Duck and Drakes By William Bowles

16 August 2003

“The American empire passes the duck test: it not only looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it also quacks like a duck.” — The Economist (14/08/03)

If you want to know what the ruling class (at least in the UK) really thinks, you have to go to the horse’s mouth or, in this case, the duck’s beak, the Economist, to get the inside dope.

This week’s lead article in the Economist entitled “Manifest Destiny Warmed Up?” reveals the disquiet being felt by at least some sections of the European ruling elite over the US’s assumed role as the ‘new imperialist empire’ and whether or not, they’re going about it in the right way.

The essay, in a strange, Alice in Wonderland reflection of the critique offered here and elsewhere on the left, ponders the reality of the Bush imperium and it’s well worth quoting at length for what it reveals about the thinking of the British ruling class.

So firstly, forget the ‘neo-cons’ and their adolescent wet dreams or as the Economist puts it, “The thrills of empire are not those of the one-night stand,” listen instead to the voice of experience and what it’s telling the US political elite and you’ll not go far wrong.

At the heart of the article’s analysis, is whether or not the US has the balls to take on the role of empire. In other words, it’s one thing to project its power through military force, but the Economist thinks that the US elite is less than enthusiastic about assuming the ‘responsibilities’ that go along with the job. The Economist also has serious qualms about whether or not it can actually afford it and finally of course, whether ‘going it alone’ (ie without ‘old Europe’) is actually realistic?

In what is a remarkably candid assessment of the history of US imperialism extending back to the 19th century (the colonial land grabs from Mexico and Spain et al, the extended Monroe Doctrine or in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, Bush’s favourite president (‘talk softly and carry a big stick’), we read the following:

“”No need to run away from the label,” argues Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: “America’s destiny is to police the world….

Throw together all the output from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street and Tin Pan Alley, and you have a commercial empire that would have been the envy of the British East India Company or Cecil Rhodes. And with “hard” power and “soft” power combined, you have influence on a scale never seen before. The polite term for it is hegemony, but in reality, as Mr Boot says, it is Globocop. What other country divides the world up into five military commands with four-star generals to match, keeps several hundred thousand of its legionaries on active duty in 137 countries–and is now unafraid to use them?””

Of course the Economist wants to have it both ways, as the next quote quite clearly illustrates”:

“For, stung by the events of September 11th, America is no longer shy about spilling blood, even its own. Weren’t the Afghan and Iraqi wars largely designed to show just that?”

Well is it an empire or what? The Economist seems somewhat unsure about whether the duck really is a duck, so it quacks on in the following manner about what qualities it believes are necessary for the role,

“But if the imperial attribution is to mean anything, an empire has to have at least two characteristics besides those of huge might and a willingness to use it. An empire must also be a hierarchical system, in which ultimate control resides at the centre, in this case Washington, DC, and all the colonies, client states, satrapies, sepoys, slaves and helots must understand that…. In other words, running colonies collectively as an empire requires the intention of either continuous control or, more likely, some sort of transformation, which is where state-building comes in, ideally laced with a bit of missionary zeal. The thrills of empire are not those of the one-night stand.”

And in that smug, superior, and typically infuriating English manner that the Economist is so good at projecting, it tells us that:

“In short, the empire now proclaimed in America’s name is at best a dull duck, at worst a dead duck, unless it is to be a big strong drake that intends to throw its weight around for quite a while. And this in turn raises two difficulties for the concept of a new American empire. One is that the subjects won’t like it. The other is that Americans won’t either.”

So on the one hand, the Economist recognises that the so-called neo-cons have no problem with being drakes and loudly quacking about it:

“The neo-imperialists have logic on their side when they argue that regime change alone is not enough, and, to their credit, they say they are ready for the long haul. Mr Boot, one of their foremost advocates, believes America is too. The price is affordable, he argues, and, in its containment of the Soviet Union and other policies, America has shown it can sustain a commitment over long decades.”

But on the other, the article arrives at what it believes separates the ducks from the drakes when it says:

“It is a beguiling argument. But a contradiction lies at the heart of the imperialists’ concept. Imperialism and democracy are at odds with each other. The one implies hierarchy and subordination, the other equality and freedom of choice. People nowadays are not willing to bow down before an emperor, even a benevolent one, in order to be democratised.”

So is the Economist telling us that we can’t have empire and democracy? Or has it too, read Robert Cooper’s ‘new and improved imperialism’ and realised that as long as one separates ‘us’ from ‘them’, we can in fact, have both? The article doesn’t actually get round to telling us but then for its readers, democracy is something that’s dished out to the punters by the puntees, big capital and the political class on whose behalf the Economist speaks. They will not see their rights infringed on, after all. this is the class that writes the rules!

