Ethics & International Affairs Volume 17.2 (Fall 2003): Special Section: The Revival of Empire: Liberal Empire: Assessing the Arguments [Full Text]

Sep 16, 2003

This essay is an attempt to take the idea of empire seriously as an element in normative political theory. The sudden reappearance of "empire" as a doctrine to be taken seriously had some of the thrill of the forbidden. Who would dare to endorse imperial ambitions as good for their country or, more heretical still, good for the world? Iconoclasm, though, is a short-lived pleasure. Now that the concept of empire has shed its pariah status, the time has come for some rigor in characterizing and assessing the arguments for empire.

The idea of empire has acquired many putative meanings, some military and political, others economic, and still others concerned with cultural power. The aim of this essay is not to define empire for all purposes, but to examine the most plausible and, arguably, influential arguments for a new imperial policy, chiefly in the realms of political and military power. These arguments are united by their appeal to broadly liberal, although not necessarily democratic, values. They are significant not least because they probably constitute the only imperial doctrine that most people at present are likely to accept. Although by no means all advocates of the doctrine can be styled "liberals" in their domestic political contexts, the doctrine's recourse to liberal values makes "liberal imperialism" a fitting rubric for it.

What Makes an Imperial Doctrine Today

What makes today's liberal imperialism an imperial doctrine is the belief in the political inequality of countries. This inequality is not restricted to differences in military and economic power, but includes, critically, differences in competence for self-governance. Competence, in this sense, includes both the capacity for self-governance, the practical wherewithal to maintain a decent social order, and qualification, or legitimacy, as measured by some combination of liberal and democratic norms. The normative consequence of political inequality among countries is that some may legitimately make and implement important decisions for the governance of others. Imperial policy thus represents either a selective or a categorical rejection of two contemporary axioms of political legitimacy, which may be fairly termed Wilsonian: national sovereignty and democratic self-determination.

One can distinguish between "weak" and "strong" imperial policy according to the manner and degree of this rejection. Weak imperial policy is premised on the political inequality not of peoples but of states, holding that some governments do not command the respect of others because they are unfit representatives of the peoples they claim to govern, whether for procedural reasons—for instance, because they are not democratically accountable—or for substantive reasons, because they participate in impermissible abuses against some of their citizens or subjects. Weak imperialism thus claims not that a people whose government may be legitimately thwarted or overthrown is incapable of self-rule, but that its self-rule has been frustrated by its own government, and must be won back for it by the intervention of another government. This distinction corresponds to a distinction in the Wilsonian axioms: the sovereignty of a government does not always protect the self-determination of a people. Where a government is despotic, the shield of its sovereignty may stand in the way of its people's self-governance. Many saw NATO's 1999 Kosovo action as crystallizing the claims of weak liberal imperialism, protecting a people within a state from the depredations of the state. The doctrine of weak liberal imperialism also formed one rationale for the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, whose aim was frequently given as the liberation of the Iraqi people.

Strong imperialism goes further, insisting on the political inequality not just of governments but of peoples. Its basis is typically sociological, having to do with a subordinate people's preparedness to sustain orderly institutions (or, more robustly, democratic and liberal ones). On this view, one people may do more than unseat another's government to restore to the people its proper sovereignty: it may also exercise ongoing power over basic collective decisions, in the name of some interest that is claimed to trump the people's sovereignty itself. If weak imperialism seemed heterodox in the 1990s, strong imperialism until recently would have been heretical. It is a return to the doctrine of John Stuart Mill, who wrote with India in mind that "rule by a foreign power is as legitimate as any other mode" when it is to the ultimate benefit of the ruled.

Overtly imperial projects today, such as the invasion of Iraq, tend to find their initial justification in a doctrine of weak imperialism—they claim to doubt the moral authority of sovereignty, but not of democratic self-determination, as the sovereign governments that are constrained or overthrown are far from democratic. On the strength of the Kosovo precedent and the ascent of the norm of democratic legitimacy to (at least nominal) general acceptance, violating a country's sovereignty for the announced purpose of bestowing democracy on its population often wins, so to speak, as many points as it loses. This advantage is fleeting, however, if the imperial power does not quickly and soundly establish democracy, which will in many cases prove impossible or so inexpedient that the imperial power deems it unacceptable. When it becomes clear that democracy is not rapidly forthcoming, and that the country's direction will remain substantially in the hands of its imperial occupier, overseer, or sponsor, then the imperial project can no longer rest its normative claims on weak imperialism. The practice increasingly corresponds to the doctrine of strong imperialism, and the imperial power must insist that overriding democratic self-determination is justified by some other value or values.

