Taking a slightly longer lunch break, I've finally finished reading Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. The book is an insightful look into the history of the little things that added up to the British Empire. Many of the events recounted are no longer remembered, least of all in the American public education system. Nonetheless, they are recounted as part of a dynamic sweep across history. The denouement comes in the finaly chapter, "Empire for Sale", and takes into account history from 1916 to 1956, with a brief focus on the two world wars, and more study of the Easter Rebellion, the Amritsar Massacre, and the Suez Canal Criss, and the role these events played in the dissolution of the Empire.

Niall notes, however, that although America has in effect assumed the role once played by Britain, the attitudes of Americans toward empire are different, not only because "imperialism" is not acceptable to the politically correct crowd, but because of the American founding myth, which continues to drive Americans to prefer influence over domination. Niall cites an example:

Yet from its earliest days, the so-called 'special relationship' between Britain and the United States had its own special ambiguity, at the heart of which lay the Americans' very different conception of empire. To the Americans ... formal rule over subject peoples was unpalatable. ... Sooner or later, everyone must learn to be, like the Americans, self-governing and democratic -- at gunpoint if necessary. In 1913 there had been a military coup in Mexico, to the grave displeasure of Woodrow Wilson, who resolved 'to teach the South American Republics to elect good men'. Walter Page, then Washington's man in London, reported a conversation with the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who asked:
'Suppose you have to intervene, what then?'
'Make 'em vote and live by their decisions.'
'But suppose they will not so live?'
'We'll go in and make 'em vote again.'
'And keep this up 200 years?' asked he.
'Yes', said I. 'The United States will be here for two hundred years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves.'
Anything, in other words, but take over Mexico, which would have been the British solution.
The point of the book, that America is now at the head of a new sort of imperium (perhaps the "new world order" that President George Herbert Walker Bush had mentioned after the fall of the Soviet Union, but which his son, President George Walker Bush, did the most to realize). This empire is patently not the same type as the British, and less still as the old, short-lived, but very brutal Empire of the Sun. It is quite something else altogether.

As such, it would be useless to heed the words of critics who, when they hear "empire", reflexively hearken back to only he worst excesses of the Age of Imperialism. Rather, this is a chance for liberals of all different stripes to deliver their messages to the world in different ways. Currently the most prominent voices are those that are calling for the spread of democracy and liberty -- the so-called "neoconservatives". They have made clear their intention of building an empire based on liberty, an empire that exists, again, more by influence than by domination.

Unfortunately, so far, the other voices talking about the new age of imperialism are the orphans of Marxism: Those that would seek to impose a statist socialist superstate (probably governed from Brussels); those that would seek to deconstruct the world into smallish socialist states with protective barriers against capitalist states; those that wish to return to the state of affairs as they were six hundred years ago, when China was arguably at its zenith, and the only white people in North America were the Vikings at Newfoundland; and those that would prefer that no authority be allowed to govern at all, including that of the United States over its citizens.

I know which side I'm on.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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