Today's most ardent American imperialists weren't born in the USA.
By Jeet Heer,
Boston Globe Ideas (March 23, 2003).
EMPIRE IS A DIRTY word in the American political lexicon. Just last summer, President Bush told West Point graduates that "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish." In this view, the power of the United States is not exercised for imperial purposes, but for the benefit of mankind.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, however, many foreign policy pundits, mostly from the Republican right but also including some liberal internationalists, have revisited the idea of empire. "America is the most magnanimous imperial power ever," declared Dinesh D'Souza in the Christian Science Monitor in 2002. "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets," argued Max Boot in a 2001 article for the Weekly Standard titled "The Case for American Empire." In the Wall Street Journal, historian Paul Johnson asserted that the "answer to terrorism" is "colonialism." Columnist Mark Steyn, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, has contended that "imperialism is the answer."
"People are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire'," noted Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. "The fact is no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of world since the Roman Empire." Krauthammer's awe is shared by Harvard human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff, who asked earlier this year in The New York Times Magazine, "What word but 'empire' describes the awesome thing America is becoming?" While acknowledging that empire may be a "burden," Ignatieff maintained that it has become, "in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike."
Today's advocates of American empire share one surprising trait: Very few of them were born in the United States. D'Souza was born in India, and Johnson in Britain - where he still lives. Steyn, Krauthammer, and Ignatieff all hail from Canada. (Krauthammer was born in Uruguay, but grew up in Montreal before moving to the United States.) More than anything, the backgrounds of today's most outspoken imperialists suggest the lingering appeal and impact of the British empire.
"I think there's more openness among children of the British Empire to the benefits of imperialism, whereas some Americans have never gotten over the fact that our country was born in a revolt against empire," notes Max Boot, currently afellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But lots of people who are advocating pro-imperial arguments - such as Bill Kristol and me - are not Brits or Canadians." (Boot, who was born in Russia, moved to the United States as a baby.)
Imperialism is often seen as an expanding circle, with power radiating outward from a capital city like London or Paris to hinterlands. But a quick review of history shows that imperial enthusiasm doesn't emanate only from the center. Often, the dream of empire is nursed by those born on the periphery of power, precisely because empire would give them a place in a larger framework. Alexander the Great, for example, was born in Macedonia and went on to create an Hellenic empire. And France's greatest empire-builder was the Corsican Napoleon.
Odd as it sounds, Canadians once nursed similar dreams of taking over the world. At the end of the 19th century, Canada had the ambiguous status of being a dominion, governed by its own parliament yet embedded within the British empire. While some Canadian nationalists wanted constitutional sovereignty (a status not gained until 1982), many others believed that Canada could punch well above its weight if it worked within the British Empire. University of Toronto historian Carl Berger summarizes their view: "Just as New England exerted an influence in the political and cultural life of the United States far out of proportion to her population . . . in time, Canada would likewise prevail within the Empire."
The Canadian poet Charles Mair has one of his characters voice such ideas in his 1886 historical verse-drama "Tecumseh":
For I believe in Britain's Empire, and
In Canada, its true and loyal son, Who yet shall rise to greatness,
and shall stand
At England's shoulder helping her to guard
True liberty throughout a faithless world.
For many years, supporters of the British empire tended to be anti-American in outlook; they regarded the upstart republic as disorderly and disloyal. But with the rise of German power in the late 19th century, "Anglo-Saxon unity" became the watchword and British imperialists began encouraging American expansionism. Rudyard Kipling's famous imperialist paean, "The White Man's Burden," often mistakenly linked to England's rule over India, was specifically written in 1899 to support Theodore Roosevelt's campaign to extend the American sphere of influence into the Philippines.
