Blogs > Liberty and Power > 21st Century 'Imperialism' & 19th Century Empire: Some Thoughts

Jan 6, 2005 6:44 am

21st Century 'Imperialism' & 19th Century Empire: Some Thoughts

The US government’s foreign policy is often described as ‘imperial’ & so its inevitable difficulties are generally considered to be those of an imperial power. There is, however, a fundamental & crucial distinction between this short-term 21st (& 20th)century policy & the ‘permanent’ empires of the 18th & 19th centuries. A permanent empire meant career administrators, who spent an entire working life in a particular region. They were around to bear the long-term consequences of policies. Hence their outlook was that of any permanent civil servant; & imperial policy was formulated for the long-term - permanent - administration of these territories. This attitude influenced even the most senior appointees who were in a region for a short period. Thus, on one occasion, Lord Curzon (then Viceroy of India), wrote to a British official criticising any attempt to shape Indian tax policy for British electoral purposes. Curzon then referred to ‘our cotton manufacture’ - by which he meant the Indian - as against the British - textile industry.

American foreign policy in the 21st century stands at the opposite extreme: it manifests the shortest of short-term outlooks. This is inevitable, since it has to fit in, largely, with the US electoral timetable. This also means much - if not most - ‘foreign’ policy is directed very much for *domestic* effect. Thus the problems it meets are those that accompany & follow, a succession of short-term military (& other) interventions abroad. These expeditions may involve helping to topple one set of rulers & replacing them with another, but the operation is short-term, looking (almost entirely) to the immediate impact at home.

The slogans that are offered to justify military interventions -‘nation-building’, ‘establishing democracy’, etc. - clearly are intended for electoral consumption & for the gullible or ignorant. Short-term military adventurers, no matter how powerful, *can* intervene only in *continuing* historical contexts: even the greatest superpower on earth is incapable of recreating a history. The only questions are, what does this intervention add to the political mix? How do the other factions also contending for political power change their strategies? Who is strengthened? Weakened? Thus an additional strand is woven into the political fabric flowing from the loom.

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Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/6/2005

Sudha, superb points here.

American foreign policy, like American domestic policy, has been built up through the years by a fragmented "ad hoc" process. Each is an extension and reflection of the other.

That doesn't mean, I would submit, that there aren't "systemic" pressures at work for various kinds of domestic and foreign interventions. But it is clear that short-term "pragmatic" considerations have left the US in a precarious political position both at home and abroad.

I don't think it is any coincidence that the ideological roots of today's neoconservatism can be found in the utopian constructivism of Trotsky.

Those American neoconservatives who provide the utopian ideological veneer, who would like to make us believe that it is possible to take an Archimedean standpoint so as to draw a new "nation" on a blank canvas, just do not understand what you say: that intervention always takes place in "*continuing* historical contexts." The strands are "woven into the political fabric," as you put it, with no eye toward the ugliness of the patchwork quilt that often results.

Max Swing - 1/6/2005

I think this conclusion is one of profound importance, because it explains why a friend of mine was suprised to be welcomed in a former colony of Germany, when he took a journey through the country last year. I think that despite some mischief (which eventually happens in all occupations, because they are always with their inner-logic tragically injust) those occupations had a goal, which they were planning to reach in the long run and everyone working on it had a selfish plan. Also, most of these colonies were errected when (despite the Magna Carta and several similar documents in other countries)elections played not the biggest role at all. For Example, Germany was still in the hands of the German Emperor and his court, so elections where no driving or diverting power for him.
Perhaps this self-interest has been lost in the "imperialism" of the modern times...