Lessons from the British in India
Although the united states is the preeminent power in the world, we are not yet an empire. Notwithstanding periodic foreign interventions and our considerable international influence, we have not used our military to secure direct and continuous control over the domestic affairs of foreign lands. If anything, the United States has avoided empire. We have abolished the draft, reduced taxes, cut defense spending, and eschewed nation-building. Only recently, we were accused of “abandoning” Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet departure from that country. Today, Afghanistan may be the germ of a new American imperium.
Iraq forces the imperial question. In the aftermath of an Iraqi war, it may suffice to install a friendly autocracy, withdraw the bulk of our forces, and exert our influence from afar. Yet some have called for more. From voices within the administration like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, to policy intellectuals like Richard Perle, to esteemed scholars like Bernard Lewis, many have argued that only a democratic transformation of Iraq, and eventually of the larger Arab world, can provide long-term security against terrorism and nuclear attack.
In an important address in February, George W. Bush lent his voice to this chorus. In no uncertain terms, the president affirmed that “the world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values,” not least because “free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.” The president invoked the examples of American-led democratization in post-World War ii Germany and Japan, and he pointedly rejected the claim that Arab nations are incapable of sustaining democracy. What the president did not say, yet gently and ambiguously implied, was that so deep a cultural change would require America to occupy Iraq in force and manage its affairs for years to come.
Could such a venture in democratic imperialism be harmonized with our liberal principles? Even if so, would it work? Is it possible to bring liberalism to a society so long at odds with the values of the West?
All of these questions were posed and answered, both in theory and in practice, during Britain’s imperial rule of India. Three great British thinkers, Edmund Burke, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, not only philosophized about liberal imperialism; they lived it. Burke helped force a major reform of Britain’s early imperial system, while John Stuart Mill succeeded his father James as the “chief examiner” in the London headquarters of the British East India Company.
Burke on one hand and the Mills on the other founded the two competing moral and administrative schools of thought on the British Empire. Burke’s colonialism was conservative, respectful of indigenous practices and elites, and insistent on the highest standards of stewardship. The Mills were skeptical, even contemptuous, of traditional practices and elites; they were determined to force a democratic social transformation. Neither approach, it turns out, was able to operate independently of the other. If we find ourselves shouldering an imperial burden in Iraq or beyond, we shall want to study the wisdom — and the folly — of Burke, the Mills, and their respective disciples. Far more than America’s post-World War ii occupation of Japan, the British experience in India may be the key precedent for bringing democracy to an undemocratic and non-Western land like Iraq.
From India to Iraq
British imperial India might seem an unlikely model for an American occupation of Iraq. American rule in Iraq would ideally be a successful and time-limited experiment in democratization. Yet the British governed sections of the Indian subcontinent for nearly 200 years. The earliest period of British colonial rule was marked by extreme exploitation and neglect. Once colonial government was placed on a sounder footing, even the best-intentioned policies of dedicated and sympathetic administrators frequently went awry, leading to serious social disruption. Midway through the Raj, the British harshly suppressed a violent rebellion, leaving a legacy of suspicion between ruler and ruled. The aftermath of rebellion ushered in the later phase of empire, which was marked by an ideology of racial superiority, continued exclusion of Indians from the higher levels of the civil service, and a growing independence movement that was opposed consistently, sometimes violently, by the British. If anything, therefore, the British experience in India might best be viewed as a model of what not to do in Iraq.
The British Raj does indeed represent a useful countermodel for any American venture in Iraq. Yet the experience of India under the British was by no means entirely negative. In fact, the very movement of Indians to free themselves from British rule was a product of British influence. Above all, the British cultural legacy explains why post-independence India took a democratic turn. Nor was the emergence of Indian democracy an entirely unintended consequence of British imperial domination. Despite the many problems and conflicts of empire, several critical threads of British imperial policy were intended to bring about eventual democratic self-rule in India. When India finally did attain independence and democracy, it was in no small part due to those policies.
