THE RELUCTANT EMPIRE: Is America an Imperial Power?

Thursday, October 16, 2003

George W. Bush, during the 2000 presidential campaign said that "America has never been an empire... We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused." Was then-candidate Bush right when he made those remarks? Or has America become an imperial power in all but name? How do America's unique historical circumstances predispose it to handle the unrivaled power it holds in the world today? And what lessons can we draw from our nearest historical antecedent, the British Empire of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Recorded on Thursday, October 16, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: The sun never sets on the American Empire.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the British Empire and the American. George W. Bush speaking during the 2000 presidential campaign, "America has never been an empire. We may be the only great power in history that had the chance and refused." Was then-candidate Bush correct in making those remarks or has the United States already become an empire in all but name? How do our unique historical circumstances predispose us to exercise our unrivaled power in the world today? What lessons can we learn from our nearest historical antecedent, the British Empire?

Joining us today, two guests. David Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a professor of history at Stanford University. Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Oxford University and New York University and the author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.

Title: See No, Hear No, Speak No Empire

Peter Robinson: A set of facts and a quotation. The facts: The United States today monitors the entire world by way of five global military commands, has more than a million soldiers stationed in more than five dozen countries and deploys battle groups in every ocean. The quotation: President George W. Bush speaking last spring at the United States Military Academy at West Point, "The United States has no empire to extend or utopia to establish." Does the United States truly have no empire?

Niall Ferguson: Well, the United States is an empire but it's an empire in denial.

Peter Robinson: In denial. David?

David Kennedy: The empire that dare not speak its name. But I think underlying Bush's comment or statement actually is a shrewd perception that empires are historically, fundamentally unstable creatures. And they eventually unravel.

Peter Robinson: All right. Paul Johnson, another quotation here: "Though self liberating, the United States was an imperialist creation, enlarging its borders as and when it needed space and opportunity afforded. The Americans were more imperialist than the English." We've been an imperial power since the beginning. We started on the eastern seaboard; end up taking an entire continent. David?

David Kennedy: Well, the statement obviously refers to the expropriation of North America from indigenous peoples. I think historically that's a rather sloppy use of the term imperialism. Imperialism usually refers in the typical historical case to one society's managing the affairs of another comparably complex, organized, densely populated society. I think the North American case is its own peculiar case and doesn't really fall under the definition of imperialism as we usually use it.

Peter Robinson: Are you going to let that stand?

Niall Ferguson: No, because, of course, exactly the same thing happened in Australia and in Canada and in New Zealand, all crucial components of the British Empire, the first great Anglophone empire.

Peter Robinson: Thinly populated by indigenous populations.

Niall Ferguson: Right. And successfully settled and then taken over by immigrants from the British Isles and that's exactly what happened in the United States. If you look at the thirteen colonies that seceded from the British Empire, they account for about eight percent of the territory of the United States today. And the question you have to ask yourself is where did the other 92% come from? Was it just a magical moment that landed in the laps of Americans as a result of manifest destiny? No it was either purchased or conquered from previous owners. And that is what empires do.

Peter Robinson: You do run into this problem that Americans didn't think of themselves as imperialists as they're taking over North America, do they, David?

Niall Ferguson: Well, why did Jefferson use the phrase 'empire of liberty'? I mean, almost all the founding fathers recognized that the thing that they were creating was going to expand. And they almost all used the word empire. It was one of the few things that Madison and Hamilton agreed on.

Peter Robinson: I try to make your argument for you and get it wrong. Go ahead.

David Kennedy: Well, 'empire of liberty,' I think is a very interesting and telling phrase. And you're quite right, Jefferson and Jeffersonians used and it referred generally to the settling of the Louisiana Purchase and the west. But I think the phrase was coined in the spirit of innovation because the concepts of empire and liberty do not normally go together. The notion of empire is based on the proposition of command and rule and sovereignty over others. Liberty means participation in your rule and democracy and freedom and so on. The concepts are contradictory by their very nature. So the empire of liberty referred to what is more commonly known as a settler society, a society that would be, in fact, populated by people who came from the metropole, from the eastern United States or through the great immigrant portals that brought people to North America generally. And the society that would be created out there would be based on the consensus and consent and, in fact, that's the way it works. California is part of the Mexican cession and part of the empire of liberty but it as fully participatory a polity in the general American polity as are any of the thirteen original colonies.

