In 1878, when Britain had just gained control of the Middle East by purchasing the majority shares in the new Suez Canal, and was about to secure its dominance of the Mediterranean by acquiring Cyprus at the Conference of Berlin, the colonial secretary, Lord Carnarvon, asked his civil servants if they knew the meaning of this new word "imperialism." As a member of the government that had two years earlier bestowed the title empress of India upon Queen Victoria, and as the man who steered the North America Act through Parliament, making Canada into a self-governing dominion, he should have known. He did not. Even as the sun of Victorian empire was rising to the point at which it never set on lands owing allegiance to Her Majesty, the term caused confusion. It does so to this day, as a fascinated and resentful and sometimes admiring world tries to comprehend the nature of the current extraordinary American preeminence in the arts of war and commerce, finance and technology, scientific scholarship and popular cu lture.
"Empire," as a metaphor rather than a precise definition, seems to describe this new predominance better than most alternatives, largely because of its familiarity. The Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century was based on global military reach through naval power and on commercial and industrial dominance. The current Pax Americana appears to share many of the same characteristics. Thus the easy syllogism suggests that the United States is the British Empire's heir, and that just as the British entered upon their imperial greatness after the 20-year war against Napoleon's France, so the United States now inherits the fruits of its success in the Cold War.
There are three serious objections to this simplistic parallel. The first is that nineteenth-century Britain commanded nothing remotely akin to the current American military supremacy. The British faced acute difficulties whenever they sought to deploy their power ashore against even semi-modern armies, whether against Russia in the Crimea or the Boers of Southern Africa. The British could even be humiliated by illarmed local rebellions, as when Lord Chelmsford's small army was destroyed by the Zulus at Isandlwana. Britain never sought, until the Great War of 1914-18, to field a mass land army and maintained its global influence on the cheap through the Royal Navy. In European terms, Britain acknowledged that it was but one among a group of great powers, and for all practical purposes its European policies always depended on finding another great power as an ally on land. As Germany's "Iron Chancellor," Count Otto von Bismarck jested when warned that the British might land its small army on the German coast t o defend Denmark, Britain's army was of so little consequence as a European land power that he would simply send the constabulary to arrest it.
The second difficulty with the idea of America as heir to the British Empire is its hesitancy in the deployment of influence, its reluctance to risk its gunboars--even in the most worthy and altruistic causes. The United States has since the end of the Cold War been remarkably timid in the exercise of its power abroad. The Gulf War was stopped swiftly, and perhaps prematurely, rather than launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq to force the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The Clinton administration scuttled from Somalia after suffering a handful of casualties, dithered over military intervention in Haiti, refused the most haunting appeals to its conscience to fend off genocide in Rwanda, and sought for five years to keep out of the wars of the Balkans. The eventual deployment of U.S. air power against Serbia in 1995, and the full engagement of American diplomacy, followed the Anglo-French threat to withdraw their "peacekeeping" forces, with the associated demand through NATO auspices that the U.S. military provide cov er for that retreat. The change to a much more assertive policy since the terrorist attacks of September 11 is explained by the de facto declaration of war upon the United States; vital interests are evidently involved.
And yet empires, almost by definition, do not exercise their military sway only when their vital interests are involved. There were no vital British interests at stake in Zululand in 1879, nor in General Gordon's mission to Khartoum in 1885, to cite but two of the Victorian empire's embarrassments. It is almost a defining characteristic of empires that they can afford to defend and uphold even their marginal interests. They often fear that by choosing to disregard them, they reveal a casual regard for their own prestige that may attract serious rivals and put at risk the deeper national interest.
Moreover, empires come to be defined by the challenges they choose to confront. Under Lord Palmerston's brisk dictum-"Trade without rule where possible; trade with rule where necessary"-India was left until 1857 in the corrupt but not incapable hands of private enterprise in the form of the Honorable East India Company. The outbreak of the Mutiny in that year forced the dispatch of British reinforcements (arousing fears that France might seize the opportunity to invade across the Channel) and the assumption of official control in India. The India of the Company could write off the disaster that befell British arms in Kabul in 1842, when only one survivor returned from an expeditionary foray into Afghanistan. The India of the Raj, deeply conscious of the ambitions of Tsarist Russia in Central Asia and their impact on the European chessboard, could not let such military reverses pass unavenged. Lord Roberts of Kandahar, that classic Victorian soldier (who took his first commission in the East India Company's B engal Artillery) earned his peerage at the 1878 battle deep inside Afghanistan, marching to the relief of a besieged British garrison.
It is at this point, and by coincidence at the same place on the map, that the parallel between British and American empires starts to look plausible. With some 3,000 of its citizens slaughtered, the United States took the war to al-Qaeda's base in Afghanistan. To wage that war in the manner to which the U.S. military had...