But why look to India at all when we have the American occupation of Japan as a model? That occupation was a successful and short-lived American-run venture in the democratization of a non-Western autocracy. Why not simply repeat the formula? The problem with the Japanese precedent is that the post-World War ii transformation of Japan was far less radical than meets the eye. Japan, after all, was already substantially modernized, else it would not have been able to challenge us militarily. Industrial might and an efficient, modern bureaucratic apparatus were keys to Japanese success, both during and after the war. And although World War ii Japan was far from democratic, military rule was actually a diversion from a long Japanese history of experimentation with government along Western and democratic lines. In comparison to Iraq’s ethno-religious factionalism, moreover, Japan is culturally homogeneous. So American efforts to impose a democratic constitution on Japan succeeded because they rested on a set of economic, social, and historical prerequisites, all of which are virtually absent in Iraq.1 The British, on the other hand, transformed a country with no democratic tradition into one of the more successful democracies in the non-Western world. This Indian experience more closely resembles the challenge we shall face in Iraq than does the example of post-World War ii Japan.
How, then, did the British bring democracy to India? “Very slowly” is a large and important part of the answer to that question, although this is not an answer Americans want to hear. Yet it is something we need to remember. Authentic democratic development is slow — a lesson easily forgotten by a nation that was, in important respects, democratic from the start. Again, the example of post-World War ii Japan, which rests on a long and too-little-known history of indigenous experimentation with democracy, misleads us into thinking that supervised elections and imposed constitutional changes can, by themselves, suffice to introduce democracy to a non-Western country.
Until the 1830s, British imperial policy in India was one of minimal interference with the indigenous social system. With a shockingly small number of British soldiers and administrators governing a land of many millions, the British had no desire to undertake potentially disruptive reforms of Indian society. Most British administrators were “Orientalist” in inclination. That is, they were devoted to the respectful study of Indian culture. Orientalist scholarship served as the foundation for a policy of government by means of indigenous elites. In formulating that policy, the Orientalists drew on Edmund Burke’s social conservatism — his respect for the wisdom of tradition and for the local aristocracies that serve as its custodians.
As a prominent disciple of the liberal utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, James Mill became the leader of a reformist liberal opposition to the Burkean Orientalists. As chief examiner of the British East India Company, he drafted the memoranda of instruction that were sent to India during the 1820s and 30s. (Although Mill drafted the memos, and was highly influential, he did not have final authority over their contents.)
It was the liberals’ education policy that successfully laid the groundwork for India’s modern and democratic future. The Orientalists wanted to subsidize the advanced study of indigenous languages. The liberals, on the other hand, were determined to create a class of English-speaking Indians. Precisely because there were too few British administrators to govern India’s vastness, the assistance of a corps of English-speaking Indian clerks was required. Yet liberal administrators were looking for something more than bureaucratic assistants. Their hope was to mold a class of Indians that was modern and liberal in outlook, a class that could eventually govern India on its own.
That is exactly what happened. Liberal administrative victories over the Orientalists in the 1830s set up a system of English education that eventually produced a small but influential bureaucratic class of Anglicized Indians. Although a more conservative administrative policy of indirect rule through indigenous elites eventually returned (under the dual blows of failed land reform and the Indian Mutiny of 1857), a small but productive system of English-language education remained sacrosanct throughout British rule. By the 1880s the growing class of English-educated Indians, frozen out of higher administrative positions, was agitating for a larger role in government. At that point, administrative liberals returned to power long enough to devolve a limited share of control to local representative assemblies on which Indians could sit. These English-educated Indians, who populated the bureaucracy, the courts, and the local democratic assemblies, formed the core of India’s movement for independence.
The British, of course, went back on their promise of eventual democratic self-rule, forcing Indians to seize their independence through a decades-long campaign of agitation and resistance. Yet the educational policies set up by liberal British administrators 100 years before independence had laid the foundation for democratic self-rule in India.
Another key contribution of liberal and reformist British administrators to independence was the construction of an all-India communications and transportation network in the 1850s. An efficient national postal service, telegraph system, and railroad network were all laid down in that decade. Of course, this network increased the efficiency of British military and administrative control over the subcontinent. Yet the new infrastructure also generated a national consciousness among Indians, who had not previously seen themselves as members of a single society. In particular, the English-educated Indian bureaucratic class was brought to awareness of its shared identity, values, and grievances by the new networks of communication. Thus was born the idea of a modern, independent, and democratic Indian state.
The lesson in all this is that a slow process of English-medium education in modern and liberal ideas has the potential to transform a traditional non-Western society into a modern democracy. (Because of its status as the world’s lingua franca, by the way, even Sweden now makes English a compulsory second language.) To work, such an education needs to be followed by actual experience in legal, administrative, and legislative institutions constructed along liberal lines. India’s English-speaking bureaucratic class made up only 1 or 2 percent of the population. Yet that class was sufficient to manage a modern democracy and slowly transmit modern and liberal ideas to the larger populace. So the route to modernization is not a direct transformation of the traditional social system, but an attempt to build up a new and reformist sector.
