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British And American ‘Imperialisms’ Compared

Whether or not the US can be labelled an ‘imperialist’ power today matters very little, I think. It’s mainly a matter of semantics. The word ‘imperialism’ is used today in a confusing variety of ways, by some of which America clearly does qualify, but not by others. Donald Rumsfeld’s claim (in 2003) that ‘We don’t do empire’, for example, is certainly defensible, by one rather narrow definition of the term. (The USA has no desire to annex other countries and rule them directly.) As it happens my own preferred usage, in common with most other imperial historians’, is broader than this, and so does include America; but that is of minor importance. It is the nature of the latter’s imperialism (or whatever) that matters.

Here, comparing it with other imperialisms may be revealing. Every imperialism in history shares some common characteristics with others, but is also sui generis. The imperialism with which modern American foreign policy is most often compared is Britain’s from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries: either as a contrast (George III with George W.); or a warning (look at what happened to Gladstone in Egypt...); or an example to emulate (Niall Ferguson, Max Boot). It is also possible to regard the American empire as a continuation of the British Empire. (It can’t be entirely coincidental that Afghanistan and Iraq were once sites of British imperial activity too.) So let’s begin the comparison here. (My other reasons for doing this are that British imperial history is one of my own specialist areas; and my irritation with certain superficial ‘lessons’ that are often drawn from it.) What has American ‘imperialism’ in common with the British kind, and what aspects are different?

The first thing to say is that the USA has certainly been imperialistic - even by Rumsfeld’s narrow definition - in the past. (Was ‘We don’t do empire’ meant to apply to the American past too? I think so; otherwise surely Rumsfeld would have said ‘We don’t do empire now’ or ‘any more’.) There’s probably no need to argue this at length here, among fellow-historians. In brief: the myth of US ‘anti-imperialism’ doesn’t go back much further than Woodrow Wilson, and even he was far more ‘imperialistic’ than he liked to pretend. (He supported the US annexation of the Philippines, for example, and always believed there were some peoples who would never be fit for independence from colonial rule.) The American Revolution is misleading. What the colonists were rebelling against then was not imperialism in general, but the British Empire in particular; and partly in order to give them freedom to imperialise their own continent - and later hemisphere - which Britain was less keen on. (In one sense, the Brits were the anti-imperialists here.) To exclude the colonisation of the American West from the rubric ‘imperialism’ simply because it didn’t involve getting into boats is tendentious, to say the least. (It would also, incidentally, rule out most of the Roman Empire.)

Much of Britain’s imperialism in the nineteenth century - in Australia and South Africa, for example - was almost exactly comparable with America’s westward expansion. The professed aim of both was to spread ‘freedom’ (for whites). Both involved dispossessing peoples seen as ‘primitive’. Then, of course, there were those blatant overseas annexations of the 1890s: the Philippines, and so on: taken from another empire, of course - but then so, in a way, was British India. Thirdly, America’s commercial and financial expansion in the twentieth century was closely similar to Britain’s preferred strategy in the nineteenth, which in the latter’s case is now almost universally called ‘imperialism’. If you want to exclude the one, you must logically exclude the other too. The early and mid-Victorian British did: were as adamant as Rumsfeld is today that they didn’t ‘do empire’ – in the face, you might think, of all the evidence – on the grounds that they didn’t want to rule other peoples, only to spread ‘free trade’, for everyone’s benefit, not only their own. Hence all those naval bases they annexed across the world: another form of ‘imperialism’, by most lights, but not by Britain’s. One is reminded here of US War Secretary Stimson’s description of the bases America accumulated in the Pacific in the 1940s: ‘these are not colonies; they are outposts’. The parallels don’t stop there. Many of the disasters of the two ‘imperialisms’ are uncannily similar: compare Little Big Horn with Isandhlwana, for example; and the atrocities that seem to accompany imperial expansion almost inevitably. (An obvious example is the fates of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals. But there are many others.) In neither case were people at home much interested in the process - certainly not the Brits. American imperialism was probably marginally more militaristic than British; and - if you count ‘Westerns’ as an essentially ‘imperialistic’ kind of literature - had more impact on domestic culture. Those three last assertions are perhaps debatable. The main point, however, is that there is scarcely a wafer-thin gap between Britain and the USA with regard to their past imperial (or whatever) traditions. (Niall Ferguson’s book Colossus, by the way, is excellent on this.)

