A Conservative Empire? An American Empire?(Part 1. Edmund Burke)
What does it take to make and control an empire? This is a curious and complex question, and one I think we obviously ought to be concerned with in today's world. We might decide based on thinking about this that an empire is simply not worth the trouble. What surprises me about what seems to be the current state of discussion about empire in the public realm, is how little discussion their appears to be about this question. I'd like to contrast what I take to be the lack of concern about the question of empire with previous thinkers, conservative and liberal alike.
Edmund Burke's "Conciliation With America" was a speech he delivered before parliament in 1775. In it Burke argued that imperialism requires a soft touch. He found in the situation with America the need to capitulate for the longterm benefits of the Colonies.
Why does England have colonies? Why does England care about America? Burke's answer is simple; colonies are kept for money. Commerce drives the empire. Demonstrating the importance of commerce lead Burke to begin his discussion of America by noting the massive volume of it's trade. He produced records indicating the massive extent of commerce with Britain's various colonies, and concluded by gesturing to the sheer massiveness of the enterprise:
So far, Sir, as to the importance of the object in the view of
its commerce, as concerned in the exports of England. If I were to
detail the imports, I could shew how many enjoyments they procure,
which deceive the burthen of life; how many material which
invigorate the springs of national industry, and extend and animate
every part of our foreign and domestick commerce.
The profitability of the American Colonies demanded a response to the growing rebellion there.But what form should such a response take? Burke's suspicion of simply crushing the rebellion stemmed from his view of the empire. If the empire exists to enrich England, constant warfare will accomplish the opposite:
...[T]he use of force alone is but temporary. It may
subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of
subduing again: and a nation is not governed which is perpetually
to be conquered.
Consequently Burke proposed a policy of "removing the ground of the difference..." Military might could only accomplish so much for Burke. It could not secure a healthy empire on its own, a common interest in empire was required for that.
Burke, the iconic figure of conservatism, is enormously suspicious of the efficacy of naked power. Power must always wear the mask of common interest to be effective. Otherwise an empire becomes unmanageable.
And notice what the intellectual consequence of such a position is. Rebellion (the current state of affairs) indicates a revealed preference against the current state of the empire. Any large scale rebellion, regardless of what the colonial power makes of its justification, indicates some kind of error in ruling. To rule by force itself is indicative of error.
From Burke's perspective the first thing that America ought to consider in Iraq then is what the nature of this common interest is to be.Crushing rebellion is useless if the causes of rebellion aren't addressed. And it matters not what we make of their motives, the fact of rebellion in Iraq itself indicates a need for a serious questioning of the best ways to go about the colonial enterprise itself.
Oddly Burke's perspective itself appears to be wholly absent from public concern over Iraq. Bush has constantly discussed the war in terms of the march of democracy, and seems unconcerned that the supposed democrats in Iraq don't seem to want democracy all that much. Kerry campaigned on "winning" a war fought over a "mistake." But winning the war in Iraq is no longer about winning battles. It's about winning over the Iraqi people.