[irtheory] Kurtz -- Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint

Francis Boyle fboyle at law.uiuc.edu
Sat Apr 19 19:41:08 PDT 2003

Is he related to Joseph Conrad's protagonist in Heart of Darkness? fab.
Francis A. Boyle
Law Building
504 E. Pennsylvania Ave.
Champaign, IL 61820
fboyle at law.uiuc.edu
(personal comments only)
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Subject: [irtheory] Kurtz -- Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint

> <http://www.policyreview.org/apr03/kurtz_print.html>
> Policy Review, No. 118
> Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint
> By Stanley Kurtz
> Although the united states is the preeminent power in the world, we are
not yet an empire. Notwithstanding periodic foreign interventions and our
considerable international influence, we have not used our military to
secure direct and continuous control over the domestic affairs of foreign
lands. If anything, the United States has avoided empire. We have abolished
the draft, reduced taxes, cut defense spending, and eschewed
nation-building. Only recently, we were accused of ³abandoning² Afghanistan
in the wake of the Soviet departure from that country. Today, Afghanistan
may be the germ of a new American imperium.
> Iraq forces the imperial question. In the aftermath of an Iraqi war, it
may suffice to install a friendly autocracy, withdraw the bulk of our
forces, and exert our influence from afar. Yet some have called for more.
>From voices within the administration like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul
Wolfowitz, to policy intellectuals like Richard Perle, to esteemed scholars
like Bernard Lewis, many have argued that only a democratic transformation
of Iraq, and eventually of the larger Arab world, can provide long-term
security against terrorism and nuclear attack.
> In an important address in February, George W. Bush lent his voice to this
chorus. In no uncertain terms, the president affirmed that ³the world has a
clear interest in the spread of democratic values,² not least because ³free
nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.² The president invoked the
examples of American-led democratization in post-World War ii Germany and
Japan, and he pointedly rejected the claim that Arab nations are incapable
of sustaining democracy. What the president did not say, yet gently and
ambiguously implied, was that so deep a cultural change would require
America to occupy Iraq in force and manage its affairs for years to come.
> Could such a venture in democratic imperialism be harmonized with our
liberal principles? Even if so, would it work? Is it possible to bring
liberalism to a society so long at odds with the values of the West?
> All of these questions were posed and answered, both in theory and in
practice, during Britain¹s imperial rule of India. Three great British
thinkers, Edmund Burke, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, not only
philosophized about liberal imperialism; they lived it. Burke helped force a
major reform of Britain¹s early imperial system, while John Stuart Mill
succeeded his father James as the ³chief examiner² in the London
headquarters of the British East India Company.
> Burke on one hand and the Mills on the other founded the two competing
moral and administrative schools of thought on the British Empire. Burke¹s
colonialism was conservative, respectful of indigenous practices and elites,
and insistent on the highest standards of stewardship. The Mills were
skeptical, even contemptuous, of traditional practices and elites; they were
determined to force a democratic social transformation. Neither approach, it
turns out, was able to operate independently of the other. If we find
ourselves shouldering an imperial burden in Iraq or beyond, we shall want to
study the wisdom < and the folly < of Burke, the Mills, and their respective
disciples. Far more than America¹s post-World War ii occupation of Japan,
the British experience in India may be the key precedent for bringing
democracy to an undemocratic and non-Western land like Iraq.
> From India to Iraq
> British imperial India might seem an unlikely model for an American
occupation of Iraq. American rule in Iraq would ideally be a successful and
time-limited experiment in democratization. Yet the British governed
sections of the Indian subcontinent for nearly 200 years. The earliest
period of British colonial rule was marked by extreme exploitation and
neglect. Once colonial government was placed on a sounder footing, even the
best-intentioned policies of dedicated and sympathetic administrators
frequently went awry, leading to serious social disruption. Midway through
the Raj, the British harshly suppressed a violent rebellion, leaving a
legacy of suspicion between ruler and ruled. The aftermath of rebellion
ushered in the later phase of empire, which was marked by an ideology of
racial superiority, continued exclusion of Indians from the higher levels of
the civil service, and a growing independence movement that was opposed
consistently, sometimes violently, by the British. If anything, therefore,
the British experience in India might best be viewed as a model of what not
to do in Iraq.
> The British Raj does indeed represent a useful countermodel for any
American venture in Iraq. Yet the experience of India under the British was
by no means entirely negative. In fact, the very movement of Indians to free
themselves from British rule was a product of British influence. Above all,
the British cultural legacy explains why post-independence India took a
democratic turn. Nor was the emergence of Indian democracy an entirely
unintended consequence of British imperial domination. Despite the many
problems and conflicts of empire, several critical threads of British
imperial policy were intended to bring about eventual democratic self-rule
in India. When India finally did attain independence and democracy, it was
in no small part due to those policies.
