When you ask “why are we such poor imperialists?”  you’re hitting on a very interesting question, inside of which lies a whole host of contemporary debates– covering everything from foreign policy, to culture, to economics.   But it’s a question that might be easily brushed aside as a matter of good taste.  After all, we aren’t imperialists, nor do we want to be.  Right?

Maybe not.  There are some who argue that 21st century globalization is just the latest instantiation of the West’s imperial legacy.  And, in all honesty, that argument doesn’t seem too far afield:

“Political globalisation is a fancy word for imperialism, imposing your values and institutions on others. However you may dress it up, whatever rhetoric you may use, it is not very different in practice to what Great Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

If globalization is part and parcel to imperialism, aren’t we succeeding, rather than failing?  We are good– perhaps a little too good– at exporting our culture.  After all, it’s the almighty bottom line that brings Western businesses to every corner of the globe (all the while, mind you, catering to the local culture, giving us such gems as the McFelafel).  We clearly aren’t lacking the imperial will in the economic arena.

What you’re driving at, I think,  relates more to our foreign policy goals, primarily in the Middle East.  As we all know at this point, our efforts to rebuild Iraq are ranging from “mess” to “bungled mess.”  And why is this?  As you point out, we don’t have a vast contingent of dedicated civil servants, lining up to “do their share” for democracy.  The British Empire was what it was not only by virtue of its military might, but also by virtue of its core of hardworking young doctors,  economists, farmers, and the like who were willing to go to any corner of the globe in the name of the Empire. 

As was noted in a recent news story on the rebuilding efforts: “[In Iraq] the U.S. government has contracted the job of promoting democracy to a Pakistani citizen who has never lived or worked in a democracy.”

For many in our generation, our cultural and economic presence abroad is distasteful.  For a variety of reasons, some meritorious and others not, America’s international reputation is not sterling.  Small wonder we are not lining up to rebuild hospitals in Iraq. 

So I take your last question (whether postmodernism has made the idea of exporting our way of life), and I send it back to you in a slightly different form.  We know that globalization at some level is inevitable.  But we also know that globalization is not beholden to the same laws as imperialism.  The world today is far more cosmopolitan that it was duringthe height of the British Empire, and with that cosmopolitanism comes a necessary respect for other ways of living.  (Need I invoke the McFelafel once more?)  So the question is this:

Are the rules of empire different in a postmodern world?  Corporations can web their way into every country on the map, but when they do so, they must adapt at some level.  Is this what our political structures must also do?  But even if we recognize that we have to be more tolerant and flexible in implementing political institutions, how do we go about meeting basic human needs when globalization has cowed our would-be civil servants into apathy? 

Daniel Corbett