The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

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by Author(s): James Kurth

In the European tale, the nineteenth-century overland annexations of
the United States (especially the Louisiana Purchase and the
southwestern annexations after the Mexican War) were reminiscent of
the eighteenth-century overland annexations by Prussia (especially in
Poland) and the several-century overland annexations of Russia (again
in Poland, but also in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia). On
this view, the major difference between the American "Westward
Movement" and the German "Drive to the East" is merely one of
direction. (Germans and Russians have sometimes added that while they
may have exploited the peoples that they conquered, the Americans
largely exterminated them.)

More relevant in our time, however, is what the European tale says
about the twentieth century. Here, the important idea is that empire
can be "informal" as well as "formal", that while there are different
kinds and degrees of imperial rule, they are all still variations on
an imperial theme. With the European empires, formal rule over
colonial peoples was the norm. But some of these empires, most
notably the British but also to some extent the French and the
Russian, included an "informal empire", that is, less formal rule
over a variety of protectorates, client states, and dependencies.
These countries were formally independent or autonomous, but really
dependent and constrained. One ideal-typical and colorful example was
that of the "princely states" of India, with their maharajahs, which
existed side by side with British India proper, with formal direct
administration by British officials.

While formal rule was the norm and informal rule the exception with
the European empires, in the case of the American empire the reverse
was true. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind, and both
Europeans and Americans have engaged in formal and informal varieties
of imperial rule. From a European perspective, there was not much
difference in the first half of the twentieth century between, say,
British rule over the Federated Malay States, French rule over the
monarchies of Indochina (Annam, Cambodia, and Laos), and American
rule over the Commonwealth of the Philippines. Nor was there much
difference between British rule over its mandates and clients in the
Middle East (Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt), French rule over its mandates
in the region (Syria and Lebanon), and American rule over its sphere
of influence in the Caribbean and Central America (not only during
the first half of the twentieth century but also during the second).

The most important similarities between the European and the American
empires, however, do not lie in the realm or at the scale of specific
dependent territories, even ones as large as a subcontinent (India)
or a continent (Latin America). The most important feature of an
empire is how it seeks to order not just its own territories but an
entire world, to set the standard for a way of life and for the
spirit of an age. This is exemplified in the empire's particular
vision of politics, economics, culture, and ultimately of such
fundamentals as human nature and the meaning of life itself. These
together comprise its imperial idea. We shall consider the imperial
idea of six great empires, from the Habsburg to the American.

The Habsburg Empire and the Roman Catholic Faith

It was the Roman Empire that first taught Europeans what an empire
could and should be. It set the standard and haunted the imagination
of Europeans for more than a millennium after its fall. The Roman
imperial idea was expressed in the Roman law and the Latin language
and was embodied in classical architecture and the Roman family. Long
after the power of empire had disappeared, these four features
remained as a venerable legacy of the Empire's achievements, as an
empire of the mind. But the Roman Empire also lived on in a concrete,
institutional way as well, in the form of the Roman Catholic Church,
whose structure and offices (including the highest one, the master
bridge-builder between the temporal and the spiritual realms or
Pontifex Maximus) mirrored those of the Empire. The Roman Catholic
Church was a far more real heir to the Roman Empire than its more
temporal counterpart and sometime rival, the medieval Holy Roman

It was wholly natural, then, for the first empire of the modern era,
that of the Habsburgs of Austria and Spain, to believe that it was
bringing about a long-awaited restoration of the Roman Empire.
Indeed, this restored empire would be more complete and more
fulfilled than the original, for it would include not just the Old
World but also the New, and not just the temporal world but also the
spiritual one. The Habsburg Empire was a renaissance empire in a
double sense: in its particular era as well as in its imperial idea.

At the center of the Habsburg imperial idea was the Roman Catholic
faith. Every major feature of the Empire was an expression of the
Roman Catholic conception of the human condition. This can be seen in
such disparate areas as government, law, economics, city planning,
public architecture, and, in the Spanish realm, even the design of
the private home. Human nature was understood to be a complex product
of both divine grace and human sin, with human beings capable of both
great good and great evil. The good would be nurtured and the evil
subdued within a strong governing authority and a strong spiritual
authority that worked closely together. At the same time, these
authorities allowed local energies to flourish within the universal
(catholic as well as Catholic) order. Real local autonomy was
contained within formal centralized authority.

In the Habsburg and Catholic vision, the ideal human type was the
saint. But as was shown most clearly in the Spanish version, saints
might be as varied as the soldier in the perpetual service of the
faith (Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits or
Soldiers of Christ) or the mystic in perpetual communion with the
divine (Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Avila). More
commonly, however, the human ideal was the mature person who had
experienced enough of life's challenges, trials, and sorrows to have
acquired strength, wisdom, and judgment, and who could now govern and
guide others for the common good. Such a person was needed to find
the poised balance that was energy within order. And such a degree of
maturity could only be reached after many decades of adulthood,
probably not until one's fifties, if then.

The British Empire and the Benevolent Monarchy

The British Empire is not normally regarded as having anything like a
vision of the sort that characterized the Habsburgs. There definitely
was some kind of British imperial idea, however, even though its
vision was less cohesive, less centralized so to speak, than that of
the Habsburgs. In fact, there were several ideas at the center of the
British conception of empire. One idea, parallel to the Roman
Catholicism of the Habsburgs, was that of Protestant Christianity.
This idea had a remarkably long run, from the time of Elizabeth I (as
the "Virgin Queen", a Protestant counterpart to the Catholics' Virgin
Mary) to the time of Victoria, with its numerous and active missionary
societies. But the Protestant faith in the British Empire was less
pervasive and comprehensive than the Roman Catholic faith was in the
Habsburg one. Another idea was that of the British (or English)
nation (or, for a while, race), which was parallel to the central
idea of the French Empire. But the British nation really consisted of
a complicated mixture of English, Scottish, and Welsh nations,
gathered together in a United Kingdom, rather than in an unambiguous
nation-state like that of the French. This idea, too, could not be
truly pervasive and comprehensive, especially for an empire whose
peoples were so disparate and so far-flung.

Two other interrelated ideas were more distinctive to the British
conception. One was the idea of the trading empire. Trade might seem
to some a rather mundane source for imperial legitimation, but for
sixteenth-century Britain it meant the romance of
merchant-adventurers releasing vital energies, effecting dramatic
transformations, and bringing forth exotic goods from the far corners
of the earth. In the nineteenth century, the idea of trade became
even grander when it was expanded into the ideology of Free Trade.
For almost nine decades (from the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 to
the return of colonial tariffs or "imperial preference" in 1932) the
British thought of their empire as the main force for spreading and
maintaining freedom of trade, for the betterment of all.

Closely related to this was the idea of the maritime empire. Naval
power--"rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves"--was at the center
of the British imperial idea and provided much of its romance. The
two-power standard (the Royal Navy should be stronger than the next
two navies combined) was to demonstrate British naval, and imperial,
superiority to all. The British Empire could be "an empire upon which
the sun never sets" because it depended upon those "storm-tossed
ships" all around the globe.

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