18 March 2014

The blessings and insults of imperialism

Robert D. Kaplan publishes a provocative "defense of empire" in the April Atlantic, arguing that "traditionally, imperialism itself, most notably that of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, had protected minorities from the tyranny of the majority." Pitching his appeal more generally, Kaplan contends that imperialism "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." If some empires were "cruel beyond measure," they were still "less cruel and delivered more predictability for the average person than did anything beyond their borders." The sufferings of people in places and in predicaments as diverse as Rwanda and Syria represent the consequences of a retreat from imperial responsibility. Kaplan does not advocate that the U.S. become a formal empire by conquering or annexing other countries -- such a venture would be unsustainably expensive today -- but her recommends an "imperial-like" foreign policy dedicated, predictably enough, to the defense of "democracies" against powerful and ambitious neighbors. The U.S. must defend Israeli democracy against Islam, Taiwanese democracy against China, and Polish democracy against ... he doesn't say it by name and his article probably was written before the current crisis, but this shouldn't be too hard to figure out. While the U.S. should "initiate military hostilities only when an overwhelming national interest is threatened," it ought to practice a "robust diplomacy," including "economic inducements," to "exert every possible pressure in order to prevent widespread atrocities in parts of the world ... that are not, in the orthodox sense, strategic."

While Kaplan has little good to say about the United Nations -- it hasn't yet rivaled any great empire in achieving "peace and stability" -- his article might have been less provocative, or would provoke different readers, had he replaced "empire" with "world government." But so long as effective world government isn't an option, for practical or ideological reasons, Kaplan would rather entrust the world to an exclusive set of enlightened hegemons. He insists that "imperialism and enlightenment (albeit self-interested) have often been inextricable, painting a rosy balance sheet of empires from Rome through America's rule of the Philippines. He admits that his view may seem "patronizing" to some readers, but it only seems that way because he insists on empire (or empire-lite) rather than a world government founded on the equality of nations and peoples. His appeal to enlightenment is inevitably inegalitarian, since some are always more "enlightened" and thus entitled to rule than others. While he praises the imperialism of Western Europe and the semi-imperialism of the U.S., he singles out Russian imperialism in Eurasia as one of "the very worst examples." Not even the USSR gets off this hook, since the Bolsheviks were "radical utopians who sought ... ideological submission." Russia remains a second-class citizen of Kaplan's world, and he probably thinks less of them since he wrote this piece. Yet he would most likely take offense if anyone accused him of being Russophobic or at all "patronizing" toward the nationalities he'd recommend to other countries' stewardship. Whatever the costs and benefits in any particular case, imperialism in any degree means one's country's entitlement to rule another, and the other country's incapacity for self-government. Kaplan dismisses "the critique that imperialism merely constitutes evil," sniffing that "that line of thinking is not serious." But seriously: what other word better describes that imperial sense of entitlement or the will to make it law? Kaplan thinks in terms of good and bad imperialism, but isn't the impulse to govern foreign lands always bad? Of course, when world government comes it probably will look like imperialism to many people -- or worse, like an Orwellian dystopia. But as long as it isn't one country or one religion imposing its will on all the others, it should be preferable to the sort of imperialism Kaplan advocates.


Anonymous said...

Then let Mr. Kaplan and his ilk take up arms to defend those democracies. As an American citizen, I am sick and tired of people like Kaplan demand the unnecessary sacrifice of my fellow Americans to defend other nations who are unwilling to lay their own lives down to defend themselves. If it were within my power, everytime some loudmouth warmonger like Kaplan spoke, they'd be sent to the front lines to die.

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