Lal’s Defense of Empires

A while ago I read two interesting articles by Deepak Lal. Helen Szameuly, of this blog, and Albion’s Seedlings and her home base at the EU Referendum blog recommended Lal’s book In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order, which I have not read yet. I’ll get to it.

The two articles were Asia and Western Dominance and In Defense of Empires , which is a short version of the book. So, even though I haven’t read the book itself, I’ll go after Lal a little bit anyway. How unfair is that? If you can’t be unfair on a blog, where the Hell can you be unfair, anyway? And do, please, read these essays, if necessary rather than this blog post. Print them out and read them on the train tomorrow. Really. They are very good. That is why I bother to bring them to your attention.

My take-away is that Lal is solid on the econ side, and on the history, pretty much. Despite being mostly good, it does seem to me that he is wrong in two important ways. First, he misunderstands how different the Pax Brittanica really was from prior, land-based empires. As a result, he generalizes about “empires” in a way that I cannot fully buy into.

(As an aside, the best book to read about comparing how the various empires functioned and how they stack up against each other, you have to read Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals by Dominic Lieven, which is brilliant.)

The British Empired ruled with a relatively light hand and at relatively low cost. It imposed the most general types of rules. It only ran up the flag where that seemed necessary, and probably made just as much money on the informal parts of its empire in China or South America as it did anywhere else. The British Empire expanded by a process of “creep” at the margins, often over the alarmed cries emanating from a tight-fisted treasury. The British also bluffed a lot. Perhaps most importantly, the British wisely wound up the business when the costs got too high. They hauled down the flag, ran up a new one for the natives to salute, and scurried up the gangway and got out of town before the whole thing fell apart. They did not have anything like the French experience in Algeria, for good reason.

And the sorts of costs associated with winning and keeping an empire are only getting higher. Lal’s suggestion that anyone really undertake a new empire in any strong sense of the word is a century out of date, at least.

By failing to grasp this, Lal misunderstands the United States, which is more rational than he gives it credit for. We are a hegemon but we are not an empire in the sense of many of historical examples, and we don’t want to be. Moreover, in an age of cheap explosives and firearms and cellphones and the internet and television, there are no more backward, isolated places to conquer. The dirt-cheap but very destructive Iraqi insurgency shows how hard it would be to impose a real empire. A Pax Americana cannot and should not look like the Pax Brittanica, let alone a mission civilatrice or other, more heavy-handed examples of imperial rule. We are correct to want to let people rule their own affairs, but get them to buy into certain “rule sets”, to use a Barnettism. This is a rather minimalist vision, far short of “Empire”.

Lal also shows that he is coming from the “econ” side by a certain boneheadedness when it comes to political reality. Like many econ-trained classical liberals he is absolutely certain about the benefits of free trade, it is an old argument to him that should not even have to be made. So, he suggests that the USA should just “get over it” and create a free trade regime. This is an utter impossibility. The Jacksonian element in American life is what gives America the military muscle to go kill people in foreign lands, and it is the only thing that makes all this empire talk possible, that keeps us from being a vast Belgium. But that same element in our national life has no interest in righting the worlds wrongs generally. Nor does it like foreigners, or trust them, and trade is perceived as a way to gain advantage over foreigners if possible and a way to lose American jobs if it is mishandled. It is adversarial. No amount of exasperated lectures by econ profs in bow ties will change this perception. It is structural.

A good corrective to Lal, even in his short form, is Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition, by Jack Snyder. Snyder talks about how people come up with security rationales for some pretty far-fetched military and imperialist ventures. His discussion of the intellectual house of cards that preceded the Fashoda Incident is especially good. A little too cynical, but a good antidote for someone like me who tends to get worked up and want to send the Marines to faraway locales, unless I impose a cool-down period on myself. It is easier to get into these places than to get out of them again.

Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings.

2 thoughts on “Lal’s Defense of Empires”

  1. Lieven’s book is excellent on the Russian empire, which is not surprising as that is his subject and he is one of the leading historians in it. He is pretty good on the others, but finds certain land empires hard to fathom. He most certainly hasn’t a clue about what is happening in Europe now, something to do with his refusal to look at earlier European empires in Europe more closely.

  2. I thought Lieven was good on the Habsburg empire, and very good on Russia, as you note, and had good insights on the British Empire. I don’t recall particularly his thoughts on contemporary Eastern Europe.

    Historians are not much better than anybody else at understanding the present. David Hackett Fischer, pretty much my intellectual hero, is weak on contemporary events, at least in his last book. He comes off like a center-left academic. No surprise there.

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