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Why Liberalism Means Empire

Democracy isn't the end of history, it's a product of power.

History ended on October 14, 1806. That was the day of the Battle of Jena, the turning point, as far as philosopher G.W.F. Hegel was concerned, in humanity’s struggle for freedom. Once Napoleon triumphed over the reactionary forces of Prussia, the ideals that post-revolutionary France represented—not just liberté, égalité, and fraternité, but the modern state and its legal order—would serve as the model for Europe and world.

When Francis Fukuyama revisited this idea in “The End of History?”—with a question mark—in the pages of The National Interest a quarter century ago, he had to remind readers what Hegel had meant. Events would still happen, including big events like wars. What had ended was a sequence of political and cultural forms whose internal contradictions each gave rise to the next step in freedom’s development: from the ancient world to medieval Christendom to, finally, what one 20th-century interpreter of Hegel called “the universal homogeneous state.” Or as Fukuyama called it, “liberal democracy.”

By 1989 it was obvious that Hegel had been right: the long series of rear-guard actions attempted by Europe’s reactionary powers came to an end after World War I. Fascism and Soviet Communism thereafter proposed themselves as alternative endings to history—competing modernities—but neither could prevail against liberal democracy, whether on the battlefield or in the marketplace.

This was welcome news to America’s foreign-policy elite. Fukuyama had not set out to justify a “unipolar moment” or America’s world role as the “indispensable nation”—indeed, he thought boredom lay ahead for those unlucky enough to live beyond history’s end—yet his essay could not help but add to the triumphalism of the time. The Cold War was over; henceforth, the American way of life would be everyone’s way of life: inevitably, forever, from Moscow to Beijing to Baghdad.

“The victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas of consciousness,” Fukuyama wrote, “and is as yet incomplete in the material world.” America’s mission would hence be to complete it, through international trade agreements, promotion of human rights, and of course war.

But what if Fukuyama was wrong and liberal democracy is not the end of the history after all? What if, on the contrary, the American way of life is an accident of history—one made possible only by a special kind of global security environment?

What in fact has triumphed over the last 250 years—not since the Battle of Jena in 1806 but since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763—is not an idea but an institution: empire. Successive British and American empires created and upheld the world order in which liberalism could flourish. Fukuyama’s “liberal democracy” turns out to be a synonym for “the attitudes and institutions of a world in which Anglo-American power is dominant.”

Britain’s Liberal Empire

Victory against France in the Seven Years’ War confirmed not only British naval superiority—and thus the ability to project power more widely than any other nation in the late 18th or 19th centuries—but also the superior resilience of British financial and political institutions. Britain paid a steep price for the conflict, with the loss of 13 North American colonies that rebelled against the taxes king and parliament levied to pay for what colonists called the “French and Indian War.” But while King George III lost America, the king of France lost his head. To get his country’s finances in order after the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, Louis XVI fatefully summoned the Estates-General in 1789, and thus was the French Revolution begun.

Seventeen years later, Hegel was not wrong to see in Napoleon’s armies an unwitting force of progress. In 1806, the possibility was wide open for the 19th century to be the French century—or the German century, after defeat at Jena spurred Prussia to modernize and ultimately become the nucleus of a unified Germany. But France and Germany had the misfortune to be neighbors, and the reciprocal invasions they launched and suffered gave rise not only to political modernization, but also to nationalism and state repression.

By contrast, Britain’s territory remained inviolate—a necessary if not sufficient precondition for the flourishing of liberalism. The Nazi-era German political theorist Carl Schmitt observed the irony that this country which had given the world Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan should itself have avoided the need for such a consolidated state:

The English Isle and its world-conquering seafaring needed no absolute monarchy, no standing land army, no state bureaucracy, no legal system … such as became characteristic of continental states. Drawing on the political instinct of a sea and commercial power, a power that possessed a strong fleet that it used to acquire a world empire, the English people withdrew from this kind of closed state and remained ‘open.’

Land empires of the sort that Napoleon tried to build proved uncongenial to liberalism—they elicited nationalistic reactions and political centralization. But a naval empire was a different matter, not only sparing the homeland the ravages of foreign reprisal and border clashes but also providing a ready framework for capitalism, the great engine of liberalization and democracy. Free trade, for example, a cornerstone of liberal economics, historically developed out of trade within the British Empire.