But that was then. Now is different. This, of course, is what the present US administration would also have us believe. America is not ‘doing empire’ (any more), but ‘spreading liberty’. - Well, let’s accept this, for the sake of argument, only. (Yes, I’m not unmindful that it could simply be an excuse for more nefarious underlying motives; or of the new ‘imperial’ atrocities that are daily coming to light, repeating the old British precedents, still. I was impressed, for example, when Abu Ghraib was revealed, by the close parallels with conditions in British prison camps in 1950s Kenya. Even the sexual humiliations were there.) But that is not the end of it. Firstly: ‘spreading liberty’, or professing to spread it, is by no means incompatible with ‘imperialism’. Imperialism can be a means of spreading liberty - in theory. Nor, secondly, does it distinguish America clearly from other empires in the past, many of which - the Spanish, Napoleonic and Soviet empires, for example - claimed to be spreading ‘liberty’ too. So did the British. So it isn’t this that makes American ‘imperialism’ new and distinctive. It is special; but for other reasons.

For a student of British imperial history, four things stand out about present US foreign policy, and the ideology that seems to lie behind it (or is being used as a front for those nefarious motives). ‘Not doing empire’ and ‘spreading liberty’ are definitely not among these. Firstly, of course, there is 9/11, which has no exact equivalent in Britain’s case. (Though Britain has had ‘terrorist’ attacks too. In the 1880s it was the Irish-American Fenians. Luckily Britain didn’t decide to bomb the place that was harbouring them; it would have had to be Boston, Mass.) But 9/11 may have been just a pretext for attacking Iraq; just as – to revert to the British imperial precedent again - the Boer ultimatum was only Britain’s excuse for attacking the South African Republic in October 1899. We know that the ‘Neocons’ had been planning to topple Saddam Hussein for years. Surely they didn’t really believe all that rubbish about WMDs and Saddam’s Al-Qaeda links? (I never did; but then I know something about the history of intelligence agencies - my other main area of expertise - which hasn’t given me much confidence in them.) In which case that may not be an essential difference after all. Secondly, however, there is America’s huge military strength, both absolutely and relatively; with which the British Empire - even counting the Indian Army - could not begin to compete. This is where the image of the British nineteenth century Empire is seriously misleading: all that red paint (or blood?) on those contemporary maps of the world gives the impression of a hegemony Britain never possessed. The present-day USA is far more powerful relative to all other nations than Britain ever was; certainly by comparison with the mainly incompetent British Army (vide Isandhlwana). Which is not to say, incidentally, that she is all-powerful - for example against unconventional methods of attack or resistance like suicide bombs. (This is why the US collapse through ‘imperial overstretch’ that Paul Kennedy once predicted is still on the cards.)

Thirdly, America can’t rule people like Britain could, because she doesn’t have a significant ruling class. Nineteenth-century Britain did. Though she had developed a profoundly capitalist economy (before America), and the middle class to go with it, she also retained a powerful pre-capitalist upper class alongside this, antipathetic to capitalism (‘trade’) to a large degree, and with some very un-capitalist values attached to it, like ‘paternalism’; which turned out to be well suited to governing Britain’s new possessions when they needed to be ruled. The middle classes were content to let them do this, because they didn’t much believe in government themselves, which they regarded as a distraction from the real purpose of living - to make money. ( Britain’s colonial servants were not supposed to profit from their positions. That was called corruption.) The USA doesn’t have this class. She largely jettisoned it when she let go of Britain in 1789. (The Southern slaveocracy probably comes closest; followed by the old north-eastern intellectual elite. But they are now shadows of their former selves.) Much of the mess she has clearly made of administering Afghanistan and Iraq stems from this. Bereft of a governing or ‘prefect’ class, she has had to get diplomats, businessmen, soldiers and (for pity’s sake!) academics to do it. This, incidentally, is the major reason why Niall Ferguson’s plea to America to emulate the British Empire more closely doesn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell. Her social structure is just not made for it.

