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Jul 18, 2006 4:32 pm

Cliopatria Symposium on ... Comparing Empires

Welcome to the VIth edition of the Cliopatria Symposium. Today we discuss Bernard Porter's British and American 'Imperialisms' Compared.

I would like to thank Prof. Porter for submitting the essay and the participants for their response. Prof. Porter is travelling at the moment but promises to engage with us once he is settled in Australia.

We welcome your contribution to the debate here, or at your blogs/sites.

Jonathan Reynolds:

“Imperialism,” along with it’s fraternal twin “colonialism” are two of those words that get bandied around with great frequency, but somehow nonetheless manage to define easy (or clear) definition. In his essay “British and American ‘Imperialisms’ Compared,” Bernard Porter gets at many of the imperfections and imprecisions of the term.

This is certainly a problem I have struggled with at some length. Much of my early career was spent researching British Colonial policy towards Islam in Nigeria and West Africa... with comparisons to French and, to a lesser extent, German, Belgian, and Portuguese colonialisms being an essential component of the process. And, my students would without doubt agree that I love to talk about colonialism. Indeed, this Fall I’ll be teaching a “Colonial Experience” class that surveys the colonized world from about 1500 to 1960. And, as Porter clearly highlights, one is hard put to talk about Colonialism or Imperialism without dealing with the question of whether the US is up to one or the other in it’s current dealings with various regions elsewhere in the world. Even those most favorably inclined to US intentions (the “We don’t do Empire” crew) have to admit that there is a danger of a “slippery slope” wherein the US will be drawn into Empire even if it doesn’t actually want to do so. Others are, of course, less generous.

This said, let me get back to Porter’s thought-provoking essay. By and large, I agree with him that the comparison between British and American “Imperialism” is somewhat strained. Despite the two country’s long history of cooperation (aside from a couple of wars, of course), they have gone about being imperial in very different ways. Indeed, as I will argue below, it is really the French (yes, yummy historical irony to follow) that we take the biggest cue from when it comes to telling other people what to do.

To get at this point, it is necessary for me to broaden the question a bit and ask “If we don’t do British-style Empire, then what sort of Empire do we do – if we are indeed doing it at all? In teaching my Colonialism class, I posit to the students that, for the purposes of analysis, there are really four basic types of Colonialism/Imperialism. These are Direct Rule (as mainly practiced by the French, Germans, Belgians, and Portuguese; Indirect Rule (mostly a British thing, though the French toyed with “Association” in Morocco); Settler Colonies; and “American Style Imperialism.” For the purposes of the class, I argue that colonialism is a rather hands-on thing, which I define as (deep breath) “the economic, political, and cultural domination of a region and its peoples for the benefit of the colonizers.” This generally means that the colonizer has a full-time, clearly defined, and long-term presence in the region in question. This I distinguish from “American Style Imperialism” in that the US generally doesn’t plan to set up formal shop in the places it seeks to dominate (unless it is going to settle that place, as in the case of the continental US, Alaska, or Hawaii). Instead, when we get unhappy enough, we send in the Marines, set up a political system more to our liking, and go away. Notably, the threatened “don’t make us come back” aspect of the equation is pretty clear. For examples of this dynamic, one needs only look at US interventions in Central America over the past hundred years or so. To return to the tension between “Imperialism” and “Colonialism,” let me clarify that I see Colonialism as a sub-set of Imperialism. Thus, all colonial powers are Imperial, but not all imperial powers are colonial. It’s my operant definition, and I can do what I want with it.

Clearly, lots of other states have acted in the same mode as the US at various times and places. As Porter suggests, this sort of behavior pretty well describes the British before the Sepoy Mutiny. The question, then, is did 9-11 get the US to abandon its tried-and-true approach to Imperialism and become more “colonial?” To a limited extent, I think the answer is yes, in that the US is now far more concerned, at least on the ideological level, with extending democratic-style governance to the regions where we are most overtly involved. Rhetoric aside, we really didn’t spend that much time worrying about such things in day’s past. Dictatorships were fine for Taiwan, South Korea, Zaire, Nicaragua, or a host of other locals, thank you very much, as long as they got the job done. And, such systems generally had the advantage of being pretty much self-propelled (though with unpleasant trajectories). Mind you, this policy seems to still hold true in many parts of the world. Musharraf may have come to power in a military coup, but we still seem to like him pretty well as long as he helps harass al-Qaeda and doesn’t nuke India. The uneasy US relationship with Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan is another case in point.