In the 20th century, as Britain was increasingly weakened by two World Wars, the locus of imperial ambition shifted from London to Washington. "These Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go," said future Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan in 1943. Like Winston Churchill, Macmillan had an aristocratic English father and an American mother. It was hybrid (and high-bred) identities of this sort that provided the glue for a century of Anglo-American concord. Echoing the Canadians of the previous century, Macmillan thought that his country's global position would be enhanced by serving as a junior partner in a very large empire. On another occasion, Macmillan even compared Britain to "the Greek slaves" who "ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius."
The promotion of "Anglo-Saxon unity" was particularly attractive to transnational business leaders like the Canadian-born newspaper tycoon William Maxwell Aitken (later known as Lord Beaverbrook). In 1910 Aitken moved to Britain, where he used his newspapers, Daily Express and the Evening Standard, to argue for free trade and the strengthening of imperial ties. In recent years, Beaverbrook's ideas have been given new currency by another newly ennobled Canadian-born newspaper magnate, Conrad Black, also known as Lord Black of Crossharbour.
While he has recanted his belief that the English-speaking provinces of Canada should join the United States, Black has been campaigning for the inclusion of the United Kingdom into the NAFTA trade accord. For Black, Britain's destiny is to be primarily an Atlantic power, not a European one.
Among conservative intellectuals, Black's dream of an Anglo-American concert of nations is part of a larger desire to strengthen "the Anglosphere." Apparently coined by science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1995 novel "The Diamond Age," the term has been popularized lately by writers such as like James C. Bennett, who writes a weekly column covering "The Anglosphere Beat" for United Press International, and Andrew Sullivan, as well as by the English historian Robert Conquest. The proponents of an anglosphere want a loose and informal alliance of English-speaking peoples, modelled on the "soft" imperialism that governed Britain's relationship with dominions like Canada and Australia, not the "hard" imperialism of the Raj.
The enthusiasm for the old Pax Britannia has been bolstered by the revisionist scholarship of Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, whose new book "Empire" argues that the British Empire was a progressive force in world history that lay the foundations of our current global economy.
But the idea of a new American empire remains controversial on the American right, and not just among isolationists. Take the case of David Frum, the Canadian-born former Bush speechwriter who famously helped coin the term "axis of evil." Though his writing shows touches of imperial nostalgia (among other thing, he has argued that Canada should jettison the nationalist Maple Leaf flag and return to the Union Jack), he rejects the imperial analogies drawn by writers like Max Boot. "If 'empire' means anything, it certainly does not describe what the US is proposing to do in Iraq," notes Frum. "The big story, it seems to me, is the ascendancy of neo-Wilsonianism on the political right, not neo-imperialism."
For Boot, that's just a language game. "I don't think David and I disagree on any substantive point of foreign policy," Boot says. Another name for "'hard' Wilsonianism," he points out, is liberal imperialism. After all, Wilson, who took over Veracruz, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, was one of our most imperial presidents. Boot adds: "I prefer the more forthright if also more controversial term American Empire - sort of like the way some gays embrace the 'queer' label."
But even those most nostalgic for the British empire don't necessarily support a new American version. "When I was a kid in England I spent a great deal of time studying imperialism, of which I approved and got into a great deal of fights about," says conservative writer Peter Brimelow, a British-born naturalized US citizen who edits the anti-immigration Web site vdare.com. "But I personally am very skeptical about the new imperialism. I don't think you can unmake an omelet. I think obviously it would be better for everybody if the British and French had not left the Middle East. But the fact is that they did leave the Middle East and it is going to be very difficult to go back in."
He continues, "Part of the problem with people like Max Boot is that they are so young. They simply don't remember the Algerian war or what it's like to hold these people down. You have to go in there and kill a lot of people and fight these constant low-level conflicts."
Kipling, whose poem "The White Man's Burden" supplied the title for Boot's recent book "The Savage Wars of Peace," might well have agreed. For all his pro-imperialist bombast, Kipling never underestimated the difficulty and danger of ruling other lands. In words directed toward Theodore Roosevelt, Kipling wrote:
Take up the White Man's Burden-
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard.