The New Imperialism

Article excerpt

When the United States took over the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1899, British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in praise of imperialism. Each stanza began: "Take up the White Man's burden."

After World War II, colonialism became a nasty word. The Philippines - and just about every other colony - won political independence.

But today Kipling's call to spread, as he saw it, civilization to remote parts of the world could be rephrased "Take up the Western Man's burden." The industrial nations are once again asking how much they should help poor countries establish good government and greater prosperity. University of Rochester economist Stanley Engerman calls it a "new, good imperialism."

Good imperialism - if it exists - deals more with economics than the political control of the past. Academic economists have been revisiting colonialism to see if they can find clues as to what encourages or discourages progress in poor nations. Trade unions want to impose "fair labor standards" on developing countries. Most industrial nations rely on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other development institutions to provide technical, economic, and governance advice to poor countries. Foreign aid often becomes a tool to impose Western ideas on struggling nations.

To some - especially those in the developing world - this new imperialism can look a lot like the old colonialism, except that permanent occupation is no longer the means of control.

Iraq is seen as Exhibit A of the new imperialism. President Bush ordered the invasion of the country, claiming a need to remove weapons of mass destruction. When no WMDs were found, the proclaimed purpose evolved into removing a dictatorship and establishing a democracy. Some Europeans and those in the Middle East remain skeptical, suspecting the US of wanting to ensure control of Iraqi oil.

But in the US, the generally accepted thesis is that the US does have a "burden" to help. Americans want to be involved in spreading democracy and encouraging free enterprise. How much of a burden they're willing to bear is another question.

In Iraq, the "help" became a war with more than 1,500 US military deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in costs. By now, most Americans would be reluctant to attempt to force democracy and capitalism on, say, Syria, Burma, and Iran.

It's not even clear that the eventual Iraqi government will be pro-Western. For example, whether it accepts permanent American military bases on its soil remains to be seen. America's other grand experiment in new imperialism - Afghanistan - does seem willing to allow permanent US bases, despite suspicions of US imperialism, because the government faces threats from warlords. …