Niall Ferguson: Can I just…

Peter Robinson: Yes, of course.

Niall Ferguson: …qualify this because it's not true what David says that there was something terribly original in the phrase 'empire of liberty.' And Edmund Burke had used this in the House of Commons. It was, in fact, a trope of eighteenth century British imperialism consistently to distinguish the British Empire from the other empires, the French and Spanish empires particularly.

Peter Robinson: Next topic. Doesn't the twentieth century provide a lot of evidence that the United States does not have imperial ambitions?

Title: 20th Century Facts

Peter Robinson: If you agree broadly with Paul Johnson's point that the United States behaves like an imperial power from the get-go, the twentieth century gives you a little bit of a problem. We're reluctant to enter the First World War. We're very reluctant to enter the Second World War. Throughout the Cold War we're constantly reassessing and reconsidering our international commitments, our defense budgets. During the 1990's, I'm going to quote Paul Johnson once again. President Clinton responds to the growing threat of terrorism, quoting Johnson, "in a traditional U.S. fashion by ignoring it and hoping it would go away." Now that's not the behavior of an empire.

Niall Ferguson: Well, it's not quite true to make the allusion you've just made from a kind of nineteenth century expansion into the twentieth century hesitation. You've missed out a really crucial part of the story...

Peter Robinson: All right.

Niall Ferguson: …just from 1898 onwards when the United States behaves exactly like a European Empire. It starts to annex territory, Hawaii, it annexes the Philippines. But what it discovers is that the going is a lot tougher once you go overseas. Settling the great North American plains was really relatively straightforward. But trying to take over a country like the Philippines which is already densely settled is much harder. And that first experience of, if you like, tough imperialism turns Americans off.

David Kennedy: Can I…

Niall Ferguson: And I think that's really the crucial link that once has to make.

Peter Robinson: David, why do…

David Kennedy: I think Niall's quite right, that the Philippine case is the most explicit instance where the United States does conform to a traditional imperial kind of pattern of behavior. It was an extremely controversial matter. The Americans felt--had a bad conscience about it almost from the moment they starting doing it. It's the occasion incidentally as you well know, when Rudyard Kipling writes the poem The White Man's Burden

Peter Robinson: Urging us to take…

David Kennedy: Urging the United States to be the--to participate in the great imperial exercise of exporting civilization and so on to the rest of the world. It's also the occasion when William James, the greatest American philosopher then or ever in my opinion, said when he heard that the Congress had passed the annexation--the legislation annexing the Philippines, he said, "Goddamn the United States for its vile conduct in the Philippine Islands. How can this country puke up its ancient soul in five seconds without a wink of squeamishness." That's a deep taproot American attitude about the--what a bad business imperialism is.

Niall Ferguson: And Mark Twain, of course, felt the same. And I think what this revealed was that there was a deep ambivalence about the extension of American power overseas. And it's there well before World War I.

Peter Robinson: There at least you get a clear distinction between the United States and the British Empire. The British have a run of several centuries when nobody feels terribly squeamish about it at all.

Niall Ferguson: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Right. Okay, now…

David Kennedy: The British do it both ways. They found settler societies--you've mentioned several of them, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States but they also would have imperial control over India, big pieces of Africa and so on, which is a different case altogether.

Peter Robinson: Back to the United States. Is it possible to become an empire without realizing it?

Title: The Commitments

Peter Robinson: Niall makes the point that essentially the British stumbled into empire. We're in Iraq, who knows when we'll get out. We defeat Germany fifty years ago and we're still there today. It's very hard to get out once you're in. Is it possible that we'll stumble into the kinds of commitments that will effectively make us an empire or at least make it plausible from the point of view of our adversaries to say, there you are. Imperial behavior.

