Echoes of the End of the Raj
THE Arab Spring, the threat of Iran as an emerging nuclear power, the continuing violence in Syria and the American reluctance to get involved there have all signaled the weakness, if not the end, of America’s role as a world policeman. President Obama himself said in a speech last year: “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.”
America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945. Deep in debt and committed to building its National Health Service and other accouterments of the welfare state, Britain no longer could afford to run an empire.
Moreover, Britain, which so proudly ruled the waves a generation ago, was tired; it lacked the willpower to pursue its imperial destiny. America’s role as an imperialist is even more fragile, as it never had Britain’s self-confident faith in its own imperial destiny. Americans have always been ambivalent about the role of global hegemon.
Today, American retreat is not motivated by traditional isolationism, but by practical necessity. Like post-World War II Britain, contemporary America no longer has the financial resources to maintain an empire — one which, in America’s case, was pursued only halfheartedly in the first place. Deficits and debt have been more damaging to dreams of empire than any genuine shift in ideology.