Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xxvi + 270 pp. $27 (cloth), ISBN: 1-4039-3639-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jack A. Goldstone, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University.

Deepak Lal is not your typical economist. His book Unintended Consequences pointed to religious reforms under Pope Gregory the Great to explain Europe’s subsequent economic growth. In Praise of Empires draws on Adam Smith and classical economics, but does so to derive guidelines for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Lal’s core argument is straightforward. Economic growth requires order and security; otherwise state predation undermines private economic endeavor. Such order and security is provided (where it is provided) at the national level by national governments. Yet economies today are not isolated national economies. Rather, growth in the global economy as a whole has been most rapid and widespread during periods with high levels of international trade. Such trade also requires order and security, and in the absence of anything like a global government, Lal argues that it falls to empires to provide them. In pre-modern times, the Roman, Abbasid, Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese empires provided order and security in their domains. In modern times, the Pax Britannica (enforced by the British Navy and the British-led but Indian-manned British army) provided the global order that underwrote the first age of globalization, roughly from 1870 to World War I. Since World War II, it has been American power that has supported the second age of globalization.

Advocates of American power will say, “of course.” Yet Lal is deeply concerned. He believes that America’s reluctance to embrace its imperial role will undermine its competence in addressing this task. In particular, although America is clearly willing to support a military force with global reach, it does so only in the name of national defense. Moreover, because America clearly wants to avoid administering anything like an overseas empire, it has decided not to develop anything like an imperial civil service to help create and maintain domestic order in far-flung and dangerous places.

In addition, Lal is worried that well-meaning moralists and misguided non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) will undercut American efforts. Lal distinguishes between civil liberty and material culture, on the one hand, and democracy and cosmological culture on the other. Civil liberty and material culture are open to everyone in the world; this freedom to contract and own property and to draw upon technology for modern production can be adopted by any society without it having to become “Westernized.” Empires (including the Pax Britannica and the ideal Pax Americana) promote economic prosperity by creating a secure domain in which the acquisition and exchange of property and the deployment of production technologies can take place with acceptable risks. In other words, empires make the world safe for investment, acquisition of human and material capital, mutually advantageous exchange, and innovation.

Lal claims that well-meaning moralists do not realize that democracy and various other elements of Western culture, such as ‘human rights,’ are not universal, but are rather products of the West’s specific historical and religious development. Seeking to impose or promote democracy in countries that have not yet developed civic character among their citizens, or seeking to impose Western values and ideals on cultures that have, for millennia, defined ‘rights’ rather differently, is likely to be fruitless and lead to exactly that clash of cultures that Samuel Huntington has prophesied, and in the process replace productive global order with economically stifling conflict. In addition, NGO’s, operating as global ‘interest groups’ without electoral legitimacy or economic responsibility, have undertaken a moral crusade against multi-national corporations and global capitalism, and in particular against American political and economic power, in pursuit of a utopian ideal of global equality.

Lal’s solution to this is equally straightforward: close down all the ineffective multi-national organizations that are supposed to be supporting international order (the World Bank, IMF, United Nations), recognize that an imperial power supporting security and order is the sole realistic basis for increasing global prosperity, and let America (for no other power is up to the task) get on with that job.

To address Lal’s argument, let me break it into three parts: first is the claim that imperial order is essential for growth; second is the claim that America is best suited to take the role of imperial protector at present; third is the claim that such missions as spreading democracy, promoting human rights, and protecting the environment against global warming and other alarums, are dangerous distractions likely to undermine economic growth.

Lal is undoubtedly correct that most of mankind, for most of its history, has lived under the rule of empires. Yet the notion that such imperial rule is good for economic growth is debatable, at the least. Lal points to the defects of the Ottoman Empire (overly focused on martial expansion) and the Chinese Empire (where the Ming and Ching ‘closed’ themselves off from the global economy as much as possible before the nineteenth century Western incursions) as examples of empires gone wrong. Moreover, many of the most striking episodes of economic growth — China during the southern Song dynasty or the Netherlands in their “Golden Age” of the seventeenth century — occurred precisely when imperial hegemony was absent.

Lal’s argument is most persuasive when he focuses on growth during the “pax Britannica” from 1870 to 1914. During this period, when Britain clearly ruled the waves (and insisted on maintaining its naval predominance through treaties that imposed inferior navies on its rivals), global economic growth was undoubtedly rapid and widespread. But was this all cause and effect? This was the period in which Germany developed its chemical and steel and railroad industries, and by its victories over France and Austria created a “pax Germanica” in central and Eastern Europe. Russia abolished serfdom, and Japan set out to end its isolation and recreate itself in the shape of a western industrial and imperial power. All of these actions were not because Germany, Russia, and Japan felt themselves under the beneficial protection of British hegemony, protecting their foreign trade; it was precisely because having suffered past defeats at the hands of west European powers, they were determined to strengthen themselves sufficiently to escape from British hegemony.

The problem of imperial order is much like the ‘paradox of power’ that Lal discusses at the level of the nation state. Any state government strong enough to enforce order and security for its citizens is also strong enough, if it wishes, to oppress them. The paradox is resolved at the state level by representative institutions and a legal system that allows the populace to block or overturn an overly predatory state, and that protects individuals and minorities from having their basic political and economic freedoms constrained by the majority.