Niall Ferguson: This has already happened.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Niall Ferguson: I mean, it's not as if we need to ask this question about the future.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so…

Niall Ferguson: I mean, the United States has involved itself militarily in the space of just a few years, in three of notoriously the most difficult regions of the world, to establish imperial control.

Peter Robinson: Afghanistan?

Niall Ferguson: Not only Afghanistan and Mesopotamia and Iraq, but also the Balkans…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Niall Ferguson: …which was one region the British always steered well clear of and indeed most European colonial powers regarded it as potential disaster zone. So in a way the United States has already stumbled into the three places you would probably avoid if you were setting out consciously to create a global empire. Certainly Afghanistan's one place the British never really managed to impose their authority on. So you've actually unwittingly taken on three of the hardest cases. Now if this isn't creating an empire in the fit of absence of mind to use Seeley's famous phrase about the British, I don't know what is.

Peter Robinson: Are we, because of our ideological background, the missing chromosome in our DNA--do we have an empire and we just can't face it? We can't tell ourselves the truth.

David Kennedy: Well, I think the example…

Peter Robinson: Or are there fundamental distinctions?

David Kennedy: …Niall has just cited raises a very interesting question, whether we are now even in our own time, crossing the line between hegemonic leadership into a different kind of zone, one which is historically…

Peter Robinson: Explain hegemonic leadership.

David Kennedy: Well, the usual distinction is that hegemony means leadership or primus inter pares. It's--you have partners and you honor and respect their agenda as well as your own and you don't dictate to…

Peter Robinson: You lead by example…

David Kennedy: Imperialism is…

Peter Robinson: …in negotiation rather than force or command.

David Kennedy: Imperialism is the language of command, not the language of cooperation. I think that's the essential difference. And I think in this country, the generation that fought and won World War II read the lessons of its immediate history quite accurately. There was a British historian, I think it was H. P. Nichols said, world economic leadership was offered to the United States in 1918 and the offer was refused. And a lot of the people in the World War II generation concluded that was the great structural flaw in the international system. The United States had to participate and indeed had to lead because nobody else had the capacity to do that after World War II. And we built a structure of--very elaborate structure of multilateral institutions, the IMF, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade which morphs into the WTO, the United Nations itself and so on. But that's the way we did it throughout most of the Cold War era was cooperatively and multilaterally.

Niall Ferguson: I think there's a danger of a false dichotomy though between hegemony as you've defined it and empire as you've defined it because the nineteenth century British Empire was also capable of working through multilateral institutions and the regular conferences of the five great European powers made international law from the Congress of the Vienna right the way through until the outbreak of the First World War. And then these actually were institutions which were just as successful and worked in very similar ways to, for example, the UN Security Council today which just represents the great powers in rather a similar way. I would offer an alternative reading on the great crossroads moment of 1918. It's not so much the Americans turn down economic hegemony when it's offered to them. Unfortunately what they positively do is to impose a model--a political model on the world which is disastrous. And that's the model of self-determination, of independent nation-states. That's what creates the instability that requires another World War to settle it. That's ultimately what creates all the chaos in places like Africa after the Second World War. But the idea, going right back to something you said at the beginning, that empires are an unstable and nation-states are stable, is consistently belied by historical evidence. It's empires that breed historical stability and it's the experiment with independent nation-states almost throughout the globe under the influence of Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, which has had such disastrous consequences.

David Kennedy: Well, you just made the case…

Peter Robinson: All that idealism that's all the trouble, David, you see.

David Kennedy: I thought it was a joke earlier: do you want to bring British imperialism back to Africa and India? But now you seem to be making a case for the reconstitution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Soviet empire.

Niall Ferguson: Well, not for the Soviet empire, which was an authentically evil empire, the human cost of which is almost impossible to quantify. But the point I try to make is that there's a distinction between liberal empires and illiberal ones. And liberal empires or empires of liberty which have existed before Jefferson's time which existed in the British case throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century are, in fact, a better recipe for global stability. And they're not something incompatible with international institutions of the sort that we know today.