Several problems with this scenario as a model for a postwar Iraq are immediately apparent. For one thing, it took just over 100 years to move from the establishment of English-language education in India to independence and democracy. We don’t have that kind of time in Iraq, where our purpose is to liberalize the culture quickly enough to undercut the growth of terrorism and anti-Western ideologies. Of course, after an initial outburst of liberal enthusiasm, the British did everything in their power to prevent their Indian subjects from attaining democratic self-rule. In contrast, since our national safety depends on establishing a successful liberal society in the Arab world, we have no reason to delay. Ideally, we could see good results in the time it takes to educate a single generation.
That is still a long time. And we live in an era of nationalism. British rule actually created Indian nationalism, and in many ways the Raj depended for its survival on the initial absence of nationalist sentiment. Yet Arab nationalism has been a force to reckon with since just after World War i. In fact, the British themselves took over Iraq in 1917-1918 and initially tried to govern it directly. But by 1920-1921, an Arab nationalist rebellion forced the British to abandon direct rule and install a friendly and pliable monarch instead. By the same token, any American attempt to govern Iraq, or to supervise the education and training of a liberalized bureaucratic Iraqi class, is sure to generate Arab nationalist resistance. So even if the democratizing lessons of British imperial India might work in principle, will we be able to implement them in practice?
There are at least two possible solutions to the problem of Arab nationalist reaction — the Iraqi immigrant returnees and what we might call “blended rule” (a combination of direct and indirect rule). The Iraqi returnees, who have lived in the West and imbibed its culture for years, may already be a class of modern and liberal citizens who can help to govern and reform their society. Unfortunately, the evident divisions in the ranks of the returnees suggest the ongoing power of traditional regional, ethnic, and religious loyalties among them. Nonetheless, the returnees may provide a sufficient number of relatively liberalized Iraqis to jump-start the long-term process of cultural change.
The other question is whether, after an initial period of military rule, America can devise a way of exercising influence in postwar Iraq that is something less than classic direct imperial rule, yet something more than the “Orientalist” policy of indirect rule through traditional elites. (The latter policy might create a stable Iraq but will not produce a democratic Iraq.) This is a delicate and complicated question. To create a modernizing and liberal bureaucratic elite in a country where no such class exists, Westerners will be needed to run the schools and to serve as model administrators and judges. While the returnees may be able to help here, substantial American or Western involvement in the administration and staffing of a reconstructed Iraq will almost certainly be essential to any hoped-for democratic transformation. The question is, can that kind of intimate American involvement take place under the umbrella of an Iraqi government?
Even if we can reduce the process of generating a liberal, Western-educated, and modernizing bureaucratic class to a generation, and even if we can do so without provoking excessive cultural backlash, we still face the reality that authentic democracy takes time to develop. Holding democratic elections in a fundamentally illiberal environment invites ethnic conflict, Islamist or secular dictatorship, and the same round of military coups that eventually brought Saddam Hussein himself to power. This suggests that a period of quasi-imperial, and therefore undemocratic, control might be a necessary prerequisite to democracy itself. That brings us to another critical lesson of the British experience in India — the paradoxical compatibility between imperialism and democracy.
A failed reform
James mill’s theory of social change was straightforward: Replacing priestcraft and local despotism with wholesome government would quickly sweep away irrational prejudice. Educate the populace, make them secure in their property, govern them well, tax them lightly, and their economic habits will be transformed to resemble those of enterprising British citizens.
Mill’s attitude toward indigenous Indian elites was diametrically opposed to that of the Burkean Orientalists. Where the Orientalists looked at Hinduism’s sacred texts and saw legal subtlety and literary brilliance, Mill saw barbaric punishments and wild-eyed myths. For the Orientalists, brahman priests were the leading caste of the land whose understanding should be taken by administrators as the key to prudent rule. To Mill, on the other hand, brahmans were the ultimate embodiment of sinister priestcraft — wielding abstruse rituals and extravagant tales to keep the masses ignorant and docile.
The Orientalist administrators feared that by displacing indigenous elites, James Mill’s policy of radical reform would provoke a revolt. Yet Mill was confident that any prejudice in favor of tradition, self-rule, or indigenous elites would fall away once the populace perceived the social and economic benefits of Britain’s modernizing policies. In Mill’s utilitarian theory, the mind was a tabula rasa that could quickly be shaped, and reshaped, by changing external influences. Tradition, in this view, counted for little.
