Jeremy Hildreth: The British Empire's Lessons for Our Own

Roundup: Talking About History

Jeremy Hildreth, in the WSJ (6-14-05):

[Mr. Hildreth is co-author of Brand America: The Mother of All Brands, out now from Cyan Books.]

In the 1920s, one quarter of the world's population fell under the rule of the British Empire. And while it's more popular to decry its consequences, the empire brought education, relative prosperity and the concept of liberty to many far-flung places.

Roughly twice the size of Spain's empire, thrice that of France's and five times larger than the Roman Empire, the British Empire remains the greatest such agglomeration the world has ever known. The Brits had their shortcomings and foibles -- slavery, brutality, a tendency to call adult servants "boy," etc -- but in the Anglophone hegemony department, they're a tough act to follow.

The museum, which has many photographs and artifacts (few of which are memorable in themselves), covers its subject in the manner of a well-written textbook with poster-sized pages. You'll do a lot of reading here, but what a story. Displays and panels show how using administrators and settlers backed by small armies and a fearsome navy, the British built whole nations one after the next. Wherever they went, they created governments, judicial systems, schools, hospitals, charities, telegraphs and railways (37,000 miles of track in India alone). Their collective efforts brought the English language, relative prosperity, a Western cultural orientation toward rights and liberty, and at least a modicum of law and order to large swaths of the globe...

...Glaringly, one imperial legacy the museum does not discuss is the "receivership" of the empire by the U.S., which has been almost literal in places like the Middle East and figurative elsewhere. For the museum to weigh in here might have been daring but also instructive, for as Mr. Ferguson, whose book championing an American "liberal empire" was for sale at the museum shop, says: "Whatever they choose to call their position in the world -- hegemony, primacy, predominance or leadership -- Americans should recognize the functional resemblance between Anglophone power present and past and should try to do a better rather than a worse job of policing an unruly world than their British predecessors."

America can also learn from the British Empire about changing with the times. The museum explains that "post-war babies grew up without the old reverence for Britain," which reduced British authority. Similarly today, for a dozen reasons -- many of them utterly beyond our control -- people around the world are growing up without the love of, admiration for, or reliance upon America that their forebears had.

Whether it's South Americans boycotting U.S. merchandise, Asian countries sidling up to China, central banks raising their proportion of euro-denominated reserves, or Welshmen making inebriated banter on trains, we are flush with signs that the world wants a different relationship with America than the one it's had.

Accordingly, even as America continues to take up the white man's burden (to use Kipling's poetic exhortation, explicitly addressed to the U.S. in 1899), sometimes with force, it behooves us to emulate our former masters by coming, in time, to rely more on soft power than on economic or military coercion. Furthermore, this should be seen not as a surrender to multilateralist claptrap but as a rational reaction to an altered state of affairs.

The lesson seems to be that while might may sometimes be right, we, like the British before us, ultimately will need other ways to sustain our eminence and influence. And if we can do that, then any future Museum of American Leadership will reflect as well on us as this museum of empire does on Britain.

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