June 6, 2004

A Liberal Empire?

I hate the word empire when used to describe the United States. If the US is an empire, it sure is empire-lite. We are not expanding the borders. It’s hard to have colonies when you don't have any colonists. Aside from Iraq for the next three and a half weeks, we do not administer foreign countries.

But if someone wants to use the e-word to describe America, I’ll let them get away with it as long as they define it in a way that describes the world as it really is.

British historian Niall Ferguson is one of only two people I know of (the other is Robert D. Kaplan) who can talk about an “American Empire” in such a way that doesn’t make me dismiss them as paranoid fantasists. And like Robert Kaplan, Ferguson says America’s empire is both liberal and good.

Frank Bures interviewed him for the Atlantic Monthly. I want to excerpt this at length because I think it’s the single most important issue Americans need to work out.

You say America is an empire, but an empire with no administrators, no settlers, no direct rule, and with no imperialists. What kind of Empire is that?

It's an empire that has all the functions of military empire, if you like. It has the capacity to project itself in terms of force over vast geographical distances. It's an empire that is remarkably adept at spreading its culture globally. In that sense, it's an empire with almost unrivaled military and cultural power. But when it comes to what might be called imperial governance, it is an empire which, precisely because it doesn't recognize its own existence, consistently underperforms.

This term you use, "liberal empire," seems sort of oxymoronic. Can you explain the contradiction?

Well, it certainly didn't seem oxymoronic a hundred years ago when there were self-proclaimed liberal imperialists in Britain, liberals who saw the British Empire as a means of spreading liberal values in terms of free markets, the rule of law, and ultimately representative government. There was an important and influential faction within the Liberal Party who saw empire as an instrument for globalizing the British liberal model.

Globalizing Britain?

To these people, globalizing the British model was synonymous with globalizing liberalism. They looked around and said, Well, not many people have our combination of institutions. What we need to do is plant the seed of this system in as many places as we can and make the world suitably Anglicized. It's only a contradiction in terms if you define "liberal" in a rather early-twenty-first-century American way, meaning that you like to hug trees, or you have a fit if somebody fires a gun in anger. My sense of liberal is the classical sense. Liberalism stands for creating the institutions of political, economic, and social freedom. And it's very obvious that in a dozen or more countries in the world, there is absolutely no chance of those institutions developing autonomously. These countries are either so under tyranny, or so completely anarchic, that it's never going to happen.

So far so good.

Foreign intervention is an awfully dicey business, though. I may seem gung-ho about intervening abroad now, but I wasn’t always and I don’t regret it.

Take, for example, Guatemala. It would be a whitewash to say in the early 1980s General Efrain Rios Montt ruled that country with an iron fist. Rios Montt was a bloodthirsty monster. Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile as a Swedish social democrat by comparison.

Last year Randy Paul published a graph of the number of killings per year during the Guatemalan civil war, and the death toll spiked exponentially when Rios Montt was in power.

It wasn’t an accident, nor was it the fault of the guerillas. Rios Montt waged a “scorched earth” campaign in the countryside to utterly annihilate places where he thought guerillas were hiding. (And that's to say nothing of the rampaging White Hand and ESA death squads.) If that man were in charge of the American campaign in Iraq he would have carpet bombed or even nuked Fallujah.

He still casts his shadow over Guatemala. I was there last November when he was running for president. His own political party held power. His face was plastered on billboards all over the countryside. Violent mobs of his supporters had recently convulsed Guatemala City. White hands in the clenched fascist fist were painted on cliff faces. Thank heaven he lost.

Ronald Reagan supported this creep in the early 1980s and called him a "a man of great personal integrity" who got “a bum rap on human rights."

This is not a snapshot of the American empire at its most liberal or finest.

Now let’s get back to Mr. Ferguson.

One of your arguments is that for an empire to be successful, it has to pay dividends to both ruler and ruled. What dividends were paid to countries like Nicaragua under Somoza, or Guatemala under the generals, or Iran under the Shah, or other countries that could be considered colonies of the American Empire?

I think the truth of the matter is, not much. One of the problems with America's Central American adventures, along with its Caribbean adventures, was precisely that they failed to establish very obvious collaborative frameworks, other than with military elites. Those frameworks that they did establish quickly morphed into dictatorships when the Americans held a traditional election and went home. And I think that does help explain the very, very dismal showing of America's Central American policy. The irony that the country that has performed best in the region is the one where the Americans never went—Costa Rica—speaks for itself. I mean, the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary turned out to be a recipe for chronic instability in Central America. You have to feel that the British would have done it better. But the United states from a very early stage staked out a monopoly position south of the Rio Grande—with wholeheartedly dismal results, I'm afraid. I think that reflects the fact that the model of empire that the United States has followed has been defective. It was almost as defective in the days of Theodore Roosevelt as it is today.

So what if the goal, then, is first and foremost to just get rid of the governments that are unfriendly, and there's not much thought given to what happens after that?

Well, I think that became the model when the Cold War set in. Indeed, it had been the model even before the Cold War, in the days of Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt—the "Our Son of a Bitch" model. And when you look at what happened in countries from Chile to Iran, I think it's obvious that the cost of that approach probably outweighed the benefits. The legitimacy of American foreign policy suffered serious long-term damage because support was given rather uncritically to some pretty lousy regimes. Indirect rule through petty dictators has the defect that you really have a problem controlling the bastards that you are notionally sponsoring.

Mr. Ferguson gets it. Because he’s in favor of a liberal American “empire” and because he understands what went wrong in Latin America, I just ordered his book Colossus from Amazon. He may be one of the very few people who can write at length about our “imperialism” past, present, and future without making me cringe.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 6, 2004 11:48 PM
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