The Rediscovery of Imperialism. (Review of the Month)

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

The Rediscovery of Imperialism. (Review of the Month)


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


The concept of "imperialism" was considered outside the acceptable range of political discourse within the ruling circles of the capitalist world for most of the twentieth century. Reference to "imperialism" during the Vietnam War, no matter how realistic, was almost always a sign that the writer was on the left side of the political spectrum. In a 1971 foreword to the U.S. edition of Pierre Jalee's Imperialism in the Seventies Harry Magdoff noted, "As a rule, polite academic scholars prefer not to use the term 'imperialism.' They find it distasteful and unscientific."

Today this is suddenly no longer true. U.S. intellectuals and the political elite are warmly embracing an openly "imperialist" or "neoimperialist" mission for the United States, repeatedly enunciated in such prestigious print media as the New York Times and Foreign Affairs. This imperialist fervor owes much to the Bush administration's War on Terrorism, which is taking the form of the conquest and occupation of Afghanistan and--if its ambitions are fulfilled--also Iraq. According to the Bush administration's National Security Strategy, there are no recognized limits or boundaries to the use of military power to promote the interests of the United States. In the face of this attempt to extend what can only be called the American Empire, intellectuals and political figures are not only returning to the idea of imperialism, but also to the view of it propounded by its earlier nineteenth century proponents as constituting a grand civilizing mission. Comparisons of the United States to Imperial Rome and Imperial B ritain are now common within the mainstream press. All that is needed to make it completely serviceable is to rid the concept of its old Marxist associations of economic hierarchy and exploitation--not to mention racism.

According to Michael Ignatieff, Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, writing in the New York Times Magazine (July 28, 2002), "[I]mperialism used to be the white man's burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn't stop being necessary because it is politically incorrect." In referring to U.S. war operations in Afghanistan he writes: "Yet the Special Forces aren't social workers. They are an imperial detachment, advancing American power and interests in Central Asia. Call it peacekeeping or nation-building, call it what you like, imperial policing is what is going on in Mazar. In fact, America's entire war on terror is an exercise in imperialism. This may come as a shock to Americans, who don't like to think of their country as an empire. But what else can you call America's legions of soldiers, spooks and Special Forces straddling the globe?" G. John Ikenberry, Professor of Geopolitics and Global Justice at Georgetown University and a regula r contributor to Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in that publication (September/October 2002):

In the shadows of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, sweeping new ideas are circulating about U.S. grand strategy and the restructuring of today's unipolar world. They call for American unilateral and preemptive, even preventative, use of force, facilitated if possible by coalitions of the willing-but ultimately unconstrained by the rules and norms of the international community. At the extreme, these notions form a neoimperial vision in which the United States arrogates to itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats, using force, and meting out justice.

For Ikenberry, this is not meant as a criticism: "America's imperial goals and modus operandi," he tells us, "are much more limited and benign than were those of age-old emperors."

Other influential mainstream political and intellectual figures are no less fashionably forthright in their support for neoimperialism. Sebastian Mallaby, a Washington Post columnist and self-styled "reluctant imperialist," writing in Foreign Affairs (April 2002), explains "the logic of neo-imperialism is too compelling for the Bush administration to resist. …

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