Lastly: American ‘imperialism’ seems more ideologically driven than Britain’s was. This connects with the previous point. Britain’s ruling class was not on the whole ‘ideological’, except for a couple of decades prior to the Indian ‘Mutiny’, which event put a damper on its reformist zeal somewhat. Thereafter the main objects of its rule were to keep the ‘natives’ under control, and to ‘develop’ them slowly, and along ‘their own lines’. (This is when the Brits were at their best. Often, of course, they weren’t.) The ‘along their own lines’ point is important. Britain’s imperial rulers were generally conservative men (always men, of course), with relativistic notions about what forms of government suited peoples (or ‘races’) best. They didn’t go in for ‘ideal’ systems. Around the turn of the twentieth century this came to be called ‘Indirect Rule’; but it was also the dominant way of colonial government before then, dictated as much by practicalities - Britain simply didn’t have the numbers of personnel to try to revolutionise her subjects - as by principle. Besides, she couldn’t have functioned without local collaborators. (This is another way in which her real imperial power was more limited than may appear; and why America would not be wise to follow Ferguson’s advice, and copy the British Empire, even if she could.) So she generally - not always - left local societies alone. Her function was simply to rule.

Present-day America appears to be entirely different. Firstly, as we have seen, she has no desire to ‘rule’ other peoples in any direct, formal way. Secondly, however, she does want to change them, quite fundamentally. But thirdly: she seems to think that this can be done without ‘ruling’ them; for one simple reason. The changes she is asking of other peoples are not the kinds of changes that should need to be imposed on them. They are simply ‘liberating’; uncontroversial, once people have been introduced to them - ‘self-evident’, to quote the USA’s own Declaration of Independence. (Academics should always beware of the phrase ‘self-evident’. It usually means you are so entrapped within a discourse that you can’t even see the alternatives.) There have always been Americans who have believed that their system is for everyone: from John Winthrop, of ‘City upon a Hill’ fame; through Benjamin Franklin: ‘ America’s cause is the cause of all mankind’; to Condoleeza Rice in 2000: ‘ America’s values are universal’. (Just try saying that of any normal country. ‘ Britain’s values are universal’. It just doesn’t work.) This kind of thinking, incidentally, is not confined to the ‘Neocons’. Nowadays it is also backed up by a new kind of historicism: the idea that modern America exemplifies the ‘end’ of history - that is, its final destination (Francis Fukuyama); and, powerfully, by religion. America, said George W. Bush in August 2000, has been ‘chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.’ That is one hell of a claim to make. It follows that there can be no doubting the objective validity of the ‘American way’ for the whole planet. That’s why it shouldn’t need to be forced. ‘Liberate’ the Iraqis, show them the blessings of ‘liberty’, and US forces could leave straightaway. (Rumsfeld apparently originally thought it could be done in 30 days.)

