Migration and the Dynamics of Empire

Migration and the Dynamics of Empire

Mini Teaser: Do all roads lead to the new (American) Rome? The imperial task has always been affected by the movement of peoples. It still is.

by Author(s): James Kurth

However, the largest immigrant communities in the United States are Latin American in origin. Latino-Americans now compose the largest minority in the United States, having recently surpassed African-Americans. Latino immigrants obviously already perform functions essential to the American economy, and they are steadily acquiring political power, including a kind of veto power on many issues for which they have a particular concern. They have been successful, for example, in preventing consistent enforcement of laws and regulations directed against illegal Latino immigrants and, particularly in California, in deterring discussion about the darker aspects of Mexican history in the public schools or in official discourse.

Might imperial immigration cause the United States to become two nations, as is now the prospect for some European countries? The first nation could be the Euro-Anglo nation, English speakers descended from European peoples. As in Europe, much of this nation would be secular, rich, old and feeble. The second nation could be a Latino nation, descended from Latin American peoples. Much of it would be Christian (evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant as well as Roman Catholic), poor, young and robust. These two nations could well come to regard each other with mutual suspicion and, in some quarters, with contempt. It is probably too much to predict that there will be a widespread fear of Latino terrorism in the Euro-Anglo nation, although young Latinos in the United States may learn something from their Islamic counterparts in Europe. However, it is not unlikely that there will be a widespread perception of Latino crime. The gated communities of Euro-Anglos, which are already widespread in the southwestern United States, are likely to become an even more central part of the Euro-Anglo way of life, and to define the distinctive architectural style and urban design of the Euro-Anglo nation.

Still, Latino-American culture is much closer to Anglo-American culture than Muslim is to European, if only because the two American cultures share a common Christian origin. This may retard or abort the development of two distinct nations within the United States. More likely, perhaps already happening, is the development in the Southwest of a blend of American and Mexican features, a sort of "Amerexico." This is a society whose upper or capital-owning class is Euro-Anglo, whose professional and middle classes are largely Euro-Anglo but partly Mexican-American, and whose working and lower-class members--those who do the dirty work--are overwhelmingly Mexican-American. It is characterized by a rough correlation between class and color, which amounts to a racial division of labor. As such, it has important similarities to the colonial societies of the European empires, which were also characterized by a racial or ethnic division of labor.

Indeed, as the ratio of Mexican-Americans to Euro-Anglo-Americans increases, Amerexico may come to resemble something like Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, or perhaps even all of Ireland as it was during the British Empire. If so, the United States would have become not only an empire abroad, but also one at home.

Empire and Emigration

ESSENTIAL TO every empire is an imperial class--the civil officials, military officers and business managers who go forth from the empire's metropole to its dominions and colonies to carry out its policies and practices. In other words, it is inherent in an empire that certain people will be imperial emigrants. Imperial emigrants are even more essential to an empire than are the imperial immigrants that have been the focus of our attention so far.

Who will comprise the imperial emigrants, the imperial class, of the American empire? Here it is useful to distinguish between the three different components of an imperial class--civil, military and business.

The U.S. military has had more than a half century of experience of peacetime service overseas, especially in Germany, Japan and South Korea, but also elsewhere. More than any other American institution, the military knows how and why it serves. They are the true heirs to the legendary civil officials, and not just the dedicated military officers, of the British Empire. Nor does America lack business entrepreneurs, managers and professionals who are willing to go overseas, especially to long-established (and more predictable) realms of the American Empire, particularly Latin America, Europe and East Asia. These American business people are the counterparts to the merchants, managers and engineers of the British Empire.

The problem, perhaps the void, in the American imperial class lies in the civil officials. There is no obvious equivalent of the Indian Civil Service or the Colonial Civil Service of the British Empire, that distinguished cadre of graduates from Oxford and Cambridge who served for long and hard years as district officers in the remote regions of the empire. The graduates of the best American universities are "organization kids" intent on a successful career within America itself.  In any event, the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency can hardly be compared to the civil services of the British Empire, either in regard to effectiveness or morale.

The real civil servants of the American empire are not American in their physical origin. They are, however, American in their intellectual apparatus. They are the foreign students who come to American universities and learn American principles and practices. In particular, they are the economics majors and business school students who come to believe in the free market, and the political science majors and law school students who come to believe in liberal democracy and the rule of law. When (or if) they return to their home countries, they will know both the culture and customs of their own society and the principles and practices of American society. These foreign students are both imperial immigrants--when they arrive in America for their studies--and imperial emigrants--when they return home for their careers.

Moreover, those who stay in America, as a great many do, form a kind of corpus colosseum between the American metropole and its hinterland. This goes for scientists and engineers as well as businessmen and lawyers. The computer whizzes from the subcontinent who live and work in America are the empire's most efficient and effective links to the considerable talents in Bangalore, for example. They and others (Chinese, Israelis, Australians) perform functions voluntarily--indeed, eagerly and unassumingly--for the American empire roughly analogous to those of the population transfer policies of the Habsburg Empire and especially of the Ottoman Empire. They help integrate the elites of the imperial periphery to those of the imperial core, though in an Internet world they do so in less materially obvious ways.

From the perspective of the American empire, these imperial immigrants/emigrants--local in their outer appearance, American in their inner attitudes--are perfect candidates for political and economic leadership in the empire's outer and even inner domains. And, indeed, a significant number of current officials in Latin America, Europe and East Asia are graduates of American universities, and an even larger cadre of graduates is now entering into official careers. The ability of the American empire to govern its domains will depend upon its success in producing this distinct kind of immigrant/emigrant to serve as its distinct kind of imperial civil official. In the empires of the past, the metropole served as the mind, and the colonies served as the body. The American empire is attempting to solve the imperial mind-body problem in a new way. In a sense, it seeks to perform a series of brain-transplants, to put an imperial mind into a colonized body.

The earlier European empires--the empires of the industrial age--also made some effort to educate and enculturate the best and the brightest from the colonies in the principles and practices of the empire. These efforts were successful in important ways (for example, they resulted in some exceptionally creative works of literature), but in the end they could not prevent--indeed they helped to cause--the rise of colonial nationalism and the demise of the empire. The American empire--the empire of the information age--is based even more upon ideas than the empires of the past. They are, in the recent formulation of Michael Mandelbaum "the ideas that conquered the world-peace, democracy, and free markets." In essence, these are the same ideas that Thomas Jefferson wrote into the birth certificate of the United States, the Declaration of Independence--"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As long as the American empire appears to be providing some semblance of life, liberty and the pursuit of happin ess to the peoples of its vast realm, it has a good chance of thriving.

If, however, the American empire fails to prevent a series of wars, or a new plague of sinister dictatorships, or a global economic depression, or the alienation of its own elite, then its ideas clearly would no longer dominate the world, and its particular and peculiar imperial civil service could no longer control the empire's domains. The empire would then come to an end, like the European empires before it. This, ultimately, is what is at stake in the war on terrorism, and why the United States must decisively win it. If it does not and the empire weakens, there would still be one massive legacy left from the imperial age. That would be the vast population of imperial immigrants within a now-diminished metropole, within the territory of the United States itself.

James Kurth is Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, where he is chairman of the Study Group on America and the West.

Essay Types: Essay