In practical terms, James Mill’s strategy, which was eventually taken up by a generation of liberal administrators in India, centered on land reform. For Mill and his followers, the key to social progress in India was to undercut the power of reactionary local elites by deeding land to individual peasants. Once these peasant cultivators had secure ownership of their land, market forces would take over, and spontaneous economic development would rapidly follow. This formula for modernization is not unlike that favored today by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.
Yet in early nineteenth-century India, liberal land reform was a dismal failure.2 Reform did indeed undercut the traditional system of village self-rule and did also initiate a limited market in land. Yet the spirit of British economic enterprise did not follow. Instead, the local economy remained stagnant while the collapse of the traditional village political system put new demands on already strained British administrators.
The failure of liberal land reform was a vindication of sorts for the Orientalists. Yet they, too, had misjudged the situation. Even the Orientalist administrators had favored a policy of limited reform in the districts under their control. While they had no intention of undercutting indigenous elites, the Orientalists did sponsor surveys that recorded who worked the land. In doing so, the Orientalists meant only to verify that traditional village leaders were not unfairly exploiting peasants — or deceiving the British — as they collected taxes on the government’s behalf. Yet the unintended effects of the Orientalists’ land surveys were almost as disruptive of the traditional system of ownership and political control as the more intentionally radical reforms of the Millian liberals.
Although the upshot of reform was to parcel out control of land to individuals, and although the traditional politico-economic leadership of the village was greatly unsettled thereby, fundamental Indian patterns of caste and “joint family” association remained strong. The notion of collective property ownership among kin, while disrupted in its details, remained pervasive, whatever the technical system of title-holding. With the bonds of traditional kinship and caste relatively unbroken, a shift toward capitalist enterprise was anything but automatic. Nor did either the Orientalists or the liberals have a very clear understanding of the real social underpinnings of the system they were (unsuccessfully) toying with.
The lessons of empire, then, include a caution to democratizing optimists. Western economic and political habits are not simply waiting to be unleashed by a few simple legal reforms. The real barrier to modernity in the non-Western world lies in the pervasive and recalcitrant structures of everyday life — structures few Westerners understand. In India, the key barriers to modernization are the joint family system and caste. The counterparts in Iraq are the patriarchal family system, the bonds of lineage and tribe, and related conceptions of collective honor.3 Traditional social practices like these can sometimes adapt themselves to modernity. Yet a direct attempt to overthrow these structures is difficult to manage and unlikely to succeed.
Competing administrative schools
It is superficially true that Burke and the Orientalist administrators inspired by him advocated rule consistent with indigenous principles, whereas the liberals inspired by James Mill favored democracy for all. On closer inspection, however, one can see how both schools of thought favored a program of Westernizing reform and each had a healthy respect for the cultural barriers to modernization.
For England and India alike, Burke was an advocate of gradual reform within the context of time-tested institutions. In Britain, that meant going slow on the expansion of suffrage while encouraging a concept of stewardship in the public interest among Britain’s aristocratic office-holders. It’s easy for a modern American to dismiss these conceptions as outdated, but history largely vindicated Burke. Britain developed slowly and peacefully into a modern democracy, while the democratic radicalism and upheavals of the French Revolution (which Burke famously condemned) led to decades of turmoil and dictatorship. Both schools understood what modern Americans forget: that too-rapid democratization in the absence of cultural prerequisites can be dangerous.
In the 1780s Burke sought to reform Britain’s growing empire in India.4 The early years of British rule featured much economic exploitation as well as general neglect of the population’s elementary needs and interests. The East India Company’s conduct outraged Burke, who saw in rule by transient and commercially minded outsiders the ultimate contradiction of true stewardship — rule by those who live among and understand the habits and interests of the people.
Burke’s opponents claimed that, since Indians were in any case accustomed to being ruled despotically, a measure of British despotism was both necessary and justified. To reply to that argument, Burke made himself into one of the first European experts on a non-Western culture. Burke successfully established that Hindu and Muslim law rivaled Western law in sophistication, and argued that such a people was just as entitled to the rule of law and just stewardship as the people of England. Interestingly, the founder of modern conservatism was Britain’s sharpest internal critic of imperial abuse.
