprise had its dark sides. The example I gave above, of the opium traffic in China, was one; the slave trade was of course another. When the Empire got properly into its stride, though, humanitarianism was a major driving force. Slavery was abolished throughout Britain's possessions in 1834, and much of the work of the Royal Navy through the middle decades of the 19th century was devoted to the suppression of slave trafficking by people of other nations — including this one. The British colony of Sierra Leone was founded as a refuge for freed slaves, a dozen years before Liberia. The drive to eliminate slavery was fueled by evangelical Christianity, which, in the form of missionary activity, continued to be an important element of the imperial thrust well into the 20th century, especially in Africa.

Nor could the idealistic side of imperialism be altogether separated from the commercial. Where large tribal groups have been at loggerheads for centuries, their endless civil wars spreading chaos and misery, ordinary commerce, and even ordinary life, is impossible. The imperial power may then come as a blessed peacemaker, even if it is propelled by mainly commercial motives. This was how the young Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, viewed his campaigns in India. Probably many Indians saw them in the same light; and many more must have welcomed the British determination to stamp out such horrors as thuggee and suttee.

The British Empire was, in fact, for all its faults and occasional horrors, a net force for good. I cannot think of any place that Britain left worse — less healthy, less prosperous, less well-educated — than she found it. This point of view is very shocking to the propagandists of anti-imperialism who still infest our universities, but it is gaining ground. Accounts of the Empire published in recent years — Lawrence James's Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994) and Niall Ferguson's Empire (2002) illustrate the point — are respectful, even affectionate, while acknowledging the cruelty and arrogance that marred the imperial endeavor. As with so many things, this more balanced approach was prefigured by George Orwell. Though a keen anti-imperialist who believed that the whole thing, which he had experienced from the inside, was little better than a racket, Orwell none the less noted with characteristic honesty that:

It may be that all [the Anglo-Indians] did was evil, but they changed the face of the earth (it is instructive to look at a map of Asia and compare the railway system of India with that of the surrounding countries) …

Thus prompted, I have just checked with Grandad's atlas. Under the entry for Afghanistan, it reports that: "There are no railways in the country."


But the lessons, the lessons — what are the lessons? Now, we should always be skeptical of too-neat historical analogies. Some intensive reading on the history of the British Empire has left me with the conviction that it was not an instance of anything more general. To be sure, it resembled every other empire in some way or other: the Roman in its tolerance for local customs, the Spanish in its seafaring prowess, the Venetian in its commercial energy, and so on. None of the parallels can be taken very far before they diverge, though. There never was anything quite like the British Empire before, and probably never will be again. The empty spaces of the world are all filled up, so there can be no more settler dominions. "We have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not" is not a workable operational principle against Al-Qaeda-type terrorists. (Though "We have got / The carrier group, and they have not" comes in handy against the rogue states that support them, and should see us safely through another decade or so.)

I believe, though, that there are still some general lessons to be taken from the British experience. I shall mention two: one monitory, one encouraging.

Lesson one is that imperialists are unloved. This is particularly hard for Americans to swallow. I am an American myself now; but until I was an adult, Americans were foreigners to me, and I grew up hearing what other nations say about them — us. The first thing everyone says is that Americans have a great yearning to be liked, and are hurt and baffled at discovering they are not liked. (The second, just for the record, is that American men all live in terror of their womenfolk.) If we are going to be any kind of success as imperialists, we had better get rid of that yearning. An imperial power can be feared, tolerated, even accepted to a degree, but will never be loved, and must not hope to be. The best of the British imperialists understood this, and were not lulled into wishful thinking by the flattery of rent-seekers, the gratitude of minority peoples — the Copts of Egypt, for example — they had released from oppression, or the preference felt by young native males for the regular food, wages, and adventure on offer from the imperial armies, by contrast with a lifetime of cutting peat or tending water-buffalo.

No matter what benefits we bring, the desire of all peoples everywhere to be ruled by their own kind will sooner or later re-assert itself. No use to point out the benefits of imperial rule: you will be told that the roads and railways were built for the conqueror's own ends, to make subjugation easier. No use to point to the useful work done, and the lives of imperial soldiers and administrators lost, in the suppression of brigandage and slavery: it was all done for profit, will come the sneering reply. No use to point to the horrors the subject people endured when they were left alone to govern themselves: you will only hear the words that Byron put into the mouth of his Greek patriot:

        … our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

It follows that the only imperialism we can, or should, aspire to is the temporary, tutelary kind — a fact which anyway suits our national aversion to colonial domination. The only permanent imperialism is the one that utterly swamps the indigenes with immigrants loyal to the imperial power; and that kind of thing can only be accomplished when the imperial power possesses great demographic vitality, and the territory to be occupied is thinly populated, at a low civilizational level. The last time anything like those circumstances obtained was in the middle twentieth century, when Mao Tse-tung re-established Chinese control over the territories of the old Manchu empire. Now that China is heading for demographic collapse, the final outcome of that last spasm of true colonization cannot be taken as certain, except perhaps in Inner Mongolia.

So much for the monitory lesson to be drawn from the British experience. There is, though, as I said, a second lesson, much more encouraging. It is this: that open, consensual forms of government can be imposed on subject peoples, and will survive the departure of the legions. Furthermore, so far as it is possible to generalize from such a small sample, the British seem to have been rather good at this; so that we, their cultural and constitutional cousins, may hope for similar success. From the 44 British dominions, colonies, protectorates, territories, and possessions listed in my Grandad's atlas, 59 sovereign nations of the present day are descended or part-descended. Of this 59, I count 42 as democracies (giving the benefit of the doubt to some "trying hard" borderline cases like Malawi). That is 71 percent — not bad at all. The tally for France, on the same generous principles, is 7 out of 24, a ratio of only 29 percent.

The survival of democracy in an ex-British territory is not inevitable. Nor, as many examples show, is it easy. Economics, religion, race, and location are all factors, but none seems to be decisive. Moslem Malaysia is a democracy but Moslem Pakistan is not. Black Jamaica is a democracy but black Zimbabwe is not. Brunei is rich but despotic; Lesotho is dirt poor but democratic. Mauritius, a racial salad, is stable and free; Swaziland, which contains nothing but Swazis, is ruled by the decrees of an absolute monarch. Possibly political scientists can extract general principles from all this: I cannot. It does at least seem clear, though, that no case should be prejudged as hopeless, that rational government can take root anywhere.


The founders of this nation believed, in the words of George Washington's first inaugural, that: "Every step by which they [i.e. the people of the United States] have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency." There is something fundamental in our personality as a nation that leads us to want some assurance, or at least hint, of Divine sanction for our great national enterprises, even when, as in the present case, they can be amply justified on grounds of self-interest. Certainly it will help reconcile Americans to these necessary imperial expeditions if we can believe that they serve some large historical tendency or purpose. Might this be so?

In the epilogue to Farewell the Trumpets, the last volume in her splendid history of the British Empire, Jan Morris speaks of a clarifying moment when, after years of laborious research, she suddenly saw the Empire as part of that grand evolutionary progress described by Teilhard de Chardin — "that infinitely slow and spasmodic movement towards the unity of mankind." She continues: "The arrogance of the Empire, its greed and its brutality, was energy gone to waste: but the good in the adventure, the courage, the idealism, the diligence, had contributed their quota of truth towards the universal fulfilment." It may be that we, in our efforts to thwart or contain the threats that face us in this new century, will contribute our own quota of truth to that same fulfilment.