Saturday, March 29, 2003

I've been worried more about the dangers of accidental empire than deliberate empire. The imperial faction of the Bush administration is coming under more and more scrutiny, and I don't think they'll get away with it by themselves. Unfortunately the course we have embarked upon is extraordinarily difficult. There will be times when even people who did not plan it all along will be tempted to say 'Well we tried, but the Iraqi's didn't cooperate'. For this reason, I thought it was time to talk about the perils of empire - no matter how high the original motives.

Via Matthew Yglesias, I discovered the blogosphere had beaten me to it. Timothy Burke of Easily Distracted knows much more than me about history, and will even after I finish the book on British history that I'm now two thirds of the way through.

The British Empire failed because not because it violated sovereignities, but because it was hypocritical in its mission to civilize. It killed and imprisoned and punished those who sought no more than to defend their legitimately different ways of life, using military force where dialogic suasion was the only moral strategy. It defined the parochial and local virtues of English society as the central values of civilization. Civilization is not tea and lawn bowling. The British Empire democratized at home and constructed new autocracies abroad. It promised the rule of law and respect for citizens and then made imperial subjects into permanent subjects denied legal recourse and forever condemned to servitude. It held forth the promise of rights and snatched them back the moment that men and women walked forward eagerly to claim them. It ruled without hope or interest in understanding its subjects, and dismissed the many genuine moments of connection that presented themselves as graspable possibilities.

We are already well down the road to similar failures. The United States Constitution wisely has as its first principle that the power of government must necessarily be constrained in order to secure the blessings of liberty. Where are the constraints now on American power abroad? There are none remaining. Is our judgement so unimpeachably correct, our government so godly, that we can be trusted with such a power? The Founding Fathers did not trust their own creation with that kind of untrammeled authority. The Declaration of Independence underscores that freedom comes from below, from the determination of a people, not as a grant or gift from an overlord—and it makes clear that all peoples everywhere have a right to be represented, that decisions should not be taken in their name without their willful assent.

Timothy Burke mentions that others have written comparisons between the current situation and the formation of the British empire, so I doubt I can add anything there. I hope someone with more historical knowledge will improve on this brief note, but I thought in the meantime I'd try and say a few words about how some ancient empires such as the Roman empire were profitable for many centuries, but modern empires are more apt to drain money and blood like the British empire.

In Roman times, to sack a city was a profitable enterprise. The troops were happy even if paid cheaply - at least those who managed to grab a share. Landless colonists who received land in exchange for manning an outpost were pleased indeed. This apparently destructive behavior did not prevent occupying the territory and collecting tribute. There wasn't any industry to be trashed to speak of, and agriculture wasn't that capital intensive, so the lack of former cash and valuables didn't hinder that much. Odder still, this apparently unpleasant behavior didn't hinder a successful long term occupation. It happened all the time. After Rome conquered everyone in your neighborhood, the Pax Romana had serious benefits to trade, and they wouldn't let their own provinces arm for war against each other. Saves you money when you can't build an offensive army and neither can your neighbors. The Roman atrocities might often be forgotten after a few generations - these things happened.

The British empire was another story. Even then, the main 'wealth of nations' was in the ability to exploit natural resources and manufacture goods rather than take gold and silver by force, as Adam Smith pointed out. The British had no expectation of paying for their empire by having their army grab stuff and go - this would have radically decreased the income potential of the captured and colonized territories. Rather, they wanted sources of raw materials (including natives to mine and even sell them to the British) and buyers of manufactured goods. As Timothy Burke points out, the British also had moral scruples (partially hypocritical, as are all of ours) which made the ultimate Roman expedient of slaughtering the civilian population of an intractible possesion an empty bluff - and the subjects came to know it.

In outline, this plan of using the resources of a controlled country to pay for the occupation has been tried in recent history - it was called the British empire. It didn't work. The odd thing was, many countries did benefit economically from their British rulers. They didn't appreciate it - and neither would we. And Pax Americana doesn't happen unless we conquer the whole neighborhood. Are we going to take the other countries before or after building an Iraqi democracy? Either would have problems.

Sun Tsu believed in conquering your neighbors for profit and prestige. He does suggest conquering the nearer ones while remaining at peace with the ones farther away. I guess shorter supply lines are part of the reason. I'm sure many in the Bush administration sincerely intend to build a democracy, but it is a milk and water intention not built of serious meditation on the costs. There will come a point where autonomy proposals seeming reasonable to us will be responded to with violence by our non subjects (wards?), and then we will be tempted to decide we have done our best and must rule with a heavier hand for awhile, all with the intention of educating people so that they are capable of a democracy.

I do not know for certain if Timothy Burke's concept of empire is workable in the modern world, but I'm pretty certain the one we are sliding thoughtlessly towards is not.

No comments: