When Mikhail Gorbachev declared that he was going to withdraw Russian troops from Afghanistan, people were so entranced by his supposed sincerity that they neglected more interesting aspects of the announcement. If it was genuine—and there was no convincing argument for thinking it was not—then it was the first sign, as those familiar with the vicissitudes of empire recognized, that the Russian will to domineer was weakening. The moment the besieged states of the West had been waiting for had arrived, and it passed almost unnoticed.

Having been a schoolboy under a headmaster who as late as 1947 was telling his pupils that to be accepted into the Indian Civil Service was an honor few men deserved and even fewer achieved, my credentials as an amateur empire-watcher are pretty good. What is more, the bones of my kinsmen are all over this globe, and when I was 15 or so and people began to ask what I wanted to do, one of my first answers was that the colonial service looked tempting. It was my father, until then the only realist I had ever met, who told me that by the time I left school there would be precious little left for a colonial servant to serve.

Liberal wisdom tells us that empires end because private virtue and public conscience prevail and that the result is progress. There is not much truth in that, nor in the leftwing view that empires end because history will have it so. Empires mostly end because imperialists get tired. Empires begin as great adventures promising immense rewards in wealth and self-esteem, but they demand commensurately great sacrifices, which, in time, prove unpayable. Too many sons and daughters go away and never return, and in time the emotional, moral, and economic discipline of empire exhausts the stay-at-homes as well. What kept the British Empire going as long as it did was the optimism and high spirits of several generations of upper-class schoolboys, trained for imperial administration in a peculiar, strictly regimented, and often fantastic system of education. Yet even schoolboys lose their enthusiasm, with the consequence that King-Emperor George V must have intuited when he asked on his deathbed, “What of the Empire?”

For the British Empire, the turning point was the Boer War. That war’s difficulties and losses were a shock to a people that had fallen into the habit of comfort and power. When young Chesterton and his pro-Boer friends observed that the EmPire was fighting the Boers for claiming the same independence that the British considered their birthright, a significantly large minority of their fellow subjects agreed. The conviction grew that in gaining an empire England had lost too much of its traditional character, and this feeling, joined to foreign competition and disapproval and to difficulties and discontents at home, provided moral cover for a process of disengagement from imperialism that two great wars could delay but not reverse.

Russian imperialism has nearly as long a history as British, although the Communist Empire we knew is a recent artifact, differing from the British in nearly every respect but one—that being an empire, it was based on the sacrifices of its people. In the case of Russia those sacrifices were so appalling that only a regime based on silence, lies, and brutality could have enforced them. Two things seem finally to have demoralized the Russian ruling class. First, there was the effect of the modern diffusion of information, speeded up by the vast, paranoid system of global surveillance that was part of Russia’s state security apparatus. Russia’s rulers poisoned themselves with information about the world they wanted to dominate. Second, into that situation came Ronald Reagan, who named the Russian Empire accurately before the world and who proved to be the first American President prepared to use American economic power to break the Empire’s will.

When, therefore, Mr. Gorbachev announced his troop withdrawals, it was apparent that the turn had come. Not only had the Russians no more stomach for that fight, they had lost the support of their long-suffering population. The North-West frontier of what is now Pakistan had been an outpost of the British Empire because the passes of Afghanistan give access to the sub-continent and to the Indian Ocean. The czars had cast eyes of desire on Afghanistan, and the communists, who saw the whole subcontinent as a vacuum waiting to be filled, could read a map as well as their predecessors. Hence the Russian retreat from Afghanistan was portentous; the rest was a matter of time. One could speculate that the unraveling might take one year, two, or ten, or that it would be faster rather than slower because time itself seems to have accelerated in recent years; but one knew that m any case it was inevitable. What then seemed problematic, and remains so, was the reaction of America.

President Reagan’s role was a departure from nearly fifty years of American policy. Like most Americans, Franklin Roosevelt disliked and suspected the British Empire and thought both Britain and the world would be friendlier without it. He also thought that the Russians, though uncouth and mysterious, espoused a recognizable version of his own ideas of social progress. American wealth saved Stalin, and American complaisance and indirect subsidy preserved his successors through the long period of exasperated, hostile, and reluctant cooperation that some publicist with a knack for paradox called the “cold war. ” He might just as well have called it the “hot peace.” Nowadays we are expected to be grateful to the cold warriors for keeping that hostile peace, even though throughout the period one could not help noticing that the supposedly deadly rivals were agreed on some fundamental points—that since each, unlike former imperia, claimed to embody the popular will, it followed that the world was waiting for one of them to assume sovereignty of it and inaugurate the millennium. A fight to the finish being ruled out by physics and metaphysics, the rival empires came to an accommodation: each would hang on to what it had, limiting acquisition and loss to the peripheries.