> But why look to India at all when we have the American occupation of Japan
as a model? That occupation was a successful and short-lived American-run
venture in the democratization of a non-Western autocracy. Why not simply
repeat the formula? The problem with the Japanese precedent is that the
post-World War ii transformation of Japan was far less radical than meets
the eye. Japan, after all, was already substantially modernized, else it
would not have been able to challenge us militarily. Industrial might and an
efficient, modern bureaucratic apparatus were keys to Japanese success, both
during and after the war. And although World War ii Japan was far from
democratic, military rule was actually a diversion from a long Japanese
history of experimentation with government along Western and democratic
lines. In comparison to Iraq¹s ethno-religious factionalism, moreover, Japan
is culturally homogeneous. So American efforts to impose a democratic
constitution on Japan succeeded because they rested on a set of economic,
social, and historical prerequisites, all of which are virtually absent in
Iraq. 1The British, on the other hand, transformed a country with no
democratic tradition into one of the more successful democracies in the
non-Western world. This Indian experience more closely resembles the
challenge we shall face in Iraq than does the example of post-World War ii
> Democratic gradualism
> How, then, did the British bring democracy to India? ³Very slowly² is a
large and important part of the answer to that question, although this is
not an answer Americans want to hear. Yet it is something we need to
remember. Authentic democratic development is slow < a lesson easily
forgotten by a nation that was, in important respects, democratic from the
start. Again, the example of post-World War ii Japan, which rests on a long
and too-little-known history of indigenous experimentation with democracy,
misleads us into thinking that supervised elections and imposed
constitutional changes can, by themselves, suffice to introduce democracy to
a non-Western country.
> Until the 1830 s, British imperial policy in India was one of minimal
interference with the indigenous social system. With a shockingly small
number of British soldiers and administrators governing a land of many
millions, the British had no desire to undertake potentially disruptive
reforms of Indian society. Most British administrators were ³Orientalist² in
inclination. That is, they were devoted to the respectful study of Indian
culture. Orientalist scholarship served as the foundation for a policy of
government by means of indigenous elites. In formulating that policy, the
Orientalists drew on Edmund Burke¹s social conservatism < his respect for
the wisdom of tradition and for the local aristocracies that serve as its
> As a prominent disciple of the liberal utilitarian philosopher Jeremy
Bentham, James Mill became the leader of a reformist liberal opposition to
the Burkean Orientalists. As chief examiner of the British East India
Company, he drafted the memoranda of instruction that were sent to India
during the 1820 s and 30 s. (Although Mill drafted the memos, and was highly
influential, he did not have final authority over their contents.)
> It was the liberals¹ education policy that successfully laid the
groundwork for India¹s modern and democratic future. The Orientalists wanted
to subsidize the advanced study of indigenous languages. The liberals, on
the other hand, were determined to create a class of English-speaking
Indians. Precisely because there were too few British administrators to
govern India¹s vastness, the assistance of a corps of English-speaking
Indian clerks was required. Yet liberal administrators were looking for
something more than bureaucratic assistants. Their hope was to mold a class
of Indians that was modern and liberal in outlook, a class that could
eventually govern India on its own.
> That is exactly what happened. Liberal administrative victories over the
Orientalists in the 1830 s set up a system of English education that
eventually produced a small but influential bureaucratic class of Anglicized
Indians. Although a more conservative administrative policy of indirect rule
through indigenous elites eventually returned (under the dual blows of
failed land reform and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 ), a small but productive
system of English-language education remained sacrosanct throughout British
rule. By the 1880 s the growing class of English-educated Indians, frozen
out of higher administrative positions, was agitating for a larger role in
government. At that point, administrative liberals returned to power long
enough to devolve a limited share of control to local representative
assemblies on which Indians could sit. These English-educated Indians, who
populated the bureaucracy, the courts, and the local democratic assemblies,
formed the core of India¹s movement for independence.
> The British, of course, went back on their promise of eventual democratic
self-rule, forcing Indians to seize their independence through a
decades-long campaign of agitation and resistance. Yet the educational
policies set up by liberal British administrators 100 years before
independence had laid the foundation for democratic self-rule in India.
> Another key contribution of liberal and reformist British administrators
to independence was the construction of an all-India communications and
transportation network in the 1850 s. An efficient national postal service,
telegraph system, and railroad network were all laid down in that decade. Of
course, this network increased the efficiency of British military and
administrative control over the subcontinent. Yet the new infrastructure
also generated a national consciousness among Indians, who had not
previously seen themselves as members of a single society. In particular,
the English-educated Indian bureaucratic class was brought to awareness of
its shared identity, values, and grievances by the new networks of
communication. Thus was born the idea of a modern, independent, and
democratic Indian state.