Is the current desire to create democratic societies in Afghanistan and Iraq (and perhaps elsewhere, if conditions and troop levels allow) actually heartfelt, or simply a clever ploy for selling otherwise-motivated wars to the US public and, hopefully, to the global audience? I tend to believe it is the former. And here is where I finally get to the promised yummy historical irony. In so believing and behaving, current US policy really has far more in common with French colonialism than with our fellow anglospherians, the Brits (or, as Porter Argues, our Cold-War foes the Soviets). Indeed, one of the key underlying assumptions of British Indirect Rule was that democracy was simply too complex for most “native peoples” who were, bluntly put, considered intellectually inferior to Europeans. Thus, the best the Brits believed they could hope to manage was to fit their subject peoples’ local systems into the modern world in a subordinate status under benevolent British guidance and toleration.1 Quite to the contrary, the French more often saw the inferiority of subject people in cultural terms. Thus, colonized peoples were only inferior as long as they failed to act French. Once assimilated to French culture, they would, ideally, become equal members of a “greater France.” I, for one, cannot help but see this approach as similar to the current US Administration’s proclamations that a democratic Iraq (or Afghanistan, though we don’t hear as much about it) will be able to join into the community of the ‘civilized nations of the world.’ Both are deeply rooted in the belief that a particular style of Enlightenment political philosophy is good for everybody.

You can even push the comparison a bit farther, in that the Colonial French’s strain of anti-clericalism was not altogether unlike the US government’s longstanding desire to maintain a division between religion and politics. Yet, like French colonial governments in Muslim regions, the US in Iraq and Afghanistan has been forced to adapt to political constituencies which are overtly Islamic and often sectarian. However, it is also important not to push the comparison too far. The US clearly isn’t out to impose a multifaceted “American Culture” on Iraq or Afghanistan the way the French sought to do in their colonies. We are, of course, happy if people take to eat Big Macs and speaking English, but we aren’t going to try and mandate such behavior it in the way the French once did in their own colonies. Indeed, while French colonialism allowed certain rare individuals (Évolués)to gain rights based upon their degree of assimilation, the US really only seeks a certain kind of national political assimilation. Multiculturalism has taken root in the US to enough of a degree that we don’t, at least, openly deride other people’s diets, languages, choices of dress, etc. as “uncivilized.” Similarly, while the French (and all the other colonial powers) spent a lot of time trying very hard to sell the economic benefits of colonialism to their citizens, the US government currently goes out of its way to argue that it aren’t in it for the money. A smart move, considering just what money pits Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be for US taxpayers.

So, if the US isn’t like the British, when it comes to things imperial, who is? To push the comparison to the breaking point, I would posit that if anybody is going about the contemporary imperial adventure in the way of the British, it is the United Nations. Much like the early 20th century Brits, the UN doesn’t really care how you organize your government, it just wants you to not spend to much time killing each other and to get down to the business of paying off your debt... preferably through the production of some sort of hard-currency earning commodity.

So, just in case this rather loose set of associations is even close to right, what does it mean for the US? Let me draw a cautionary example from the very smart work of William Miles, the author of Hausaland Divided (1994), which looks at Hausa attitudes towards French Administration (in Niger) and British Administration (in Nigeria). French rule, even though it was based upon a less racist conception of human equality, was derided as mulkin zafi or “painful rule,” because the French were so intent on changing the way people lived. British rule, even though it was based upon an assumption that the Hausa were inherently inferior to the British and incapable of sophisticated notions such as “democracy,” was characterized as mulkin sauki or “easy rule,” in that the Brits did a passable job of leaving people to do their own thing much of the time. Mmmmm... irony.

The US is walking a fine line in Iraq and Afghanistan. That line not only potentially divides old-style US imperialism from a post 9-11 quasi-colonialism, but it also represents a tipping point between the best of intentions and pushing people too far. Perhaps a dictum attributed to Thomas Jefferson offer the best caution for the US as it performs this balancing act: “Do no more good than the country can bear.”

K.C. Johnson:

Bernard Porter offers a provocative and, I believe, fruitful comparisons of British and American “imperialisms.” Let me suggest two items that occurred to me as I was reading Porter’s piece.