Even so, these mighty opposites were reluctant to use their own forces, preferring to act through surrogates when possible. They were also pathetically eager to like, admire, and congratulate each other and very early on invented the “cultural exchange” as a means of doing so as often as possible. In this way, and without ever calling it that, America became an imperial state with all the trappings: immense naval, military, and diplomatic establishments abroad; a huge bureaucracy to keep the state militarily and ideologically prepared at home. Earlier in the century, European Christians, among them Belloc, Chesterton, and Bernanos, had diagnosed the tendency of democracies to drift in their own way and at their own speed toward totalitarianism. The postwar transformation of America into what it called with evasive self-congratulation a “superpower” seemed to bear them out, especially as evidence began to accumulate of behind-the-scenes cooperation with the so-called enemy. It was more important to men like Nixon and Kissinger that America and Russia should agree to maintain stability in their spheres of influence than that some hotheaded enthusiast should point out their differences.

By that standard, Ronald Reagan was a hotheaded enthusiast who loathed communism and despised big government. He had no intention of cooperating with the Russians, and he meant to dismantle as much of his own government as possible. Unfortunately, he was also a sentimentalist, unwilling to understand that the “big government” he despised was only the proximate cause of the deterioration of American life and that the real cause was the imperial state in which so much local, political, and patriotic capital, including his own, was invested. Whether necessary or unnecessary, a masquerade or a reality, that 45-year-long engagement of America in Europe and Asia had levied an immense toll on the American people—and no one had ever candidly told them so. Several times they balked at the load. Twice they elected conservative Presidents to deliver them from wars they were allowed to die in but not to win. Then they elected Ronald Reagan because they felt insulted and impotent, and he seemed to share their feelings. Each time, however, the people’s resistance turned to the politicians’ advantage; there was a mutual indulgence of feeling, some adjustments were made, and the truth remained untold.

America’s venture into imperialism might have been tolerable, even touched with nobility, had it been honest. Let us take the pessimistic view and agree that, given current estimates of the balance of forces, John Kennedy had no alternative to backing down over Berlin and Lyndon Johnson had no alternative to “escalating” the war in Vietnam instead of winning it. Let us agree that the prospects were for a long game of attrition. Let us even agree that the Americans, whether by accident, design, or the guidance of Providence, played the game brilliantly. Why then did the politicians not have the guts, brains, or realism to describe it properly? President Kennedy’s hollow Churchillian rhetoric about sacrifice was bad enough, especially for those who remembered the circumstances of the original. But we touched bottom when President Johnson entered the money markets and mortgaged the country to avoid telling the truth about the cost of Vietnam and his Great Society.

And how those costs have grown! The story of America’s imperial debt is like a mutual fund advertisement in reverse: borrow a billion today, owe a trillion tomorrow. When the Berlin Wall finally opened, Chancellor Kohl of West Germany is said to have telephoned President Bush to thank America. And well he might. Inflation, debt, riots, unemployment, ruined cities and factories. Third World standards of transportation and other civic amenities: the American sacrifice in this imperial game has been immense—and possibly mortal.

The contradiction in President Reagan’s policy was that, apparently without realizing it, he was an imperialist abroad and an anti-imperialist at home. Did he really think that American world hegemony was a luxury middle America could afford, like a second house, a third ear, and a fourth television set? His Democratic opponents, by contrast, were and are imperialists at home and anti-imperialists abroad, incapable of understanding that the government that played at empire overseas was equally imperial at home, that the huge expansion in domestic government was the corollary of the expansion overseas. It is an iron rule of empire that the first conquest an imperial state makes is of its own citizenry. We now have an immense bureaucracy based on the premise that citizens are clients of the state. Most of the federal budget consists of payments to individuals under the guise of “entitlements,” a financial practice whose real names are bribery and corruption.

