Liberal Imperialism


This is only speculation, of course. But in the Balkans we can already see a payoff to nation building undertaken by the United States and its allies. The violence that claimed some 300,000 lives in the Wars of Yugoslavian Succession is over. Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia live in a state of uneasy peace under the eyes of Western troops. Aside from saving lives, there’s another reason for the United States to take satisfaction in this outcome. Islamic extremists, who migrated to the Balkans in the early 1990s to help their fellow Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia resist Serb oppression, have been denied a toehold in the region. NATO troops have been able to arrest and deport a number of terrorist suspects in Albania and Bosnia before they could blow up American installations. If U.S. troops had never intervened in the first place, it is likely that the Balkans would have turned into another Afghanistan, a refuge for terrorists, and this one located near the heart of Europe. Similar action may be necessary to drain other potential swamps that breed crime and violence.


Any call for a renewed campaign of nation building by Western states is likely to run into an obvious objection: Didn’t imperialism go out of style decades ago, when European administrators were chased out of one colony after another? True enough. Europeans found that the cost of ruling Third World countries whose young men were fired up by nationalist doctrines was too high to pay. Then, too, in the wake of the Holocaust, the racist assumptions that had justified a small number of whites ruling over millions of nonwhite people lost their intellectual respectability. The British withdrew more or less gracefully from most of their empire, while the French fought to keep Vietnam and Algeria and suffered humiliating defeats. If the Europeans, with their long tradition of colonialism, have found the price of empire too high, what chance is there that Americans, whose country was born in a revolt against empire, will replace the colonial administrators of old?

Not much. The kind of imperial missions the United States is likely to undertake today are very different. The Europeans fought to subjugate “natives”; Americans will fight to bring them democracy and the rule of law. (No one wants to put Afghanistan or Bosnia permanently under the Stars and Stripes.) European rule was justified by racial prejudices; American interventions are justified by human-rights doctrines accepted (at least in principle) by all signatories of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. European expeditions were unilateral; American missions are usually blessed with international approval, whether from the U.N., NATO, or simply an ad hoc coalition.

This is not to suggest that American attempts at nation building are destined to be easy or painless. Dealing with local warlords is a difficult task that, if mishandled, can lead to disaster, as in Lebanon in 1983 or Somalia in 1993. But it is important to note that these days the bulk of ordinary people are likely to support, at least in the beginning, an American peacekeeping presence in their country. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, GIs are seen as liberators, not oppressors. Most inhabitants of these war-torn lands want American troops to stay as long as possible. The question is whether policymakers in Washington will heed their pleas for help and launch another period of “liberal imperialism.”