That looks foolish today. It is also very different from the spirit that infused (post-Mutiny) British imperial rule. The latter was never as idealistic, ideological, hubristic – or, if you prefer, principled - as this. If you want a comparison for present-day American ‘imperial’ ideology, a far better one is the twentieth-century Soviet ‘empire’ (the ‘evil’ one - remember?), which also claimed to have unlocked the mysteries of ‘history’, and to be merely helping the world along to its utopian ‘end’. Of course, communist ‘freedom’ was only one version of that difficult and elusive concept; but then so, surely, is the American sort. Europeans (like me) are, frankly, unable to understand how the US can possibly hold herself up as a ‘model’ for other peoples, in view of all her quite obvious (to us) failings, abroad and at home, including the very dubious nature of her ‘democracy’. (From Sweden, where I live, the USA appears hardly ‘democratic’ at all.) The point being made here, of course, is not that she is uniquely bad in these ways, or worse than other countries (even Sweden has its flaws); only that she is no less worse than many others – not ‘exceptional’, in this sense. The particular thing that most strikes many of us ‘old’ Europeans about America is the way ‘democracy’ seems clearly subordinated to capitalism there. It must be significant that Condoleezza Rice scarcely ever mentions ‘democracy’ without coupling it with the ‘free market’, with the latter usually coming first (‘markets and democracy’), as if democracy is dependent on it: which is a debateable point, at best. There are British precedents for this (Richard Cobden, for example; even David Livingstone: ‘commerce and civilisation...’). But this ideology never dominated British imperialism. Britain was never - to coin a neologism - so ‘ideologist’.

Those are some of the similarities and differences between British and American ‘imperialisms’, therefore. Perhaps I should stress again here, for the benefit of cynics, that I’m taking ‘imperialism’ in this context to refer mainly to the ideals - or, if you like, pretensions - of both of them, without reference to the murkier motives, like oil, that may, I agree, lie underneath. However: these two kinds of motive - altruism and self-interest - are not entirely unconnected. The connection of course is Condoleezza Rice’s ‘markets’, or capitalism. Capitalism is both an ideal and an interest; and it furnishes the link, I think, between these two manifestations of ‘imperialism’ - tells us how exactly the one followed on from the other.

I’ve always regarded what is sometimes called the ‘capitalist theory’ of late nineteenth century European (and American) imperialism as the most satisfactory explanation for it, so long as it is not taken too narrowly - to imply, for example, that every empire-builder was a secret capitalist underneath. (This is rather unfashionable today.) At the root of most modern imperialism lay the perceived need for the new dynamic capitalist economies of the West to expand their commercial and financial markets and sources of raw materials beyond their domestic bases. (We needn’t go into the reasons for this now.) That process started with the British, Dutch and French in the eighteenth century, and became dominated by the leading capitalist economy, Britain, in the nineteenth. Britain’s nineteenth-century expansion in the world was essentially an early stage of ‘globalisation’: the spread of capitalist markets, ideally to be accomplished ‘freely’, that is, without any blatant compulsion; but occasionally provoking local disorder and resistance (Chinese resistance to the ‘free’ import of opium is the most notorious example), which required firmer methods of control. Hence the territorial annexations of the period; which was when our upper class paternalists stepped in, to govern these annexed territories: but, because of their rather more old-fashioned values, often in counter-capitalist - i.e. ‘paternalistic’ - ways.

Thus was capitalist imperialism subverted, in part, by the men who came to manage it. That caused stresses and contradictions (again, this is no place to go into details) which helped bring down the formal British imperialism of the nineteenth century during the third quarter of the twentieth; but leaving the ‘informal’ imperialism of capitalism still intact, this time dominated by the USA, who had by now become the leading capitalist power. Because the present-day USA has an ethic that is ‘purer’ capitalist than Britain’s, and no significant governing class, we can expect capitalist imperialism to get back on to the tracks it was travelling along before it was diverted by Britain’s prefects. That’s what’s happening now. American and British ‘imperialisms’ are a continuum, but with capitalist ‘ideologism’ - one of the main differences between the two ‘imperialisms’ - now triumphing; unmoderated by the old British ‘paternalism’ - which was the other main difference. This is new. That’s why the British Empire is no longer a reliable historical precedent. There are no old maps any more. You’re on your own.

Related Links

  • Cliopatria Symposium on ... Comparing Empires