Justifications for Imperial Policy

Because it begins as an exception to principles that, however unevenly practiced, are widely accepted as normative polestars,1 an imperial policy today must rest on other basic values, which justify the exception. Defenders of imperial doctrine, now and often in the past, have presented three kinds of considerations that, it is claimed, outweigh the Wilsonian axioms.

The first is an account of global security: what the security of all nations consists in and how to protect it. This is an old concern, which has taken new force from the increased scale of today's potential threats. In the eighteenth century, the chief activity that international law recognized as a threat to all was piracy, the occasion of the United States Marines' famous action at Tripoli. Today terrorism, defined as politically motivated attacks on civilians by nonstate actors,2 is a candidate to become the piracy of the twenty-first century: the universally proscribed activity that may be hunted wherever it takes refuge. Threats to security are intensified by new kinds of weapons: chemical and biological weapons because certain countries allegedly cannot be trusted to keep such weapons out of the hands of terrorists; and nuclear weapons because certain countries allegedly cannot be trusted not to use them, to make first use of them, or to put them in the hands of terrorists. In combination, terrorism and so-called weapons of mass destruction present the potential of devastating attacks on civilian populations, although the degree of the threat is hard to judge because it has been so profligately invoked. The implication of this prospect is that global security may require that entire regimes be brought forcibly to heel. Iraq is now a matter of record on this score, and with the first precedent in place, the principle is at once very potent and of indeterminate proportions.

Considerations of global security are the ultimate in prudential reasoning. Such considerations aim at avoiding disaster and securing the sometimes fragile preconditions of other kinds of interests. The second kind of consideration involves affirmative conceptions of human flourishing. Such a consideration begins from an idea of what the most basic and general human interests are, and proposes that the domination of one people by another, at least for a time, may be necessary to achieve them. The historical version of this view most likely to be intelligible to us is the liberal nineteenth-century conception expressed with some eloquence and conviction by John Stuart Mill and his father, James Mill. On this view, peoples whose social orders were premised on superstition and tyranny would have to spend some time under the hard-nosed but beneficent tutelage of more advanced nations, which had themselves realized liberal values and could now enforce and cultivate them abroad. At the end of the tutelage, the subject peoples would emerge into the full historical daylight of self-government, commerce, and reason.3

This idea has undergone a chastened period, embarrassed in politics by successful anti-colonial movements, and in the realm of ideas by both theoretical and historical explorations of its implication in the repudiated abuses of the colonial period. Of late, though, it is newly robust. The practice of nation-building has moved to the fore of American and, often in consequence of American-led military actions, multilateral policy. The promise of such policy is that, given a period of tutelage, peoples emerging from oppressive governance or chaos can secure and preserve liberal and democratic institutions, and enter into the ordered liberty of modern life. Different inflections of this view unite a spectrum of politicians and commentators who advocate making war abroad and provisionally governing subject peoples to foster American-style freedom, among them archconservatives and longtime imperialists such as William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz and newly converted believers in this vision of American mission such as President George W. Bush.

The third kind of consideration is deontological. It is usually expressed in the idea that certain kinds of actions are absolutely prohibited, and that when someone does them, others have a right or, alternatively, a duty to intervene and prevent them. In the political shorthand of the last decade, this is the Kosovo scenario. In the second half of the twentieth century, genocide became the exemplary prohibited act, whose evil overrides all other considerations of legitimacy (if not considerations of convenience, as the world's indifference to murder in Rwanda suggested). The nearest historical analogies are cannibalism and human sacrifice, which were the prohibited horrors that the Spanish gave as reasons for conquest of Native American populations; but such actions were never the sole or overwhelming reason (or, perhaps, even sincere) for an invasion, as was true of genocide in Kosovo.