> The lesson in all this is that a slow process of English-medium education
in modern and liberal ideas has the potential to transform a traditional
non-Western society into a modern democracy. (Because of its status as the
world¹s lingua franca, by the way, even Sweden now makes English a
compulsory second language.) To work, such an education needs to be followed
by actual experience in legal, administrative, and legislative institutions
constructed along liberal lines. India¹s English-speaking bureaucratic class
made up only 1or 2percent of the population. Yet that class was sufficient
to manage a modern democracy and slowly transmit modern and liberal ideas to
the larger populace. So the route to modernization is not a direct
transformation of the traditional social system, but an attempt to build up
a new and reformist sector.
> Several problems with this scenario as a model for a postwar Iraq are
immediately apparent. For one thing, it took just over 100 years to move
from the establishment of English-language education in India to
independence and democracy. We don¹t have that kind of time in Iraq, where
our purpose is to liberalize the culture quickly enough to undercut the
growth of terrorism and anti-Western ideologies. Of course, after an initial
outburst of liberal enthusiasm, the British did everything in their power to
prevent their Indian subjects from attaining democratic self-rule. In
contrast, since our national safety depends on establishing a successful
liberal society in the Arab world, we have no reason to delay. Ideally, we
could see good results in the time it takes to educate a single generation.
> That is still a long time. And we live in an era of nationalism. British
rule actually created Indian nationalism, and in many ways the Raj depended
for its survival on the initial absence of nationalist sentiment. Yet Arab
nationalism has been a force to reckon with since just after World War i. In
fact, the British themselves took over Iraq in 1917-1918 and initially tried
to govern it directly. But by 1920-1921 , an Arab nationalist rebellion
forced the British to abandon direct rule and install a friendly and pliable
monarch instead. By the same token, any American attempt to govern Iraq, or
to supervise the education and training of a liberalized bureaucratic Iraqi
class, is sure to generate Arab nationalist resistance. So even if the
democratizing lessons of British imperial India might work in principle,
will we be able to implement them in practice?
> There are at least two possible solutions to the problem of Arab
nationalist reaction < the Iraqi immigrant returnees and what we might call
³blended rule² (a combination of direct and indirect rule). The Iraqi
returnees, who have lived in the West and imbibed its culture for years, may
already be a class of modern and liberal citizens who can help to govern and
reform their society. Unfortunately, the evident divisions in the ranks of
the returnees suggest the ongoing power of traditional regional, ethnic, and
religious loyalties among them. Nonetheless, the returnees may provide a
sufficient number of relatively liberalized Iraqis to jump-start the
long-term process of cultural change.
> The other question is whether, after an initial period of military rule,
America can devise a way of exercising influence in postwar Iraq that is
something less than classic direct imperial rule, yet something more than
the ³Orientalist² policy of indirect rule through traditional elites. (The
latter policy might create a stable Iraq but will not produce a democratic
Iraq.) This is a delicate and complicated question. To create a modernizing
and liberal bureaucratic elite in a country where no such class exists,
Westerners will be needed to run the schools and to serve as model
administrators and judges. While the returnees may be able to help here,
substantial American or Western involvement in the administration and
staffing of a reconstructed Iraq will almost certainly be essential to any
hoped-for democratic transformation. The question is, can that kind of
intimate American involvement take place under the umbrella of an Iraqi
> Even if we can reduce the process of generating a liberal,
Western-educated, and modernizing bureaucratic class to a generation, and
even if we can do so without provoking excessive cultural backlash, we still
face the reality that authentic democracy takes time to develop. Holding
democratic elections in a fundamentally illiberal environment invites ethnic
conflict, Islamist or secular dictatorship, and the same round of military
coups that eventually brought Saddam Hussein himself to power. This suggests
that a period of quasi-imperial, and therefore undemocratic, control might
be a necessary prerequisite to democracy itself. That brings us to another
critical lesson of the British experience in India < the paradoxical
compatibility between imperialism and democracy.
> A failed reform
> James mill¹s theory of social change was straightforward: Replacing
priestcraft and local despotism with wholesome government would quickly
sweep away irrational prejudice. Educate the populace, make them secure in
their property, govern them well, tax them lightly, and their economic
habits will be transformed to resemble those of enterprising British
> Mill¹s attitude toward indigenous Indian elites was diametrically opposed
to that of the Burkean Orientalists. Where the Orientalists looked at
Hinduism¹s sacred texts and saw legal subtlety and literary brilliance, Mill
saw barbaric punishments and wild-eyed myths. For the Orientalists, brahman
priests were the leading caste of the land whose understanding should be
taken by administrators as the key to prudent rule. To Mill, on the other
hand, brahmans were the ultimate embodiment of sinister priestcraft <
wielding abstruse rituals and extravagant tales to keep the masses ignorant
and docile.
