Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint

By Kurtz, Stanley | Policy Review, April-May 2003 | Go to article overview

Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint


Kurtz, Stanley, Policy Review


ALTHOUGH THE UNITED STATES is the preeminent power in the world, we are not yet an empire. Notwithstanding periodic foreign interventions and our considerable international influence, we have not used our military to secure direct and continuous control over the domestic affairs of foreign lands. If anything, the United States has avoided empire. We have abolished the draft, reduced taxes, cut defense spending, and eschewed nation-building. Only recently, we were accused of "abandoning" Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet departure from that country. Today, Afghanistan may be the germ of a new American imperium.

Iraq forces the imperial question. In the aftermath of an Iraqi war, it may suffice to install a friendly autocracy, withdraw the bulk of our forces, and exert our influence from afar. Yet some have called for more. From voices within the administration like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, to policy intellectuals like Richard Perle, to esteemed scholars like Bernard Lewis, many have argued that only a democratic transformation of Iraq, and eventually of the larger Arab world, can provide long-term security against terrorism and nuclear attack.

In an important address in February, George W. Bush lent his voice to this chorus. In no uncertain terms, the president affirmed that "the world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values," not least because "free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder." The president invoked the examples of American-led democratization in post-World War II Germany and Japan, and he pointedly rejected the claim that Arab nations are incapable of sustaining democracy. What the president did not say, yet gently and ambiguously implied, was that so deep a cultural change would require America to occupy Iraq in force and manage its affairs for years to come.

Could such a venture in democratic imperialism be harmonized with our liberal principles? Even if so, would it work? Is it possible to bring liberalism to a society so long at odds with the values of the West?

All of these questions were posed and answered, both in theory and in practice, during Britain's imperial rule of India. Three great British thinkers, Edmund Burke, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, not only philosophized about liberal imperialism; they lived it. Burke helped force a major reform of Britain's early imperial system, while John Stuart Mill succeeded his father James as the "chief examiner" in the London headquarters of the British East India Company.

Burke on one hand and the Mills on the other founded the two competing moral and administrative schools of thought on the British Empire. Burke's colonialism was conservative, respectful of indigenous practices and elites, and insistent on the highest standards of stewardship. The Mills were skeptical, even contemptuous, of traditional practices and elites; they were determined to force a democratic social transformation. Neither approach, it turns out, was able to operate independently of the other. If we find ourselves shouldering an imperial burden in Iraq or beyond, we shall want to study the wisdom -- and the folly of Burke, the Mills, and their respective disciples. Far more than America's post-World War II occupation of Japan, the British experience in India may be the key precedent for bringing democracy to an undemocratic and non-Western land like Iraq.

From India to Iraq

BRITISH IMPERIAL India might seem an unlikely model for an American occupation of Iraq. American rule in Iraq would ideally be a successful and time-limited experiment in democratization. Yet the British governed sections of the Indian subcontinent for nearly 200 years. The earliest period of British colonial rule was marked by extreme exploitation and neglect. Once colonial government was placed on a sounder footing, even the best-intentioned policies of dedicated and sympa thetic administrators frequently went awry, leading to serious social disruption.

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