These three kinds of considerations––prudential reasons, reasons of flourishing, and reasons of prohibition––correspond to deep human interests, and represent serious reasons for dissatisfaction with the Wilsonian axioms. The history of the last twenty years has done much to make these considerations seem more vital and urgent than they had recently appeared. The fall of Marxist-Leninist governments across Eastern Europe and the then Soviet Union seemed mightily to confirm that people everywhere really do want the same things: personal liberty and security, a measure of comfort and opportunity, and the privilege of feeling at home in a "normal country" (the poignant term of post-Milosevic Yugoslav leader Vojislav Kostunica) whose economic and social order falls somewhere near that of the United States or Western Europe. Widespread attention to the "global culture" of mostly American images and phrases that new communications technology spread in the 1990s reinforced the idea that, given the choice, all cultures would converge on a roughly American set of tastes and aspirations. The extraordinary intellectual self-confidence of the neoliberal program of market-oriented economic reforms in the 1990s completed the picture: people everywhere wanted the same things, and there was one, scientifically mandated way to secure them, which the neoliberal program presented in outline. By the time the United States invaded Iraq, it seemed intuitive to many that Iraqis would seize upon the unseating of Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to become American, or at least Arab-American.

Reasons of prohibition, too, loomed larger in the 1990s as the idea of human rights––inviolable and universal protections against state and sometimes against private violence—grew in importance. The Kosovo intervention capped a period in which groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch became essential custodians of public conscience. In the same period, the ethnic wars of the Balkans and the Rwanda massacres drove home that genocide, enshrined after World War II as the ultimate abuse of human rights, had not been consigned to the past. Public moral language increasingly became the language of human rights, so that by the time of the Kosovo intervention objections based on sovereignty had come to seem legalistic and even morally obtuse.

As for considerations of global security, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, significantly reoriented American foreign policy and domestic attitudes. Americans now are much more likely than five years ago to view the world as bristling with dangers for them, and to support their government in responding aggressively to actual or perceived threats. This is, of course, a matter of the security interest of one nation, which may be quite a different question from the requirements of global security; but the American political, economic, and military power mean that an American emphasis on the security threat posed by terrorism inevitably draws global attention (sometimes sincerely, sometimes opportunistically) to the same concern.

All of these trends have been reinforced by the manifest failures of many postcolonial states. Human rights abuses, the harboring of terrorists, and the relentless quashing of human flourishing were variously characteristic of the authoritarian, kleptocratic, or anarchic countries that dotted the Middle East, Central Asia, and sub-Saharan and northeastern Africa in the 1990s. The end of colonialism in the middle of the twentieth century was supposed to be a harbinger of progress. Wilsonians and other anti-colonialists expected national sovereignty and democracy to coexist and elevate both the dignity and the prosperity of former colonial subjects. The widespread thwarting of this expectation made increasingly plausible the idea that respecting the sovereignty of failing or abusive, nondemocratic governments was a species of criminal neglect.4

All of this created great potential for new or revived imperial arguments, which found their moment in American politics in the eighteen months following September 11, 2001, when talk of American empire moved from the margins of political and scholarly agitation to the center of public debate and political decision. The Bush Doctrine (crystallized in the official statement of "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America September 2002"), taken at face value, is a statement of liberal imperial policy that makes its case for American military supremacy and unilateral intervention by way of all three classes of consideration that I have described: an appeal to security asserting that terrorism and "weapons of mass destruction" together form a new and urgent kind of threat; an appeal to absolute prohibitions in its invocation of human rights principles to justify intervention; and an appeal to human flourishing that envisions a world in which peoples live freely and peaceably after liberation from their present tyrannical governments, sometimes but not always after a period of American tutelage. In this view, the special American relationship to liberal and democratic principles, combined with the unique capacity of a solitary superpower, exempts the United States from the constraints that govern other nations and imposes on us the responsibility of action.

Historical Lessons in the Hazards of Empire

That said, how to assess the new imperial arguments? Anyone who thinks this question important owes the new imperialists a debt for the inadvertent favor of making it explicit. There are at least two ways of enriching the discussion while acknowledging that today's imperial programs respond to genuine moral and political problems, and are formulated in good faith as regularly as any other program of political action. The first approach is to deepen the historical context in which to view the idea and practice of empire, which is often, and somewhat opportunistically, discussed without attention to its complex precedents. The second is to engage with the imperial arguments on their own ground: the quality of the reasons they provide for overriding the Wilsonian axioms. A sufficient assessment of the present imperial program must include an assessment of those reasons, and any alternative program would require an alternative account of them.