> The Orientalist administrators feared that by displacing indigenous
elites, James Mill¹s policy of radical reform would provoke a revolt. Yet
Mill was confident that any prejudice in favor of tradition, self-rule, or
indigenous elites would fall away once the populace perceived the social and
economic benefits of Britain¹s modernizing policies. In Mill¹s utilitarian
theory, the mind was a tabula rasa that could quickly be shaped, and
reshaped, by changing external influences. Tradition, in this view, counted
for little.
> In practical terms, James Mill¹s strategy, which was eventually taken up
by a generation of liberal administrators in India, centered on land reform.
For Mill and his followers, the key to social progress in India was to
undercut the power of reactionary local elites by deeding land to individual
peasants. Once these peasant cultivators had secure ownership of their land,
market forces would take over, and spontaneous economic development would
rapidly follow. This formula for modernization is not unlike that favored
today by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.
> Yet in early nineteenth-century India, liberal land reform was a dismal
failure. 2Reform did indeed undercut the traditional system of village
self-rule and did also initiate a limited market in land. Yet the spirit of
British economic enterprise did not follow. Instead, the local economy
remained stagnant while the collapse of the traditional village political
system put new demands on already strained British administrators.
> The failure of liberal land reform was a vindication of sorts for the
Orientalists. Yet they, too, had misjudged the situation. Even the
Orientalist administrators had favored a policy of limited reform in the
districts under their control. While they had no intention of undercutting
indigenous elites, the Orientalists did sponsor surveys that recorded who
worked the land. In doing so, the Orientalists meant only to verify that
traditional village leaders were not unfairly exploiting peasants < or
deceiving the British < as they collected taxes on the government¹s behalf.
Yet the unintended effects of the Orientalists¹ land surveys were almost as
disruptive of the traditional system of ownership and political control as
the more intentionally radical reforms of the Millian liberals.
> Although the upshot of reform was to parcel out control of land to
individuals, and although the traditional politico-economic leadership of
the village was greatly unsettled thereby, fundamental Indian patterns of
caste and ³joint family² association remained strong. The notion of
collective property ownership among kin, while disrupted in its details,
remained pervasive, whatever the technical system of title-holding. With the
bonds of traditional kinship and caste relatively unbroken, a shift toward
capitalist enterprise was anything but automatic. Nor did either the
Orientalists or the liberals have a very clear understanding of the real
social underpinnings of the system they were (unsuccessfully) toying with.
> The lessons of empire, then, include a caution to democratizing optimists.
Western economic and political habits are not simply waiting to be unleashed
by a few simple legal reforms. The real barrier to modernity in the
non-Western world lies in the pervasive and recalcitrant structures of
everyday life < structures few Westerners understand. In India, the key
barriers to modernization are the joint family system and caste. The
counterparts in Iraq are the patriarchal family system, the bonds of lineage
and tribe, and related conceptions of collective honor. 3Traditional social
practices like these can sometimes adapt themselves to modernity. Yet a
direct attempt to overthrow these structures is difficult to manage and
unlikely to succeed.
> Competing administrative schools
> It is superficially true that Burke and the Orientalist administrators
inspired by him advocated rule consistent with indigenous principles,
whereas the liberals inspired by James Mill favored democracy for all. On
closer inspection, however, one can see how both schools of thought favored
a program of Westernizing reform and each had a healthy respect for the
cultural barriers to modernization.
> For England and India alike, Burke was an advocate of gradual reform
within the context of time-tested institutions. In Britain, that meant going
slow on the expansion of suffrage while encouraging a concept of stewardship
in the public interest among Britain¹s aristocratic office-holders. It¹s
easy for a modern American to dismiss these conceptions as outdated, but
history largely vindicated Burke. Britain developed slowly and peacefully
into a modern democracy, while the democratic radicalism and upheavals of
the French Revolution (which Burke famously condemned) led to decades of
turmoil and dictatorship. Both schools understood what modern Americans
forget: that too-rapid democratization in the absence of cultural
prerequisites can be dangerous.
> In the 1780 s Burke sought to reform Britain¹s growing empire in India.
4The early years of British rule featured much economic exploitation as well
as general neglect of the population¹s elementary needs and interests. The
East India Company¹s conduct outraged Burke, who saw in rule by transient
and commercially minded outsiders the ultimate contradiction of true
stewardship < rule by those who live among and understand the habits and
interests of the people.
> Burke¹s opponents claimed that, since Indians were in any case accustomed
to being ruled despotically, a measure of British despotism was both
necessary and justified. To reply to that argument, Burke made himself into
one of the first European experts on a non-Western culture. Burke
successfully established that Hindu and Muslim law rivaled Western law in
sophistication, and argued that such a people was just as entitled to the
rule of law and just stewardship as the people of England. Interestingly,
the founder of modern conservatism was Britain¹s sharpest internal critic of
imperial abuse.
