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Imperial Nostalgia: Who Did It Better—And Why It Matters

Monday 31 August 2015

By Nick Danforth

In bookstores around the world, there are undoubtedly Marxist professors eager to talk at length about the evils of U.S. imperialism. But only in Turkey, it seems, are they quite so eager to hold up Ottoman imperialism as the more enlightened alternative: the American and British empires dominated the Middle East through military force, the lecture goes, purely to exploit its resources. The Ottomans, by contrast, secured the consent of the governed by providing them with stability, justice, and prosperity. Really, in light of the Ottoman government’s inclusive political practices, you could hardly call it an empire at all.

An American more confident in being able to translate the phrase “arsenal of democracy” might have countered that it was really the United States that had the empire so great that it wasn’t really an empire at all. If anything, the American Empire was an empire of liberty, an empire by invitation, perhaps, welcomed around the world for replacing chaos and want with order and wealth.

There is a long history of people championing imperialism as a more civilized alternative to violent instability—and an equally long tradition of haggling over whose empire did it better. Many of these arguments, like those above, depend on selective readings of history that downplay or ignore the role of violent coercion in imperial rule. Sufficiently romanticized, this sort of imperial nostalgia can even be marshaled in support of quintessentially liberal proposals for establishing international order and peace, such as the UN or EU. Consider the career of Otto von Habsburg: born as the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Otto subsequently became an outspoken advocate of European integration, invoking the supposed success of Habsburg rule while serving as president of the International Paneuropean Union and a leading member of the EU’s European Parliament.

But in the face of global instability, others have been drawn to a different, more realist version of imperial nostalgia, one that embraces imperialism’s reliance on violence in order to argue that only force can bring much-needed order to a dangerous world. It’s not that anyone is arguing for a contemporary reconquest of the non-Western world, of course. But plenty of people draw on the imperial past to justify their faith that U.S. military power can reliably deal with recalcitrant Third World states. Unlike the less violent alternative, this version of imperial nostalgia seeks to preempt liberal criticism about the horrors of empire with an appeal to steely-eyed realpolitik.

No less than rose-tinted imperial nostalgia, though, the fixation with force ignores the fact that most imperialists succeeded by using a mix of consent and coercion carefully calibrated to the conditions they faced. More important, Western imperialism flourished, for a time, by maintaining a clear distinction between realms of coercion and realms of consent—that is, a distinction between much weaker Third World regions that could be controlled by force and more powerful imperial rivals that required careful diplomacy and well-coordinated cooperation.

The problem for neoimperialists today is that it is not at all clear where this line should be maintained. For example, the threat of U.S. military power may have helped in ending Libya’s nuclear program, but it remains largely irrelevant in addressing the much greater danger posed by a nuclear Pakistan. The ongoing debate over how best to deal with Iranian nuclear ambitions reflects in part wildly divergent perceptions that exist over how effective force might be in the case of Iran. Map of British Empire. Image taken from The India & Colonial Exhibition, London, 1886. Map of British Empire. Image taken from The India & Colonial Exhibition, London, 1886.

Imperial nostalgia naturally tends to focus on the empires that prevailed. But, as the particularly bloody history of eastern Europe and the Balkans reveals, trying to establish an empire in the wrong place and rule the wrong people by force can have catastrophic consequences. Which is why, shorn of any nostalgia, the history of imperialism, complete with its successes and failures, offers a surprisingly pragmatic argument for a more multilateral, less imperial, foreign policy today.

GOLDEN AGE The golden age of European imperialism was, by the low standards Europeans set for themselves, a golden age of European cooperation as well. As has often been noted, the United Kingdom and France built their empires during a century when the much-lauded “Concert of Europe” prevented open conflict on the continent. For a time, before the peace broke down, European powers maintained their global rule by bringing order to the colonies at gunpoint and maintaining it among themselves through deft diplomacy.

With Russia, for example, England’s imperial rival for much of the century, open conflict erupted only once, and very briefly, during the Crimean War. And even if, as many argue, World War I broke out either because Germany wanted a larger piece of the imperial pie or because the martial approach so central to imperial rule eventually consumed all involved, it did not wholly negate the role of imperial cooperation. The United Kingdom won the war, in part, because it had been sufficiently willing over the past century to share the spoils of its imperial order with the United States, giving the United States a vested interest in coming to the rescue.

