The Liberal Empire

Patrick Garrity

September 1, 2003

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall FergusonEmpire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
Niall Ferguson (New York:
Basic Books, 2002)

How did an archipelago of small, resource-poor islands off the northwest coast of Europe come to rule the world? Niall Ferguson, a talented British historian, attempts to answer this question on behalf of the British Empire. More provocatively, he asks whether the Empire was a good or bad thing. He reaches the politically incorrect answer that, on balance, it was good — good not only for Britain but for the cause of economic and political freedom throughout the world.

This is an unpopular view today, nowhere more so than in Britain herself. Ferguson quotes a BBC website, apparently written for schoolchildren: “The Empire came to greatness by killing lots of people less sharply armed than themselves and stealing their countries… [It] fell to pieces because of various people like Mahatma Gandhi, heroic revolutionary protestor, [who was] sensitive to the needs of his people.” Marxists argued that imperialism was inherently exploitative: every aspect of colonial rule was at root designed to maximize the surplus value that could be extracted from subject peoples. And according to the standard liberal critique, imperialism distorted market forces and actually hurt the metropolitan economy as well as those of the periphery. Prosperity depended on free economic integration with the rest of the world, not coercive rule.

Ferguson disagrees. The benefits of international exchange could not have been — and cannot be — reaped without gunboats or their equivalent. Free trade requires a legal, financial and administration framework within which to work. Japan was one of the few nations that adopted, or rather copied, such institutions voluntarily. For the most part, however, global markets and prosperity spread as far as they did because such institutions — Ferguson calls them “European” — were imposed by force. Globalization, he argues, did not come about spontaneously but only because the dominant power in the world (Britain) favored and fostered economic liberalism.

Ferguson acknowledges that the immediate motivation for Empire was not always or even often altruistic — for instance, in the eighteenth century the British were as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as anyone. But at the end of the day, no organization in history did more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British Empire over the past two centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.

According to Ferguson, the same cannot be said for all empires. The British uniquely promoted the idea of liberty among their colonies. Even when the British were acting despotically, there was almost always a liberal critique of that behavior from within British society. This liberal impulse gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character. Once a colonial society had sufficiently adopted the other institutions the British brought with them (above all, representative assemblies), it became very hard for the British to prohibit that political liberty to which they had attached so much significance for themselves.

Even so, Ferguson argues, this liberal impulse did not do the Empire in. Rather, Britain was defeated by rival and far more ruthless empires — the German, Japanese and Italian empires in the Second World War. (The Soviet empire exacted its own great economic costs during the Cold War.) It was the staggering costs of fighting these imperial rivals that ultimately ruined the British Empire. The Empire was dismantled not because it had oppressed subject peoples for centuries, but because it took up arms for just a few years against far more repressive empires.

Some British revisionists today (echoing the voice of the appeasers in 1940) contend that this outcome was tragic and unnecessary. Scholars such as John Charmley claim that London should have cut a deal with Hitler after the fall of France, giving Germany a free hand in Europe in exchange for Berlin’s guarantee of the overseas British Empire. Churchill, Ferguson argues, rightly did not fall into the trap of believing that Hitler would keep such an agreement. The real alternative was not that of a new and secure Empire — much less a postcolonial utopia — but rather Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, Hirohito’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Mussolini’s New Rome. “When faced with the choice between appeasing or fighting the worst empires in all history,” Ferguson writes, “the British Empire had done the right thing— In 1940, under Churchill’s inspired, indomitable, incomparable leadership, the Empire had stood alone against the truly evil imperialism of Hitler.”

But Ferguson does agree with these revisionists that the United States also bears major responsibility for the end of the Empire. American war aims were in many ways more overtly hostile to the British Empire than anything Hitler had ever said. Roosevelt pressed Churchill to hand back Hong Kong to China as a good-will gesture. FDR pressed the British on independence for India. In the end, Britain had no choice. The foundations of the empire had been economic, and those foundations had been eaten up by the costs of the war; and by the Labour Party’s ambitions to build a comprehensive welfare state. The Empire went bust, pushed over the edge in the end by the Americans — or, more accurately, by the refusal of the United States to make common cause.

Why should Americans care about this story? Ferguson wants to encourage the United States to take up explicitly the burden of responsibility once borne by the British Empire. The United States is already an empire, he says, but an empire in denial. Ferguson, unfortunately, offers virtually no guidance as to what becoming an empire in name as well as fact might mean for America.

To explore this complex topic fully is beyond the scope of this review, but a few points usefully can be made. It is no accident that the United States was born out of a Revolution against (British) imperialism. Ferguson focuses primarily on economic freedom and prosperity, which indeed was the centerpiece of the British Empire.
Americans usually begin with political liberty and popular government. No taxation without representation was a political and constitutional maxim, not an economic one.

To be sure, political and economic freedoms are closely related, but one has to take precedence. For Americans, the key to a regime of political liberty is this: because all men are created equal, no one is good enough to govern another without his or her consent. And in the same manner, no nation or people are good enough to govern another without its consent. Each people have the right to establish a government (by consent) that it finds most conducive to its safety and happiness. The American understanding of political justice — which we claim to be universal justice — strikes directly at the heart of old-style imperialism. It is not at all clear what a new, improved, post-modern imperialism might be, but in any case, the United States is not a post-modern regime.

Of course, we are not complete novices with the complications of imperial rule. Jefferson referred to America as an Empire of Liberty and the United States grew immensely through territorial expansion. We struggled to apply the principle of consent to slaves, native Americans, and Filipinos, among others. Necessity occasionally compelled us to conquer and govern other peoples, as in the case of Germany and Japan (or, in a different sense today, Afghanistan and Iraq). But the standard of consent, as the ultimate judge of our conduct, must still govern our actions.

We cannot justly impose our rule on others, except under unusual and compelling circumstances. We can however support the conditions of freedom around the world. These conditions include the elimination of the threat of weapons of mass destruction; free trade under the rule of law; and the willingness to lead free peoples everywhere in defense of grave threats to liberty. In that sense we would be a worthy successor to the British Empire while maintaining the cause of 1776. The United States need not become an empire to support that cause.

Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.