> Burke sometimes hinted that, through a process of gradual and unforced
reform, Indians might someday supplement their own customs with the full
advantages of British liberty. Yet, as would later be true of the Mills,
Burke had a limited understanding of the actual structures of Indian life.
The caste system, for example, was for the most part opaque to him.
Nowadays, students of Burke tend to push his criticisms of empire even
further. If Indians had sophisticated law and were entitled to genuine
stewardship by an indigenous elite, why have empire at all? But Burke can be
pushed in the other direction as well. If non-Western societies are much
further from the blessings of liberty than Burke dared imagine, then why not
undertake a more radical program of reform?
> This was the question posed by James Mill in his rejection of the Burkean
Orientalists¹ preference for rule through an indigenous elite. Yet John
Stuart Mill made a lifelong effort to transcend the dichotomy between Burke
and his father < between the indirect rule favored by the Orientalists and
the radical reformism of the liberals.
> John Stuart Mill famously suffered a mental breakdown as a result of his
father¹s authoritarian and unbalanced rearing. James Mill raised his son
John in isolation from all but a few family members, personally taught him
Greek by age three, Latin by eight, and a demanding course of
university-level material (including the history of India) throughout
childhood. Religion, music, and art were intentionally excluded from young
John¹s curriculum. In effect, John Stuart Mill was a guinea pig in a great
utilitarian experiment in child rearing. By excluding all ³irrational² and
traditional influences, James Mill hoped to create a perfectly rational and
³reformed² human being, just as he hoped to create a reformed and rational
> Just as John Stuart Mill was advancing, under his father¹s influence, at
the East India Company office, his mental breakdown hit. 5To save himself
from the feeling that he was incapable of normal human emotions, John Stuart
Mill secretly began to read the romantic poets. That led him to Samuel
Taylor Coleridge¹s conservatism. Less well-known is John Stuart Mill¹s
growing interest, at just this time, in the administrative theories of the
Burkean Orientalists, which were built around the same sort of respect for
tradition found in Coleridge. Just before and after his father¹s death, Mill
began to throw his weight behind the Orientalists¹ policies of rule through
indigenous elites.
> Eventually, in his administrative policies as in all aspects of his
thought, John Stuart Mill sought a synthesis. Having abandoned his father¹s
doctrinaire reformism, Mill was able to shift as circumstances demanded.
With the advent of the great transportation and communications projects of
the 1850 s, Mill moved back into the reformist camp. Yet while many
reformist administrators < his father above all < thought the actual
participation of Indians in government was unnecessary to modernization,
Mill always advocated participation in imperial administration by indigenous
elites. In effect, this view was a synthesis of the Orientalist position
(with its respect for the role of indigenous elites) with his father¹s
authoritarian reformism. By the time he wrote Considerations on
Representative Government (1861 ), Mill had worked out his system of liberal
gradualism < an attempt to split the difference between his father and
> John Stuart Mill¹s administrative shifts reflected a larger rhythm of
change in the history of British India. The balance between reformism and
relatively indirect rule constantly changed. Burke¹s early reforms brought a
necessary respect for indigenous interests after a period of British
exploitation and neglect. Decades of stable rule eventually made reformist
administrative experimentation possible. Out of that period of reform came
English-language education. Yet the reformers went too far. After the
failure of their land reforms (which played a role in provoking the revolt
of 1857 ), a policy of indirect rule through indigenous elites returned,
punctuated by the liberal reforms of the 1880 s that devolved a measure of
power to local assemblies.
> The lesson in all this is that there is no single correct way of
democratizing Iraq. Some elements of the Bush administration prefer to work
through traditional Arab elites, while others remain intent on relatively
rapid democratization. (No doubt, both positions are considerably more
nuanced than this.) So the nucleus of two competing administrative schools
for a postwar occupation is already in place. Only time will tell how to
plot a course between the two approaches.
> Consider the problem of Iraq¹s traditional tribal areas as a specimen of
the coming administrative challenge. A truly modern and democratic Iraq will
require a state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. That means
in the areas where rifle-bearing tribesmen still rule, the populace will
eventually have to be disarmed. Yet, in the early phases of the occupation,
it will be necessary to work with the tribes, not against them, to
consolidate the new government¹s control. It will take time to educate and
train a modernizing and liberal elite. Eventually, patronage through tribe
and kin will have to be stamped out in favor of an educational and
bureaucratic meritocracy. In the meantime, some cultivation of traditional
leaders and some accommodation of traditional kinship-based patronage will
have to be tolerated. Inevitably, there will be contradictions in policy.
The overall pace and direction of that policy needs to be guided by
circumstances, not by simple doctrine. John Stuart Mill¹s administrative
flexibility and synthesis is the model.
> Liberal imperialism?
