You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Robert Kaplan, Washington Foreign-Policy Expert, Defends Imperialism. Again.


It says something about our political culture that major magazines would (correctly) shy away from running defenses of communism or fascism, but seem to have no problem lauding imperialism. You might think that an ideology (or "posture") that gave us the First World War, incalculable amounts of racism (and "race theory"), ethnic cleansing, and endless examples of slavery would be shunned. And yet...

A case in point is the latest piece from Robert D. Kaplan, the Atlantic writer, who has penned an article titled "In Defense of Empire." Kaplan has always served an important purpose in Washington, which is that his writing is so consistently bad and glib that he offers a handy way of determining one's own opinions. If Kaplan is for it, one must oppose it by definition. (I kid only slightly.) I have always thought that Henry Kissinger was rotten to the core, but this belief was confirmed when Kaplan pathetically drooled all over him. (For a longer take on Kaplan, the must-read takedown comes courtesy of Tom Bissell.)

Kaplan's case is as follows:

Throughout history, governance and relative safety have most often been provided by empires, Western or Eastern. Anarchy reigned in the interregnums. To wit, the British may have failed in Baghdad, Palestine, and elsewhere, but the larger history of the British Empire is one of providing a vast armature of stability, fostered by sea and rail communications, where before there had been demonstrably less stability. In fact, as the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has argued, the British Empire enabled a late-19th-and-early-20th century form of globalization, tragically interrupted by a worldwide depression, two world wars, and a cold war.

To say, as Kaplan does, that the peaceful reign of imperialism was interrupted by the First World War is akin to saying that the peaceful reign of Stalin was interrupted by the purges.

The basic argument Kaplan wants to make is that empires maintain peace, and that our current world can only be kept peaceful by the United States, which plays some sort of imperial role. At least I think this is the argument. Here is Kaplan:

Thus, the debate Americans should be having is the following: Is an imperial-like foreign policy sustainable? I use the term imperial-like because, while the United States has no colonies, its global responsibilities, particularly in the military sphere, burden it with the expenses and frustrations of empires of old. Caution: those who say such a foreign policy is unsustainable are not necessarily isolationists. Alas, isolationism is increasingly used as a slur against those who might only be recommending restraint in certain circumstances.

I have read this paragraph at least five times and I am still not sure what Kaplan is arguing, or what language his words are written in. As Kaplan progresses, however, he gets even more confused, so much so that I began to enjoy his inability to express himself:

As for the critique that imperialism merely constitutes evil: while that line of thinking is not serious, it does get at a crucial logic regarding the American Experience.

I love the idea that something is both "not serious" and able to "get at a crucial logic."

But the bigger problem with Kaplan's piece is that he simply cannot account for the last several decades, when much less of the world was under imperial sway; it is also much more peaceful than ever before, despite what Kaplan calls Obama's "post-imperialism."

Kaplan also performs a neat trick: when something goes wrong absent imperialism, it is because there wasn't imperialism. If something goes wrong with imperialism, it's because the imperialists let a good thing go to waste. Never does he consider that aspects of imperialism, such as "divide and rule," ended up entrenching the problems that would eventually explode onto the international scene. Pretty soon Kaplan is reduced to statements like the following: 

From Rome’s widespread offer of citizenship to its subject peoples, to France’s offer of a measure of equality to fluent Francophone Africans, to Britain’s arrangement of truces among the Yemeni tribes, to the epic array of agricultural and educational services provided by the Europeans throughout their tropical domains—Britain’s Indian Civil Service stands out—imperialism and enlightenment (albeit self-interested) have often been inextricable.

I will admit it's been a while since I have read a good defense of French colonialism in Africa—I thought even the diehards had given that one up. And somehow the genius of British policy in Yemen hasn't been much help to Yemen. But Kaplan should keep up his lonely fight, if for no other reason than it helps the rest of us determine how not to think.