America’s New Empire for Liberty

Thursday, October 30, 2003

For America, September 11 was a new Great Awakening. It realized, for the first time, that it was itself a globalized entity. It no longer had frontiers. Its boundaries were the world, for from whatever part of the world harbored its enemies, it could be attacked and, if such enemies possessed weapons of mass destruction, mortally attacked. For this reason America was obliged to construct a new strategic doctrine, replacing totally that of National Security Council Paper 68 of 1949, which laid down the doctrine of containment. In a globalized world the United States now has to anticipate its enemies, search out and destroy their bases, and disarm states likely to aid them. I call this “defensive imperialism.” It is a novel kind but embraces elements of all the old. NSC-68 of 1949, significantly, specifically repudiates imperialism. Its replacement will necessarily embrace it in its new form. There are compelling reasons why the United States is uniquely endowed to exercise this kind of global authority.

First, America has the language of the twenty-first century. English is already the premier world language in many respects, and this century will see its rapid extension and consolidation. As first the Greeks, then the Romans, discovered, possession of a common language is the first vital and energizing step toward embracing common norms of law, behavior, and culture. A more secure world will be legislated for, policed, and adjudicated in English. Second, America has, and will continue to acquire, the pioneering technology of the twenty-first century, its lead being widened by its success in providing a clear climate of freedom in which inventors and entrepreneurs of all kinds can operate.

In the nineteenth century, the great age of the formal empires, the imperialist thrust was backed by the Industrial Revolution, producing manufactured goods much cheaper and in far greater quantity than ever before. In 1800 it was Asia that produced the majority (57 percent) of world manufactured output, the West only 29 percent; by 1900 the West was producing 86 percent, Asia only 10 percent. Today, America’s production of world wealth, both absolutely and relatively, is accelerating. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, it added $5 trillion to its annual GDP. By 2050 the U.S. share of global output will constitute more than a quarter of the world total and will be as much as three times as big, for instance, as that of the European Union.

Traditionally, successful imperialism has reflected high birthrates and the ability to export large surplus populations. The climax of European imperialism in the nineteenth century coincided with the European population explosion. America has never exported people overseas. On the contrary, its growing power and wealth have reflected its ability to attract and absorb immigrants. That continues. America now accepts more immigrants than the rest of the world put together. The amazing ability of groups such as the Cubans, the Hong Kong Chinese, the Vietnamese, and other new arrivals to grow roots and create wealth is a key part of America’s continuing success story. But America also has a high birthrate. Its population is now coming up to the 300 million mark. By 2050 it will be more than 400 million. By contrast, Europe’s population will shrink and the percentage of working age will fall rapidly. The ability of America to sustain a global role is demonstrated by the demographic figures, especially those on the working population. By 2050, the Japanese working population will have shrunk by 38 percent; that of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, by 46 percent; and the 15 EU nations, by various totals—8 percent in France, 41 percent in Italy, 35 percent in Spain, 21 percent in Germany. In the EU countries as a whole—both members and candidate members—only Great Britain and Ireland will have increased their working population by 2050. All the rest (except Luxembourg) will decline by an average of 19 percent in existing members, 38 percent in the rest.

Meanwhile America’s working population will have increased by more than 54 million (31 percent), an increase greater than the present working population of Germany. This does not take into account either working hours or productivity, both of which hugely increase the productive power of America over Europe.

Population forecasts are notoriously unreliable, and some predictions of what is likely to happen in Europe (and Japan) in this century are so alarming as to be discounted. But clearly there is a marked and growing contrast between old Europe and young America. And the combination of accelerating technology and an expanding workforce will be irresistible in terms of economic and military power. America is able to shoulder its burdens with courage and determination. But it is not alone. Britain, with much smaller resources but with long and varied experience, has a resolve equal to America’s to do its fair share. When I was a boy in the 1930s, a quarter of the world on the map was colored red—that is, part of the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations. It was a liberal empire and a democratic commonwealth, and its aim, as with America in the Philippines, was to prepare its components for self-government. There have been some outstanding successes: Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and, most of all, India; with a billion inhabitants it has become the world’s largest democracy. There have been tragic failures too, notably in Africa. But we have learned from the failures too. The knowledge we gained is at America’s disposal, particularly in the training of military and civilian administrators who must take on the kind of work now being done in Iraq and Afghanistan. One idea I would like to see explored—with all deliberate speed—is the creation of an Anglo-American staff college for training men and women, both from the armed forces and from government, in the skills to rescue failed or fragile nations and to take former tyrannies and dictatorships into the magic circle of justice and democracy. We have a vast project ahead of us, and we need to be educated for it.

In this project, what part is there for continental Europe? The answer is as large a one as the Europeans wish to play, are capable of playing, and are anxious to play in good faith. But I am bound to say recent events have not shown Europeans in a good light. It will be some time before the expanded European Union shows whether it is viable, economically and politically, and whether it can generate the resources and display the will to make a worthwhile contribution in military or any other terms. My guess is that the United States of Europe, a ramshackle structure already, is heading for disaster: economic bankruptcy and political implosion. Looking at it from Britain’s viewpoint, we should keep well clear of the mess. In emotional and cerebral terms, the English Channel is wider than the Atlantic, and I would prefer to see the expansion of the North Atlantic free trade area rather than that of a bureaucratic, antidemocratic, and illiberal Europe.

The Bush administration is only beginning to grasp the implications of the course on which it has embarked. It still, albeit with growing difficulty, speaks the language of anti-imperialism. But that is the jargon of the twentieth century or at least its second half. Who says it will be the prevailing discourse of the twenty-first? As it happens, imperialism became a derogatory term in America only during the Civil War, when the South accused the North of behaving like a European empire. It then became politically correct to speak only of “American exceptionalism.” Internationally imperialism became a dirty word early in the twentieth century, and it was the Communists who were chiefly responsible for turning it into a hate word. And it is worth recalling too that up to 1860 empire was not a term of abuse in the United States. George Washington himself spoke of “the rising American Empire.” Thomas Jefferson, aware of the dilemma, claimed that America was “an empire for liberty.” That is what America is becoming again, in fact if not in name. America’s search for security against terrorism and rogue states goes hand in hand with liberating their oppressed peoples. From the Evil Empire to an Empire for Liberty is a giant step, a contrast as great as the appalling images of the wasted twentieth century and the brightening dawn of the twenty-first. But America has the musculature and the will to take giant steps, as it has shown in the past.

Another factor has received too little attention. It may be that humanity is on the eve of an entirely new age of exploration and settlement—in space. In 1450 no one in old Europe imagined that the discovery and colonization of the New World was just over the historical horizon. Yet the technology of oceanic ships and navigation was already in place and within 50 years in use, and an entire new hemisphere was brought into our grasp. No forethought had been given to who might own it. Today imperialism is a technical possibility and may become a reality much sooner than we think. And when it happens it will develop as with the age of Columbus, with dramatic speed, the adventurous moving much faster than the international lawyers and statesmen. We ought to be thinking about it now. One thing is certain. The United States will be in the forefront of this new imperialism. Indeed it has already taken the first steps by imposing a unilateral ban on rival weapons systems in space. The role of first space imperialist is likely to be imposed on America simply by its wealth, power, and technology.


One thing is clear: America is unlikely to cease to be an empire in the fundamental sense. It will not share its sovereignty with anyone. It will continue to promote international efforts of proven worth, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and to support military alliances such as NATO where appropriate. But it will not allow the United Nations or any other organization to infringe on its natural right to defend itself as it sees fit. The new globalization of security will proceed with the United Nations if possible, without it if necessary. The empire for liberty is the dynamic of change.