Imperial Temptation

Article excerpt

The idea of empire, once so effectively used by Ronald Reagan to discredit the Soviet Union, has recently undergone a strange rehabilitation in the United States. This process, which started some years ago, has accelerated markedly since September 11. References to empire are no longer deployed ironically or in a tone of warning; the idea has become respectable enough that the New York Times ran an article describing the enthusiasm it now evokes in certain circles. It is of some significance that these circles are not easily identified as being located either on the right or the left. If there are some on the right who celebrate the projection of US power, there are others on the left who believe that the world can only benefit from an ever-increasing US engagement and intervention abroad; for example, in ethnic and religious conflicts (such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia), or in states run by despotic regimes or "rogue" leaders (e.g., Iraq). It is on grounds like these that the idea of a new imperialism has recently been embraced by Britain's Labour Party.

That elements of the left and the right should discover common ground on the matter of empire should come as no surprise. Contrary to popular belief, empire is by no means a strictly conservative project: Historically it has always held just as much appeal for liberals. Conversely, the single greatest critic of the British Empire, Edmund Burke, was an archconservative who saw imperialism as an essentially radical project, not unlike that of the French Revolution.

The idea of empire may seem too antiquated to be worth combating. But it is always the ideas that appeal to both ends of the spectrum that stand the best chance of precipitating an unspoken consensus, especially when they bear the imprimatur of such figures as the British prime minister. That is why this may be a good time to remind ourselves of some of the reasons imperialism fell into discredit in the first place.

To begin with, empire cannot be the object of universal human aspirations. In a world run by empires, some people are rulers and some are the ruled: It is impossible to think of a situation where all peoples possess an empire. On the other hand, the idea of the nation-state, for all its failings, holds the great advantage that it can indeed be generalized to all peoples everywhere. The proposition that every human being should belong to a nation and that all nations should be equal is not a contradiction in terms, although it may well be utterly unfounded as a description of the real world. …