“England’s imperialism,” noted the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises in his 1929 work Liberalism, “was primarily directed not so much toward the incorporation of new territories as toward the creation of an area of uniform commercial policy out of the various possessions subject to the King of England.”

Mises was an ardent classical liberal and no advocate of anyone’s subjugation. Yet faced with a choice between imperialism and liberalism together or national self-determination that might jeopardize international commerce, even Mises sided with empire. “The economy of Europe today is based to a great extent on the inclusion of Africa and large parts of Asia in the world economy as supplies of raw materials of all kinds,” he wrote:

Any stoppage in these trade relations would involve serious economic losses for Europe as well as for the colonies and would sharply depress the standard of living of great masses of people. … Ought the well-being of Europe and, at the same time, that of the colonies as well to be allowed to decline further in order to give the natives a chance to determine their own destinies, when this would lead, in any event, not to their freedom, but merely to a change of masters?

This is the consideration that must be decisive in judging questions of colonial policy. European officials, troops, and police must remain in these areas, as far as their presence is necessary in order to maintain the legal and political conditions required to insure the participation of the colonial territories in international trade.

As shocking as these words might seem coming from one of the free market’s greatest champions, the conditional quality of Mises’s prescription ought to be noted: if trade is possible without colonialism, then national self-determination can be permitted. Liberal imperialism is not directed toward gratuitous conquest but toward maintaining a global environment conducive to liberalism.

Liberalism and empire reinforced one another in manifold ways. Britain met military necessities of the Napoleonic wars with moves toward domestic liberalization—more civil rights for Catholics and Dissenting Protestants, who could hardly be asked to serve under arms while being required to swear religious oaths and denied the chance to participate in politics. The manpower needed to police the seas even after Napoleon’s defeat provided further incentives for reform, as did the growing wealth brought about by the trade that empire and peace made possible.

As British industrial magnates became wealthier, they demanded a greater role in politics; as their employees became more numerous, they too demanded representation and rights. The franchise expanded, religious liberty was extended, and liberal democracy as we know it steadily evolved within the context of empire.

Britain was not the only place where the domestic development of liberalism was made possible by the pax Britannica. For the newly independent United States as well, security was a precondition for liberalism. But during the first 30 years of the republic, that security was jeopardized by conflicts between Europe’s great powers—which were also the New World’s great powers. Britain and revolutionary France came to represent ideological poles for America’s domestic political factions, which dealt with one another in distinctly illiberal ways. Federalists passed laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress French agents and their American sympathizers, while mobs of Jeffersonian Republicans occasionally lynched pro-British Federalists and launched the War of 1812 against Britain’s remaining North American stronghold, Canada.

The partisan fury died down only with the “Era of Good Feelings” that followed the War of 1812—and, not coincidentally, Britain’s defeat of Napoleon in Europe. The resolution of Europe’s great-power conflict removed the source of much of America’s ideological unrest. Once there was only one superpower off America’s coasts, one that proved uninterested in reclaiming its long-lost colonies, domestic tranquility could ensue.

Britain vouchsafed the post-Napoleonic order in Europe by acting as an “offshore balancer,” checking the rise of any potential hegemon in the Old World. This inadvertently freed the United States to expand across its own continent. A young country whose development might easily have been stunted by war and insecurity was instead afforded the luxury to industrialize and solidify its institutions in peace.

Looking back from the perspective of 1951, George Kennan described this situation in American Diplomacy:

[Britain was] prepared to hover vigilantly about the fringes of the Continent, tending its equilibrium as one might tend a garden, yet always with due regard for the preservation of her own maritime supremacy and the protection of her overseas empire. In this complicated structure lay concealed not only the peace of Europe but also the security of the United States.

Whatever affected it was bound to affect us. And all through the latter part of the nineteenth century things were happening which were bound to affect it: primarily the gradual shift of power from Austria-Hungary to Germany. This was particularly important because Austria-Hungary had not had much chance of becoming a naval and commercial rival to England, whereas Germany definitely did have such a chance and was foolish enough to exploit it aggressively…

American foreign policy had never been peaceful merely for the sake of being peaceful. Security was the paramount concern, but with Britain keeping any possible global predator at bay, American statesmen could pursue their ends through means other than war. The Monroe Doctrine was of a piece with Britain’s strategy of offshore balancing: its author, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, understood that only in peace—that is, in the absence of great power competition in the New World—could 19th century America develop politically and economically, and to keep that peace was worth fighting for.