Burke sometimes hinted that, through a process of gradual and unforced reform, Indians might someday supplement their own customs with the full advantages of British liberty. Yet, as would later be true of the Mills, Burke had a limited understanding of the actual structures of Indian life. The caste system, for example, was for the most part opaque to him. Nowadays, students of Burke tend to push his criticisms of empire even further. If Indians had sophisticated law and were entitled to genuine stewardship by an indigenous elite, why have empire at all? But Burke can be pushed in the other direction as well. If non-Western societies are much further from the blessings of liberty than Burke dared imagine, then why not undertake a more radical program of reform?
This was the question posed by James Mill in his rejection of the Burkean Orientalists’ preference for rule through an indigenous elite. Yet John Stuart Mill made a lifelong effort to transcend the dichotomy between Burke and his father — between the indirect rule favored by the Orientalists and the radical reformism of the liberals.
John Stuart Mill famously suffered a mental breakdown as a result of his father’s authoritarian and unbalanced rearing. James Mill raised his son John in isolation from all but a few family members, personally taught him Greek by age three, Latin by eight, and a demanding course of university-level material (including the history of India) throughout childhood. Religion, music, and art were intentionally excluded from young John’s curriculum. In effect, John Stuart Mill was a guinea pig in a great utilitarian experiment in child rearing. By excluding all “irrational” and traditional influences, James Mill hoped to create a perfectly rational and “reformed” human being, just as he hoped to create a reformed and rational India.
Just as John Stuart Mill was advancing, under his father’s influence, at the East India Company office, his mental breakdown hit.5 To save himself from the feeling that he was incapable of normal human emotions, John Stuart Mill secretly began to read the romantic poets. That led him to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s conservatism. Less well-known is John Stuart Mill’s growing interest, at just this time, in the administrative theories of the Burkean Orientalists, which were built around the same sort of respect for tradition found in Coleridge. Just before and after his father’s death, Mill began to throw his weight behind the Orientalists’ policies of rule through indigenous elites.
Eventually, in his administrative policies as in all aspects of his thought, John Stuart Mill sought a synthesis. Having abandoned his father’s doctrinaire reformism, Mill was able to shift as circumstances demanded. With the advent of the great transportation and communications projects of the 1850s, Mill moved back into the reformist camp. Yet while many reformist administrators — his father above all — thought the actual participation of Indians in government was unnecessary to modernization, Mill always advocated participation in imperial administration by indigenous elites. In effect, this view was a synthesis of the Orientalist position (with its respect for the role of indigenous elites) with his father’s authoritarian reformism. By the time he wrote Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Mill had worked out his system of liberal gradualism — an attempt to split the difference between his father and Burke.
John Stuart Mill’s administrative shifts reflected a larger rhythm of change in the history of British India. The balance between reformism and relatively indirect rule constantly changed. Burke’s early reforms brought a necessary respect for indigenous interests after a period of British exploitation and neglect. Decades of stable rule eventually made reformist administrative experimentation possible. Out of that period of reform came English-language education. Yet the reformers went too far. After the failure of their land reforms (which played a role in provoking the revolt of 1857), a policy of indirect rule through indigenous elites returned, punctuated by the liberal reforms of the 1880s that devolved a measure of power to local assemblies.
The lesson in all this is that there is no single correct way of democratizing Iraq. Some elements of the Bush administration prefer to work through traditional Arab elites, while others remain intent on relatively rapid democratization. (No doubt, both positions are considerably more nuanced than this.) So the nucleus of two competing administrative schools for a postwar occupation is already in place. Only time will tell how to plot a course between the two approaches.
Consider the problem of Iraq’s traditional tribal areas as a specimen of the coming administrative challenge. A truly modern and democratic Iraq will require a state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. That means in the areas where rifle-bearing tribesmen still rule, the populace will eventually have to be disarmed. Yet, in the early phases of the occupation, it will be necessary to work with the tribes, not against them, to consolidate the new government’s control. It will take time to educate and train a modernizing and liberal elite. Eventually, patronage through tribe and kin will have to be stamped out in favor of an educational and bureaucratic meritocracy. In the meantime, some cultivation of traditional leaders and some accommodation of traditional kinship-based patronage will have to be tolerated. Inevitably, there will be contradictions in policy. The overall pace and direction of that policy needs to be guided by circumstances, not by simple doctrine. John Stuart Mill’s administrative flexibility and synthesis is the model.
