Editor's Column

In Praise of Empires

The worst news I’ve heard about the COVID-19 pandemic was that it took the life of Deepak Lal, one of the wisest men I’ve known. Aged eighty, he was living in London and already suffering from a slow-acting cancer when the coronavirus proved too much for him. He died on April 30.

Several of Lal’s obituarists called him a “development economist” because that was how he made his name in the 1980s when he wrote a number of pungent criticisms of the socialist economic policies that until then had kept most of the Third World in poverty. In the last two or three decades of his life, however, he became one of the world’s great economic historians, which is his true legacy.

Keith Windschuttle’s  column appears in every Quadrant.
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Part of his wisdom was to recognise that, while economics was an important driver of both national and world histories, it was not alone. To understand the real history of any people, their political, cultural and religious lives were even more important. Quadrant readers can get a taste of his abilities from our July-August 2016 edition where he reviews a collection of historical essays by J.B. Kelly on the Middle East and ends up writing one of the most incisive criticisms yet made of recent Western interventions into that disaster zone.

The book of his that impressed me most, and which, even though it doesn’t mention Australia, is the one from which Australians can probably learn most, is In Praise of Empires, a 247-page volume, published in 2004 (Palgrave Macmillan, New York). These days, the concept of imperialism is so offensive to political fashions on university campuses that its title would by now have cost Deepak his professorship at UCLA (as a similar tract actually did in 2017 to Bruce Gilley at Portland State University). Nonetheless, Deepak told me at a conference in Sydney in 2006 that he enjoyed being one of the few Indian-born academics to take such a position when most others who gained places at US and UK universities were renowned for their reliance on post-colonial theory and anti-Western ideology.

Lal wrote his book to argue that most of the major empires in human history have provided long periods of peace and stability in which economic development could flourish. This was true from ancient to medieval times, and from Rome to China. In our own time, he maintains, the world still needs the domination of one global imperial power to keep as much peace as possible and preserve prosperity.

Lal’s book also suggests a new paradigm for understanding modern history. Rather than the story my generation was taught—a modernity full of revolutionaries overthrowing ancien regimes and romantic heroes building ethnic nations on the ruins of old royal dynasties—Lal argues the principal driver of modernity in the world was the British Empire. In the nineteenth century it generated a global empire of free trade, powered by the industrial revolution and enforced by a Royal Navy presence in all oceans. Britain provided direct rule in its formal empire and indirect rule in much of the rest of the world through gunboat diplomacy and economic opportunity. Lal calls this geographic and temporal structure Pax Britannica, the British peace. He also calls it the first Liberal International Economic Order.

From 1815 to 1914, imperialism gave Britain a century of peace at home and it provided the rest of the world with far more order and stability than it would otherwise have had. It was an empire not of plunder but of civil order that kept the channels of commerce free of pirates and predators. Britain did not do this because it wanted to conquer or even to civilise the world. It pursued its own interest to generate export trade and to provide international financial services. The industrial revolution produced a surplus of low-cost, factory-manufactured goods for which Britain sought global markets. The City of London also set out to become the financier to the world, providing short-term credit for trade and long-term credit for investment.

Despite the prevailing anti-colonialist cant that still condemns British imperialism as one of history’s great iniquities—as I write this, the morning press reports students at Sydney University are organising a rally to “dismantle the settler-colonial state system”—the first Liberal International Economic Order was hugely beneficial to all the countries it touched. British investment provided the infrastructure of rail, ports and coaling stations through which comparative advantage could be exploited by local entrepreneurs of many nations.

Imperialism encouraged investors to put their money in developing economies, places that would otherwise have been sites of great risk. Hence when the British Empire was at its peak it was a much greater positive force for international investment in poor countries than any more recent institutions. In 1913 some 63 per cent of foreign direct investment went to developing countries, whereas in 1996 the proportion was only 28 per cent; in 1913, 25 per cent of the world stock of capital was invested in poor countries but by 1997 it was no more than 5 per cent.

After 1918, with Britain crushed by the weight of war debt and debilitated by class warfare at home, Pax Britannica’s days were numbered. The United States emerged from the First World War the most economically and militarily powerful country, and Britain’s natural successor. Had it recognised its own global interests better, Lal says, it would have taken Britain’s place and produced a Pax Americana. Instead, it embraced the Wilsonian idealism of collective security through trans­national associations. This model soon failed, and America retreated into isolationism and protectionism. Arguably, Lal writes, the United States’ reluctance to assume the imperial role contributed to many of the disasters of the last century: two world wars, the Great Depression, and the rise and fall of two illiberal creeds, fascism and communism.

Chastened by the experience of international disorder that American isolationism permitted in the interwar years, by the end of the Second World War the US political elite changed tack. It recognised its national interest required a strong maritime power to uphold the balance of power in Europe and to maintain economic and political order in the rest of the world. Its members surreptitiously took up the task of building a US imperium to maintain the Pax which the British were now both unwilling and unable to support.

The US constructed a new Liberal International Economic Order for the post-war world, using transnational institutions to open world markets to trade in goods and the free flow of capital. Initially, a number of Third World countries, under the thrall of the Soviet Union, either stood outside or only half-heartedly joined the new order. But after the debt crisis of the 1980s and the collapse of European communism in 1989, there was a rush to join. The most notable converts were India and China. The only countries that failed to join this newest phase of globalisation were those of Africa and the Middle East, which thereby excluded themselves from this era of economic progress.