The liberalizing effects of the security environment fostered by the British Empire were felt far beyond the English-speaking world. Europe, too, enjoyed a peace during which it could industrialize and slowly democratize. But Europe could never enjoy quite as much security as the island-states of Great Britain and (in effect) the United States, and the bitter experiences of the Napoleonic Wars left even the continent’s liberals infected with nationalist resentments. Thus while “free speech,” for example, in a security context like that of the Anglo-American peoples was not disloyal speech, matters were otherwise where the proverbial wolf was at the door, as it was for much of continental Europe.

In time, liberal sentiment grew so strong within imperial Britain that its exponents began to lose sight of the security context that made liberalism possible. Idealists and pacifists—the privileged children of empire—fancied that the peace was a product not of power but of good intentions; of love. Other liberals developed attitudes that foreshadowed today’s humanitarian interventionists: for them, power was more than just a means to a strategic balance in which freedom might flourish; it was an instrument by which despotic regimes could be directly overthrown and transformed into liberal or democratic governments.

Yet what sent the British Empire into eclipse in the second decade of the 20th century was neither a loss of nerve nor utopian overextension, but the brute fact that Britain did not have the wherewithal to contain a united Germany forever. Sooner or later, Germany would upset the continent’s balance and challenge the Royal Navy’s supremacy on the seas. Britain was not, therefore, acting irrationally when it entered into alliances against Germany ahead of World War I: the British way of life depended on the empire, which in turn depended on maritime hegemony.

A Britain ready to fight Germany might win and preserve its world order; or it might lose. But a Britain unwilling to fight could only lose. In the event, Britain won a Pyrrhic victory. Germany was defeated, but only with American help; the British Empire was no longer the archstone of the global system.

In the 19th century, the empire on which the sun never set could plausibly lay claim to represent “The End of History.” And if Francis Fukuyama were right—if ideas rather than institutions are the drivers of history—then the waning of British imperial power need not have meant a twilight for the ideals of liberalism and democracy as well. But in fact, the collapse of the security environment Britain had preserved for a century did indeed coincide with the downfall of liberal democracy—certainly on the European continent, where weak liberal regimes gave way to the likes of Il Duce and Der Führer, but also in Britain and America, where the intelligentsia increasingly looked to fascism, Bolshevism, and other profoundly illiberal creeds for inspiration.

A fair test of Fukuyama’s idea is whether liberal democracy endures in the absence of Anglo-American empire. In the interwar period, however, liberal democracy—divorced from British power, not yet remarried to American hegemony—looked well and truly moribund.

Why Pax Americana?

America might have been expected to fill the security gap left by the receding British Empire. But a people who had known almost nothing but international peace for a hundred years could scarcely imagine that it was anything other than the natural state of human affairs. Just how much America’s prospering liberal democracy owed to global conditions another nation’s empire had engineered was far from obvious.

The U.S. could certainly have stayed out of World War I. A fanciful scenario in which Germany won the war would not inevitably have led to trouble for the United States, which might have remained aloof from the Old World’s troubles as long as they did not wash up on American shores—and Wilhelmine Germany was hardly an exporter of revolution. If, as is most likely, the European powers had exhausted themselves, America would have been in a position to assert dominion over the oceans without firing a shot.

Alternatively, once the U.S. was in the war, the objective might have been to achieve a traditional balance of power, with the Kaiser preserved in Germany and Allied support for governments strong enough to suppress revolutionary movements. Such illiberal measures would in fact have done the most to preserve the international order that made liberalism possible.

In the event, however, U.S. involvement in Europe’s war was disastrous. The terms of the peace exacerbated the continent’s political instability, relying on a weak Weimar liberalism to withstand Bolshevism or Bolshevism’s fascist antithesis, and establishing an even feebler League of Nations to do with laws what Britain had once done with the Royal Navy.

