The American Empire has been on the minds of at least some conservatives for about two decades, ever since the sudden collapse of the Soviet Empire caught us all by surprise.  It isn’t that Americans haven’t argued about empire before: From the 1890’s until December 7, 1941, there was an on-again, off-again but very lively debate at the highest levels of American politics and culture about what John Dickinson had called “the thirst for empire.”  The conservative position was always the prudent position, guided by the principles of Washington’s Farewell Address.  World War II supposedly changed that, but it is well to remember that the machines of war and imperium in the 20th century were projects of the progressives.

However, as we entered the second half of the Hundred Years War of the 20th century, it was a man of the right (although not yet, if ever, a conservative), a former Trotskyist, who articulated a position that was soon to become bipartisan.  In The Struggle for the World (1947), James Burnham wrote,

The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally world-wide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. . . . The United States cannot help building an Empire.

We called it the Cold War, and it cut off the old debate.  It also had the paradoxical effect of turning “conservatives” into empire-builders, and making the old liberal internationalists seem prudent by comparison.

All this has nothing to do with John Darwin’s excellent book Unfinished Empire, but it has a great deal to do with how Americans may wish to read it.  Darwin has been writing about empires for a long time, and in this volume he pulls together what he has learned to write about how the British imperial instinct became the British Empire.  For those who expect to see a Plan, or an Ideology of Empire, or a condemnation of British racism, megagreed, and the will to dominate—well, Darwin’s book will disappoint them.  The British Empire, he insists, was a sloppy thing.  It grew here and there, got lopped off here and there, changed directions and emphases several times, and was the subject of much internal debate, even in the hearts of its most ardent champions.

“We live in a world that empires have made,” Darwin says.  “Indeed, most of the modern world is the relic of empires,” and “No less than one quarter of today’s sovereign states” were hewn from the fabric of the “largest if not the grandest” of these empires.  So, live with it: We are the product of the British Empire, and it behooves us to understand it rather than to rise up for or against.  Darwin’s attitude makes him what most discerning people today call a “realist,” or what most people a hundred years or so ago knew as an “historian.”

Rather than label the imperial leadership with ideological names, Darwin, for example, says that the “command and control of this empire was always ramshackle and quite often chaotic.”  “No single vision of empire had inspired its founders,” he insists, and because there were so many reasons for Britain to expand, the purposes often collided.  I used to summarize the expansion of Europe for my students by pointing out that it occurred in the aftermath of the Reformation, in conjunction with the rise of nation-states, and framed by commercial and eventually technological and industrial revolutions.  In other words, “God, Glory, and Gold.”  If one reads the literature of British expansion (Darwin has read it all) from Hakluyt to Churchill, it is hard to tell where one purpose leaves off and the next one begins.  In a sense this is the conservative approach to studying empire: Look hard at the narrative, don’t expect to find an ideological unity (and don’t impose one on the story), and see if patterns and principles emerge.

Darwin says, “What made the British so adept as empire-builders was, in part, the exceptional range and variety of the interests, skills and activities mobilized by the prospect of expansion abroad.”  I suspect that this could be said of all relatively open (or “liberal”) empires.  The Romans could be remarkably brutal, but who didn’t want their roads and viaducts, and even their well-made weapons?  The British “did not so much impose their control over local societies as tunnel their way into them.”  This insight alone is worth the price of the book.  What made the representatives of empire dress for dinner every night in the African jungles?  It was the tunneling, the conviction that there was something good, and in their own self-interest, and for the glory of the nation, that they were bringing to those steamy jungles.

Of course, Englishmen being free to dissent, there were the Jonathan Swifts around to remind the imperium of its perfidy:

Here commences a new dominion, acquired with a title by divine right.  Ships are sent . . . the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust; the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.

Darwin makes it clear that such thoughts “hardly ever commanded more than marginal backing”; but they were always present, just as they have been in every imperial enterprise.  Critics of Darwin’s work tend to label him as a spokesman for the “Realist School of Apology.”  Such critics come today mostly from the left, but they could hardly be more pointed or trenchant than the Reverend Swift.

Darwin’s story is not strictly a narrative, which makes it confusing at times.  The military side of empire is always thrilling and complex, but although Darwin does not try to hide British brutality (especially in Africa and India) he struggles to avoid the moral rot so well described by Joseph Conrad.  He is much better when sticking to his main theme, the almost incredible ability of British merchants, warriors, diplomats, and ministers to make alliances with local elites, essentially getting the empire’s colonies to do their own governing.  This practical side of empire was never done so well by any other people—even, it may be argued, by the Romans.  Darwin says that the “British Empire was certainly not the last of empires but—if we discount the empire of influence that America built after 1945—it was at its zenith perhaps the largest in world history.”  It was large precisely because it was flexible and rarely too nasty.  Then why did it fail, especially since its disintegration came on the watch of perhaps its most eloquent defender, Winston Churchill?

“That all empires decline is an historical truism”—no surprise here, nor is there in Darwin’s statement that the mainstream British opinion (up until at least World War II) was that the empire would “survive as a system of states centered on Britain” and her “values, institutions and ideas” into the indefinite future.  He says that the Britons’ conviction regarding their open society (“uniquely progressive”), a dynamic and adaptable economy (“the reward of free trade”), and geostrategic security (“the sheet anchor of empire”) gave the impression that, unlike other empires, this one would not go away.

But it had to go away, and for reasons that Darwin intuits but does not follow through on, best represented by the case of what became the United States.  Darwin asks, “What prompted rebellion as a collective act of resistance?”  Contrary to what most materialists might assume, the answer is probably much more complex than hardship or loss.  In a striking insight that goes against all politically correct interpretations of modern history, Darwin says that “Religion was the glue that held most colonial societies together.”  Furthermore, any “sign that [the British] meant to upset religious observance or show disrespect for holy persons and places was bound to cause trouble.”  That more ink was spilled over the resident bishop controversy in the American colonies from 1763 to 1776 than on all other issues combined is one of the best-kept secrets about the onset of the American War for Independence.  Although Darwin probably doesn’t know this either, he correctly perceives that “settler rebellions,” the most dangerous of all rebellions the British ever faced, almost always had much to do with British failure sufficiently to understand how their policies offended local religious sensibilities.  This was especially true of America, especially Massachusetts, where the “American Revolution” was over before the Declaration of Independence was even drawn up.  I suspect that this was true also in the case of India.

That John Darwin does not fully grasp the importance of his own insights does not do much damage to this fine, nuanced, deftly written book.  Those of us (I admit to being one) who tend to local loyalties and shudder at the cosmopolitans among us can do well occasionally to learn from a serious historian whose vision extends beyond his backyard.  There are things to conserve out and about, and for a long time the British did a pretty good job of it.


[Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, by John Darwin (New York: Bloomsbury Press) 478 pp., $35.00]