October 31, 2012
One-hundred and thirteen years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the American enterprise in the Philippines. The title of that poem has since become a byword for racist colonialism and yet its text is a sardonic recitation of the dim virtues of the "Savage wars of peace."
"Go bind your sons to exile, To serve your captives' need;" Kipling wrote. "To seek another's profit, And work another's gain. Fill full the mouth of Famine, And bid the sickness cease."
This moral imperialism has never gone away, though it is no longer thought of in racial terms. For over a hundred years, the United States has gone on trying to feed and cure the world, sacrificing for others and seeing nothing in return.
The burden has been internalized, its concept not racial, but moral. The lack of empire has not lessened it. That absence of a physical empire, of conquered provinces and colonies administered with the whip has only strengthened the might of the moral empire. And the savage wars of peace go on in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where we fight desperately to save the natives from themselves.
The liberal man's burden is the United Nations. It is the obligation to universalize national greatness by extending it around the world through a moral empire. An empire of the progressive spirit that sweeps aside the old for the new, that makes the world over in a liberal image and a liberal template. The moral empire with the world as its consensual subjects whose conquests are achieved through the transcendent superiority of its modernity and humanity.
The Pax Americana is grounded in this notion of a moral empire. Russia or China may rule territories by force, but America expands its influence by exporting the virtues of its culture. Democracy and human rights are shipped overseas, wrapped in ribbons of international law, and soon enough the world is full of Pakistani Americans, Libyan Americans, Sudanese Americans and a horde of others who are happy to rule themselves under the systems of our moral colonialism. And once this is done then we will all be living in a truly Post-American world in which there will be no need for America because we will all be Americans.
American policymakers ask themselves why the people of another nation are still not Americans and then they set out to remove those obstacles, sending food, curing disease and gifting money to take care of physical needs, and removing dictators, enabling elections and instituting free market reforms to set aside any political repression. And if their theory were correct, then once that was done the people would be Americans. Instead they remain what they are and the policymakers remain baffled.
Introducing democracy to the Muslim world has not made it American, has not made it respectful of human rights or tolerant of dissent. It is possible to be a democracy and own slaves. It is certainly possible to be a democracy and treat non-Muslims as subhuman creatures to be beaten whenever the economy turns bad. Democracy is no defense against that sort of behavior. Character is and that cannot be exported along with election monitors and purple fingers.
Systems can be exported, but not assumptions and that is where the liberal man's burden always goes wrong, because he believes that he is exporting his virtues, when he is only exporting his systems. And his systems are only expressions of his virtues, they are not his virtues. It is possible to export a CD full of Mozart symphonies, but not the ability to compose those symphonies. Similarly we can send out copies of the Constitution, but not the minds that created and maintained such a document.
The moral empire proves even more fragile than the physical empire, for it depends on the export of virtues. And for those virtues which cannot be exported, American soldiers go to the cities and deserts of other lands and mark them with their living and dead. And for those virtues, teachers, aid workers, diplomats and a thousand others go to export the unexportable, they try to bring Mozart to Pakistan and rather than learning to compose symphonies, the natives kill Mozart and leave his body in a ditch.
The Pax Americana has not cured world hunger or disease, it has not brought peace and freedom to the world. What it has done is applied band aids, thrown off a dictator here or there, fed a few children and brought the occasional glimpse of light. But the light has never endured. Sooner or later it breaks down again, if not in the same ways, then in new and more troubling ways.
A people cannot be uplifted, they can only uplift themselves. That is the fallacy of the burden with all its weary futility. Americans cannot teach Pakistanis to be Americans. They cannot even teach them to be better Pakistanis. Only the Pakistanis stand any chance of teaching themselves that. America cannot fix Africa. Only Africa can fix Africa. And only America can fix America.
Every nation has its own journey to make and its own path to walk and no other nation can make the journey for it. Some will not make it and others will. But no nation can make another nation moral and no nation can make another civilized.
America has a duty to behave morally, but it does not have a duty to make other nations moral. The virtue of helping others only extends insofar as they can be helped. Only when that help is extended beyond the point where they can be helped or where they wish to be helped, does it become a burden. And a burden is carrying that which ought to be able to carry itself.
The difference between aid and empire, is that when aid is unending then it becomes empire, when there is no foreseeable point at which it ends and when extending it ensures dependency rather than the alleviation of a temporary condition, then it is not aid but empire. And that which can carry itself but chooses not to becomes a permanent burden and a corrupt power relationship is born built on revulsion and dependency, the familiar one of the welfare state where the master is the slave and the slave is the master, becomes a stain on two pairs of souls.
Exceptionalism is the core of nationalism. There are no shortage of nations that believe that they are fated to save the world. And to its credit the United States has saved the world, but saving the world is not the same thing as changing it. Resources and determination extended and expended in the right place and at the right time can save the world. But changing the world requires more than that, it requires even more than the big ideas that people imagine change the world, it requires that people take responsibility for their own actions and their own consequences.
The liberal man's burden acts in direct opposition to this, lifting away actions and consequences, and retarding the development of entire nations. Instead of making the world a better place, it makes it worse and instead of bringing progress, it turns the clock back, because moral colonialism is in its own way no different from any other kind of colonialism.
The most devastating aspect of colonialism is that it destroys a people's faith in itself, in its own power, its own judgement and its own industry. And it is doubly devastating when it had little of these things to begin with. The moral empire undermines the character of a people almost as well as its more brawny cousin does. It takes away any reason for progress and then wonders why that progress never seems to materialize.
The liberal man's burden is based on an unspoken superiority, the superiority which attends all liberal humanitarian impulses, the superiority of the sensitive man or woman who is ethically aware over the ethically unaware. But this superiority is a fleeting thing when the savage wars of peace begin and the price to be paid for trying to teach ethics to the unethical itself comes to seem highly unethical.
War is not made for either the preservation of the moral high ground or for its export to foreign parts. It is not fought to bring about a global state of peace, but so that those who fight it shall have peace, anything else is foolishly futile and a self-nullifying act that ends up shedding more blood than it saves.
The press of events in the 20th Century forced America to take on great power, but it reacted to that power by adopting the model of FDR, who ran for as many terms as he lived, instead of the model of Washington who stepped down as soon as it was feasible. The difference between these two kinds of power is the difference between Caesar and Cincinnatus , it is the difference between empire and expedition and between burden and virtue.
It is now long since past time to put down that burden. It is not America's mission to teach democracy to the Muslim world or to export any of its virtues by gentle means or harsh. The first duty of every society is not the export of its virtues, but their safeguarding. Only then can that society serve as an example to the world that inspires, rather sacrificing its virtues to teach virtue to the world.
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