Saturday, January 11, 2003
Liberation is a Reactionary Word - 11th January 2003, 16.42

Adrian Hamilton of the Independent drew upon Niall Ferguson's new history of the British Empire as shown on one of the British television channels to condemn the prevailing political culture of the United States, which he describes as imperialist. His description fits the blogosphere to a tee, if you discount the idiocy of his position:

To listen to US politicians or to read American columnists these days is rather like eavesdropping on a Colonial Office conversation in the late 19th century. The hand sweeps across the world's map marking the natives.

Europe: a fine civilisation but a people grown overprotected. Must brace up with fewer social benefits and more armaments. Japan (wry smile here): once quite challenging but now sunk in a slough of inaction. Africa: a benighted people who have brought it on themselves. And the Arabs? Failed the challenge of modernity. We'll need not just to remove a few bad regimes but also occupy Baghdad until we can spread the word of democracy and capitalism.

Extraordinary to say, but there seem to be a substantial number of people in Washington who believe this patronising drivel.

Hamilton is, of course, wrong in his description of American foreign policy as imperialist. The motivations behind the contemporary expansion of US power are defensive and preventive, stemming from the continental insecurity following the destruction of the World Trade Centre. (Empire, even if unlooked for, is a consequence). It is instructive to consider from this passage that what was once liberal is now reactionary. In the first half of the nineteenth century both France and Britain, considered liberal powers, supported movements for representative institutions against autocratic monarchies or the Ottoman empire without acting in a way that would threaten the Concert of Europe. Now, if a great power promotes liberal values and representative democracy, this is imperialism and "patronising drivel", a reactionary measure. When did the invasion of a country to liberate it from an evil dictator and set up a democracy in its place become an action criticised by so-called progressives as immoral and insulting to native culture?

The other point that Hamilton raises is that there is a conservative wing in Britain wishing to experience Empire again through an American proxy. His evidence, one historian. If the British right did support US action from an ideology of neo-imperialism, it would provide some optimism: indicating a level of forethought and principle behind their Atlanticist stance that does not currently exist (except perhaps with Liam Fox). However, Hamilton's drivel is an attempt to discuss the Empire (again), do down the right and display his credentials as an anti-American - three standard nostrums of the Left.

Update: An interesting discussion of whether America is an Empire, or just a "mild hegemon", by James Bennett at UPI. Given the extension of military and economic power wielded by the US through various institutions, I am inclined to view its control and influence as a form of Empire, though direct and formal control of territory is no longer required.


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