Thursday, July 31, 2014


As to whether imperialism is good or bad, it all depends on which type of imperialism one is talking about during which time in history, and what aspect of which empire. The truth is that both nationalism and imperialism are such broad categories that they can be good or bad depending upon the cultures and circumstances involved. After all, nationalism and imperialism have been present in one form or another throughout much of the world and throughout much of history.  
Neither nationalism nor imperialism is altogether good or altogether evil. For nationalism and imperialism are not primarily ideologies but rather organizing principles of group pride and of vast territorial administration. Ideologies, on the other hand, entail a degree of abstraction and are in the main utopian.  
Not only can nationalism and imperialism play out differently depending upon the circumstances, so obviously can broad phenomena such as religion and democracy  
But we know all that!, you might say. Yet apparently we don't. For spreading democracy no matter what the local circumstances has been a philosophical feature of a significant branch of the American foreign policy establishment for decades now. Of course, one can argue that since in most circumstances, imperialism is bad and democracy is good, we will oppose the former and support the latter. But while that might work as a broad consensus-driven goal, the messy specifics require more nuance in application.

For example, there are clearly imperial-like aspects to the worldwide deployment of American warships and fighter jets, and yet we value those assets as a global force for good just the same. And while democracy might be a good in and of itself, no responsible policymaker in Washington should ever want to topple the monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco. Again, beware of simple categories.

The point is to get away from abstractions and deal in the concrete world at the ground level. Journalists and historians are generally better at this than political scientists and others who adhere to certain conceptual viewpoints of human society. Journalists and historians are driven by the very messiness of reality, along with the many contradictions, and are therefore less prone to so-called laws of how interstate relations play out. They also recognize the signal importance of personalities in world history so that Winston Churchill, though an imperialist, was arguably the greatest man of the 20th century and Deng Xiaoping, while a dictator, was also one of the great men of that century.

Concepts such as nationalism and imperialism will continue to be highly relevant in upcoming debates about U.S. foreign policy because, in arguing about them, we define what the values of American foreign policy should be.

An imperialist view might seek to rejuvenate American society through a reduction of the tax burden and immigration reform. At the same time, in this view, America would adopt a more robust posture around the globe in order to continue to ensure safe and secure sea lines of communication for the sake of a liberal world order, and to support American allies against the imperialism of non-democratic states.

The two views are not mutually exclusive and could be combined in several ingenious formulations. Because America has been both a nation and an empire of sorts, the debate will go on -- even as journalists and historians hopefully provide a reality check.

Pic - "The Price Of American Indifference"