Peter Robinson: Now lessons from the British Empire for the United States.

Title: We've Got the World on a (Shoe) String

Peter Robinson: Lesson number one, despite all that we keep hearing about imperial overreach, running an empire needn't be all that expensive. Niall says that between 1870 and 1913, British defense spending averaged only a little more than three percent of national product. They ran a quarter of the world on three percent of national product. Today the United States finds itself spending a little under four percent of GDP on defense. We can do it inexpensively. David?

David Kennedy: Well, it's interesting; we still use the nomenclature 'defense' to talk about the military budgets.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

David Kennedy: By the very logic of what we're talking about, this is not simply defense. We're talking about expenditure for the extension of control. Now maybe ultimately the logic of this is defense to be sure. But historically you're absolutely right, Niall's absolutely right. The…

Peter Robinson: No trouble with that?

David Kennedy: British ran their empire on a very economically efficient basis. And we may or may not be running an empire but we've also conducted our world economic and military role in the last two generations on a relatively efficient, economic basis.

Peter Robinson: Lesson two, contrary to what we tend to think of as the lesson of empire, the British Empire, empire can help the third world. Niall's point is--I draw this directly from empire so if you'd like to elaborate on or indeed correct me if I get it wrong, go right ahead--all the studies show that one of the principal determinants of growth in third world countries is their openness to international trade. How does free trade come about? I quote Niall. "In practice, global free trade was not and is not naturally occurring. The British Empire enforced it." Likewise, today the United States, by example, by negotiation, we're the most powerful voice without any doubt--General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, World Trade Organization and so forth--so by exercising global hegemony or empire if we choose to concede that to Niall, the United States is doing a great deal of good for the Third World. Did I get that argument correctly?

Niall Ferguson: It could do more. I mean one of the…

Peter Robinson: It could do more.

Niall Ferguson: …the key differences, of course, between the United States and Britain is that United States still remains protectionist in agriculture which…

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Niall Ferguson: …Britain wasn't a hundred years ago. And, of course, from the point of view of a third world country, that's what really matter.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Niall Ferguson: So, I mean, my argument would be yes empire and empire of free trade but could we please become on in the United States rather than just using the rhetoric of free trade when it's senseless.

Peter Robinson: David?

David Kennedy: Well, this is an egregious example. I agree with him. I've written elsewhere the--save for the swaddled infant at his mother's breast, there is no sector more coddled in the United States than the agricultural sector. And again, if you look at this from the perspective of someone in a developing country for whom large scale business--agri-business is a pathway to development, we appear to be very strong offenders against our own doctrines of free trade.

Peter Robinson: Okay, but you grant the larger point. The two of you would say drop those tariffs on sugar. Stop the huge subsidies to our own farmers. Open up the world to free trade and use our influence around the world to enforce free trade. Would you be willing to go as far as that?

David Kennedy: Well ,the idea of enforcing free trade…

Peter Robinson: That's the verb he gives to the British.

David Kennedy: …is again almost as contradictory as the notion of empire of liberty. But sure the historic role of this country has played through most of the twentieth century and certainly since World War II is to encourage and nurture free trade institutions and all the things that support that with conspicuous as I say really regrettable exceptions like our agricultural policy. But we have been the locomotive that has led the train of globalization in this direction.

Peter Robinson: Let's look at one more lesson from the British imperial experience.

Title: Statutes of Liberty

Peter Robinson: Lesson three, my last lesson here. Democracy and the rule of law can be taught. All this business about we can't impose our system on others. As a matter of fact we can and they'd be better off for it. According to political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, countries that were former British colonies had a much better chance of achieving genuine democracy after independence than countries that had been ruled by other nations. Niall once again, "What the British Empire proved is that empire is a form of international government that can work and not just for the benefit of the ruling power. It sought to globalize a legal and ultimately a political system." We ought to do the same.

