The United States’ invasion of Iraq has given rise to a long overdue debate about whether the Republic has become an empire and, if so, of what kind. Those who view the United States as an imperial power usually point to the Roman or British empires as relevant or even appropriate models, but their comparisons raise a number of objections. In the first place, however we choose to reinterpret Roman or British forms of imperial governance and law in hindsight, the ethical and ideological foundations of their empires are antithetical to the privileges, responsibilities, and freedoms embodied in the United States Constitution. There are echoes of Roman and British rule in the United States today, but they are—or should be—as faint as cosmic echoes of the big bang. A second objection is that while neo-imperialists rummage through history for precedents that might look good in the light of 21st-century sensibilities, today’s architects of an imperial United States simultaneously flatter themselves with the novelty of their ideas. It takes a fatal arrogance to imagine that the Bush administration invented the pre-emptive use of brute force in defense of national interests, the so-called “Bush Doctrine.” Mix this with the questionable belief that Western democracy is the natural state of mankind and you have all the makings of a Pax Americana.
Empire-building has always comprised two elements, an economic end and an ideological rationale. The latter is subject to variation, but there is always a vein of continuity. The Bush administration’s claim that we had to change the regime in Iraq because of its stock of non-traditional weapons resonates because of our recent experience with terrorism. Likewise, overthrowing a tyranny to make way for a democratic government is consistent with our nation’s self-image as the arsenal of democracy. Both these rationales have something to do with reality, but in ignoring real world complexities, they leave us with false options. The failure to recognize the dual nature of imperial enterprise—the one ideological, the other material—makes it impossible to see our nation’s actions for what they are, or to address the profound perils of a Pax Americana.
The longing to emulate either the Roman or British empire is based on a selective reading of their accomplishments and tactics. It will foster a clearer understanding of American ambition to examine other imperial models as well. The first to consider is surely that of Athens, in whose imperfect and short-lived democracy we like to see our political origins. On closer examination, there is much to be said against it: slaveholding, women without political rights, and a compulsion to worship the state gods, among other things, including its brevity. Athens’ golden age lasted only half a century after her victory over the Persian Empire in 479 bce. In this period the Athenians sowed the seeds of their own destruction by transforming a naval alliance created for collective defense against the Persians into a grasping empire. Athens’ demise resulted not from alien invasion, but because of her erstwhile allies’ hostile reaction to her imperial reach, which culminated in the devastating 27-year-long Peloponnesian War.
The resulting weakness led to the rise of the kingdom of Macedonia, whose people contemporary Greeks regarded as barbarians. In a decade of military campaigns, a young Alexander the Great trailed a thin veneer of Greek culture across a large swath of the Near East as far as the Indus River, but he died on the march, well before he could take steps to organize his rule. His conquests were divided among three of his generals, who embarked on a great arms race to vie for control of the Eastern Mediterranean and its contiguous lands.
At the same time, in the central Mediterranean, Rome was also embarked on an imperial career. We tend to view the accomplishments of the Roman Empire through rose-colored glasses that highlight its military successes, cultural attainments, and the logistical sophistication that spread goods, people, and ideas—Romanitas and later Christianity—across vast territories. It does not discount these achievements to acknowledge that they had a tremendous human cost. Slavery was extensive, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, and the people’s baser appetites were sated with liberal doses of panem et circenses—bread and circuses. Most glaring, the price of imperial administration was exorbitant, especially the maintenance of a large, highly trained professional army by whose arms the empire was enlarged and protected.
Rome’s transition from republic to empire occurred under Augustus, who assumed for himself an unprecedented degree of political power. But in its territorial expansion, Rome had been an empire in the modern sense for hundreds of years. In the first century bce, Rome already controlled most of Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and parts of Spain, North Africa. and the Balkans. By the death of Augustus in 14 ce, these gains had been consolidated: Gaul, Britain, and Egypt (with its invaluable granaries), and vast tracts of Asia Minor and the coastal Near East had been annexed. For several centuries thereafter, the empire was preoccupied variously with the expansion and/or security of its long, heavily fortified borders. In Roman Britain, Hadrian’s Wall stretched from the North Sea to the Irish Sea to protect Romano-British settlements against invasion from Scotland, while a line of forts in the west guarded against incursions from Wales. The empire’s continental border was defined more or less by the Rhine and Danube Rivers, natural boundaries of considerable size that the Romans nonetheless had to reinforce with more than a hundred forts. A further measure of security was achieved by establishing colonies peopled by retired legionnaires as a sort of veterans’ benefit for people whose allegiance was presumably assured.