First, Porter correctly points out that “American ‘imperialism’ seems more ideologically driven than Britain’s was.” Structural reasons seem to me critical here. 19th century Britain had no obligation to sell its foreign policy to the public—in an era with a highly restricted franchise, conduct of its international affairs fell to an even more restricted group, a handful of realpolitik aristocrats. Even 19th century American policymakers, on the other hand, needed to explain and justify their foreign policy choices to the public at large: foreign policy played a critical role in the outcomes of the 1824, 1844, and 1848 presidential elections.

Moreover, the constitutional setup of U.S. foreign policy differs from that of any previous “imperialist” power, in that not merely the executive controls foreign affairs. We live in a period of an extraordinarily weak Congress, but even so the need to maintain long-term legislative support for any international venture creates a tendency toward more ideological rationalizations. The origins of the Truman Doctrine is a good example here: George Kennan’s realpolitik, as much as the administration initially embraced it, didn’t have much of a popular or congressional base.

Second, I disagree on Potter in one point: “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.)” As Felix Gilbert and, most provocatively, Peggy Liss (and others) have argued, the colonists envisioned a fundamentally different international system, one where the use of force would be replaced by the power of commerce, which in turn would spread republican ideals. That this vision never was realized doesn’t minimize its significance in terms of analyzing American aims, nor does it allow classifying the British as anti-imperialists.

Manan Ahmed:

The American venture in Iraq certainly has rejuvenated the study of the British empire with much emphasis on the comparative ways in which American and British imperialisms constituted themselves at home and abroad. If Edward Gibbon used the history of the Roman Empire as a casebook for the British, then Niall Ferguson is making the case for the British empire to the American. Tied up in the comparisons about the nature of the British empire and present day America are political and historiographical goals that should be fairly obvious to all.

Empire 2.0: Bernard Porter's extremely rich essay shows that while the America of yore could be compared fruitfully to the England of yore, it is foolish to do so anymore. America, always the New World, now has a New Imperialism [with the goal to make a New Middle East according to some sources].

I agree with Porter's contention that America has always been an empire and it is only it's imperialism that has changed/evolved since the Cold War ended and, especially since 9/11. He elaborates that this new American imperialism differs in significant ways from the British empire: It is a purer capitalist imperialism; it lacks the governing class; and it is more idealistic.

Imperial Classes: I am not ready to grant that we are capable of ascertaining what kind of imperialism is being practiced in Iraq, yet. It may not have the"pre-capitalist upper class" needed for governance but, how do we classify the hundreds of thousands of civil contractors working for multinational conglomerates running Iraq in every aspect? Isn't that akin to East India Company's operation pre-1857 [and certainely pre-1757]? I would argue so.

Ideology: Porter contends that the imperialism of 'freedom' and 'free market' is more idealistic than that of the 'civilizing mission' and 'free market' of the British. However, a look beyond the stump speeches and the platitudes finds that there is no clear vision amid the governing bodies in the U.S. administration on either freedom or free market. Yes, the Donald Rumsfelds, the Condi Rices and the Dick Cheneys [also the Bernard Lewis' or the Christopher Hitchens' or the Robert Kaplans] can be counted on for sound bites of an ideological nature but there are no 'programs' or 'plans' of the Administration that show any such vision. We know that the W.H. and the C.P.A. have tried hard to 'fix' the elections to guarantee their candidates [sorry they failed, dear Chalabi]. Even more, the U.S. response to the current Israeli offensive in the same city that produced the much-touted 'Cedar Revolution' clearly demonstrates that these 'ideologies' are just as losely defined and implemented as any of the British Empire. Oh, and if anyone sees any 'free market' in Iraq, do educate me.

Getting to Know You: I was just reading the British adventurer and Orientalist Richard F. Burton describe his tenure as a young EIC officer in Sindh in 1840s, thus:

The European official in India seldom, if ever, sees anything in its real light, so dense is the veil which the fearfulness, the duplicity, the prejudice and the superstitions of the natives hang before their eyes. And the white man lives a life so distinct from the black, that hundreds of the former serve through what they call their 'terms of exile' without once being present at a circumcision feast, a wedding or a funeral. More especially the present generation, whom the habit and the means of taking furloughs, enjoying ladies' society and, if truth be spoken, a greater regard for appearances if not a stricter code of morality, estrange from their dusky fellow subjects every day and day the more.

