In Defense of Empire

tags: imperialism



Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

...[I]mperialism is now seen by global elites as altogether evil, despite empires’ having offered the most benign form of order for thousands of years, keeping the anarchy of ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war bands to a reasonable minimum. Compared with imperialism, democracy is a new and uncertain phenomenon. Even the two most estimable democracies in modern history, the United States and Great Britain, were empires for long periods. “As both a dream and a fact the American Empire was born before the United States,” writes the mid-20th-century historian of westward expansion Bernard DeVoto. Following their initial settlement, and before their incorporation as states, the western territories were nothing less than imperial possessions of Washington, D.C. No surprise there: imperialism confers a loose and accepted form of sovereignty, occupying a middle ground between anarchy and full state control.

Ancient empires such as Rome, Achaemenid Persia, Mauryan India, and Han China may have been cruel beyond measure, but they were less cruel and delivered more predictability for the average person than did anything beyond their borders. Who says imperialism is necessarily reactionary? Athens, Rome, Venice, and Great Britain were the most enlightened regimes of their day. True, imperialism has often been driven by the pursuit of riches, but that pursuit has in many cases resulted in a hard-earned cosmopolitanism. The early modern empires of Hapsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey were well known for their relative tolerance and protection of minorities, including the Jews. Precisely because the Hapsburg imperialists governed a mélange of ethnic and religious groups stretching from the edge of the Swiss Alps to central Romania, and from the Polish Carpathians to the Adriatic Sea, they abjured ethnic nationalism and sought a universalism almost postmodern in its design. What followed the Hapsburgs were mono-ethnic states and quasi-democracies that persecuted minorities and helped ease the path of Nazism.

All of these empires delivered more peace and stability than the United Nations ever has or probably ever could. Consider, too, the American example. The humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the absence of such interventions in Rwanda and Syria, show American imperialism in action, and in abeyance....




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