It is a testament to the inherent instability of the empire that by the 300s, the Pax Romana was being maintained by more than thirty legions. Ultimately, the armies and associated bureaucracy upon which the state relied for its existence proved both unaffordable and unreliable. The level of unrest in the empire varied by place and time, but they included local uprisings (slave revolts and the Jewish revolts of the 60s and 130s ce, for instance), as well as probes by Germanic tribes along the Rhine/Danube line, which culminated in the “barbarian” invasions of the fourth century. There was also chronic instability in the East, where security depended largely on the weakness of the Parthian Empire and the willingness of buffer states to submit to Rome.
In addition to their intended role as guardians of the frontier, the armies played a decisive role in domestic politics. In the first century of the Pax Romana, when the lands ringing the Mediterranean were at their most serene, being emperor was at its most dangerous. A large part of the army’s pay derived from booty acquired on campaign, which more or less dictated that it be kept gainfully employed if the soldiery were to be kept in check. Inattention to this fact, combined with other political pressures, often proved fatal. Of the first 12 emperors, five were murdered and two killed themselves in disgrace.
In the United States, there is a comparable problem, not with the patriotic military (hence the cavalier downgrading of veterans’ benefits), but with its self-serving civilian arm—the industries of the military-industrial complex. Their revenues depend on the consumption of an enormous array of weapons, goods, and services, and these industries go to great lengths to make sure their products are in demand. The degree to which military contractors have perverted American politics and foreign policy can be seen in these companies’ strategic establishment of factories and offices in virtually every single Congressional district in the United States, a fact that enables them to exert an incalculable influence on government from the local to the federal level. Against such an entrenched interest, the Son of God would have to campaign on a platform of Pax Christiana rather than of Pax Christi.
In its 19th-century phase, America’s conquest of the lands south and west of the original 13 states towards the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific seems reminiscent of the expansion of the Roman Republic, although there was greater technological parity between Rome and her neighbors than between American settlers and Native Americans. The American experience more accurately reflects that of the Russian Empire in its eastward expansion into Siberia and North America from the 16th to the 19th centuries. With exemplary bad timing, the Russians sold Fort Ross, in California, to John Sutter seven years before the gold rush began at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, and then sold Alaska to the United States three decades before the Klondike gold rush. Despite these losses, Russian expansion was spectacular. Even after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia remains the largest country in the world. The nation that began with 13 states on the eastern seaboard of North America is the third.
An apt parallel for America’s more recent imperial exertions can be found in those of 15th- and 16th-century Portugal: evangelical, commercial, essentially non-territorial, militarily advanced and often ruthless in the pursuit of its aims. Two forces drove Portuguese expansion. As latter-day crusaders, the Portuguese believed it was their mission to fight Muslims and convert heathens. As merchants, they sought access to the spice trade and to monopolize it at the expense of Indian Ocean merchants (many of whom were Muslim) and in the Mediterranean, where their chief rivals were fellow Christians. In much the same way, the United States seeks to convert to democracy nations and regions where we have a quantifiable economic interest. The war against Saddam Hussein came about not because the people of Iraq suffered under the government, or because the regime’s weaponry posed a clear and present danger to the United States, but because the government controlled vast stocks of oil.
The man credited with kick-starting Portugal’s overseas adventures was Prince Henry, whom a 19th-century British historian dubbed “the Navigator.” A strong advocate of the Church militant, Henry cajoled his father to embark on a crusade against the Moors. After casting about for a likely target, in 1415 Henry took part in the capture of the Moroccan port of Ceuta, a place of little economic or strategic significance to Portugal. The victory proved a white elephant, for the territory was costly to maintain but impossible to surrender without losing face. A subsequent attack on the more powerful port of Tangier failed, and Henry eventually turned to more commercial pursuits that took his caravels into the archipelagoes of the western Atlantic, especially Madeira, and south along the Guinea coast of West Africa, a source of gold, slaves, and cheap pepper.