> Debate over the governance of postwar Iraq pits democratizers against
realists. Realists are skeptical about the prospects for cultural change in
the Arab world, warning that democracy will create ethnic strife and elected
despotisms. Partisans of democratization, on the other hand, are willing to
take risks to achieve the sort of deep-seated cultural change that might
finally put an end to regimes that harbor, sponsor, or generate terrorists.
In this view, it takes democracy to make democracy. Only by actually
choosing their own governments < then living with the imperfect consequences
of those choices < can a people learn the meaning and necessity of
responsible elective behavior.
> These opposed views often exist simultaneously within the same
administration. For example, Thomas Carothers has highlighted contradictions
within the democracy promotion policies of Presidents Ronald Reagan and
George W. Bush. 6After lavishing effort on the construction of a credible
electoral process in El Salvador, the Reagan administration covertly
funneled money to assure the victory of its favored candidate, Jose Napoleon
Duarte. The current administration is encouraging democracy among the
Palestinians while also making clear that it considers the reelection of
Yasser Arafat an unacceptable outcome. And at the moment, the administration
is trapped between its democratizing rhetoric and the growing crisis in
Venezuela, where the popularly elected but anti-American government of Hugo
Chavez holds sway. This sort of problem could confront us in an Iraq that is
only formally democratized.
> Part of the difficulty here is that our democratization debate is premised
on a false dichotomy. Skeptical realists highlight the danger of holding
elections in an illiberal environment. Democratic imperialists insist that
faith in our values demands that we risk a shift to an electoral system in
the Arab world. But what if a policy that eschews immediate elections is not
simply a bow to illiberal realities, but itself reflects an understanding
and affirmation of authentic liberal democracy? After all, no less a liberal
than John Stuart Mill articulated just such a policy of democratic delay.
> After more than two decades¹ experience as a leading liberal voice within
the British East India Company, Mill warned in Representative Government
against premature elections in societies lacking the cultural prerequisites
of democracy. Unless electors actually understand and embrace liberal
constitutional principles, said Mill, representative institutions quickly
degenerate into tyranny and faction. According to Mill, a government capable
of bringing democracy to an illiberal society will have to be in some degree
³despotic.² In other words, after warning against the dangers of too-rapid
democratization, Mill defends the necessity of an enlightened colonial
despotism as a route to the long-term liberalization of relatively
³uncivilized² societies.
> Mill¹s thoughts on colonialism are not a favorite subject of his
contemporary readers and admirers. When Mill¹s views on colonial
democratization are examined at all, Mill is usually excoriated for his
imperialism, his alleged betrayal of liberal principles, and his cultural
bigotry. Mill does deserve criticism for his condescension toward, and
limited understanding of, non-Western societies. Yet, in general, the
complaints are unfair.
> In Representative Government , Mill was grappling with a fundamental
problem of British democracy, a problem little appreciated by modern
Americans. America enjoyed near-universal white male suffrage from the
start, but throughout the nineteenth century, Britain and other European
nations struggled mightily with the question of how far to extend the
franchise. This was not a straightforward matter of equality and justice but
entailed the potential destruction of democracy itself by means of a
popularly supported despotism. France had several times fallen victim to
just such a despotism, and this was much on the minds of liberal democrats
like Mill.
> From the start, American democracy was premised upon its relative social
equality and its widely educated public. Europe¹s class divisions, its
unlettered peasants, and its ill-educated workers meant that universal
suffrage could quickly and easily lead to despotism. So Mill¹s cautions
about too-rapid democratization applied not only to India, but to England as
> Yet Mill was indeed a liberal. If he saw legitimate limits to proposals
for universal suffrage, he was also a leader of the movement to extend the
franchise as quickly and as far as prudently possible. And despite his
approval of an enlightened colonial despotism in India, Mill was a supporter
of the liberal administrative policies that did in fact eventually lead to
Indian democracy. For example, Mill was well aware of the tendency of the
new Indian communications and transportation infrastructure to generate a
national consciousness and to lift the concerns of individuals beyond their
localities and toward the broader public good. For this reason, Mill
strongly supported these reforms when they were playing out and clearly
alludes to them with approval in Representative Government .
> More important, in Representative Government , Mill lays out, more than 20
years before the fact, the governmental reforms of the 1880 s that
eventually did lead to independence and democracy in India. Speaking
broadly, without mentioning any particular country, Mill argues that the way
to democracy in relatively ³uncivilized² colonies is the construction of
local democratic assemblies that do not compete with the central power but
are ³auxiliary² to it. Representative Government was well-known to colonial
administrators and surely helped set the pattern for the liberal reforms of
the 1880 s. Those who reproach Mill for his involvement in colonialism
seldom acknowledge that Mill actually supported and helped to author many of
the liberal colonial policies that did in fact bring democracy to India.
