Remember your high school indoctrination? The section in your European or world history class where you learned about the age of colonization? You were surely told that all of those big bad Europeans destroyed the world through their supremacist greed, erasing customs and cultures left and right. They made the world a hopelessly boring place and planted the seeds of all conflicts currently threatening geopolitical harmony. As such, we were taught to accept as unassailable dogma the refrain “empire equals evil.”
Adopting this generalized attitude toward imperialism is, however, dangerously misguided. Because like it or not, America is in fact creating an empire — of sorts. Professor David Bromwich articulates the idea well:
“It is time that we Americans began to think of ourselves as a people living at the center of an empire. That is what we are, for better or for worse. And it does partly depend on us whether the empire will use its power for better or for worse. For better, in my view, would mean an empire that teaches and acts according to ideals of self-sacrifice and generosity toward other people and other nations. For worse would be an empire whose only interests are selfish and whose only aims are financial profit and political and military domination.”
In their imperial heyday, the British at least had the ever-intelligent voice of Edmund Burke to direct the empire “for better.” Unfortunately, America lacks such a guiding philosophy. But why? Certainly Americans are an intelligent people, and surely we have among our ranks someone with the convictions and intellect to articulate the ideals of a moral empire. Why, then, has no one stepped up to do so, as Burke did?
Simple: no one wants to. Since the building of empires is decried in left-leaning academia and the media as such a great malfeasance, who can blame would-be American Burkes for not wanting to subject themselves to a violent, knee-jerk backlash?
One has to wonder, though, why the reaction would be so violent. One has to wonder why President Bush, when he speaks of spreading democracy and freedom to oppressed peoples in Afghanistan and Iraq, is mocked for his idealism and berated for his aspirations.
After all, not all empires are completely pernicious. While it’s true that many actions taken in the name of imperialism have been immoral, one must acknowledge that empires have done their good as well. They have provided centers for cultural, linguistic and scientific development. They have facilitated travel between remote regions, provided common cultural bases for entire continents, and standardized and spread improved agricultural methods. From an intellectual standpoint, the spread of a common language and the enhanced opportunities for discourse it offers has left an indelible mark on the canonical landscape. Where would Christian thought be without the prevalence of Latin? Would the West have access to the classics of Greek philosophy and Arabic science and mathematics if not for Arab dominion over Spain? It’s debatable, but doubtful.
More importantly, however, empires allow for the eradication of cruel practices by replacing them with more humane moral codes. Naturally, this is where left-leaning moral relativists cry in outrage that all beliefs and customs are morally equal, but then this begs the question: Is it really so bad that Spanish imperialism ended human sacrifices in Latin America? Can we really complain that the British discouraged the practice of suttee (Indian widows throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres)? Surely we all agree that these grotesque forms of murder are wrong. So why must some denounce the men and nations that ended them?
It is precisely this capacity for imperial moral good that makes America’s situation unique. And if there is domestic opposition to this notion of an American Empire, especially from the left, it’s certainly an uncharacteristic opposition. After all, the majority of Americans — save those at political extremes — agree upon the value of liberty, equality of opportunity and, if not a perfect democracy, at least some form of it. In their view, these are the essential qualities of a morally acceptable state.
Furthermore, most Americans agree on the much-beloved maxim from the Declaration of Independence — “that all men are created equal.” Again, they may not all agree on the nature of that equality — there is a great difference between equality of opportunity and equality of condition. But with the exception of the David Dukes of the world, most Americans believe that all men are entitled to certain essential rights, regardless of race, creed, sex or nationality. A man deserves to be free from unjustified execution whether he is American, Italian, Chinese, Guatemalan or Ethiopian. Consequently, regimes like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and Kim Jong Il’s in North Korea should appall most Americans.
What should disgust them even more, however, is domestic opposition to unseating these dictators. This is because only the United States can end these regimes and, more importantly, it is the only nation with the commitment to replacing them with better, moral options. No nation in history has a record equalling America’s when it comes to kindness and charity toward other nations, even vanquished enemies. Would Libya have stepped in to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo? Can we conceive of a French Marshall Plan? Had Hitler and Hirohito been victorious, would they have spent the same vast sums of money, time and energy rebuilding America, the way the United States rebuilt Germany and Japan? Of course not. And no other country, after 3,000 of its citizens had been killed in the worst terrorist attack in history, would worry about the long-term prosperity and well-being of the nation that harbored and aided its attackers.
America has historically demonstrated a unique commitment to selflessly sharing the prosperity and ideals she enjoys with other nations around the world, thereby creating an empire of idealism that has afforded millions of people the opportunities and freedoms they would never have enjoyed otherwise. Naturally, it would be naive to say that the United States has never made foreign policy mistakes — no country is perfect — but on the whole, one has to consider America’s intentions and her overwhelming successes in being an imperial influence for good.
So as President Bush prepares to free the Iraqi people, the anti-imperialists should cut him some slack. Because when he talks about spreading democracy and peace, Bush is not providing some elaborate smoke-and-mirrors cover for ulterior motives — he is simply continuing a long tradition of the American Empire as a force for good. In fact, if one wanted to find nations that actually do have histories of abusing conquered peoples for economic benefit, one would need look no further than, say, Europe. Old historical habits die hard — which perhaps explains why the French and the Germans are hurrying to shred documents in Baghdad that link them to secret oil and weapons deals with Saddam Hussein. If that’s not causing international harm for one’s own economic benefit, I don’t know what is.
Since the United States is an empire, and since it is an empire with an unprecedented likelihood of giving selflessly instead of taking greedily, Americans must, as Professor Bromwich noted, start to accept their imperial identity. Fearing empire — opposing it automatically, as we have been indoctrinated to do, without analyzing its history or potential — is the surest way to sabotage its promise. If we can recognize that we are “a people living at the center of an empire” and take pride in that fact, there will lie our greatest opportunity for shaping our international influence for the better. If we capitulate to politically correct intimidation, we will lose all ability to hold our leaders accountable to the ideals of a noble empire. We will then have lost any means of restraining them should they incline toward an “empire whose only interests are selfish and whose only aims are financial profit and political and military domination.”
In the meantime, President Bush fortunately seems bent on continuing the noble American tradition of imperial selflessness. For freedom-loving Americans, this should be a source of pride. Because if it isn’t, Professor Bromwich is all the more correct — the United States needs someone to give a philosophy to its empire, and soon. Otherwise, it might just become a source of shame.
Meghan Clyne is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.