Getting empire right

US must embrace a liberal, imperial mantle to survive

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President Bush: dogged by economic challenges

Not long ago, one of the more pervasive explanations for the American war in Iraq was that the Washington had somehow embarked on an imperialist binge. Many a learned scholar clamored that what was on display was, in fact, “neo-imperialism” fashioned by a small clique of right-wing hotheads who had infiltrated the highest echelons of the Bush administration.

How quaint the explanation now seems, as the US has spent the past several months proving that, if a new imperialism was indeed once a mantra (and nothing proves this), then very poor imperialists the Americans have proven to be. As the presidential election approaches, in Iraq the US is suffering from, to quote British historian Niall Ferguson, “attention deficit disorder.”

Ferguson has been making this case for over a year now, in the context primarily, but not exclusively, of the Iraqi conflict. However, his argument is also much more general, and underlines a belief that the world can indeed benefit from a liberal empire, similar to the British Empire during the 19th century. Ferguson’s argument is primarily an economic one, and he develops it in his most recent book, Colossus, on the price of America’s empire. He writes: “The evidence that, in an increasingly protectionist world, Britain’s continued policy of free trade was beneficial to its colonies seems unequivocal. Between the 1870s and the 1920s the colonies’ share of Britain’s imports rose from a quarter to a third.”

Ferguson goes on to write: “The British Empire was an engine for the integration of international capital markets. Between 1865 and 1914 more than ?4 billion flowed from Britain to the rest of the world, giving the country a historically unprecedented and since unequaled position as global net creditor, the ‘world’s banker’ indeed, or, to be exact, the world’s bond market.”

Based on this, and after cataloguing the myriad failures of third world countries having undergone decolonization, Ferguson argues that the US must embrace the liberal imperial mantle. The only problem, he notes, other than Washington’s propensity to abort its overseas ventures too early, is that an American empire faces both economic and manpower challenges: economically, the US must manage startling long-term domestic challenges, including a ballooning fiscal crisis nourished by the American propensity to consume much and save little. At the heart of this is an impending social security crisis. Americans are living longer and the present fiscal system remains entirely inadequate to pay for future generations of far more numerous retired people.

The ways of dealing with this, writes Ferguson, are to engage in massive increases in income and payroll taxes, or to slash social security benefits by equally dramatic amounts, or to cut discretionary spending to zero! This leads him to conclude: “[T]he decline and fall of America’s undeclared empire may be due not to terrorists at the gates or the rogue regimes that sponsor them, but to a fiscal crisis of the welfare state at home.”

A second challenge the US Empire faces is that it does not have enough people under arms to manage its vast global backyard. This stems, in part, from the fact that Americans are not instinctively “imperial” and hesitate to finance too martial a society. This, Ferguson suggests, is why “if Americans are reluctant peacekeepers, they must be the peacekeepers’ masters, and strike such bargains as the mercenaries of the ‘international community’ may demand.”

Has Iraq proven Ferguson’s point? Certainly in the past months the US has resorted to a more multilateral approach to the conflict there. The Bush administration virtually begged the UN to help it set up an interim Iraqi government, and would be delighted to see foreign forces, for example in the context of a NATO deployment, relieve American troops. That’s unlikely to happen, but long gone, apparently, are the exclusivist impulses that accompanied the American entry into Iraq over a year ago.

However, behaving multilaterally hardly prevents a powerful state from acting like, or indeed being, an empire. Take American behavior during the Cold War: the Western alliance was built on multilateral foundations, yet no one would deny that that was the time when the US took on its most forceful imperial identity.

What is critical, as Ferguson and others point out, is the deficit in American will in Iraq. As Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami wrote in the WALL STREET JOURNAL: “It is in Washington where the lines are breaking, and where the faith in the gains that coalition soldiers have secured in Iraq at such a terrible price appears to have cracked. We have been doing Iraq by improvisation, we are now ‘dumping stock,’ just as our fortunes in that hard land may be taking a turn for the better.”

How reminiscent that is of Ferguson’s own comment on US experiences in post-World War II Germany and Japan, which are often touted as examples of American nation-building success, but that were, in fact, very problematic ventures: “What was planned did not happen. What happened was not planned. This was not so much an empire by invitation as an empire by improvisation.”

So, will the US agree to be a liberal empire? For the moment the answer can be found in the Middle East, where the difficulties in Iraq may have prompted Washington to give up on its “liberal project” for the region. Instead, we risk seeing a return to the realist policies of the past that tolerated, indeed encouraged, autocratic regimes. That would be a shame. As the September 11 attacks made clear, only an international liberal order can buy America true security.