The aims and rationale of this 600-year-old European anticipate the strained arguments of the Bush administration. Although crusading was properly an altruistic activity undertaken for spiritual rather than material gain, Henry was unquestionably a merchant prince who had no problem mixing commercial opportunity with the work of the Church militant. Similarly, President Bush’s version of militant democracy serves as an ideological banner around which business interests rally in search of market share. In his denial of the obvious economic rationale for U.S. adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq—but not in Saudi Arabia, which has too much oil, nor in North Korea, which has none—he protests too much. Afghanistan gives access to the gas fields of Central Asia and Iraq has the world’s second largest reserves of oil.
Rather than admit what the whole world knows, the Bush administration insists that the American invasion of Iraq is not about oil. With some qualification, this is correct: It is not about oil—alone. Any number of opportunists are hiding in the wings, from the administration’s friends and associates at corporations such as Halliburton—whose former chairman is Vice President Dick Cheney, and whose board of directors includes President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, George Schultz—and Bechtel—whose board of directors includes George H.W. Bush’s other Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger. Other luminaries who stand to gain enormously include American businessman and hawk Richard Perle, and Saudi arms dealer and businessman Adnan Khashoggi, trusted veteran of the Iran-Contra scandal. There are myriad ways to cash in on rebuilding and rearming Iraq, if you know the right people and have the right access.
An especially striking parallel between Prince Henry and President Bush is their staunch adherence to outmoded legal concepts to justify their actions. Prince Henry promoted the notion that fighting Muslims was just war as sanctioned by the Church. His insistence on this point disregarded a growing body of ecclesiastical and lay legal writing that maintained that neither popes nor princes had the authority to wage war against non-Christian states simply because they were not Christian. With similar ideological fervor, President Bush has argued the need to export democracy to the people of Iraq, even if it means disregarding international law and opinion, or even, as it may transpire, the wishes of the Iraqi people.
At the end of the 15th century, the Crusader ethos was still alive and well in Portugal, and when Vasco da Gama reached the Indian port of Calicut in 1498, one of his first acts was to drive a wedge between the Hindu rulers and the city’s community of Muslim merchants. So eager were they to find co-religionists with whom they could make common cause against the Muslims that the Portuguese determined that the local Hindus belonged to a previously unknown sect of Christians. This tendency to see things not as they are but as we want them to be is a salient characteristic of Bush’s foreign policy, in which all issues are divided into black and white and democracy is treated like a marketable commodity. The president’s announcement that if you are not with us, you are against us, has a corollary of uncertain value: if you are with us—in this case, against Hussein—you must also be like us, that is, democratic.
This error is not unique to Bush. It was tragically made in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, when we armed the fundamentalist factions who went on to form the Taliban government and Al Qaeda. We are poised to make the same mistake in Iraq, where the anti-Hussein lineup comprises virtually every shade of the political spectrum from Kurdish Communists, to Sunni clerics, to democrats-in-exile whose political credentials and legitimacy are thin. This is not to suggest that no Iraqis believe in democracy, but opposition to Ba’ath Party rule takes many forms, and it is not clear that a secular majority has much chance of winning a clear mandate to form a democratic government, especially if the winner is perceived as an American puppet. Any government that truly represents the fractured will of the Iraqi people will have to make concessions and embrace ideologies that are anathema to the militant democracy espoused by Bush’s own “Republican Guard.”
Once in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese might have adapted themselves to the laissez-faire patterns of an ancient network of trade that passed goods from East Africa and China. Instead, they seized strategic ports; built and garrisoned fortresses; demanded protection money from Muslim, Hindu, and other merchants; and attempted to monopolize the Indian Ocean spice trade. In so doing, the crown relied upon soldiers who died by the hundreds of disease or in battle, and on viceroys and governors who usually exploited their offices for personal gain. The American empire already emulates this approach with military bases strung like a necklace around the world. The jewels in the western Indian Ocean region include Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, and Diego Garcia (whose entire population was forcibly removed between 1965 and 1973). Together these help shape the patterns of world trade—especially the oil trade—in America’s interest. Those nations dependent on Middle Eastern oil and Central Asian natural gas must tread lightly for fear of antagonizing the United States.