Debate over the governance of postwar Iraq pits democratizers against realists. Realists are skeptical about the prospects for cultural change in the Arab world, warning that democracy will create ethnic strife and elected despotisms. Partisans of democratization, on the other hand, are willing to take risks to achieve the sort of deep-seated cultural change that might finally put an end to regimes that harbor, sponsor, or generate terrorists. In this view, it takes democracy to make democracy. Only by actually choosing their own governments — then living with the imperfect consequences of those choices — can a people learn the meaning and necessity of responsible elective behavior.
These opposed views often exist simultaneously within the same administration. For example, Thomas Carothers has highlighted contradictions within the democracy promotion policies of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.6 After lavishing effort on the construction of a credible electoral process in El Salvador, the Reagan administration covertly funneled money to assure the victory of its favored candidate, Jose Napoleon Duarte. The current administration is encouraging democracy among the Palestinians while also making clear that it considers the reelection of Yasser Arafat an unacceptable outcome. And at the moment, the administration is trapped between its democratizing rhetoric and the growing crisis in Venezuela, where the popularly elected but anti-American government of Hugo Chavez holds sway. This sort of problem could confront us in an Iraq that is only formally democratized.
Part of the difficulty here is that our democratization debate is premised on a false dichotomy. Skeptical realists highlight the danger of holding elections in an illiberal environment. Democratic imperialists insist that faith in our values demands that we risk a shift to an electoral system in the Arab world. But what if a policy that eschews immediate elections is not simply a bow to illiberal realities, but itself reflects an understanding and affirmation of authentic liberal democracy? After all, no less a liberal than John Stuart Mill articulated just such a policy of democratic delay.
After more than two decades’ experience as a leading liberal voice within the British East India Company, Mill warned in Representative Government against premature elections in societies lacking the cultural prerequisites of democracy. Unless electors actually understand and embrace liberal constitutional principles, said Mill, representative institutions quickly degenerate into tyranny and faction. According to Mill, a government capable of bringing democracy to an illiberal society will have to be in some degree “despotic.” In other words, after warning against the dangers of too-rapid democratization, Mill defends the necessity of an enlightened colonial despotism as a route to the long-term liberalization of relatively “uncivilized” societies.
Mill’s thoughts on colonialism are not a favorite subject of his contemporary readers and admirers. When Mill’s views on colonial democratization are examined at all, Mill is usually excoriated for his imperialism, his alleged betrayal of liberal principles, and his cultural bigotry. Mill does deserve criticism for his condescension toward, and limited understanding of, non-Western societies. Yet, in general, the complaints are unfair.
In Representative Government, Mill was grappling with a fundamental problem of British democracy, a problem little appreciated by modern Americans. America enjoyed near-universal white male suffrage from the start, but throughout the nineteenth century, Britain and other European nations struggled mightily with the question of how far to extend the franchise. This was not a straightforward matter of equality and justice but entailed the potential destruction of democracy itself by means of a popularly supported despotism. France had several times fallen victim to just such a despotism, and this was much on the minds of liberal democrats like Mill.
From the start, American democracy was premised upon its relative social equality and its widely educated public. Europe’s class divisions, its unlettered peasants, and its ill-educated workers meant that universal suffrage could quickly and easily lead to despotism. So Mill’s cautions about too-rapid democratization applied not only to India, but to England as well.
Yet Mill was indeed a liberal. If he saw legitimate limits to proposals for universal suffrage, he was also a leader of the movement to extend the franchise as quickly and as far as prudently possible. And despite his approval of an enlightened colonial despotism in India, Mill was a supporter of the liberal administrative policies that did in fact eventually lead to Indian democracy. For example, Mill was well aware of the tendency of the new Indian communications and transportation infrastructure to generate a national consciousness and to lift the concerns of individuals beyond their localities and toward the broader public good. For this reason, Mill strongly supported these reforms when they were playing out and clearly alludes to them with approval in Representative Government.
More important, in Representative Government, Mill lays out, more than 20 years before the fact, the governmental reforms of the 1880s that eventually did lead to independence and democracy in India. Speaking broadly, without mentioning any particular country, Mill argues that the way to democracy in relatively “uncivilized” colonies is the construction of local democratic assemblies that do not compete with the central power but are “auxiliary” to it. Representative Government was well-known to colonial administrators and surely helped set the pattern for the liberal reforms of the 1880s. Those who reproach Mill for his involvement in colonialism seldom acknowledge that Mill actually supported and helped to author many of the liberal colonial policies that did in fact bring democracy to India.
