Why America's Empire Will Vanish

Patrick J. Buchanan

May 5 2003

Niall Ferguson is a novelty – a British historian who celebrates the British Empire and yearns to see America take the path trod by the Mother Country. But he is dubious about our staying power.

Citing President Bush – "We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day longer" – he fears the American empire will be "the most evanescent in all of history."

"Other empire-builders have fantasized about ruling subject peoples for a thousand years," Ferguson writes in the New York Times Magazine. "This is shaping up to be history's first thousand-day empire. Make that, a thousand hours."

Why cannot Americans sustain an empire? Because we "lack the one crucial character trait without which the whole imperial project is doomed: stamina."

Ferguson is both right and wrong. Americans are indeed feckless imperialists, but not because we are lacking in stamina. Our generation, after all, persevered through 40 years of Cold War to prevail against a Soviet Empire that was steeped in stamina.

What we lack is an imperial faith, an unquestioning belief in our God-given right to rule other peoples and instruct them in how to live – the faith that compels men to create empires.

When Spain, France and England came to the New World, it was not only for gold and land, but for the greater glory of God – Ad Majorem Gloriam Dei. Christians came here to convert pagans, smash their idols, demolish their civilizations and rule over them until they, too, embraced the faith.

In our wars with Indians, Mexicans, Spanish and Filipinos, we Americans were also driven by a belief in the superiority of our race, culture, faith, civilization. We did not hesitate to impose our rule and American way of life on the defeated peoples Kipling called "the lesser breeds without the law."

There was in the West in those years an absolute self-confidence, reinforced by Darwin, that we had gotten where we were because we were superior. That self-confidence is gone, because that faith and belief have died in the West, and been replaced by something akin to their antithesis.

Today, it is the reigning dogma that the Western empires were the cause of all the evils of mankind for 500 years: racism, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, xenophobia. In the week before 9-11, the United Nations held a conference in Durban, South Africa, the purpose of which was to demand, on behalf of peoples of color, vast reparations from the West as restitution for the crimes and sins of the West.

Today, our children are tutored in the evils of our history and the tenets of egalitarian democracy, a new dogma that holds that all races, religions, cultures and civilizations are equal, and none has a right to impose its values or rule on other peoples. The United Nations is a shrine to this idea. Followed logically to its end – and given the West's shrinking fraction of world population – this idea must lead to what James Burnham called "The Suicide of the West."

Moreover, when Americans go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, we can never get around the Jeffersonian dictum that all just powers come from the consent of the governed. Or the Wilsonian dictum, embedded in his "14 Points," that all peoples have a right to self-determination. Once those twin ideas took root in the minds and hearts of Western elites, the old empires were finished.

So it was seen at Versailles in 1919. When British and French divided up the German and Ottoman empires after the war fought to "make the world safe for democracy," Wilson insisted that the newly acquired colonies be called "mandates." They were to be ruled by the imperial powers only until they were ready for self-rule. Ireland, Egypt, India and Iraq got the message – and swiftly rose up to violently claim their rights.

An American empire cannot endure because it both contradicts our anti-imperialist tradition dating to 1776, and our democratist ideology, which says that all peoples are equal and all have the right to rule themselves. When the Iraqis invoke American principles against us, the Americans will pick up and go home.

Put bluntly, if you invoke our creed, you can kick us out.

Because we believe this, the only way America is able to attack and invade nations is to first portray their regimes as threats to our security. Serbia's Milosevic is thus a Balkan "Hitler" who must be stopped. And Iraq must be invaded because Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction, to give them to Osama bin Laden.

But once the enemy is invaded, overthrown and disarmed, we have no legal or moral doctrine that permits us to stay on, to rule, and to instruct the natives to give up their beliefs and embrace ours.

Democratic empire is a contradiction in terms. And Americans are simply not a people who can live long with contradictions. Sorry, Dr. Ferguson.

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