The historical tack is perhaps the less telling of the two, but it addresses an important asymmetry of historical awareness in the contemporary discussion of empire. The sudden revival of the great forms of argument for empire, even in sometimes slapdash form, has not been accompanied by a symmetrical revival of the tradition of anti-imperial argument. An observer whose knowledge of these issues came entirely from the contemporary debate might come naturally to one of two mistaken conclusions: first, that objections to empire simply express fastidiousness on the part of those who decline to confront a messy and dangerous world; or, second, that although racism, violence, and exploitation were indeed the sins of earlier empires, the contemporary imperial program, because cleansed of those defects, is not objectionable as earlier empire might have been.

The benefit of even a superficial acquaintance with the liberal and humanitarian strains of justification for the British Empire, or the illiberal and humanitarian defenses of Spanish conquest, is the recognition that today's imperial apologists are not novel in either their good intentions or their willingness––even eagerness––to give moral reasons for their programs. This does not mean, however, that past failure to recognize that the East India Company and everything that followed it pursued a civilizing mission. The recently fashionable caricature of previous centuries' imperialism as mere rapine has made it too easy for today's imperial planners to ignore their ideological ancestry. It has also, paradoxically, strengthened the hand of revivalists of the old imperial ideas, who make much of the rediscovery that imperial administrators oversaw legal systems and railroads as well as plunder and repression––facts said to be fatal to the naive critics of empire.

At least one historical strain of anti-imperialism that remains instructive today was perfectly compatible with the fact that imperialists saw themselves as pursuing a moral mission. Indeed, this form of anti-imperialism took strength from that fact. It is also, and perhaps more saliently, unweakened by the recent historical developments that have cleared the way for the new enthusiasm for empire. I have in mind a form of skepticism about moral reasoning in politics whose modern form was pioneered by two thinkers who were at grips with the imperial projects of their own times: Michel de Montaigne and Edmund Burke.5 The skepticism that united them across two centuries and a modest but significant body of water had two foundations, the less important one epistemic and the more important based on a theory of human motivation. Their epistemic point was, then as now, familiar if not uncontroversial: that people systematically err in their judgment of the moral and empirical considerations relevant to their decisions and, moreover, systematically overestimate their capacity for such judgment and so fail to give due weight to the likelihood that they are in error. Both believed that it was, therefore, prudent to reduce one's estimate of the degree of rationally motivated control one had over one's own life and actions. For Montaigne, the partial abdication of the sovereign subject was in favor of both the customs of his time and a certain playful embrace of uncertainty; for Burke, it was in favor of tradition and political authority.

Their more distinctive idea was that erroneous judgment was self-reinforcing and self-amplifying, because it was exciting and satisfying. Self-certainty and self-righteousness, on Montaigne's account, were constant temptations, because the mind hungered to fix on certainty even though it could not reliably apprehend truth. Moreover, self-righteousness led to cruelty, the willful and self-conscious infliction of violence, because it provided a moral license to act against others without hesitation, and the pleasure of such action produced an appetite for more. Burke's picture was similar: grand principles and dramatic moral and political visions produced a kind of intellectual and aesthetic excitement that overwhelmed ordinary prudence and carried one forward like a powerful stimulant. Acting under the influence of such ideas, people self-confidently carried out acts of violence and domination against others, only to discover that domination produces its own satisfaction, and a taste for unconstrained power for its own sake. Burke called the temptation of visions and ideas the passion of zealotry; the temptation of power he called the passion of tyranny.