This is how Cooper puts it, and he doesn’t pussyfoot around either:

“The challenge to the post-modern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the post-modern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle…. What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle.” – (‘The New Liberal Imperialism’)

In a quite perceptive analysis of the nature of modern US imperialism, the Economist goes on to tell us:

“The neocons may have the missionary zeal, but even this is likely to pall in the face of setbacks. There is certainly no zeal to bear the financial burden: Mr Bush’s latest budget was drawn up without any money at all for Afghanistan, and the costs are rising in Iraq (to nearly $4 billion a month, just for the soldiery), even as Mr Rumsfeld says more troops may be needed. Unlike most empires of old, the United States is an importer, these days, both of capital and of migrants.”

This observation makes the point about the fragility of US capitalism in carrying out its ‘manifest destiny’, but it’s also implicit that if it wants to succeed, it’ll need European capital on board in order to do it.

In the final analysis, it has this to say on the subject of empire-building:

“To be sure, America is now going through an imperial phase, but this one has more in common with its earlier imperial phases than with the imperial eras of Britain, Byzantium or Rome. If the assertive nationalists and the democratic imperialists have come together over Iraq, that does not mean the administration has signed up for the entire neocon agenda. And as for the foreign-policy pundits, in time they will move on to a new idea.

“That does not mean Mr Bush is wrong to think that democracy is the best hope for the world, though it will surely have to take different forms in different places. He is right. But he is also right in disavowing any imperial intentions. America will have to promote its aims some other way, probably by leading multilateral action.”

Clearly, the Economist has no fundamental problem with the idea of America conquering the world, this is obvious from the blatant language of the article. What they are worried about is the unduly high profile that the so-called neo-cons have in promoting the drakes. As the article quite pointedly says, “America will have to promote its aims some other way.” It’s also clear that they see the hegemony the US seeks to impose on the world as having the potential of locking out European capital, although:

“Even non-Americans seem well-disposed [to the US imperium]. Over a year ago Robert Cooper, a British diplomat, called for “a new kind of imperialism”, albeit one that would be provided by the “post-modern European Union. Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian now at Harvard, has also been ready to argue that “imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it is politically incorrect,” though not for him another European imperium. Doubtful as he is about the enterprise, he can see no alternative to American leadership.”

So it’s not the mission that the Economist is worried about, it’s how it’s to be sold, especially to European capital and what’s in it for them? But not to worry, as the Economist thinks that:

“[A]s for the [US] foreign-policy pundits, in time they will move on to a new idea.”

Thus speaks the mouthpiece of European big business, speaking from ‘on-high’ about the upstarts on the other side of the pond. But are the upstarts listening?

It also subliminally reveals the role of the Blah government, which not surprisingly, is not mentioned at all except in the passing reference to Robert Cooper (now Blah’s pro-consul in Afghanistan), who I have referred to several times in past essays who calls for “a new kind of imperialism”, albeit one that would be provided by the “post-modern European Union” and to the recent attempts on the part of the English political class to rehabilitate the British Empire, now that it feels that it’s safe to do so, when the Economist tells us of:

“[The] generally favourable reassessments of the British empire, notably the one offered in a book (and television series) by Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian now at New York University. “What the British empire proved”, writes Mr Ferguson, “is that empire is a form of international government that can work–and not just for the benefit of the ruling power.” The British empire, he suggests, “though not without blemish”, may have been the least bloody path to modernity for its subjects.”

A ‘modernity’ which seems to have passed by all the ‘failed states’, many of which are former colonies of the British Empire in Africa and elsewhere, but we’ll let that one pass. After all, the Economist is not really bothered about the ‘details’ of the new imperialist mission, and those who fall by the wayside, rather the elements necessary for the success of the mission of building the new imperium.

But it’s also clear that the Economist is reluctant to go too far in identifying with the old imperial empire’s desires to reinvent itself in a new image, which also helps explain why the word Blair nor the British government is mentioned at all in the essay. But then also consider who the Economist is talking to, and you realise that it’s not necessary. After all, they have no care as to who is nominally in charge, as long as they carry out the orders of the capitalist class.

The article is unashamedly an argument for the ‘new imperialism’ but one that cautions the ducks not to get swept away on the turbulent waters of a grand vision that gets in the way of real politik, namely that building an empire requires a lot more than overwhelming military force and above all, as it implies, it requires patience and an understanding of history. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, take it from those who lost one empire and who see the opportunity to build a new one. The message is clear; don’t blow it!

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