The real site of imperialism is the colony. What kind of imperialism US has should be, and is, correctly answered by the Iraqis themselves. Porter's essay is by far the most sober treatment of this whole 'comparison' business but it is still quick to jump to the conclusion. I think that there are still years ahead before a clear answer can emerge. At the same time, I congratulate him for clearly demolishing the oft-cited canard that American imperialism was conceived on 9/11.

Oscar Chamberlain:

The shadow of a new Middle East war is a good time to compare America’s attempts to extend its powers to those of other imperial power. Bernard Porter makes some intriguing points here, and consideration of both his thoughts and those of the people responding has led to these comments below.

I think Porter is correct that American imperialism seems particularly ideological. The establishment of the United States was a conscious act of creation based on an intersection of Enlightenment and Protestant ideas. We are still conscious of those origins and still wrangle with their meanings. Inevitably, this concern with ideology is projected outward upon our foreign policy.

Because of this, I think Jonathon Reynolds is correct in seeing French colonialism as a more revealing comparison than British colonialism. The French Revolution and the survival and expansion of its liberal features in the Napoleonic Code provided a similar sense of ideology to the French, and both France and the United States have a long tradition of encouraging proper education of proper ideals as central to creating the proper country both at home and abroad.

However, beyond education and the creation of the “right” laws, the United States, as Manan Ahmed notes, does not seem driven to follow through on its ideological pronouncements. By comparison, French efforts were far more “heroic.” Perhaps because Americans have put so much faith into the implementation of the proper education and the proper laws, their governments have tended to do little else to ensure the stated proper outcome (that is, an American-style Democracy). Certainly, it also indicates an impatient populace that is often distrustful of any such prolonged efforts.

Of course, this lack of effort could be deliberate. Many, perhaps most historians, assume that the United States has been more successful at economic penetration than democratic creation because it was only interested in the former. The education and laws made it easier to do business, and any further democratic gains might have inhibited economic gains. I certainly can’t disprove that; the evidence is there. I do wonder, however, if some U.S. leaders intended to do both sincerely but gave up on the latter as it required more work than other politicians or the populace wanted to put into it. Perhaps our current leadership reflects that “laziness.”

Other Contributions:

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More Comments:

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 7/18/2006


In terms of American continetal expansion, I briefly note in paragraph 4 that things are different when the US intends to "settle" a region. In this context, the US fits the model of a "Settler State" pretty well, making it much like Australia or South Africa, for example.

Settler States have a VERY different dynamic from what I call "administrative colonies" in that there is a soverign constituency that the colonial administration must deal with in more or less equitable terms -- quite differently from how they might treat Africans or Native Americans, for example. Notably, colonial administrations often find the settlers very annoying, and vice-versa.

It is a worthwhile point that different states can have several different kinds of colonialism or imperialism going on in several different places at any given time. No single state ever did only style... though, I would argue that different colonial powers certainly had a style they favored... hence my argument that the US has it's own "imperial style."

In terms of "proxy rule" being as effective as the long-winded definition of colonialism, this is what is often termed "neo-colonialism" or "dependency theory" --the idea that even after independence, colonial powers used economic and political power to acheive the same ends as had been sought under formal colonial rule.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/18/2006

Being a Japanese historian, by and large I deal with very unambiguous aspects of imperialism -- unequal treaties, forced protectorates, organized colonial settlement -- and as a result theorizing about imperialism hasn't been a big component of my life. I do have to deal with it more generally in World History, where I introduce a quick-and-dirty version of World Systems theory -- what Porter identifies as capitalist imperialism, I guess -- which works pretty well for those purposes.

My main response to Porter's article was similar to KC's and Manan's: I don't think that the contextual differences are quite enough to justify discarding the comparison. On the other hand, I think Porter is closer to the mark than Jonathan Reynolds with regard to American imperialism: to distinguish "colonialism" from American Imperialism without acknowledging that US-style proxy rule can be as effective at “the economic, political, and cultural domination of a region and its peoples for the benefit of the colonizers" as full-bore direct rule (more efficient, even) seems somewhat artificial. I also don't think the US westward expansion fits the "American Imperialism" model described there, and I wonder if Prof. Reynolds could clarify how he views US expansion.

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