Montaigne and Burke are best remembered for their opposition to forms of European extremism: Montaigne to the sectarianism of the Wars of Religion, and Burke to the elements of the French Revolution that led to the Terror. Both, however, saw imperialism as the optimal setting for the forms of dangerous conviction they feared, a theme that Montaigne explored in meditations on Spanish violence and cruelty in the Americas and Burke in the great parliamentary speeches of his fourteen-year crusade against the depredations of the East India Company. Placed in power over a remote people, whose cultural and moral lives were unfamiliar, opaque, and readily misapprehended, it was easy to conclude that the subjects were, in Montaigne's term, "barbarians," so terrible and unintelligible as to fall outside the circle of one's own moral considerations. Moreover, Burke emphasized, imperial governors ruled unconstrained by the habits of decency, toleration, and prudence that form the backdrop of any ongoing form of life. Wrenched out of their own habitual constraints, and unintegrated into those of their subjects, they were men without borders, able to give their hazardous appetites maximum play. Such people were entirely likely to do more harm than good wherever they were set down, and when they returned to the home country, they were inclined to apply their tyrannical habits on the domestic political culture. The fact that empire produced an imperial ruling class that imposed its habits of governance on the imperial capital is one of the critical but neglected reasons that empire was long assumed to be incompatible with republican government.

This set of considerations should provide a valuable check on any form of imperial self-confidence. It is a moral argument about the hazards of empire, which does not assume that empire is amoral and rapacious, but argues that empire's hazards inhere in the shape it gives to moral reasoning and political judgment. Its textual sources are several centuries old, because it arose alongside two of the great recent empires. Anyone who would set it aside as anachronistic would have to show why its premises are outmoded––not a simple argument after the run that zealotry and tyranny have enjoyed in the twentieth century, both in and outside the colonial and postcolonial countries. Those who would set it aside as simply false would have to account for the same phenomena over a longer period.

The Logic of the Imperial Exception

This tradition of argument, though, provides only a piecemeal and prudential argument against any particular imperial project––indeed, against any application of moral reasoning in the exercise of power. For a more systematic assessment of the contemporary imperial program, it is necessary to consider it by reference to its specific claims to justification rather than by way of a general precaution about the hazardous conjunction of justification, power, and distance. Recall that I suggested earlier that contemporary justification for imperial projects invokes three kinds of considerations: absolute prohibitions, the requirements of global security, and the nature and preconditions of human flourishing. The most powerful counterarguments to today's imperial doctrine assert that the doctrine rests on a misreading of those three considerations. On the axis of global security, at least two arguments suggest that imperial policy is inferior to

respect for sovereignty as a basis for international order. The first would note that the Bush Doctrine is premised on the idea that the United States can remain the world's sole and dominant superpower, either indefinitely or until its liberalizing and pacifying mission has succeeded and made it unnecessary. On this premise, the United States is and will remain the authoritative judge of when global security requires imperial intervention in otherwise sovereign states. Even if American judgment is sometimes imperfect, the United States will occupy the status of Hobbes's Leviathan, establishing rules that, because all are forced to follow them, are superior to any situation in which rules are effectively uncertain because their enforcement is impossible or uneven. To deny this view, one would have only to believe that American military domination is not comprehensive even now, when Chinese and Indian military-economic growth are only getting under way and Russia is at a nadir; it would not even be necessary to speculate about the challenge those powers might pose within a century to a Pax Americana. If even now, let alone in two or three decades, other countries are likely to take on themselves the judgment as to when security putatively requires intervention––and there will be plenty of room for opportunism in this judgment––then promulgation of the Bush Doctrine will not solve the problem of a Hobbesian world by creating a Leviathan, but intensify the problem by licensing competing Leviathans to jostle for position outside even the highly imperfect rules of sovereignty.

The second argument is even simpler. It would ask whether, at this stage in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat of unilateral American intervention is in fact likely to dissuade prospective members of the nuclear club, or to hasten their efforts. At the time of writing, it is arguable that the lesson to small countries from the American encounters with Iraq and North Korea (not to mention Pakistan) will turn out to be that we punish those who pursue nuclear weapons and fail but reward those who succeed. The incentives of such a principle are, to say the least, not unambiguously against proliferation.

The most interesting area for dispute, though, and the one in which normative political thought seems prima facie most likely to make a distinctive contribution, is human flourishing. Let us stipulate, for the moment, that some version of the Bush Doctrine's assertion is true: people everywhere want security, personal liberty, and prosperity (although they may have quite distinct specific goals in mind under these general headings). The Bush Doctrine stakes its case on the idea that these values can be effectively achieved by imperial intervention. The basis of this idea, on the strength of the evidence so far from Iraq, is the belief that top-down American competence and bottom-up local spontaneous order will meet to produce a market economy, stable democratic institutions, and a civil society that protects basic liberty and security.