Even as European liberalism was set up to fail without an imperial power to support it, America returned to her disengaged republican—and Republican—ways. Woodrow Wilson’s party was repudiated, and Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover kept out of Europe’s disintegrating affairs. Franklin Roosevelt only succeeded in leading the country into World War II after lying in his 1940 re-election campaign, violating the Neutrality Acts, and placing Japan in an economic stranglehold. It took Pearl Harbor to get Americans interested in the next war.

The old myths of natural peace and prosperity, which had taken root in America during a century of pax Britannica, died hard. In the decades between the wars, honorable men—not pro-Nazis but Americans who had seen their country grow to greatness without becoming entangled in European affairs—argued that events in Europe posed little danger to America and were frankly none of our business.

Their argument doesn’t hold up. Although the two great anti-liberal powers, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, eventually turned on one another, a scenario in which they completely canceled one another out is implausible, to say the least. More likely one would have overcome the other, and the alacrity with which Soviet power did in fact fill the vacuum left by the defeated Nazis in Eastern Europe after World War II suggests what would have happened to all of Europe had one totalitarian juggernaut triumphed.

Just as the world order made possible by the British Empire had a liberalizing effect on the United States, a Soviet or Nazi world order would have profoundly influenced American development in the opposite direction. In such a world, the U.S. would have faced both domestic and foreign pressures to assimilate to the Soviet or Nazi model, and resisting such pressure could itself have taken an illiberal turn. This is not so hypothetical: the Palmer Raids of the Wilson years and the McCarthyism of the 1950s show that America could indeed revert to its less-than-liberal 1790s sensibilities about free speech and disloyalty when faced with a foreign threat in a risky security environment.

But during the Red Scare and the McCarthy era, America was not facing a totalitarian power anywhere near as persuasive as it would have been had it conquered all of Europe. To think that American intellectuals would not have been as easily seduced by a victorious Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia as they were, in historical fact, by those same totalitarianisms when they had rather less territory under their sway seems rather naïve. Intellectuals worship power, and everybody worships success.

A Cold War between an embattled, increasingly illiberal and security-conscious America and a burgeoning USSR or Nazi Germany is not at all hard to conceive of—because in fact, we got just such a thing even with American involvement in World War II. Had Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia fought one another to a standstill in the 1940s, the results would have been much the same: a Cold War, only one whose poles were Moscow and Berlin rather than Washington and Moscow.

Had we stayed out of World War II, there is every reason to think that all of the illiberal measures taken by the U.S. in the Cold War that we actually did fight with the Soviets—in which the U.S. held the upper hand from the start—would have been taken in a much worse strategic, economic, and cultural climate. America might still have prevailed against an inhuman and unsustainable Soviet or Nazi system, but the America that emerged would hardly have been likely to be more liberal or democratic than the one we have today.

In the 19th century, the United States enjoyed the advantages of an international security environment propitious to liberalism and democracy without having to incur the costs of empire necessary to sustain those conditions. America could be liberal without having to be imperial—although the Indians, Mexicans, and Filipinos might well disagree. Beginning with World War II, however, if America wished to remain liberal and democratic, it would have to become imperial in many of the ways Britain had been—including playing a leading role in Europe and on the oceans. Indeed, America would have to do much of what the British Empire had done in the previous century on an even larger scale.

The efflorescence of liberal democracy in the latter half of the 20th century—the growth of international trade and support for democracy and human rights to the point where the total package appeared to be the “End of History”—was not a spontaneous, natural development. It was driven by U.S. prestige and power. Germany is now deeply committed to political liberalism, and Japan may in some respects be more consumerist than the U.S. itself. But these states were, of course, remade by the U.S. after World War II.

This is not to say there aren’t genuinely local traditions of liberalism or democracy to be found among America’s allies, nor that American arms can simply transform any other kind of regime into a liberal and democratic one: the apparent success of nation-building in Japan and Germany owed as much to the threat that the Soviet Union posed to those states as to anything America did. The Germans and Japanese had the most urgent incentive imaginable to make their newly liberal and democratic constitutions work—because aligning with the U.S. was the only insurance they could buy against being annexed by the Soviet empire instead.

There is a crucial difference between the Napoleonic, land-empire mentality that wants to revolutionize other states—a mentality taken to extremes by the Soviets and exhibited with considerable fervor by many neoconservatives and liberal hawks today—and the example set by Britain in the 19th century, which was a liberal but not revolutionary world power and encouraged liberalization mostly though indirect means: via trade, culture, and above all, by upholding a relatively un-Hobbesian global security environment.