Yet when facing an imperial hegemon, no matter how dedicated it may be to the principles of free trade and equal protection, other countries have no such mechanisms to protect themselves against the day when the imperial power becomes so misguided or selfish that it becomes tyrannical and oppressive. Even virtuous and democratic Athens (as Thucydides reminds us) could be as ruthless and oppressive toward other Greek city-states within its empire as any individual dictator. Thus the presence of an imperial hegemon determined to preserve its predominance creates counter-pressures from other states seeking to escape it. German militarization and naval armament in the years leading up to World War I were a direct response to fears that British naval power could be as easily used to starve Germany as to protect global trade (Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation, 1991). The first World War, and the second (which as Lal himself points out, was largely a response to the handcuffs that France and Britain tried to put on Germany to preserve their dominance in the global system), were thus as much an effect of British imperial domination as the prosperity that preceded it.

The two world wars broke Britain’s military and economic strength, and left the field open for America to become the world’s military and economic superpower. At first, of course, the world was polarized between the U.S. and the socialist bloc, led by the USSR. The failure of socialism as a political and economic system, punctuated by the anti-communist revolutions of 1989-91, seems to have further demonstrated that the only path to stable economic growth is through capitalist institutions. Yet granting this demonstration, and America’s current place in the world, does this mean that American military and economic and civil leadership would be most beneficial to the global economic order?

One would be happier about the prospect if America’s history of global interventions were not so ham-handed. It is difficult to claim that America’s recent interventions in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq were good for growth in those nations or their neighbors. Where intervention to restore order in dangerous places (Bosnia, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan) has been more successful, it was precisely in those places where America carefully put together broad coalitions of significant allies and operated as primus inter pares rather than as the 800-pound gorilla.

In regard to perhaps its greatest crises today — the acquisition or threatened acquisition of nuclear arms by North Korea and Iran — the U.S. is relying on multi-national diplomacy, having exhausted its own efforts at unilateral persuasion, and fearing that despite its overwhelming military might it has no clear military solution to these problems.

Lal overlooks one major aspect of Britain’s imperial success that America simply cannot reproduce today: Britain could rely on the manpower of other countries (mainly India) to do the work that British soldiers could not or would not manage on their own. America has developed a highly lethal, highly mobile, global military that can strike anywhere. But the problem with such a military, as shown in Iraq, is that it cannot hold any place without the assistance of large numbers of non-U.S. troops. In the absence of mass conscription and the deployment of millions of U.S. troops, the U.S. will not be able to impose pacification on entire countries as it did in post-war Germany and Japan.

One could add that America — with its rather unique attitudes toward having a highly armed citizenry, running huge central budget deficits, and its history of severe ethnic discrimination — may not be the ideal tutor for a world in which armed conflict, rampant government spending, and ethnic conflict are some of the main obstacles to achieving economic prosperity. A blend of different traditions from a variety of western and non-western nations may be a more palatable mix in forces seeking to impose order in disorderly places. The presence of a single dominant hegemon seems to create unity mainly among those seeking to overturn its order, rather than among those who support it.

Finally, while I fully sympathize with Lal’s concern that utopian quests more often lead to disaster than progress, I fear he is too harsh in his dismissal of NGO’s and the pursuit of human rights. It was not only economic weakness that did in the Soviet Union and its satellites (Burma, despite far worse economic performance, shows no signs of collapse), but also the vigorous pressure for human rights by dissidents. Lal quotes the reformed environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg to ward off anti-globalization doomsayers: “We have reduced atmospheric pollution in the cities, … our rivers have become cleaner and support more life, … the problem of the ozone layer has been more or less solved.” All this is true, and the doomsayers were proved wrong. Yet as those of us who choked on sulfuric acid and ozone during hundreds of ‘smog days’ in Los Angeles, or who canoed by hundreds of belly-up fish in the Potomac river near Washington, in the 1970s remember, it was only because of the efforts of environmentalists to pass the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and to promote action on the Montreal Protocols that brought international cooperation in managing ozone-destroying gases, that the results that Lomborg praises were achieved. Neither American power nor market forces unaided brought these desirable results.

Democracy has never been a panacea (it did not help the U.S. avoid a bloody civil war), and Lal is correct to say that imposing democracy on societies that are neither nations nor accustomed to liberal institutions is likely to produce less, rather than more, stability and growth. Nonetheless, for Lal to suggest that democracy may simply be outside of the cultural tradition of much of mankind again seems to me a bit too strong. Cultures are elastic and adaptable; they borrow much if it seems useful. The Japanese and Koreans borrowed many cultural elements from China without losing their Japanese or Korean character. Indonesia had no democratic tradition, but seems in recent years to have made great progress in using democracy as a tool to tame corruption and manage political life. South Korea and Taiwan may have gained much initial prosperity under authoritarian governments, but chose not to keep them indefinitely. We clearly have much to learn about the dynamic relationship between democracy and development, but to simply divide the world up into fixed cultural spheres seems to me to reproduce the very errors of Huntington’s work that Lal himself criticizes. Promoting democracy with the same intensity everywhere is probably a poor idea; but encouraging and supporting the spread of democracy judiciously may indeed lead to a more liberal world.

This is one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating books that I have read in years. Lal’s thesis is extraordinarily challenging to conventional thought. Agree or disagree, your opinions will have to change or be carefully rethought. Lal is completely right to raise the difficult problem of who enforces contracts (economic and political) in a globalizing world, an issue too often skirted by advocates of globalization such as Friedman and Bhagwati. You may embrace Lal’s solution or reject it, but it is clear that we will have to find a way to make the best of the combination of overwhelming American power and a world where everyone’s prosperity is at risk from disruptions of global trade.

Jack A. Goldstone is Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. His book, A Peculiar Path: The Rise of the West in Global Context, 1500-1850, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.