Here in Massachusetts we have a vivid symbol of domestic imperialism in the spectacle of the Kennedys, a new-rich family that, having bought itself influence in the first period of government expansion under Roosevelt, has gone on to buy itself votes by distributing largess in the form of welfare services and defense contracts, thus turning Massachusetts into a rotten borough for Senator Kennedy and his younger kinfolk. The story of postwar American imperialism is inscribed in the careers of the Kennedys and men like them. Their political lives have been spent in symbiosis with the Russian Empire, and now that it has disintegrated they have two alternatives to self-reform: a full-blooded commitment to imperialism under the name of something like global democracy or an attempt to consolidate their power at home by the imposition of fullscale welfare-state socialism. Either course will ruin America, but as long as our own version of the nomenklatura retains its hold on the Congress and our institutions both are possible.

And yet even the Kennedys cannot abrogate the rules of empire. For a while in the heyday of the Cold War, imperial America could build roads, endow universities, preserve passenger trains, and subsidize the arts not, as in Europe, because these were the amenities of a civilized state, but because something called “national security” required them. Most people were prepared to go along with this pleasant fiction and to pay up. They could afford it, and the amenities were preserved after a fashion. Now the imperial bills have swollen beyond either our ability or willingness to pay, and while we have been indulging dreams of hope and glory, the new commercial powers of Japan and Europe have grown rich at our expense.

So far, offered a choice, our rulers have opted for imperialism rather than the amenities, and public opinion of all shades has supported them in principle if not in particular cases. The idea that Americans have a right and an obligation to intervene in other countries’ affairs in the name of moral and political progress is everywhere taken for granted. Left-wingers who objected to the invasion of Grenada would have liked us to take over Haiti. Democrats who objected to the invasion of Kuwait would like us to throw a little weight around in Ireland. The American Catholic bishops would like to dictate theology to the Pope. Lesbian feminists feel the imperial urge to spread the blessings of American feminism among the women of Africa, India, and South East Asia. Progressives who worried that the Cold War was a sin against historical inevitability want us to send teams of managers, money-lenders, and political scientists swarming all over the former Russian Empire. Even Pat Buchanan had visions of the Sixth Fleet bringing common sense to Yugoslavia, and it did candidate Clinton no harm at all to talk big about American intervention in Bosnia.

So the response of America to the breakup of Russia was, and remains, problematic. President Bush was an upper-class apparatchik who like others of his kind prided himself on his lack of imagination and his deference to habit. Because he shared with the electorate a mania for sports and a determination to win, it was probably inevitable that he should interpret the breakup as a big victory for America, equally inevitable that he should regret so complete a victory as unsporting and bad for the game. Neither he nor James Baker seemed prepared for the intense national emotions released by the liberation of Eastern Europe. But that hardly mattered. As his famous phrase about a “New World Order” indicated, as far as American policy was concerned, the only change was the removal of an obstacle and the addition of more clients to America’s worldwide welfare system. Nothing in the presidential campaign suggests a change of policy under President Clinton. The man from Arkansas will probably enjoy playing emperor as much as any of his recent predecessors.

Sooner or later the truth will dawn that irrespective of moral judgments upon a terrible regime, the breakup of Russia was the final act of an immense tragedy. It would be salutary, too, if Americans could understand that the breakup was the kind of thing that happens to imperial states, and that when it happens it is always a rebuke to pride and arrogance. More immediately, we need to understand that the breakup has discredited the whole complex of ideas upon which that particular regime was based, and that insofar as those ideas remain active in the politics of Russia or of other nations, they remain dangerous. Who, after all, would ever have imagined that progressive ideas invented in 19th-century Europe would have reduced the inhabitants of a great modern state to the necessity of relearning the most basic human social arts and occupations—of buying and selling, for instance?

Here in America we are in no danger of forgetting how to buy and sell. Nonetheless, impelled by our own version of the progressive-millennialist bug, we have been discarding inherited social and cultural wisdom at an extraordinary rate, a process much accelerated in recent years by the contempt of our fashionable and influential left-wing for all traditional forms. The result is a radical uncivilizing most obvious in the antics of what we have learned to call the underclasses, but apparent in the behavior of all classes of society. The same feckless progressivism underlies our monstrous indebtedness: too many of us believed that irreversible economic progress would “grow” or develop us out of debt.

One consequence of the Russian breakup has been to make prophecy very difficult. All we now know for certain is that truths that are universally denied eventually prevail, and that the experience of their prevailing can be extremely unpleasant. One truth we should all be contemplating is that the ultimate social and financial cost of America’s peculiar brand of unacknowledged imperialism might just be America itself.