Liberal anti-imperialists today, whether libertarian or progressive, make the same mistakes Britain’s pacifists and America’s interwar noninterventionists once did: they imagine that the overall ideological complexion of the world, as determined by the state most capable of projecting power, need not affect their values and habits at home. They believe that liberalism is possible without empire. Web issue image

There is little historical evidence for this. When libertarians point to how economically liberal city-states like Hong Kong or Singapore are, they ignore the imperial strategic contexts in which those city-states are historically set. No city-state can resist the military force of a superpower; thus, the liberalism of a city-state tends to be entirely contingent on the liberalizing security conditions established by some great empire.

Yet liberal anti-imperialists are entirely correct about the price of the ideological wars that the other sort of liberal—the empire-loving kind—extols. These aggressive liberals, whether they call themselves humanitarians or neoconservatives, also misunderstand the world order that underwrites liberalism: they have Napoleonic ambitions to liberalize the planet through revolution, not merely to preserve conditions in which the happy accident of liberalism can survive and grow, if at all, by a slow process of assimilation.

Just as there are idealists who deny that power is the basis of the peaceful order upon which liberal democracy rests, there are other, more dangerous idealists who deny that power is a limited commodity that cannot simply be wished into existence by a feat of will. This is a view characteristic of neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan, who never evince any sense that the U.S. could overextend itself in regime-changing crusades.

Liberal democracy depends on empire, but there are strict limits to what empire can achieve. This point is best understood by the conservative critics of liberalism and empire alike. Figures such as George Kennan and Patrick Buchanan are relatively untroubled by the implications of noninterventionism for liberal values and practices because the America they wish to see is a more self-sufficient and nationally self-conscious one. They are consistent anti-imperialists and anti-liberals: opposed to open borders, free trade, consumerism, and mass democracy as well as to the global power projection that makes such things possible; they would like America to be more like Sparta than Athens.

But after 200 years, liberalism has soaked too deep into the fiber of America’s national character for a new path of national self-sufficiency to hold much popular appeal. Thus while the anti-liberal anti-imperialists are among our greatest critics, they are also among our most neglected. They preach what a liberal nation will not hear.

This leaves one final view to be examined, that of the conservative realist—who is a realist not only in understanding the role that power plays in shaping ideology and world conditions (including economics), but also in recognizing the bitter truth about liberalism and its imperial character. The conservative realist knows that America will not be anything other than broadly liberal and democratic for a long time to come, and liberal democracy requires a delicately balanced system of international security upheld by an empire or hegemon. This balance is apt to be upset not only by some rampaging foreign power—by a Napoleonic France or a Nazi Germany or Soviet Union—but also by our own revolution-loving, democracy-promoting liberals.

The conservative realist emphasizes four points in thinking about American hegemony today. First, judgment must be exercised to discern essential conflicts (like the Cold War and World War II) from absolutely inessential ones (like Iraq) and relatively ambiguous ones like World War I. The individual cases matter; no ideological framework that renders predetermined answers about the use of force can suffice.

Second, if liberalism is ineradicably imperial—or hegemonic, if we’re being polite—it is also true that the only secure liberal order is one upheld by offshore balancing rather than crusading on land.

The third point, a corollary to the second, is that liberal democracy grows by evolution and osmosis; active attempts on the part of great empires to transform other regimes are usually counterproductive. Power upholds the strategic, economic, and cultural environment in which other states can pursue their own intimations of liberalism. Power cannot save souls or build heaven upon earth—it cannot “immanentize the eschaton,” as conservatives used to say, or expedite the “End of History.”

And fourth, because in fact liberal democracy is not the end of history, it can and will disappear in the long run. Thus its limited resources—moral, military, and economic—must not be wasted on utopian delusions. If liberal democracy is to continue as long as possible, its strategic posture must be realistic and conservative.

Liberal democracy is unnatural. It is a product of power and security, not innate human sociability. It is peculiar rather than universal, accidental rather than teleologically preordained. And Americans have been shaped by its framework throughout their history; they have internalized liberalism’s habits and rationales. Not surprisingly, they have also acquired the habits and rationales of empire—and now they must understand why.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative



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