The Economics and Sociology of Imperialism

Empires, historically, have been of tremendous economic benefit to their heartland. That, traditionally, is a powerful reason why nations set out in search of colonies. The American empire, however, has not translated into economic predominance. In global terms, the US has become a net debtor, mortgaging its future by running current account deficits of five percent or more, seemingly into the indefinite future. Such deficits, because they undermine stability, have been prohibited to members of the European Union and would drive a developing country into World Bank receivership.

To make matters worse, America has been trying to make up for its shortfall in current receipts by borrowing: from itself, from future generations and from other states. Whereas, from 1960 to 1976, the US ran a balance of payments surplus with respect to its transactions with other states, since 1982 this has turned into a three trillion dollar deficit. At the same time Americans have been selling off their assets. Foreign investors now own about 8 trillion dollars worth of these. However, even this is not as threatening to American power as would be a world-wide loss of confidence in the future stability of the dollar and its economy. That, unfortunately, is no longer so remote a possibility. Were foreign investors in dollar-denominated securities to tire of our sluggish economy, our rock-bottom returns on capital, they might stop buying our debt and start cashing in. Certainly, there are warning signs. The dollar has depreciated against the Euro by almost twenty-five percent in the past sixteen months. One begins to hear whispers of the inflation that almost always follows such imbalance as now exists between national receipts and expenditures. It seems all too possible that the pursuit of empire will do for the United States what the exhausting arms race did for the Soviet Union.

Historically, moreover, the pursuit of empire has had a mobilizing effect on the society of the metropolitan power. In America, however, there is today very little sense of the Victorian spirit of “Rule Britannia”. The nation feels less, not more, united. This, too, may be attributable at least in part, to the economic toll the American role as sole superpower has taken on the social fabric. According to the (Republican) economist Kevin Phillips, in the past twenty years the gap between the richest one percent and the poorest twenty percent of the population has more than doubled, from a ratio of 30:1 in 1979 to more than 75:1 in 1999. Moreover, the nation is about to reduce spending on such basic needs as education, health care and infrastructure by $100 billion. One consequence is that most US cities are nearly bankrupt. This does not describe a very supple socio-economic springboard from which to launch the leap into empire. Rather, it seems to predict the social divisiveness that marked the era of the Vietnam war.

The mobilizing civic pride of empire also has depended, historically, on how the imperial venture is regarded by others. When one quarter of the world’s map was coloured red, there was envy of the British Empire, but also a grudging admiration. The rain-soaked home counties of Britain basked in the warmth of the sun that was, everywhere, acknowledged never to set on their imperium.

America’s role as sole superpower, too, initially was accorded such acclaim. At last, people everywhere thought, the world has a benevolent imperium, a preeminence imagined to spring from respect for law, liberty and democracy. On 11 September 2001, every nation in the world voiced its support for the victim: not merely for the innocent people killed, but also for the decent nation unjustly violated. Now, opinion polls reveal, the citizens of almost every nation regard America as the world’s gravest threat to peace. This negativity is not based only on the invasion of Iraq but on other unilateral moves, all taken in cavalier disregard of the rest of the world’s agenda and values as expressed in the treaty prohibiting land-mines, the Kyoto Protocol on environmental pollution, the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court and other recent multilateral initiatives.

Saddled with so much international animosity, the US can no longer count on the sort of burden-sharing that once animated its creative participation in instruments of multilateral diplomacy such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In great undertakings, nations excluded from the take-off are under¬≠standably reluctant to share responsibility for the landing. That, in turn, fuels the argument in Washington for acting without much regard for international institutions and the “old Europe,” heedless of history and of the economic and social implications.