> Of course, Mill is chastised for his embrace of the civilizational ranking
characteristic of nineteenth-century British thought. It is true that Mill,
like his father, was mistaken to dismiss Indian culture as ³barbarian.² But
it is important to understand why Mill was mistaken. Neither of the Mills
had a clear or satisfactory conception of what made Indian society tick.
They judged India by British yardsticks and found it wanting. In doing so,
the Mills did indeed misjudge a complex, graceful, and sophisticated social
system < one with great strengths as well as great weaknesses.
> Yet once our problem becomes the democratization of a non-Western culture,
John Stuart Mill¹s seemingly dated framework is surprisingly modern and
relevant. It can certainly be argued that traditional Arab society is far
more appealing, and far less oppressive, than its detractors realize. But to
the extent that the export of democracy becomes our goal and standard,
Mill¹s warnings about precipitous reform in the absence of cultural
prerequisites, his plans for eventual success, and even his ranking of
societies by their relative readiness for democracy make a great deal of
> The lesson here is that due caution about the rapid importation of
full-blown democracy to illiberal societies is entirely compatible with
faith in, and even promotion of, liberal principles. Because of our unique
social history, Americans think of democracy in universalist and
rights-based terms. John Stuart Mill, however < like Edmund Burke and Alexis
de Tocqueville before him < was keenly aware of democracy¹s social and
cultural prerequisites. We cannot and should not return to the nineteenth
century¹s ignorant and simplistic ranking of societies on a single
evolutionary scale. Nor can we govern Iraq with the arrogance and prejudice
of the nineteenth-century British. Yet the problem of a postwar occupation
of Iraq is rather more similar to the challenges faced by Mill than to any
experience with which Americans are familiar. For that reason, we would do
well to learn from Mill¹s cautious, thoughtful, and in many ways successful
program of democratization. Mill¹s belief in democratic gradualism was not
only realist; it was also liberal.
> A just empire?
> Talk of empire is discomforting. Even if it might be possible to isolate
and extract the most liberal and beneficial lessons of the British
experience in India, can any empire, however benign, be counted morally
just? To venture an answer to that question, we would do well to consider
the moral arguments surrounding European colonialism.
> Much of the debate over the moral status of European colonialism turns on
economic questions. Colonialism¹s defenders stress the lasting investment in
productive forces made by the colonizer on behalf of the colonized. Critics
of colonialism highlight transfers of wealth from the colonized country to
the seat of empire. In a sense, as David B. Abernathy notes in his recent
and very useful moral assessment of European colonialism, each side in this
debate accepts the ethical premises of the other. 7That is why colonialism¹s
critics play down investment, while colonialism¹s defenders play down wealth
transfer. In these terms, the British experience in India was clearly one in
which the investment of productive forces was high < with the improvements
in transportation and communication sponsored by liberal colonial
administrators like John Stuart Mill looming particularly large.
> Yet the debate over the moral status of colonialism is bedeviled by deeper
dilemmas. Take the problem of the ³counterfactual.² Defenders of empire
assume that the economic and political development stimulated by European
rule would not have occurred in the absence of colonialism. Yet, by pointing
to the example of Japan, critics of colonialism claim that, if left to their
own devices, most conquered countries would have modernized even without
European rule. I have argued that the Japanese example is the exception, not
the rule. But since the counterfactual (i.e., what would have happened
without colonialism) is formally unknowable, it is difficult to reach
agreement on this issue.
> And unlike calculations of investment or profit, certain critical moral
criteria may be impossible to compromise or modulate. Implicitly, both sides
in the colonialism debate agree that contempt for the race, cultural
practices, or historical accomplishments of a colonized people is
deplorable. But while some instances of European rule may have been more or
less bigoted than others, even the fairest and most respectful instance of
colonial rule may be inherently humiliating to the colonized. That may
explain why defenders of colonialism have almost nothing to say about
complaints of humiliation. That silence may indicate implicit moral
agreement with the critics of empire, an affirmation of the one unanswerable
argument of colonialism¹s critics.
> On the question of democracy, the tables are turned. Here the contemporary
critics of colonialism affirm by their virtual silence the power of a
seemingly unanswerable moral argument. Contemporary scholarly accounts of
colonialism, for example, have plenty to say about the way in which the
British rationalized their possession of empire as a way of bringing
liberalism and democracy to India. However, few scholars dare acknowledge
that, for all the problems, British rule did in fact make India¹s modern
democracy possible. What are we to make of the fact that one of the key
British ³rationalizations² for empire turned out, in large measure, to be
> Our commitment to political autonomy sets up a moral paradox. Even the
mildest imperialism will be experienced by many as a humiliation. Yet
imperialism as the midwife of democratic self-rule is an undeniable good.