Taken at face value, this is a view about a most basic philosophical issue: how freedom unfolds in history, or, put less grandly, what the preconditions of modern freedom are. Any strong form of the Bush Doctrine view of this issue depends in turn on two presuppositions that are, at a minimum, controversial. The first might be called the harmony of liberal ends: the belief that free markets, democratic political arrangements, and increasingly individualistic social orders are all mutually reinforcing, and together uphold personal liberty and security. The neoliberal policy reforms of the 1990s were premised on a similar idea, and in several cases, notably Indonesia and Argentina, doctrinaire liberalizing reforms in economic policy induced political crises with illiberal political results, arguably including an increase in the influence of Indonesian Islamist parties. It is well established that electoral support for illiberal and quasi-fascist political parties is often concentrated in the small merchant and middle classes that constitute a market economy. Even more straightforwardly, the phenomenon of so-called illiberal democracy is now so notorious as to provide a catchphrase for American reasons for disfavoring direct elections in most of the Arab Middle East, where it is reckoned that the polls would favor illiberal Islamist parties (as they did in the hurriedly canceled Algerian election of 1994).

The second controversial presupposition of the Bush Doctrine is that nationalism is substantially irrelevant to political outcomes, and hence the provenance of reform matters much less than its content. If a given reform would be attractive when issued by a local government, it will be equally attractive when handed down by an occupying power or the client regime of that power. This belief may well be possible, today, only for Americans, whose habitual confidence in the universality of their values, practices, and institutions is a source of both visionary good and visionary harm. There is no particular reason, though, not to expect that the inevitable resentment and opportunism of a period of transition will not be the more potent insofar as they are directed at a government perceived as alien. If true, this means that the pervasive conflicts between, say, popular elections and liberal government, or market reforms and liberal political culture, will be more pronounced and explosive when nationalist resentment provides a vocabulary for both discontent and ambition. The universality and power of nationalism as a political motivation is perhaps the most salient single difference between the circumstances of previous imperial powers and the situation of the United States today.

Let us suppose that neither proposition is true in the degree that the Bush Doctrine presupposes: that persistent tensions among the elements of liberalizing reform can push countries in illiberal directions, and that national sentiment is persistently important. If these qualifications are accurate, they give reason for skepticism about whether overtly imperial policy in fact fosters the kind of flourishing that the Bush Doctrine envisions. But the reason for hesitation is greater than that: assessment of an imperial policy's claim to promote human flourishing cannot be restricted to the prospects of the countries under direct imperial occupation or influence; it must also extend to the prospects of other countries whose domestic politics are reshaped by response to imperial policy. Anecdotal and statistical accounts of the sharp increase in anti-American resentment worldwide in the last two years are now legion. What is not yet clear is whether this resentment will strengthen the hands of, for instance, nationalists in the Chinese government, military, and middle classes who view the United States as the successor to the colonial powers of the nineteenth century, and look forward to a moment when China will challenge the American imperium for dominance in the Pacific; Hindu nationalist parties that denounce economic liberalization as neocolonialism and Western-toned cultural change as corruption, and have made India's nuclear development a symbol of the country's status on the world stage; or Iranian fundamentalists whose people resent them but may resent an American occupying army next door more. Precedent is not encouraging: anti-colonial nationalism strengthened the hands of authoritarians in many mid-century colonial countries, while the association of free markets with American domination inspired nominally state-socialist regimes; the combination often inflicted considerable costs in terms of human flourishing, and the motives were the same that the United States is sowing now. American policy must be judged not only by its success or failure in its intended effect, but also by its other consequences, particularly when it threatens to thwart its own liberalizing aims.

