Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is empire worth it?

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy isn't so sure. He reviews Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 by drawing ten (actually eleven) lessons that Americans can learn from the British experience. They are all common-sense observations to anyone who has read much history. But then, we Americans don't think history is important, do we?

His ten lessons are (follow the Foreign Policy link to read his explanations):
1. There is no such thing as a "benevolent" Empire.
2. All Empires depend on self-justifying ideology and rhetoric that is often at odds with reality.
3. Successful empires require ample "hard power" [that is, a robust economy].
4. As Empires decline, they become more opulent, and they obsess about their own glory.
5. Great Empires are heterogeneous.
6. When building an empire, it's hard to know where to stop.
7. It takes a lot of incompetent people to run an empire.
8. Great Powers defend perceived interests with any means at their disposal.
9. Nationalism and other forms of local identity remain a potent obstacle to long-term imperial control. [Prof. Walt cites the U.S. experience in Iraq and Central Asis, but I suggest that domestic secessionism may also prove to be such an obstacle.]
10. "Imperial Prestige" is both an asset and a trap.

That eleventh lesson is: There is life after empire. After being braced for a disaster when the British Empire finally fell, the British discovered that they had a better standard of living, better health care, and more national security than they did when they were carrying "the white man's burden." These may prove to be comforting words for us a few years hence.

Virtual buckeye to the learned Mike Tuggle at Rebellion.

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