The last empire to consider in this brief comparative survey is that of Great Britain, one of several successors to the Portuguese and by most measures the most successful. At its height, its territories were the most extensive in the world, including Canada, Australia, India, vast tracts of Africa and Asia, and smaller holdings in the Americas, Antarctica, and Europe—Ireland and Gibraltar. The underlying factors for English expansion in the 16th century were essentially practical—a desire to compete for spices and to provide an outlet for their domestic trade, which the Spanish had curtailed. But like the Portuguese before them, the English were animated by a militant ideology, one originally founded on a virulent hostility to Catholicism in general and to Spain and Portugal (by then part of the Spanish empire) in particular.
This ideological foundation quickly took on a life of its own. In the early 1600s, English propagandists decided that in their failure to develop the abundant resources available to them in the European manner, Native Americans had effectively ceded their right to the land. North America was considered “virgin” territory “that hath yet her maidenhead” and which was, therefore, “attractive for Christian suitors.” The attraction was not, however, absolute, and much of the raw labor for the colonies had to be provided by indentured servants, criminals, and religious dissidents from the British Isles, and African slaves. The latter were a staple of the English Atlantic trade for centuries, and when the slave trade was finally abolished in the 19th century, British traffickers in human cargoes simply shifted to the coolie trade—the shipment of Indian and Chinese laborers in conditions that abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, described as “almost as heart-rending as any that attended the African slave trade.”
Despite their differences, abolitionists and slavers alike believed that the world was filled with inferior races. They parted company on the issue of what to do about them. The former argued they could be civilized, the latter that they were good for little more than brute labor. One can sense the tension between these two lines of thought in Rudyard Kipling’s turn-of-the-century ballad in which he urged people to “take up the White Man’s burden … to serve your captives’ need.” By 1899, the British had their empire well in hand (their meddling in the Middle East would have to wait until after World War I) and Kipling was addressing himself to the people of the United States, who had just taken up “the White Man’s burden—The savage wars of peace” in the Philippines, newly won in the Spanish-American War.
If religion and ideology account for the zeal with which the British undertook their expansion, their success must be attributed to their relative commercial sophistication and their essentially pragmatic approach to business. The chartered companies that initiated foreign trade and colonization were run by merchants who were quick to adapt to changed circumstances. Investors in the East India Company fully intended to profit from the spice trade, but when the Dutch established a monopoly in the East Indies and shut them out, the Company withdrew to India. At first, they were all but ignored by the Mughal court, but they persevered, especially in Calcutta. As the Mughal Empire declined (as all empires must), by the end of the 18th century the Company had all but annexed Bengal through the deft use of trade, diplomacy, and arms. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it exercised either direct or indirect control over most of the lands that now comprise India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The British government’s involvement in India grew gradually from the mid-17th century, but it was only in 1858 that the government assumed formal control of India.
A crucial reason for the British success in India was the lack of homogeneity in the subcontinent. The East India Company exploited divisions of race, religion, and caste to gain commercial and territorial concessions. Another was the British reliance on trafficking in low-value, high-volume goods within the framework of traditional intra-Asian trade, especially in Indian cotton, lead, silver, and pepper, and Chinese silk, porcelain, and lacquer ware. Profits from these trades were significant, but, as important, such commerce did not justify the imposition of a monopoly and the huge expenses required for its maintenance; such costs ate deeply into the profits of the Portuguese and Dutch spice trades.
The East India Company’s trade remained profitable and balanced until the 1720s, when demand for tea in Britain grew sharply, a development with profound consequences for Britain, China, and indeed much of the world. Starting in the 1720s, tea comprised more than half of the Company’s exports from China, and a century later it accounted for all of them. The government’s keen interest derived from the duty it imposed on tea, which by the 1820s accounted for 10 percent of government revenues. As China was self-sufficient for virtually all its needs and traders had almost nothing they wanted in exchange for tea, Europeans were forced to pay in silver. The British need for silver to pay for the Napoleonic Wars and for the pacification and administration of India at the end of the 1700s forced the Company to search for an alternative to bullion, which they found in the form of opium. So successful was the East India Company’s cultivation of China’s appetite for opium that it stopped carrying silver to China in 1805, and two years later it was actually importing silver from China. (American merchants also shipped Turkish opium to China, to the chagrin of the British and the consternation of the Chinese.)