In the Third World, however, Washington, for all its anti-imperial rhetoric, maintained something much closer to a traditional imperial order, relying on coups, assassinations, and, at times, outright invasion to sustain U.S. power. The United States, in turn, built and maintained its global power by subtly managing the distinction between places where it largely relied on forceful coercion and those where it took a more collaborative approach. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was a committed internationalist who simultaneously helped build a U.S. empire in Latin America. A similar distinction prevailed during the Cold War: in western Europe, U.S. influence took the form of NATO. While the Soviets tried, and failed, to rule their eastern European empire by force, Washington used the North Atlantic alliance to establish a true “empire by invitation” and maintained it in the same spirit. When France withdrew from the NATO command structure in 1966, to cite the most famous example, the United States didn’t send tanks into Paris the way the Soviets did in Budapest and Prague.

In the Third World, however, Washington, for all its anti-imperial rhetoric, maintained something much closer to a traditional imperial order, relying on coups, assassinations, and, at times, outright invasion to sustain U.S. power. No one was more bitterly attuned to the hypocrisy of American anti-imperialism than British colonial officials, many of whom spent the early Cold War writing peevish memos to complain as Washington stole their empire out from under them. Some even seemed to suggest that in presenting itself as an anti-imperial force in the world, the United States was no better than imperial Japan, which had framed its own imperial ambitions in the anti-imperial rhetoric of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The point here, though, is not about U.S. hypocrisy. Rather, after peeling away the rhetoric, it becomes clear that whatever they said, U.S. policymakers maintained a fairly clear sense of where they could rely on coercion and where they would be better off taking a more collaborative approach. The supposedly realpolitik-driven neoimperialists of today must also be able to draw such a divide. After all, the British Empire didn’t transform itself into a commonwealth because its leaders went wobbly, any more than Russian President Vladimir Putin built a post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States because he cares about their common wealth. Rather, these transformations happened because the vast disparity in power that made it possible for imperial powers to rule large swaths of the world through force disappeared, and those imperial powers had to come up with a new plan.

EMPIRE’S LESSONS The Austro-Hungarian Empire was not a nineteenth-century version of the EU, nor was the Ottoman Empire the paragon of liberal tolerance its admirers sometimes imagine it to be. But it also wasn’t the brutal, bloodthirsty despotism remembered in angry Balkan histories or Islamophobic screeds. Imperialism’s realist admirers need look no farther than eastern Europe and the Balkans to find an example of the dangers of ambiguity over who is colonizable and who isn’t. In addition to being associated with the worst excesses of modern nationalism, this region experienced violent forms of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Soviet rule during the course of the twentieth century. During and after World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s push for anti-imperial national self-determination focused on the Balkans and eastern Europe. Whereas German propaganda naturally focused on British and French overseas colonies, U.S. propaganda highlighted the “subject nationalities of the German Alliance.” Allied victory in the war, coupled with power disparities and prevailing Western racism, helped cement the consensus, for a little while, at least, that imperial rule was suitable for Africa and Asia, but not for what was considered the most backward part of the European continent. The League of Nations struggled with this tension between imperialism and internationalism from the outset, but the real problems came when Nazi Germany refused to accept Europe’s new consensus on who could be colonized. As detailed by Columbia University Professor Mark Mazower in his book Hitler’s Empire, the Germans, armed with their own redirected form of racism, sought to violently impose their own imperial order on eastern Europe, the Balkans, and then eventually all of Europe.

German rule in the Balkans was both a moral catastrophe and exceedingly short-lived. What’s more, the turmoil induced by its failure led directly to the establishment of a Soviet empire in the region and to the Cold War. Moscow was able to maintain some power at gunpoint, but its empire lasted barely half a century in the face of popular opposition. By comparison, European empires in the Third World lasted over a century in some cases, before Europeans lost the surfeit of force necessary to sustain them. In Europe, the Germans and the Russians never quite achieved it, and their empires, unable to rule by consent or coercion, came to a much quicker end.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was not a nineteenth-century version of the EU, nor was the Ottoman Empire the paragon of liberal tolerance its admirers sometimes imagine it to be. But it also wasn’t the brutal, bloodthirsty despotism remembered in angry Balkan histories or Islamophobic screeds. These empires, like the United States today, secured a measure of stability and regional integration through a combination of coercion and consent. Writing violence out of the history of any empire is no less absurd than embracing violence as the path to postnational stability under the guise of realism. The challenge of ensuring justice and order in a chaotic world is daunting enough without the distraction of either one of these delusions.

More important, the part of the globe that can be dominated through force alone has shrunk over the past century. It’s a lesson the United States confronted in Iraq and Libya—and one that the Turkish government, whose imperial nostalgia has taken a newfound interest in force, risks learning in Syria. Those seeking to preserve the U.S.-led global order might do well to look toward the strategies that sustained it in regions where American statesmen always realized coercion would not suffice.

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