In Praise of Empires

In Praise of Empires, by Keith Windshuttle.

[UCLA professor Deepak Lal] wrote his book [In Praise of Empires, 2004] to argue that most of the major empires in human history have provided long periods of peace and stability in which economic development could flourish. This was true from ancient to medieval times, and from Rome to China. In our own time, he maintains, the world still needs the domination of one global imperial power to keep as much peace as possible and preserve prosperity.

Lal’s book also suggests a new paradigm for understanding modern history. Rather than the story my generation was taught — a modernity full of revolutionaries overthrowing ancien regimes and romantic heroes building ethnic nations on the ruins of old royal dynasties — Lal argues the principal driver of modernity in the world was the British Empire.

In the nineteenth century it generated a global empire of free trade, powered by the industrial revolution and enforced by a Royal Navy presence in all oceans. Britain provided direct rule in its formal empire and indirect rule in much of the rest of the world through gunboat diplomacy and economic opportunity. …

From 1815 to 1914, imperialism gave Britain a century of peace at home and it provided the rest of the world with far more order and stability than it would otherwise have had. It was an empire not of plunder but of civil order that kept the channels of commerce free of pirates and predators. Britain did not do this because it wanted to conquer or even to civilise the world. It pursued its own interest to generate export trade and to provide international financial services. The industrial revolution produced a surplus of low-cost, factory-manufactured goods for which Britain sought global markets. The City of London also set out to become the financier to the world, providing short-term credit for trade and long-term credit for investment.

Despite the prevailing anti-colonialist cant that still condemns British imperialism as one of history’s great iniquities — as I write this, the morning press reports students at Sydney University are organising a rally to “dismantle the settler-colonial state system” — [Pax Britannica, the British peace] was hugely beneficial to all the countries it touched. British investment provided the infrastructure of rail, ports and coaling stations through which comparative advantage could be exploited by local entrepreneurs of many nations.

Imperialism encouraged investors to put their money in developing economies, places that would otherwise have been sites of great risk. Hence when the British Empire was at its peak it was a much greater positive force for international investment in poor countries than any more recent institutions. In 1913 some 63 per cent of foreign direct investment went to developing countries, whereas in 1996 the proportion was only 28 per cent; in 1913, 25 per cent of the world stock of capital was invested in poor countries but by 1997 it was no more than 5 per cent. …

Pax Americana?

Lal [distinguishes] two different kinds of empires: those that seek to advance certain enterprises, such as taking plunder or imposing an ideology; and those that do not seek to impose their own objectives, but rather see themselves as a custodian of laws and civil order. The British Empire was the latter kind, a model that is not inconsistent with American traditions, or at least with classical liberal American traditions.

Imagine a Chinese dominated world, enforcing communist values globally. That would be quite a different world, because the CCP is nothing like Britain or America.

hat-tip Stephen Neil