Book Reviews

08 maio, 2010

In Praise of Empire - Deepak Lal

In Praise of Empires
Deepak Lal
(New York: Palgrave, 2004, 234 pages)

In Praise of Empires is based on the Henry Wendt Lecture Deepak Lal delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, In Defense of Empires. He was preaching to the converted there, but the book presumably is meant to reach a broader audience. Whether he can convince anyone else remains to be seen.
Lal takes a no-nonsense approach in his writing. The evidence is clear to him, the necessary steps obvious. Unfortunately, things are not quite that simple -- and simply stating them like this doesn't make them more so. Still, one has to admire his gumption.
Lal's thesis is simple: America is an empire. Accept it -- and get on with it.
Lal believes empires are special -- and good. Specifically, they maintain peace and promote prosperity -- better, Lal argues, than any other system -- and much of the book is an historic overview of empires and their successes (contrasted to the failures of, especially, the Age of Nations and all those annoying multinational organisations). Especially impressive: the British Empire, creating "the first truly global economic space (.....) the first truly liberal international economic order" (whereby Lal emphasises he mean 'liberal' in the original sense of the word, not the perverted current American usage).
The historic overview is of some interest, though the small number of true empires and their very different circumstances should suggest that the conclusions one can draw are limited -- not that Lal lets that stop him. Historical evidence is hard to deny -- it happened, after all -- but history is also easily twisted, and Lal certainly presents it in light of the conclusions he's after; the book is certainly vulnerable to criticism that has a different take on history.
What Lal leads the reader to is, first, the fairly obvious: the United States is an empire, by far the most dominant -- and thus literally the leading -- nation in the world. And that's where the fun really then begins -- because:

The nub of my case is that the United States, even more than any other economically and militarily dominant powers in the recent past, has acquired an empire but is reluctant to face up to the resulting imperial responsibilities because in its domestic discourse it refuses to face up to the reality.

Lal has little use for multinational organisations (or, indeed, multilateralism in any shape or form). The United Nations ? "It is of little use and in a rational world would be wound up." The World Bank and IMF ? They've outlived their usefulness: wind 'em up. The largest NGOs ? They're "bureaucratic organizations whose interests lie in creating scares to maximize their income and thereby the salaries, perks, and size of their bureaucracies." The specialized UN agencies (from the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization to UNESCO) ? "It is time to shut them down."
Lal is correct that many of these organisations have become bloated, wasteful, and self-serving -- as most bureaucracies are wont to become -- but refuses to see almost any value in them. The better way he sees is to have the US play the part of the imperial power -- play it as he thinks it should be played, that is. That his idealism is no more realistic than that of those who think the UN and friends can save the world is not something he seems to be aware of. (In theory, after all, the multilateral approach can be made to sound quite convincing, but real-life conditions (as Lal gleefully recounts) prove otherwise; similarly, the unilateral approach can be blamed for all sorts of historic disasters (not that he dwells on these) -- and there's one aspect of the empire-solution that even he can't quite get around: all previous empires have collapsed. Lal offers excuses and explanations, but the fact that all empires have eventually failed is a devastating blow to his argument he never adequately deals with.)
Lal isn't entirely deluded, and much of the book does focus on the fact that the United States has historically been reluctant to assume the imperial role its strength would allow it to take, with occasionally catastrophic results. Particularly after World War I US policy led to global economic catastrophe -- and Lal believes also "led to the two greatest threats to the classical liberal order created by Britain: Fascism and Communism." Woodrow Wilson, in particular, has a lot to answer for -- so Lal.
Lal does recognise that American policies (and attitudes) have been confused -- an empire that isn't sure how to play the part -- , and he is certainly correct in warning that the resulting uncertain approach is dangerous. But In Praise of Empires is more a plea for the leopard to change its spots: a call for America to embrace the empire within, as it were, than realistic blueprint. The transformative leap Lal expects is simply not realistic.
Even the most sensible proposal -- that the US finally do away with its insistence on reciprocity in trade matters, and embrace the "economically correct principle of a unilateral move to free trade" -- does not seem feasible in the current political climate (nor in any future imaginable one, as long as special interest groups continue to play the role they do in American politics). There are some other appealing proposals -- specifically the idea of an "International Natural Resources Fund" (which could conveniently replace the World Bank and IMF ...) as a way of depoliticizing natural resource rents (that benefit only bad rulers and elites of resource-rich nations) -- but almost all are impractical and likely unimposable.
Lal thinks the US should do what needs to be done. Undeniably, it has the military power to squash, on some level, almost any opposition. As the recent misadventures in Iraq suggest, however, that only gets you so far. Lal acknowledges a failure in post-invasion preparation in that case -- but thinks the fault was in the setting of the original goal: the imposition of liberal democracy in a united Iraq. He understands that in this case: "there is no reason to hold this artificial state together" and that American interests would be better served with the imposition of a different model (three autonomous self-governing regions, for example). But the costs of following this very different agenda from the get-go -- especially in selling it to the American public (and voters), not to mention the international community are not something Lal bothers with much.
Lal thinks the US should flex its imperial muscle: forget the pressure groups, forget the international community. The current approach of kowtowing -- or at least going through some of the motions -- before taking action merely muddies the waters -- and prevents the US from doing what is in its best interest; time, he thinks, to go at it completely differently.

In Praise of Empires is an interesting political fantasy book. Lal offers interesting history and some sensible theory -- a significant chunk of the book is also a defence of globalization as being the way to go, with the emphasis here on the US taking a leadership role (as it has not) in its spread. The examination of current and future threats and competition (including the likely rise of China and India as imperial powers) is certainly of some interest and value. But too much is just too far removed from contemporary reality to be of much use. Even if an American government were willing to go down Lal's path it seems unlikely that it could overcome even merely congressional and public opposition to it; the efforts of the jr. Bush administration -- far from Lal's ideal -- show how much America's leaders' hands are tied.
Lal's wholesale dismissal of almost all multi- and supra-national organisations is also problematic. Despite their many faults, these organisations do serve a variety of purposes, though Lal is unwilling to acknowledge essentially any of these. Similarly, he does not dwell on America's frequent failures in its foreign adventures, most notably in Viet Nam, Iran, and now Iraq, but also in countless other small and large interventions over the past decades. Current (2004) support of Pakistan and numerous post-Soviet Central Asian states (in the course of the poorly defined so-called 'war on terror'), as well as continuing deference to Saudi Arabia suggest American political leaders may be congenitally incapable of (or institutionally prevented from) acting in the nation's best interest. Lal may know what's best for America (and he may even be right); American leaders certainly have never shown that they do.
So: In Praise of Empires is interesting -- worth a look -- , but it shouldn't be taken too seriously.

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