Of course, Mill is chastised for his embrace of the civilizational ranking characteristic of nineteenth-century British thought. It is true that Mill, like his father, was mistaken to dismiss Indian culture as “barbarian.” But it is important to understand why Mill was mistaken. Neither of the Mills had a clear or satisfactory conception of what made Indian society tick. They judged India by British yardsticks and found it wanting. In doing so, the Mills did indeed misjudge a complex, graceful, and sophisticated social system — one with great strengths as well as great weaknesses.
Yet once our problem becomes the democratization of a non-Western culture, John Stuart Mill’s seemingly dated framework is surprisingly modern and relevant. It can certainly be argued that traditional Arab society is far more appealing, and far less oppressive, than its detractors realize. But to the extent that the export of democracy becomes our goal and standard, Mill’s warnings about precipitous reform in the absence of cultural prerequisites, his plans for eventual success, and even his ranking of societies by their relative readiness for democracy make a great deal of sense.
The lesson here is that due caution about the rapid importation of full-blown democracy to illiberal societies is entirely compatible with faith in, and even promotion of, liberal principles. Because of our unique social history, Americans think of democracy in universalist and rights-based terms. John Stuart Mill, however — like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville before him — was keenly aware of democracy’s social and cultural prerequisites. We cannot and should not return to the nineteenth century’s ignorant and simplistic ranking of societies on a single evolutionary scale. Nor can we govern Iraq with the arrogance and prejudice of the nineteenth-century British. Yet the problem of a postwar occupation of Iraq is rather more similar to the challenges faced by Mill than to any experience with which Americans are familiar. For that reason, we would do well to learn from Mill’s cautious, thoughtful, and in many ways successful program of democratization. Mill’s belief in democratic gradualism was not only realist; it was also liberal.
A just empire?
Talk of empire is discomforting. Even if it might be possible to isolate and extract the most liberal and beneficial lessons of the British experience in India, can any empire, however benign, be counted morally just? To venture an answer to that question, we would do well to consider the moral arguments surrounding European colonialism.
Much of the debate over the moral status of European colonialism turns on economic questions. Colonialism’s defenders stress the lasting investment in productive forces made by the colonizer on behalf of the colonized. Critics of colonialism highlight transfers of wealth from the colonized country to the seat of empire. In a sense, as David B. Abernathy notes in his recent and very useful moral assessment of European colonialism, each side in this debate accepts the ethical premises of the other.7 That is why colonialism’s critics play down investment, while colonialism’s defenders play down wealth transfer. In these terms, the British experience in India was clearly one in which the investment of productive forces was high — with the improvements in transportation and communication sponsored by liberal colonial administrators like John Stuart Mill looming particularly large.
Yet the debate over the moral status of colonialism is bedeviled by deeper dilemmas. Take the problem of the “counterfactual.” Defenders of empire assume that the economic and political development stimulated by European rule would not have occurred in the absence of colonialism. Yet, by pointing to the example of Japan, critics of colonialism claim that, if left to their own devices, most conquered countries would have modernized even without European rule. I have argued that the Japanese example is the exception, not the rule. But since the counterfactual (i.e., what would have happened without colonialism) is formally unknowable, it is difficult to reach agreement on this issue.
And unlike calculations of investment or profit, certain critical moral criteria may be impossible to compromise or modulate. Implicitly, both sides in the colonialism debate agree that contempt for the race, cultural practices, or historical accomplishments of a colonized people is deplorable. But while some instances of European rule may have been more or less bigoted than others, even the fairest and most respectful instance of colonial rule may be inherently humiliating to the colonized. That may explain why defenders of colonialism have almost nothing to say about complaints of humiliation. That silence may indicate implicit moral agreement with the critics of empire, an affirmation of the one unanswerable argument of colonialism’s critics.
On the question of democracy, the tables are turned. Here the contemporary critics of colonialism affirm by their virtual silence the power of a seemingly unanswerable moral argument. Contemporary scholarly accounts of colonialism, for example, have plenty to say about the way in which the British rationalized their possession of empire as a way of bringing liberalism and democracy to India. However, few scholars dare acknowledge that, for all the problems, British rule did in fact make India’s modern democracy possible. What are we to make of the fact that one of the key British “rationalizations” for empire turned out, in large measure, to be true?
