Varieties of “Imperialism”
Tibor R. Machan
Imperialism is the policy one country has toward others when it is intent on ruling them. But these days the idea is also used to point to one country’s efforts to spread ideas and institutions outside of its borders, regardless of what those ideas and institutions are. So by some people’s account—evident often in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and so forth, for example—whether one country aims to impose a system of slavery or servitude on others versus a system of liberty and the rule of law, the mere intent to spread any idea or institution beyond one’s borders qualifies as imperialist.
Yet consider this: Suppose your neighbor is brutalizing his or her spouse or children and you go into the home and rescue the victims. Are you imposing your will on your neighbor? Are you engaging in the building of some sort of empire of your own? Or are you perhaps merely liberating the victims, saving them from the violence to which they are being subjected? Suppose once you have made sure that the victims are no longer being brutalized, you quickly leave and have nothing more to do with how your neighbors live? Is this an interventionist, aggressive approach toward your neighbor?
In contrast, suppose you have a neighbor who happens to have some very fine china in the house and you decide to intrude and take the china for yourself. Moreover you make it clear that should your neighbor obtain other valued items that please you, you will not hesitate to come over and take them as well. And you will, furthermore, henceforth force your neighbor to do chores for you—clean your garage, mow your lawn, etc.
In both instances you are meddling in your neighbor’s affairs. Your approach to your neighbor can be deemed interventionist. But the quality of intervention differs drastically in the two cases.
The same can be said of the foreign policies of different countries that embark upon interventionism. Indeed, calling both “imperialistic” is highly misleading since in the one case the objective is to force the other country to yield to the other’s oppression, to deprive the other of what the imperial power has no right to whatsoever, while in the other case the objective is to export elements of public policy that are liberating for the population.
Of course, in many historical instances there is a mixture of these two forms of intervention. When the United States of America interferes abroad, not only does it routinely attempt to export some of its highly desirable, just principles and institutions; it also tries to secure some advantages that can be obtained. We hear this a lot when people talk about oil and other resources. Never mind that even in the case of trying to obtain such benefits as oil, a study of the relevant history often reveals that the oil abroad was actually discovered and its refinement cultivated by American or other foreign companies, so claiming flatly, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and other governments which have nationalized oil companies have done, that the resource belongs to the people there is open to serious doubt.
So the description of a country’s foreign policy as imperialistic or interventionist does not suffice to end the discussion of whether that policy should be approved. But there is another element to even the most benign form of intervention (or even imperialism) that needs to be kept in mind as one considers whether such policies have any merit. This is that government’s of free countries are not supposed to run around the globe rectifying all the wrongs outside their borders. Even when a country’s government intervenes so as to liberate the people in a corrupt or oppressive regime, even if this is done without embarking on seeking various advantages for the country but merely to do some good over there, there is still the objection to interventionism that such a policy in effect involves a government’s leaving its post, as it were. As the American Founders noted, “to secure these rights [namely, the rights of the country’s citizens], governments are instituted among men….” This is an obligation of the government of a free society and embarking on various foreign adventures, however well motivated, is in effect the violation of the oath of office of government.
This is not the same issue as whether the government is imperialist in its foreign policy. But it is a woefully neglected point in most discussions about foreign affairs. It would be vital to keep the point in mind even as one has to admit that there are very different types of intervention--“imperialism”—that a country’s government can engage in and that not all of them are of the same quality.