Lewis Namier liked to tell the story of an English schoolboy who was asked to define “imperialism” on an examination paper. “Imperialism,” the budding proconsul wrote, “is learning how to get along with one’s social inferiors.” In the Edwardian twilight of the British Empire, that answer might have sufficed to win a scholarship to Balliol, but these days the lad would be lucky not to wind up in jail for a hate crime.

Yet, despite Western genuflections to self-determination and global democracy, empire, like Che and Elvis, lives. Indeed, the rationale for imperialism is no longer the callow snobbery of Eton and Sandhurst, Social Darwinist rumblings, or Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” but the very same progressivist slogans that provide the lyrics for what is supposed to be the imperial recessional. For all of President Bush’s invocation of the “international rule of law” and the “New World Order” in cranking up Western war machines for the crusade against Iraq last winter, the war was no sooner concluded than American and European diplomats, corporate satraps, global welfare workers, and assorted do-gooders descended onto the deserts of the Middle East to bring the locals up to snuff. It’s true that American conquistadors didn’t plant Old Glory on the shore or hang the sheiks and emirs from the nearest kumquat bush, but nobody out there could have had any illusion as to who was really in charge. It wasn’t Saddam Hussein, let alone that merry old soul. His Majesty the Emir Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah.

Imperialism is the systematic domination of one or several countries by another, and although empire historically involves all the splendiferous trappings of formality and ceremony, it doesn’t really need them. Only those whose grasp of public affairs remains at the level of junior-high-school civics believe that the international power wielded by the United States and the Soviet Union since 1945 hasn’t constituted a kind of empire, and with Muscovy wheezing and whimpering its way toward disintegration, the end game has left the United States the only player on the board. In 1947, James Burnham, surveying the realities of world power in the wake of World War II, understood what was happening.

“Western civilization,” Burnham wrote, using the language and ideas of Arnold J. Toynbee, whose multivolume A Study of History had recently been published,

has reached the stage in its development that calls for the creation of its Universal Empire. The technological and institutional character of Western civilization is such that a Universal Empire of Western Civilization would necessarily be a World Empire. In the world there are only two power centers adequate to make a serious attempt to meet this challenge. The simultaneous existence of these two centers, and only these two, introduces into world political relationships an intolerable disequilibrium. . . . This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course of the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.

Burnham’s prophecy has proved essentially correct, but it needs to be qualified by consideration of certain changes in the character of “Western civilization.”

All civilizations of the past have been developments from a territorial base, identified with a particular city-state, ethnic group, culture, or nation, and the empires these civilizations have spawned have been merely those territorial bases writ large. The Athenian, Persian, Macedonian, Roman, and British Empires were simply the extensions of the power of Athens, Persia, Macedonia, Rome, and Great Britain to other territories.

But in the case of “Western civilization,” as the phrase is invoked today, there is no unified territorial base. “The West,” of course, means Western Europe and America, but those geographical expressions do not and never have referred to particular states. Not since the late Middle Ages has any single political entity claimed to represent or lead the “West,” and even the Holy Roman Empire’s pretensions were never accepted by lesser potentates in Europe, let alone outside it. As Voltaire remarked in a famous phrase, it was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire.

But, more significantly, what today is called the “West” has no specific relationship to Europe and America and the cultures they have bred, and “Western civilization” today is not carried by Europeans and Americans alone. Today the “West” means a set of ideas, skills, and techniques—”democracy,” “science,” “pluralism,” “capitalism,” “human rights,” “technology”—that are so defined as to be universal. Anyone—a Kuwaiti with a computer or an M.B.A. in Milwaukee—can carry these ideas in his intellectual knapsack, and whithersoever he goeth, there also will go the “West.”

“Western civilization” today, in other words, is a “civilization” that has disengaged itself from the historical, cultural, and political bodies of Western Europe and America, and this kind of disengagement of a civilization from particular, territorially based cultural and political units appears to be unique in human history. What it means is that the “West” no longer refers to such units, their members, and their institutions but to an elite—an elite that does not regard itself as part of or loyal to a specific cultural or political identity and is formed and distinguished merely by its possession of the skills and its adherence to the ideas that define the “West” in the abstract sense in which our contemporaries use the term.

It also means that what is expanding in power over the non-“Western” world is not a political or cultural unit, as in historical imperialism, but the elite itself, that it is the elite that is the imperial power and not the nations and cultures of Europe and America. And, finally, what that means is that the elite itself is in the process of disengaging from the underlying territorial cultural and political units of the geographical West and is becoming an independent entity, endowed with global power.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his 1970 book Between Two Ages, which is a kind of blueprint for the New World Order, almost explicitly acknowledges this point. “Today,” he wrote,

we are again witnessing the emergence of transnational elites, but now they are composed of international businessmen, scholars, professional men, and public officials. The ties of these new elites cut across national boundaries, their perspectives are not confined by national traditions, and their interests are more functional than national. . . . The creation of the global information grid, facilitating almost continuous intellectual interaction and the pooling of knowledge, will further enhance the present trend toward international professional elites and toward the emergence of a common scientific language. . . . This, however, could create a dangerous gap between them and the politically activated masses, whose “nativism”—exploited by more nationalist political leaders—could work against the “cosmopolitan” elites.

The disengagement of multinational corporations, the defining structures of the “Western” economy, from their host cultures is now obvious and openly acknowledged. In 1989, the president of NCR Corporation remarked that “I was asked the other day about United States competitiveness and I replied that I don’t think about it at all. We at NCR think of ourselves as a globally competitive company that happens to be headquartered in the United States.”

More recently, even as Operation Desert Storm was saving one Arab non-country from the clutches of another, the Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had invested some $590 million in Citicorp, described by the Post as “America’s largest banking company.” That description was subtly corrected by Citicorp’s executive vice president, Thomas E. Jones, who announced that “We don’t view ourselves as just a U.S. bank. The fact that the guy happens to be Saudi is neither here nor there.” It may be neither here nor there to Mr. Jones whether he gets his orders from New York or Riyadh or wherever the prince and his seraglio happen to be taking the waters this week, but it might matter to Americans that decisions about their jobs, living standards, and even their political and cultural future will be settled there—not here.

Not just the corporate elite, of course, but also cultural and political elites are disengaging themselves from their host cultures, which they regard as impediments to their interests and universalist ideology. Such mundane concerns as the “national interest” and loyalties to specific cultural institutions and ways of living (especially if they’re “Eurocentric”) restrict what the elite can do and compete with the power of the bureaucratic conglomerates in which it is lodged—multinational corporations as well as international organizations, foundations, and “multiversities” where any suggestion of Eurocentric loyalty is severely punished. The goal of the elite is the extirpation of the roots of cultural distinctiveness such as family, community, sexuality, ethnicity, and religious identity and their replacement by a cosmopolitan ethic of “humankind” administered by the elite’s own bureaucratic colossi.

All the chest-thumping and hornblowing by Middle Americans last winter in the wake of the devastation of the Iraqi army may, therefore, have been somewhat misplaced. Every American ought to be relieved that the country won, rather than lost, the war, that the conflict lasted so briefly, and that so few of their countrymen died in it after all. But what really triumphed on the banks of the Euphrates, where some of history’s earliest empires were born, was history’s latest heir to the imperial purple. The heir is not the American Republic, the American nation, or even a Pax Americana. What was born last winter, to paraphrase Voltaire, was neither Pax nor Americana, but the imperium of a deracinated new class of global technocrats who know little about peace or America and who despise the real American and Western civilization as much as they scorn the Moslem and Arabic cultures that they claimed to be liberating.