David Kennedy: Well, of course we should. And if what we mean by that is that we should encourage others to adopt the values of the democracy and open economies, who can argue with that?

Niall Ferguson: The key point about the rule of law represents to government is that it takes time to introduce it into, if you like, foreign soil. This was something the British really did understand I think quite rightly. Someone like McCauley said in the 1830's that the ultimate destination for India was representative government but that it would take time to get there. Well, India did get there actually and it was well on the way to getting there even in the 1920's and '30s, before…

Peter Robinson: And it would not have done so save for that period under British domination.

Niall Ferguson: Well, ask yourself the question. There are two Asian empires, one of which comes under British rule, India, and of which doesn't, China. Which has the happier history in the twentieth century? Well, it's very clearly India because China under an asiatic empire which disintegrates in the twentieth century, ultimately gives rise to the disastrous experiment of Maoist communism. Again the death toll there is almost incalculably high. So although one can't say that everything is perfect about British rule in India, it's very far from being perfect and I make that clear in my book, fundamentally the institutions of the rule of law on the common law basis and crucially representative government took root there. And I think that's one reason why India's political history since the Second World War has been so much happier.

David Kennedy: But there's yet another major Asian society that experienced no imperial control whatsoever with the exception of the very brief Macarthur interlude and that's Japan, of course. And if you match its history in the twentieth century against especially the last half of the twentieth century against India's and China's, you get yet another perspective.

Niall Ferguson: Japan was a country which volunteered to imitate the West although had to have free trade imposed upon it by American fire power but fundamentally…

David Kennedy: Quickly took up the idea.

Niall Ferguson: Its approach was to copy the West and indeed to replicate its institution spontaneously. It didn't need empire.

Peter Robinson: David, you're puzzling me here because I've given you these three lessons and you've said, you've nodded and said yes to all three. We can afford it. It would be a very good idea for us to use our weight in the world to encourage free trade and indeed, for us to use our weight in the world to encourage democratic capitalism. So you buy the whole argument, save that the single sticking point for you, the gnat that gives you the trouble is the use of the word empire, imperial.

David Kennedy: Yes, exactly, to the extent that empire implies coercion, dictation, sovereign control over others without their full consent, then I object to it. Yeah. And I think that is the only instability.

Peter Robinson: Afghanistan and Iraq are the two test cases then.

David Kennedy: They may well turn out to be, yes. And in our stated goal in both those places…

Peter Robinson: Is to get out as fast as we can.

David Kennedy: Well, I'm not sure it's put quite that way.

Peter Robinson: All right.

David Kennedy: But it is to develop self sustaining, representative institutions and self sustaining economies in those two societies. That's an admirable goal but to stay there long-term with the in practice, dictating to others and exercising sovereign control, I think is a formula for instability.

Peter Robinson: Last big question, when it comes to running an empire, have Americans got what it takes?

Title: Atlas Shrugged

Peter Robinson: Michael Ignatieff from the New York Times, "The burden of empire is of long duration and democracies are impatient with long-lasting burdens, none moreso than America." We've talked about American ambivalence toward empire. Is the ambivalence ultimately fatal to the entire project?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I've said and I guess I agree with Michael in that sense, that the United States is an empire with an attention deficit disorder. And that if things haven't been fixed within the two-year or four-year election cycle, then very quickly the pressure builds to get out. Now this is catastrophic because you cannot expect the rule of law and representative government on the--or indeed the free market to take root in a timeframe that compressed. These things take years, decades, perhaps even longer than that. And the problem about empire is that it isn't just about coercion. It's also about the collaboration of local elites. Why would anyone want to collaborate with Bremmer's authority in Iraq if it's going to be gone in a year's time? I mean, that would be crazy. A speedy transition of the sort that seems to be on the cards towards "democracy in Iraq" would be a transition to disaster unfortunately because the timeframe is far too short.

Peter Robinson: David?