The only problem with this trade was that it was completely illegal in China, where the first laws proscribing opium had been enacted in 1729. The effects of opium use were widespread and had both moral and economic effects that the Chinese could ill-afford. Trade in daily goods declined as addicts devoted more and more of their income to the drug. Bullion outflows from China had a direct impact on the treasury, which collected taxes in silver. In response to these growing problems, in 1839 the emperor’s imperial commissioner at Canton seized and burned about 140 tons of opium. In response, the British government dispatched a force of 16 ships and 4,000 soldiers to demand satisfaction. The British victory over the antiquated Chinese forces in what became known as the First Opium War was swift and total. By the Treaty of Nanking, the British secured millions in restitution and forced the Chinese to open additional ports to foreign trade. China lost two more drug wars, and Britain ultimately secured the legalization of the opium trade, which towards the end of the century brought in £10 million a year.
The opening of the treaty ports had a number of unintended consequences, two of which are of particular relevance to the United States. Having observed the overwhelming superiority of British arms against the Chinese, Japan responded promptly to U.S. demands to open its ports to foreigners after several centuries of relative isolation. Thereafter, Japan industrialized rapidly, working especially closely with Britain to develop its naval and merchant fleets. In 1895, Japan overwhelmed the modernized Chinese fleet in the Sino-Japanese War. Ten years later, it destroyed a powerful Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima to find itself the dominant naval power in the Pacific. Forty years later, the Japanese met their match at the hands of the United States, whose crushing but slow victory in World War II helped pave the way for American hegemony in the Pacific—half a century after taking up the White Man’s burden there—and dragged it deep into East Asian regional politics.
The Opium Wars may have illustrated China’s technological and cultural decline under the Qing dynasty, but the unequal treaties forced by the British undermined any prospect that China would soon achieve its former stature on the world stage. In fact, the drug-induced malaise fueled by the British certainly contributed to the collapse of the Celestial Kingdom in the 20th century and to the turbulent decades of civil war and oppressive communist rule that followed. A century-and-a-half after Britain’s shocking and awesome victory, China has begun to find its way in the world once again, while Britain’s empire is virtually extinct, a victim of overreach and to a lesser extent its unintended clarity in preaching the virtues of individual rights to the very people it sought to oppress on four continents.
None of these imperial models is an exact fit for the United States at the start of the 21st century. But even a glance at their salient features offers a grim reminder that, stripped of revisionist hyperbole, empires yield a ghastly human toll. No one can fault the bravery, luck, and sheer force of will characteristic of imperial pioneers of any age. Against these we must weigh their hideous legacy of brutal intimidation, human bondage, and appalling exploitation.
What fruit will the current round of American imperialism in Iraq bear? A few American businesses will reap huge windfalls from rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. As of this writing, the Bush administration has installed a military authority to run the country while it scrambles to install a puppet regime whose interests align with its own. This will give the United States control of Iraq’s oil production and revenues, and an unprecedented voice in OPEC. Such superficial achievements benefit only a small and shrill minority of powerful interests, however. For the majority of Americans, this and similar imperial ventures will provide no more than an outlet for demonstrations of jingo patriotism and flag-waving xenophobia.
As for the loftier premises deployed to justify our imperial ambition, it takes a chilling indifference to history to believe that people anywhere will swarm to democratic ideals as articulated by an invading army, or that the people of the Middle East, who in their day have shucked off many versions of Western imperialism—Greek and Roman, Portuguese, British and Russian—have any inclination to be subject to a Pax Americana. Three things are certain: Their reluctance will come at a high price. The burden of sustaining the empire will be spread more evenly than the benefits of creating it. And for Americans, the most immediate and gravest risk is to neither people nor property, but to that great preserver of them both, the Constitution.