These are all reasons for skepticism about the claims of today's imperial policy-makers. Considering them also clarifies what would be necessary in formulating an adequate alternative. One would need not simply to invoke the Wilsonian axioms, but to weigh them and their alternatives against an account of this moment in history: where the most significant hazards and opportunities lie along the three axes of protecting global security, promoting human flourishing, and preventing impermissible atrocities. A lucid picture of these considerations gives a proper scale for assessing any particular proposal, and helps to check the usual hazards of normative political reasoning: dogmatism about familiar rules, obsession with specific problems to the exclusion of broader concerns, mistaking one's own convenience for the universal interest, and clinging to an idea because of the excitement or emotional satisfaction it provides rather than its merit. It is arguable that American imperial policy, now in an early stage of explicit expression, has suffered from several of these hazards: obsession with a few symbolically significant enemies, and one terrible event––the attacks of September 11, 2001; the assumption that American concerns are automatically global concerns, and the consequent reorientation of global political attention to an imprecisely formulated antiterrorism campaign; and the excitement of the crusading war, exemplified in President Bush's fist-pumping announcement that "I feel good" moments before he declared the beginning of the Iraq invasion. Adherents of the Bush Doctrine, of course, have no monopoly on these vices; but these vices are suggestive of the hazards of imperial policy.

I have suggested one starting point for an account of organizing concerns: the prospects of broadly liberal political and social development in rapidly changing countries such as India and China, which alone contain almost half the population of the world outside the wealthy Euro- American zone, and which hold tremendous potential both for human flourishing and for an illiberal and belligerent future. These developments are not susceptible, even as a purely pragmatic matter, to imperial intervention; but they are significantly affected by whether the United States behaves, and is perceived, as an attractive model of liberal modernity or as an arrogant and threatening power.

Procedure and Prudence

A last word is in order about one claimed intellectual and moral virtue of the imperialists: realism. Their iconoclasm toward Wilsonian pieties and their willingness to concentrate attention on the worst regimes and most alarming prospects in world politics have won them credit for clear-eyed maturity, especially amid the suspicion that American foreign policy in the 1990s was characterized by slovenly and unearned complacency. The institutions and procedures of the mid-twentieth century are inadequate for today's world, the imperialists insist, and a harder and less compromising attitude must replace it.

Is it true? At least some of the attraction of imperial policy is inherent in two persistent modern paradoxes. The first of these is the perversity of proceduralism. From criminal law to legislative process to the machinations of the United Nations Security Council, the quintessential modern check on power is a procedural requirement that certain steps precede any action, whether jailing a criminal defendant, passing a draconian (or benevolent) law, or undertaking a war. The purpose of such procedures is to protect liberty and security against arbitrary and self-interested uses of power; but inevitably the procedures also thwart good projects and protect the wicked, sometimes in ways that further the abuse of power, whether by holding up campaign finance reform in the United States by decades or by helping to preserve the Khmer Rouge or the Iraqi Baath party. From this perversity comes an intelligible impulse to override the procedures, grab the levers of power, and do the (perceived) right thing. Acting on that impulse brings in train all the dangers of unchecked power that occasioned procedural constraints in the first place. The present imperial program represents a grand procedural exception redolent of clear moral perception and decisive action, but necessarily a high-stakes gamble that the violated procedures either were unnecessary or can be readily repaired or improved. Those who argue for keeping the procedures in place are not naive or obtuse; they have calculated the gamble differently, and they may be right.

The second modern paradox is captured in Rousseau's notorious remark that those who will not choose their own freedom must be "forced to be free." The imperial promise is to bring subject peoples over the last barriers to self-emancipation, when they can be set free with confidence that they will make choices that preserve their freedom. The decision to force others into freedom comes readily in a time founded on radical breaks with the past in the name of progress, and particularly from the United States, founded and refounded as it is on revolution and civil war, and populated by people who broke with their own pasts in immigrating to it in the first place. The decision is, however, not always possible or appropriate. Such a project supposes that freedom supplied from outside has the same meaning and staying power as freedom achieved from within the politics and history of a country, which there is reason to doubt. It supposes also that the system the outside power imposes is the one that the locals would freely develop of their own accord; that is, that modern freedom has only one shape, which there is also reason to doubt. And it supposes that the act of imposition itself, with whatever violence and disruption it brings, will not irremediably corrupt what follows. Many top-down revolutions have ended disastrously in attempts to force people into freedom. While much of their failure may have come from a mistaken conception of freedom, some at least resulted from the same questionable self-confidence that today's imperial policy displays. There is no reason to expect imperial projects to be immune to the same hazards.