Liberal imperialism is thus a moral and logical scandal, a simultaneous
denial and affirmation of self-rule that is impossible either to fully
accept or repudiate. The counterfactual offers a way out. If democracy did
not depend on colonialism, we could confidently forswear empire. But in
contrast to early modern colonial history, we do know the answer to the
counterfactual in the case of Iraq. After many decades of independence,
there is still no democracy in Iraq. Those who attribute this fact to
American policy are not persuasive, since autocracy is pervasive in the Arab
world, and since America has encouraged and accepted democracies in many
other regions. So the reality of Iraqi dictatorship tilts an admittedly
precarious moral balance in favor of liberal imperialism.
> The British Empire was far more successful than other European empires in
bringing democracy to the colonized < India being the most impressive
example. Combine successful democratization with the massive investment the
British made in the infrastructure of their prized colonial possession, and
the British imperial experience in India clearly ranks as one of the most
legitimate and successful colonial enterprises. Yet the British showed
racial and cultural contempt for Indians and systematically excluded Indians
from the higher ranks of the civil service. So the intrinsic humiliations of
empire were compounded by the realities of British rule in India. That
deplorable fact must rank high in any contemporary moral accounting.
> Presumably, American rule in Iraq would be relatively free of the racial
and cultural bigotry that so marred British rule in India. It would also
feature substantial American investment in moral and material
infrastructure. And the very purpose of American rule in Iraq would be to
create the authentic democracy that we know has been impossible to establish
in our absence. So by commonly agreed-upon criteria, an American imperial
interlude in the Arab world would be as just as it is possible for such an
inherently ambiguous undertaking to be.
> Yet the deeper legitimacy of an American imperial adventure in Iraq would
rest on a consideration entirely absent from debates over the morality of
European colonialism. Both sides in the colonialism debate agree that
empires ought to be judged according to whether they help or harm their
subject populations. That is because European empires were established
aggressively and opportunistically. These empires were defensive only
insofar as they were fending off encroachments by the other European powers.
(No small concern, by the way.) Yet, in the broadest sense, an American
occupation of Iraq would be motivated and justified as self-defense. The
dual advent of nuclear proliferation and terrorism has made the creation of
an authentic democratic culture in the Arab world essential to the survival
of the West.
> In this sense, the real moral analogue of an American occupation of Iraq
is our postwar occupation of Japan, whose defensive purpose was the
democratization and demilitarization of a defeated foe. The Japan analogy
may be flawed as a pragmatic model for democratization in Iraq, but its
moral status is a significant precedent. The key difference is that bringing
democracy to Iraq will take longer than it did for Japan. But while that is
not a morally insignificant fact, it is ultimately more a difference of
practice than of principle.
> Lessons
> As a way to encourage democratization, an extended American occupation of
Iraq would be just policy. Would a long-term occupation also be wise policy?
That is the more difficult question. Since democratization will be more
lengthy and difficult in Iraq than in postwar Japan, America will have to
marshal its will and resources for a stressful and challenging enterprise.
If the Iraqi returnees turn out to be poor democratizers, or if America
finds it difficult to exercise great and lasting influence without quite
seeming to do so, the chances of an Arab nationalist reaction or internal
American divisions are high. Certainly, one reasonable response to this
scenario is refusal to engage in a long-term occupation at all.
> Yet the argument for a venture in democratic imperialism is also strong.
In the long term, it may be our best insurance against the deadly and
ever-spreading combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Particularly in the early stages, such a venture should concentrate on
building up a modernizing and liberal class through education. An end-run
around traditional structures will be more successful than direct assault.
Someday, however, the time for a limited assault will come. Shifting
administrative strategies are a feature of successful democratic
imperialism. Only circumstances can dictate the balance between relatively
indirect rule and reformist transformation.
> Above all, should America undertake an extended occupation of Iraq, the
dichotomy between realist caution and reformist liberalism will have to be
transcended. Authentic democracy develops slowly. The trick is to encourage
electoral experiments on the local level while still keeping hold of
national power. Gradualism is not a betrayal of democratic principle. On the
contrary, it is an insight bequeathed to us by the founders of liberalism
> Notes
> 1See Stanley Kurtz, ³After the War,² City Journal (Winter 2003).
> 2For an account of the failure of British land reform policy, see Ann B.
Callendar, How Shall We Govern India? (Garland Publishing, 1987).
> 3See Stanley Kurtz, ³ Root Causes ,² Policy Review 112 (April-May 2002).
> 4The best account of Burke¹s dealings with India is Frederick G. Whelan,
Edmund Burke and India (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).
> 5For an excellent account of Mill¹s work at the British East India Company
and its role in his personal and intellectual development, see Lynn
Zastoupil, John Stuart Mill and India (Stanford University Press, 1994).
> 6Thomas Carothers, ³Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror,² Foreign
Affairs (January-February 2003).
> 7David B. Abernathy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance (Yale University
Press, 2000), 387­407.
> --
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