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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Imperial Rules Compared

It has become a commonplace of late to speak of the "American empire." The United States has occupied the same place in the contemporary world that the British empire occupied during the reign of Queen Victoria. The United States enjoys not just economic and military superiority, but like the former British empire it exercises political control over a growing number of countries.

Ironically, America's imperial incursion into Asia has begun in those very countries where British expansionism broke down: Afghanistan and Iraq. The British fought a number of wars in Afghanistan, suffering but a single serious military defeat. True, that defeat was devastating. During the war of 1839-42, the British garrison was obliterated by local tribes after abandoning Kabul and setting out for the safety of India. Only one British soldier reached his destination. British military superiority did not produce the desired results. Her Majesty's forces easily occupied major cities and routed the native armies only to discover that they controlled nothing but the ground they were standing on.

In India, the British had installed a system of "indirect rule," whereby most of the work of governing was handled by the local bureaucracy, police force and military. This system did not work in Afghanistan. Agreements reached with the British were immediately broken and local leaders continually switched sides. Promises were not kept. There was no one to trust and no one to rely on. Not only did local leaders have no desire to serve their conquerors, they couldn't even agree on anything amongst themselves. Having spent more than half a century in Afghanistan, Britain settled for the nominal recognition of its dominion. In 1919, the British left the country for good.

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Iraq, which came under British control after World War I, also proved a tough nut to crack. Rebellions were forever breaking out, and local authorities used the powers they had been given against their imperial patrons. The country was declared independent in 1932, though it was occupied again in 1941 in order to prevent it from falling under the influence of Nazi Germany.

In Afghanistan and Iraq today, the Americans have run into exactly the same problems. They have no reliable allies, and they have been unable to convert military presence into effective political control. But the United States has another problem that Britain didn't face: its reluctance to admit it is an empire.

When the British colonized countries in Asia and Africa, they at least assumed formal obligations toward the local population. The legal status of the colonial administration and its powers were clearly defined. You can't say anything definite about the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. How long will it last? What is the legal basis for it? How are responsibilities divided between the occupying powers and the local authorities? The Bush administration can't even bring itself to utter the word "occupation," much less openly declare that it has conquered these countries. The status of an occupied territory is more or less regulated by international law, but the United States won't admit that it is an occupying power.

The ideology, culture and institutions of the American republic do not jibe with its new imperial role in the world. America must conceal its ambitions, not so much from the world community which understands very well what's going on, but from its own people who were raised on very different traditions. The "free Briton" of the imperial era understood and supported the country's colonial policy. Even the socialists at the time were prepared to adopt imperial slogans -- with certain reservations, of course. The average American, by contrast, is never more supportive of their country's foreign policy than when they have only the vaguest idea what it actually entails. And since the existence of a U.S. empire is denied, public discussion of the problems of empire is impossible. In this, the United States closely resembles the Soviet Union, which passed off its occupation of Afghanistan as "fraternal assistance."

Hypocrisy is a shaky foundation for foreign policy, particularly in a country that considers itself a democracy. When the British empire was putting down uprisings in India, it could still boast of upholding democracy for "its own." The situation in America is fundamentally different. U.S. imperial policy will either lead to the erosion of the country's democratic institutions, or American democracy will rise up and bring an end to the grand imperial design.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.