Imperial undertakings, then, are not amoral but supremely morally ambitious, and a large part of their hazard consists precisely in their moral quality. They are, in salient respects, attempts to break out of the constraints our period has accepted as part of its freedom, which include a fair amount of hypocrisy and frustration, and the cynicism that accompanies those. Although their supporters present them as square-on confrontations with the worst facts about human nature and world politics, imperial policies are also evasions of other obdurate facts about the dangers of power and the limits of politics. As exceptions they are hazardous. As governing principles, they have potential for disaster.


* I would like to thank Christian Barry, Mary Campbell, Owen Fiss, and Sanjay Reddy for their helpful comments on earlier drafts. [BACK]

1 There is, of course, ample tension between these two principles to begin with; but the fact remains that national sovereignty is the most basic principle of legitimate international action, while the democratic self-determination of peoples is, for all its persistent violations, the only widely accepted standard of domestic political legitimacy, and one to which nearly every regime at least pretends. Although they are far from requiring one another, they do belong together both for their common axiomatic status and because they together formed the core of both Wilsonian liberalism and anti-colonial independence movements, two of the defining ideological families of the last century. [BACK]

2 I am deliberately omitting the question of whether there should be a category of state terrorism, and if so how it should be defined. I do so not because I consider it insignificant, but because it has not entered significantly into the prudential arguments in favor of liberal imperialism. Certain forms of what may be called state terrorism against a state's own subjects fall within another argument for liberal imperialism: the prevention of severe human rights abuses within a state. The important question of one state's actions against the citizens of another state does not enter into this essay. [BACK]

3 A fine introduction to the views of the senior Mill is William Thomas's abridged version of The History of British India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975). In his discussion of "The Civilization of the Hindus," for instance, Mill observes "the necessity of regarding the actual state of the Hindus as little removed from that of half-civilized nations" (p. 231); reckons that "despotism and priestcraft taken together, the Hindus, in mind and body, were the most enslaved portion of the human race" (p. 237); and quotes with approval Adam Smith's judgment that Asian "despotism is more destructive of leisure and security, and more adverse to the progress of the human mind, than anarchy itself" (pp. 249–50). John Stuart Mill, in his chapter, "Government of Dependencies," in Considerations on Representative Government, wrote more systematically: "[Rule by a foreign power] is as legitimate as any other [mode of government] if it is the one which in the existing state of civilization of the subject people most facilitates their transition to a higher stage of improvement. There are . . . conditions of society in which a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization." Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government (Rutland, Vt.: Everyman, 1993), p. 415. [BACK]

4 It is worth noting that the failure of many postcolonial regimes does not in itself mean that the preceding colonial rule was a good thing, whose passing was to be regretted. Nor, more pertinently, does such failure indicate that independence was inherently unviable for those countries. The bipolar manipulation of governments and anti-government insurrections during the Cold War was a disaster for many newly independent countries. While those countries faced severe disadvantages apart from the Cold War, we will never know whether some might have done much better free of the proxy battles of those decades. [BACK]

5 Montaigne's view of these matters is expressed in two of his essays, "Of cannibals" and "Of coaches," translated into supple English in Donald M. Frame's Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995). Burke's extraordinary speeches on imperial policy are well represented in David Bromwich's Burke on Empire, Liberty, and Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Particularly illuminating are the "Speech on Fox's East India Bill" and the "Speech in Opening the Impeachment of Warren Hastings," although there is also much to learn in Burke's "Speech on Conciliation with America," which treats imperial policy in a different context but with a remarkable unity of concern. Anyone who believes that racial attitudes are historically determined and excused might also read the letter to Miss Mary Palmer, in which Burke writes of his long defense of India, "I have no party in this business, Miss Palmer, but among a set of people who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces, but who are of the images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not" (p. 374). [BACK]

You may also like

AUG 2, 2022 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 36.2 (Summer 2022)

The editors of Ethics & International Affairs are pleased to present the Summer 2022 issue of the journal! The highlight of this issue is a roundtable organized ...

MAR 15, 2022 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 36.1 (Spring 2022)

The highlight of this issue is a roundtable organized by Jesse Kirkpatrick on moral injury, trauma, and war, featuring contributions by Jesse Kirkpatrick, Daniel Rothenberg, ...

JAN 4, 2022 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 35.4 (Winter 2021)

The issue features a book symposium organized by Michael Blake on Anna Stilz's "Territorial Sovereignty," with contributions from Adom Getachew; Christopher Heath Wellman; and Michael ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation