...I know how the Prof feels. After 9/11, I wasted many months urging formal imperialism on the Americans. The hands-off approach — "He may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch" — gave us the House of Saud and most of our present troubles. Better to kit out the chaps from the Beltway think-tanks in solar topees and ostrich feathers and make American imperialism an administrative reality. It could hardly get a worse press than the informal, cultural imperialism of hamburgers and "Dude, Where's My Car?" that provoked Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the former French defence minister, to claim America was dedicated to "the organised cretinisation of our people". Might as well make the cretinisation more organised, I'd say.
But no takers. America hasn't an imperialist bone in its body. For one thing, there's nobody to staff an imperial governing class. If you were the average 19th-century Englishman, life in the colonies had plenty of attractions: more land, better weather, the opportunity to escape the constraints of class. None of these factors applies to the average 21st-century American: if you're in Maine and you're sick of it, you can move to Hawaii rather than the Malay states.
Speaking of Hawaii, why is it a state rather than a colony? It's nowhere near the rest of America. Its flag even has the Union flag in it, just like the ensigns of all those other dots in the Pacific, such as Fiji and the Cook Islands. Yet Hawaii enjoys the same place in the American federation as New Hampshire. The framework that the Founding Fathers devised to unite a baker's dozen of small ethnically homogeneous colonies on the East Coast proved strong enough to expand across a continent and halfway round the globe to Honolulu. Had Britain in the 1880s or 1890s decided to transform its empire into a federation, it might still be in business today. Certainly, it could hardly be in worse shape than the moth-eaten façade of the Commonwealth.
The very reason that Hawaii is a state is the same reason that America makes a poor imperialist: it is uncomfortable with colonial subjects; it lacks the benevolent paternalism necessary for empire. In Iraq, they're betting not on imperialism, but on liberty. That's a long shot, given the awful passivity and fatalism of the Arab world. But it's not inherently more preposterous than the fake Hashemite kingdom imposed on Mesopotamia by Britain. America may fail. But it will be an American failure. Imperial nostalgics who wish to live vicariously will have to look elsewhere.
Alas, the real world isn't like an academic article. It is certainly comforting to have one big idea around which all other policies easily fall into place, and it is easy to see why everyone is so relieved. Even I am relieved. But I am also afraid that in the complicated, interlinked, globalized modern world, one big idea isn't going to be enough.
...why isn’t there a single democratic society covering the entire globe, or why aren’t there 300 million democracies in the world? The answer to this of course, in our time, is nationalism. Which is not about process, and it’s not even about rational interests in many cases, but is about collective solidarity and collective imagination.
...while the US was loudly conquering Iraq, the world's weirdest empire quietly swallowed 10 countries. In the ancient shadow of the Acropolis, the European Union expanded from 15 nations to 25, opening its gates to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the island of Malta, and the schizoid mess that is Cyprus. Someday, "Europe" might extend all the way to Japan.
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