Pax Americana will no doubt seem to many to be alien to American political traditions. In the midst of the controversy over his invasion of Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush told a gathering of military veterans that America had no territorial ambitions. “We don’t seek an empire,” he said. “Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others.”

Lal responds to this by distinguishing two different kinds of empires: those that seek to advance certain enterprises, such as taking plunder or imposing an ideology; and those that do not seek to impose their own objectives, but rather see themselves as a custodian of laws and civil order. The British Empire was the latter kind, a model that is not inconsistent with American traditions, or at least with classical liberal American traditions.

So, what would the world lose from a seriously anti-imperialist US? It would lose the Liberal International Economic Order. Lal argues that such a loss can occur without the United States falling over the kind of precipice that ended the Roman Empire. It could happen gradually within the current framework of democratic politics simply from an American reluctance to fulfil the role and a preference to withdraw into itself, as it did in the interwar period. If this happens, others, especially China or India, may well fill its place.

The problem with this scenario is that neither China nor India has the political traditions and culture required for the task. If either became the world imperium we might still have an International Economic Order, but it would not be classically liberal. Indeed, Lal argues, it would lose the one thing that made it work in the first place, and the one thing that made it a force for good in the world.

Keith Windschuttle is Quadrant‘s editor

7 thoughts on “In Praise of Empires

  • 48header says:

    A pleasure to get this article in my inbox this morning. It made me wonder whether multiculturalism is the internalisation of empire, the subsequent capacity of single political entities to relativise and embrace difference within one polity? Is it then Empire Day ghosting on as the great internalised heir to the Pax Britannica? A kind of Lockean flowering of positive toleration, 330 years on.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Australia was part of the British Empire for more than half its history. The actual time span depends on how one defines an “empire”. A convenient end-point might be the Imperial Conference of 1926, or even the accession of the present queen in 1952. But in any case, the fact is undeniable that Australia as a modern nation, with all its achievements and blessings, is the product of its Imperial past.
    Generations of Australians proudly called themselves “colonists” or “colonials”! The British Empire brought them security and prosperity, with access to vast global markets. It defined and shaped their world and their culture, their political and legal systems, their laws, their educational institutions, their religion, their language, their arts, their sciences, their hospitals, their clothing, their food, their housing, their leisure activities, their foreign policy, their armed forces, their involvement in wars. To airbrush all this out of Australia’s history, or reduce it to some kind of moral offence, is simply ludicrous.
    Yet such is the current academic climate that any attempt to present the benefits of Empire in serious historical discourse will be howled down by the banshees in the universities. This is not merely shamefully shallow and dishonest academic practice, it also dishonours our nation and our forebears.
    A healthier, more positive approach is needed. Perhaps that too can be found in the traditions and culture bequeathed to us by the British Empire, as in this ancient passage from the Apocrypha, which may be familiar to some Quadrant readers from the setting by Vaughan Williams:
    “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
    The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.
    Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
    Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions:
    Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
    Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations;
    All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.” (Ecclesiasticus 44 (KJV)

  • DG says:

    For all the horrors that attend human endeavour, the British imperium only gets criticised because we have no experience of the worse forms.

  • lloveday says:

    The USA can’t take a trick!
    “From 1815 to 1914, imperialism gave Britain a century of peace at home and it provided the rest of the world with far more order and stability than it would otherwise have had”.
    Then came WW1, and “The United States emerged from the First World War the most economically and militarily powerful country, and Britain’s natural successor”. AFTER WW1.
    But instead the USA “embraced the Wilsonian idealism of collective security through transnational associations”. AFTER WW1
    Yet Lal claims “the United States’ reluctance to assume the imperial role contributed to many of the disasters of the last century: two world wars …”.
    So, the USA’s failure to assume the imperial role AFTER WW1 contributed to the disaster that was the just finished WW1! Does not compute in my brain.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    “Lal argues the principal driver of modernity in the world was the British Empire”

    Its very hard to argue against that proposition. Rather like the Roman Empire and the trade and cultural growth generated by the Pax Romana. Bryan Ward-Perkins makes the case that the Fall of Rome really was as an older generation of classists taught us: it was the ‘End of Civilisation’, the sub-title to Ward-Perkin’s short and fascinating book (OUP, 2005) looking at the empirical material decline of pottery, housing, transport, trade and even the decline in the size of domestic cattle. A world in decay, organisation and taxation collapsing, that lost a widespread literacy and the formula for cement, and not to be esily re-conceptualised as a simple shift from a nasty colonising culture to a self-governing Germanic culture, in Britain, and especially in Europe seamlessly shifting into something called ‘Late Antiquity’. The barbarians, Ward-Perkins argues, really were barbarians.
    Truth to tell, of course all empires can be seen to have their unpleasant side, but fair is fair. Empires were sometimes better than that. And what followed was often considerably worse.
    How silly that today an historian can lose his or her job over even noticing that the Emperor sometimes really was wearing clothes, well-made ones, which encouraged others to get some of those too.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Oops, typo: classicists.

    Note too the humanising features of empires. The Romans took a while to promote it, but Christianity, as a product of Empire, had an inherent humanism. Before that too, Roman pagan scholars did much to spread Greek humanist traditions through the Empire to produce the consolations of philosophy. The British banned widow-burning in India early on in their rule and British Law suggested that a caste system didn’t sit well with British justice. Ghandi trained as a lawyer.

  • lloveday says:

    I can’t vouch for the authenticity of course, but I enjoyed this:
    From America Alone: by Mark Steyn:
    “The British in India were faced with the practice of ‘suttee’ – the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands,”
    “General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: ‘You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.’

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