In the 1930s, in a famous essay entitled "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell, looking back on his tour in Burma as an imperial policeman in the 1920s, shared his feelings about the British Empire. "I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it," he wrote. "All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty." Orwell was right: the British Empire as he had known it came to an end when India, Pakistan and Burma became independent a little more than ten years after he wrote his essay. Speaking merely as a newspaper reader and not in anyway as an authority on that region, I would suggest that it still has a very significant political and economic legacy in India and Bangladesh, a very frayed legacy in what is left of Pakistan, and almost none at all in Burma, where Orwell served. The legacy is also fraying in Egypt, the centerpiece of the British empire in the Middle East, and it was never very strong to begin with in most of British Africa. The achievements of the British Empire were ably summarized by analogy about 35 years ago in this scene from a British film, one which Orwell would undoubtedly have enjoyed had he lived into his late 70s. (This is the first clip I have ever linked here, and it lasts about 90 seconds.)
The British Empire, of course, gave way to the American empire, a network of alliances and client states built after the Second World War to contain Communism. Originally conceived by George F. Kennan and his boss George Marshall as a means of bringing all the non-Communist industrial centers of the world into an American-led alliance, it came during the 1950s and 1960s to include many of the newly emerging nations as well. From the Truman through the Johnson Administrations it dispensed a great deal of foreign aid, allowing emerging nations to survive and even building some key infrastructure here and there. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union pursued a parallel course on a lesser scale. The two victors in the Second World War, as Stalin was the first to suggest, were inevitably spreading their social and economic systems wherever they could. The record of US imperial management was decidedly mixed. NATO and the revival of Japan were great achievements, but many interventions in the Third World did more harm than good. The US fought the Second World War to create a world ruled by laws, but the long series of CIA-sponsored coups that began in Iran in 1953 and eventually included Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and several others, undermined law both internationally and within those countries. And the attempt to use hundreds of thousands of American troops to keep South Vietnam within the American sphere was a catastrophe from which the United States has never recovered internally.
In 1989-91, of course, the American empire seemed to have achieved unchallenged supremacy, as Soviet Communism collapsed. The Clinton and Bush II Administrations tried in various ways to take advantage of the new situation to extend it still further, expanding NATO--whose original mission had now disappeared--going forward with missile defense, and, as Paul Wolfowitz reportedly put it, "cleaning out" remaining Soviet clients like the regime in Iraq. The Bush II Administration also dreamed of spreading "democracy" and American influence through the Middle East. But that experiment is now clearly a failure, and it is time once again for me to echo Orwell. The era of the American Empire is over.
Several historical developments are bringing it to and end, both at home and abroad. First of all, the second great era of western rationalism has peaked. The first such era occurred in the ancient world and the Roman Empire resulted from it. The second began with the Renaissance and peaked sometime during the twentieth century. Both western democracy and capitalism on the one hand, and Soviet Communism on the other, were products of that era. But more significantly, by the middle of the twentieth century western rationalism was utterly unchallenged as the organizing principle of the world. The new emerging nations wanted their independence within the western tradition. Their new governments were almost all secular. They opted for western-style democracy, some form of Marxist socialism, or authoritarian (usually military) rule. Those were the only options. Meanwhile, the victorious nations of the Second World War maintained very large military establishments, recruited by conscription, and could always find troops to deploy when necessary within, and occasionally outside, their sphere.
What has changed? First and foremost, I would suggest, the political legacy of the Enlightenment is under serious attack. The Soviet part of it is dead, most of all within the former Soviet Union. But western democracy is no longer proving a very appealing model either. Nowhere in the former Soviet Union does it seem to have taken root, and it is functioning well only in some areas of Eastern Europe Democracy is not everywhere in retreat: it is thriving, relatively speaking, in South America, and it has scored some successes in East Asia. But Europe's democracies are failing to cope with the new economic crisis, and American democracy is having very little success coping with our national problems. Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism is the most important political force in a large part of the Muslim world. Just as Communism, which claimed to represent the apex of western rationality, totally collapsed in the Soviet Union, Turkey, the Muslim nation which made the most determined effort to follow the secular western path 90 years ago, has become far more religious. The Muslim brotherhood is contesting for power in Egypt, and Iraq and Syria are in the midst of continuing religious civil wars. Radical Islam threatens several governments in West Africa, as well as Pakistan. And in nations like Egypt and Pakistan, the westernized elements that ruled for decades seem to be hopelessly corrupt and without much popular appeal.
And what can the US do about all this? Essentially nothing--and this is why I am willing to declare the empire at an end. The Bush Administration's decision to try to impose our will upon Afghanistan and Iraq while cutting taxes has left the United States bereft of military or economic resources. The dirty secret of those interventions was that there was no way on earth that 50-150,000 American troops could impose order on nations of 25 to 35 million people. Indeed, the growth of third world populations relative to western ones is probably the biggest single reason why old-style imperialism is dead. The American military is now as determined to avoid further interventions as it was in the wake of the Vietnam War. As a percentage of our population it has shrunk to an historic low. Moreover, although the attitudes of the foreign policy establishments of the two parties remain interventionist, there is very little interventionism among the elected politicians of either party. The Tea Party, in particular, does not care about the outside world.
The Obama Administration's response to Syria suggests a new realism. Although the President for months has supported, on principle, the ouster of the Assad regime, Washington is apparently realizing that the alternatives of civil war or an Islamic regime are probably worse. But despite this, only a couple of intrepid op-ed writers have suggested promoting a settlement of the civil war that would include the Assad regime. Some foreign policy types still dream, apparently, of using American money and arms to sponsor friendly alternative leadership. But without any political basis for such a group, these hopes are doomed, just as they were in Iraq, where Nouri Al-Maliki is an Iranian client fighting a civil war against his own Sunnis, or Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai has never won real legitimacy with his people. Nor can our new weapon of choice, drones, ever build a stable empire of sphere of influence. Like the Israelis, we may kill hostile militant leaders, but this will never help a stable political regime emerge within disputed territories.
We would do well to revisit the early 1930s and the late 1940s. In the first case, the United States helped to bring about, and then failed to alleviate, a devastating European economic crisis with incalculable political consequences. In the second case the Marshall Plan ensured that the same thing would not happen again. So far as I can see the Obama Administration is now taking an almost completely hands-off policy towards the new European crisis, while Republicans simply use it for their own political reasons. For more than sixty years, from around 1950 to the present, the eyes of American foreign policy makers have steadily moved away from the most advanced regions of the world to the least, eventually bringing us into the remote wilds of Afghanistan. A reversal is now in order, but it is not happening.
Many of my contemporaries, especially in academia, have resented the American empire for the last half century. They are now getting their wish: American influence is everywhere in retreat. It will not be replaced, as Orwell feared, by worse empires, but rather by an increasing zone of anarchy which advanced nations will be powerless to control. The real problem of the 21st century, at home and abroad, will be the re-establishment of effective legitimate authority. And that process may well have to begin on a small scale and work its way upward.