Last night, I saw the move classic The Man Who Would Be King, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. It got me thinking about all of the loose talk lately about “empire” and “imperialism” in connection with our foreign policy. This talk comes from a variety of sources: leftists looking for a pejorative way to describe our foreign policy, historians looking for an excuse to talk about their area of expertise and/or seeking to revive debates about British history, and some conservatives (such as the estimable Max Boot)looking to brace us for further adventures.
In my view, the terms “empire” and “imperialism” are largely useless both as descriptions of our foreign policy and as prescriptions for what it should be. It would require lots of space to explain why. The best I can do right now is to share this e-mail from my conservative cousin George. He writes:
“Did you see Nial Ferguson’s piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine on why Americans don’t seem to be interested in running a colonial empire. His thesis seems to be that America must assume the role of the old British Empire in order to help assure the safety of the world from radical Islam. Yet the American public is uninterested. In addition to the historical antipathy of Americans to colonial empires, Ferguson cites the preference of elite school graduates for business careers as opposed to the foreign service.
I take issue with Ferguson’s view of the proper role for America in the Islamic world. Recent events certainly show the need for a vigorous military and diplomatic effort to counter the threat of terrrorism. Yet, I shudder to think of the prospects of a clutch of elite school liberal arts graduates serving as viceroys in a third-world nation building exercise. This sounds too much like a return to the days of Walt Rostow and Robert McNamara’s dismal failure in Vietnam. Perhaps ad hoc military and diplomatic actions as threats emerge would be preferable to empire building.”
I think this gets to the essence of the issue. If you aren’t persuaded, watch The Man Who Would Be King.
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