Matthew Connelly: The New Imperialists

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”–Joseph Conrad (quoted in Connelly, 2006, p. 28)

“…I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”–Mark Twain, New York Herald, October 15, 1900

Regarding the treatment of Filipinos: “There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil…. The Head of every State and Sovereignty in Christendom and ninety per cent. of every legislative body in Christendom, including our Congress and our fifty State Legislatures, are members not only of the church, but also of the Blessings-of-Civilization Trust. This world-girdling accumulation of trained morals, high principles, and justice, cannot do an unright thing, an unfair thing, an ungenerous thing, an unclean thing. It knows what it is about. Give yourself no uneasiness; it is all right.”–Mark Twain

Matthew Connelly’s “The New Imperialists” (pp. 19-33) in Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power (edited by Craig Calhoun, Frederick Cooper, and Kevin W. Moore, The New Press, 2006) provides a critical analysis of both imperialism (as an unaccountable power — usually exercising power indirectly, without territorial control, in denial of itself as imperial, proclaiming universal values) and of its contemporary supporters, namely Max Boot, Niall Ferguson, and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. The following are some select quotes from his chapter that I found to be especially meaningful.

The Pleasures of Empire

The 1991 Gulf War is seen by many as a new turning point, the first war of the post-Cold War era, proclaimed by President George H.W. Bush to be the start of a New World Order, and some might say, of a “new imperialism.” Here Connelly writes:

“If the first Gulf War did not inaugurate a new age of empire, it did reveal the public’s appetite for the display of American military power. In the intervening years, an enormous market developed for television programs showcasing U.S. tactics and technology. Every new war now unleashes a ratings blitz to surpass the Olympics, with embedded reporters conducting onfield interviews and retired generals offering color commentary. For many, clutching their remote controls late into the night, meditating on U.S. preeminence is a guilty pleasure. Hearing America compared to Rome and imperial Britain–only bigger, and better!–adds gravitas, in the same way sports fans like to make comparisons to the greatest years gone by. It is as if ESPN and the Discovery and History Channels could all be experienced at the same time.” (Connelly, 2006, p. 20)

“Empire,” writes Connelly, “has always had its pleasures, with the capacity both to amuse and instruct” (2006, p. 21).

The New Imperialists

“The new imperialists…are all emphatic about America’s imperial identity. Indeed, they see this development  as inevitable and inescapable. ‘America’s destiny is to police the world,’ Boot proclaims. To Ferguson, given its manifest power, the United States is an empire in denial. Hardt and Negri emphasize more diffuse and unconventional forms of power….But they concede that the locus of military and financial might is at least partially centered in the United States, which plays the role of ‘peace police’ in a new kind of transnational Empire, with a capital E.” (Connelly, 2006, p. 24)

“Small” Wars?

Responding to Max Boot’s upbeat accounting of imperialism, and the latter’s cheerful assessments of the U.S.’ long tradition of fighting undeclared wars, without a vital interest, without popular support, and without an exit strategy, Connelly notes that one of Boot’s rationalizations is that these were wars fought on the cheap, they were “small wars,” and as long as the U.S. has a cost-effective war-fighting strategy (and it is extremely debatable that such assertions have any validity today, to say the least), then there will always be a “demand” for war. Aside from the bundle of assumptions already presented, Connelly focuses on the concept of “small wars”:

“Boot is…at pains to argue that all of these conflicts were ‘small wars,’ meaning that their cost could be managed. They were not necessarily small in their duration, violence, and devastation, but rather as measured from a strictly American perspective [emphasis added]: by the extent of its mobilization and the expenditure of its blood and treasure. Thus, even the seven-year campaign to subdue the Philippines–in which marines were ordered to ‘kill and burn,’ target all those over the age of ten, and create a ‘howling wilderness’–seems small to Boot. In effect, some 200,000 civilians are interred in an unmarked grave, while we are asked to admire a ‘monument to the U.S. armed forces’ ability to fight and win a major counterinsurgency campaign’.” (Connelly, 2006, p. 25)

Civilization Sans Frontières

“The essence of empire,” Connelly explains, “is not military force, but the exercise of untrammeled power” (2006, p. 32). He follows with a very striking statement:

“And imperialists have long understood that an entrance exam or a vaccination program are less costly and more compelling instruments of influence, especially when infused with an appealing idea–like mission civilisatrice or médecins sans frontières.” (Connelly, 2006, p. 32)

Here Connelly also takes aim at international and nongovernmental organizations whose power is most obvious in so-called “failed states,” but whose power is significantly magnified when they work in concert with local governments, power “as great as any empire” (2006, p. 32).

If vaccination can be used as tool of imperial power, what does this say of the shape that anti-imperialism can take, and of the nature of resistance? Let’s turn for a moment to Col. Kurtz:

The Role of Academia

What is the role or duty of scholars in confronting empire? Here Connelly (2006, p. 33) writes:

“As scholars, we must work harder to illuminate the complex interconnections and complicities between them, and bring those findings to the broadest possible public. And it is that very complexity that commands us to speak and write clearly and with all the specificity and evidence we can muster. If we do not, then the American academy, that most sovereign of institutions, will have to admit that it has become nothing more and nothing less than a finishing school for new imperialists.”

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About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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