David Kennedy: I think all we're disagreeing about actually is the timeframe. The ultimate objective, I don't think we disagree about. The fact that it's morally defensible to bring societies to the point where they're self sustaining democracies is not an issue between us.

Peter Robinson: Can the American politic summon the sustained will required to stay in long enough? And I don't mean just Iraq, I mean the entire…

David Kennedy: I know. I think that's a real question.

Peter Robinson: …hegemonic or imperial project?

David Kennedy: I think that's a real question and remains to be seen. I do agree that whatever one--position one took on entry into the war in Iraq, there we are and we have it on our hands and to leave prematurely, I think would be to use Niall's word, catastrophic. So we're in agreement about that.

Peter Robinson: All right.

David Kennedy: But I also think that the reflex discomfort that this society has with the notion of maintaining imperial control over long periods of time is at bottom, a very healthy instinct.

Peter Robinson: And you would not want that eroded?

David Kennedy: No.

Peter Robinson: All right. Iraq was a British Mandate, in effect a colony, from 1920 to 1932. Now there's a couple of additional years in which the British are there because they first move in before it become Iraq during the First World War. But let's--for the sake of tidiness, it's formerly a mandate for a dozen years. The British establish a monarchy, a parliament and administrative apparatus, play a critical role in opening up the oil fields and giving Iraq something of a modern economy. The British legacy? Catastrophe, unrest, dictatorship, from 1936 to 1941 alone, five years, seven military coups. Quarter of a century from now, will we look back on the Iraq episode and say that we did a better or worse job than did the British? David?

David Kennedy: Well, who knows? The story ain't over yet. And so we just don't know how it's going to conclude. I suppose that the most opposite example that we have in the American case is the Philippines where we, as I said earlier, just reflexively wanted to get out of there as soon as we got in and started--in fact, we legislated mandates for ourselves as early as 1913 to leave the Philippines the earliest possible date. We reiterated that in 1934 and we, in fact, left--went in 1946 so we were there fifty years.

Peter Robinson: Right.

David Kennedy: Now it's another argument whether the Philippines are better or worse off in that fifty year interval but there it is. There was an example of quite a sustained commitment and maybe that provides some hope that in this case we can find a way to stay as long as it takes to get the job done properly.

Peter Robinson: Niall, the United States will have done a better or worse job than the British in Iraq?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I think something you said earlier made it sound as if the British did a very bad job in Iraq, which I actually disagree with because British were there informally, very influentially, until 1958. And in 1958, and indeed in the decades after 1958, Iraq was far from bad shape. It's only Saddam Hussein comes to power in 1959 that Iraq goes speeding down the down escalator. It's a disaster. And I think one ought to take a rather more benign of what was achieved in a relatively short space of time on a shoestring. After all, the 1920's were a period in which Britain was no longer wealthy enough to engage in very successful nation building. So I would say the success story is rather more positive in the British case then you were suggestion earlier. Will the United States be able to create as Britain did, at least for a few decades, a political system in its own image in Iraq? I doubt it very much because it does seem to me that fundamentally A, the British had a will to make this work which the United States lacks today. But B, in many ways the opposition was rather weaker in terms of its fire power…

Peter Robinson: Opposition in Iraq or in London?

Niall Ferguson: …in Iraq today. I mean, the British had a major revolt to deal with in 1920, which they were able to crush marginally through air power. Today, of course, the forces of disorder are much better armed than they were in the 1920's. So not only is the American will, if you like, weaker, from my point of view, the resistance to successful imperial rule in Iraq is probably no stronger.

Peter Robinson: David, final word.

David Kennedy: Well, I would just say that among the things that the West has exported to the rest of the world are the concepts of nationalism and self-determination. And Iraq is a gerrybuilt state that doesn't conform to the precepts of self determination, ethnically-based or culturally-based nationalism and that's another element of huge instability in Iraq. I mean, nobody apparently has a very cogent answer to that.

Niall Ferguson: Of course, that's what's wrong with the theory of self-determination that so many countries are exactly like that.

Peter Robinson: Niall Ferguson and David Kennedy, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.