Our commitment to political autonomy sets up a moral paradox. Even the mildest imperialism will be experienced by many as a humiliation. Yet imperialism as the midwife of democratic self-rule is an undeniable good. Liberal imperialism is thus a moral and logical scandal, a simultaneous denial and affirmation of self-rule that is impossible either to fully accept or repudiate. The counterfactual offers a way out. If democracy did not depend on colonialism, we could confidently forswear empire. But in contrast to early modern colonial history, we do know the answer to the counterfactual in the case of Iraq. After many decades of independence, there is still no democracy in Iraq. Those who attribute this fact to American policy are not persuasive, since autocracy is pervasive in the Arab world, and since America has encouraged and accepted democracies in many other regions. So the reality of Iraqi dictatorship tilts an admittedly precarious moral balance in favor of liberal imperialism.
The British Empire was far more successful than other European empires in bringing democracy to the colonized — India being the most impressive example. Combine successful democratization with the massive investment the British made in the infrastructure of their prized colonial possession, and the British imperial experience in India clearly ranks as one of the most legitimate and successful colonial enterprises. Yet the British showed racial and cultural contempt for Indians and systematically excluded Indians from the higher ranks of the civil service. So the intrinsic humiliations of empire were compounded by the realities of British rule in India. That deplorable fact must rank high in any contemporary moral accounting.
Presumably, American rule in Iraq would be relatively free of the racial and cultural bigotry that so marred British rule in India. It would also feature substantial American investment in moral and material infrastructure. And the very purpose of American rule in Iraq would be to create the authentic democracy that we know has been impossible to establish in our absence. So by commonly agreed-upon criteria, an American imperial interlude in the Arab world would be as just as it is possible for such an inherently ambiguous undertaking to be.
Yet the deeper legitimacy of an American imperial adventure in Iraq would rest on a consideration entirely absent from debates over the morality of European colonialism. Both sides in the colonialism debate agree that empires ought to be judged according to whether they help or harm their subject populations. That is because European empires were established aggressively and opportunistically. These empires were defensive only insofar as they were fending off encroachments by the other European powers. (No small concern, by the way.) Yet, in the broadest sense, an American occupation of Iraq would be motivated and justified as self-defense. The dual advent of nuclear proliferation and terrorism has made the creation of an authentic democratic culture in the Arab world essential to the survival of the West.
In this sense, the real moral analogue of an American occupation of Iraq is our postwar occupation of Japan, whose defensive purpose was the democratization and demilitarization of a defeated foe. The Japan analogy may be flawed as a pragmatic model for democratization in Iraq, but its moral status is a significant precedent. The key difference is that bringing democracy to Iraq will take longer than it did for Japan. But while that is not a morally insignificant fact, it is ultimately more a difference of practice than of principle.
As a way to encourage democratization, an extended American occupation of Iraq would be just policy. Would a long-term occupation also be wise policy? That is the more difficult question. Since democratization will be more lengthy and difficult in Iraq than in postwar Japan, America will have to marshal its will and resources for a stressful and challenging enterprise. If the Iraqi returnees turn out to be poor democratizers, or if America finds it difficult to exercise great and lasting influence without quite seeming to do so, the chances of an Arab nationalist reaction or internal American divisions are high. Certainly, one reasonable response to this scenario is refusal to engage in a long-term occupation at all.
Yet the argument for a venture in democratic imperialism is also strong. In the long term, it may be our best insurance against the deadly and ever-spreading combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Particularly in the early stages, such a venture should concentrate on building up a modernizing and liberal class through education. An end-run around traditional structures will be more successful than direct assault. Someday, however, the time for a limited assault will come. Shifting administrative strategies are a feature of successful democratic imperialism. Only circumstances can dictate the balance between relatively indirect rule and reformist transformation.
Above all, should America undertake an extended occupation of Iraq, the dichotomy between realist caution and reformist liberalism will have to be transcended. Authentic democracy develops slowly. The trick is to encourage electoral experiments on the local level while still keeping hold of national power. Gradualism is not a betrayal of democratic principle. On the contrary, it is an insight bequeathed to us by the founders of liberalism itself.
1 See Stanley Kurtz, “After the War,” City Journal (Winter 2003).
2 For an account of the failure of British land reform policy, see Ann B. Callendar, How Shall We Govern India? (Garland Publishing, 1987).
4 The best account of Burke’s dealings with India is Frederick G. Whelan, Edmund Burke and India (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).
5 For an excellent account of Mill’s work at the British East India Company and its role in his personal and intellectual development, see Lynn Zastoupil, John Stuart Mill and India (Stanford University Press, 1994).
6 Thomas Carothers, “Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror,” Foreign Affairs (January-February 2003).
7 David B. Abernathy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance (Yale University Press, 2000), 387–407.