Liberal Interventions and the Relevance of Imperial History


When it comes to the subjects of war, conflict and strategy there are historians (Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor, and that tall posh bloke off the BBC) and then there are historians’ historians; a plethora of otherwise invisible but powerful intellects quietly going about their business, helping construct our understanding of the past, and thus the world around us.  From the Byzantine and early Modern era (Peter Wilson), the Napoleonic era (Dominic Lieven), the Prussian Wars (Dennis Showalter) to the First World War (David Stevenson, Alex Watson, Niall Ferguson), interwar diplomacy (Zara Steiner), the Second World War (Gerhard Weinberg, David Reynolds, Adam Tooze, David Stahel), the US Army (Brian MacAllister Linn), the British Army (David French), the Cold War (Peter Hennessy), and strategy (Sir Hew Strachan, Sir Michael Howard, Sir Lawrence Freedman). Such individuals, and others like them, provide us a rich trove of thoughts, concepts and ideas of huge value to anyone engaged in the study of these fields. And indeed, it is from among the more well known of these individuals – most notably Ferguson, Strachan and Freedman – that the elites who direct (I use the term advisedly) our recent and current foreign policy adventures have looked to for inspiration or advice. But going forward, I would suggest that they look no further than the Cambridge historian Duncan Bell.

Bell’s field is Imperial history: the study of the export of power; of the exercise of both formal and informal political and economic dominance; of the imposition of cultural and ideological preferences by the powerful upon the weak; and of the reciprocal and sometimes countervailing forces inspired in return. His value in my eyes lies partly in the intellectual gravity that he brings to the subject. But to me, as an interdisciplinarian whose interest lies in the relationship between history and policymaking, his real importance lies in his ability to explain both the phenomenon of imperialism and the political philosophy of liberalism in ways that are of immediate importance to anyone seeking to make sense of the modern world and of the assumptions which continue to shape our (US/UK) foreign policy.  And a key read in this respect is Bell’s 2013 essay ‘Ideologies of Empire’.

In essence, and in elegant terms, he lays bare the broad and narrow definitions of imperialism, the ideologies of its justification, further ideologies of the forms of governance that it assumed, and the rationales and stimuli that led to resistance to the concept, both internally (domestic actors) and externally (subjects of imperial rule). In addition he lays this against the backdrop of liberal political theory in such a way that even a cursory examination of his writings brings home the immediate relevance of the debates, assumptions and ideas voiced during the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries on the part of a number of influential political thinkers and actors and which continue to resonate in emphatic fashion today and going forward.

With respect to ideologies of justification for Empire, Bell identifies three powerful motivating factors (among others). These were ‘commercial-exploitative’, ‘realist-geopolitical’, and ‘liberal-civilizational’. The first relates to the economic benefits that accrue for the imperial power or certain specific interests within (financial institutions, corporations, conglomerates etc.) Such justifications tended to focus on either the extraction of commodities or the opening of new markets for trade. Alternatively, the realist-geopolitical justifications for empire focused attention on power politics and the balancing of the power of other imperial states. The world was envisaged as a giant geopolitical chessboard, with geopolitical strategy a vital ingredient of ultimate success. Imperialism was therefore seen less as an end in itself than as a means to secure geopolitical advantage. And lastly the liberal-civilizational justification maintained that liberal states have the right or even a duty to spread civilisation to the purportedly non-civilised. In other words Empire was legitimate if it was primarily intended to benefit the populations subjected to it.

It is not difficult to immediately identify the relevance of these debates to any discussion concerning invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example. The ‘cross-cutting’ nature of these ideologies, and their subsequent ability to mingle within discrete foreign policy decisions means that almost the exact same considerations underpinned American and British thought processes in relation to their actions in the middle-east during this period. The neoconservative desire, rooted in the political creed of liberalism, to democratize and implement the spread of western values throughout the region; the immense influence of powerful economic interests in gaining access to the Iraqi oil industry; the wider dictates of geopolitics;  all of these considerations weighed heavily in propelling the US, and by extension the UK, into action.

With respect to ideologies of governance, one of Bell’s observations was that for much of the time the primary debate within imperial polities was whether formal or informal rule was the way ahead.  The issue was, at heart, whether imperialism should be a totalising project. i.e. should the imperial power seek to remake the target society in its own image, thus reflecting its own values and preferences? Depending upon how one viewed this problem then one had different answers as to how to act, and the level of intrusion of one’s chosen governance regime.

What are the relevance of Bell’s observations here? Firstly, that if one seeks to remake or recast a society, then ‘light-touches’ simply don’t work. The effective satisfaction of imperial interests  in this respect demanded intrusion and lengthy commitment. Even the preferred British method of indirect rule (i.e. rule through local power structures) demanded a heavy and permanent physical presence. The 2011 attempt to turn post-Ghaddaffi Libya into a democracy simply by ignoring it illustrates the fallacy of such ways of thinking. Secondly, Bell reinforces the point that routine violence is an inescapable factor in governing conquered spaces; it is the vehicle through which the conqueror exerts their will, and it is pretty much the only method by which the conquered regain their self-respect and their agency. Lastly, that the legacy of imperial governance has encouraged us, particularly post 9/11, to seek the ‘lessons’ of our colonial wars and particularly the utility of counterinsurgency as a method for both defeating resistance and furthering our political creed. Whether our understanding of this aspect of our colonial past is properly understood is arguable, at best. Even the seemingly innocuous deployment of social scientists to provide the cultural knowledge necessary to fight these insurgencies represents a mainstay of the imperial ‘method’ and is just as dubious in terms of both its legitimacy and efficacy.

Finally Bell analyses ideologies of resistance, of which he identifies two types. The first is domestic, focussing on the damage that imperialism wreaks on the imperial power itself both economically and socially; a powerful debate within the US in particular and largely responsible for the decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. Similarly, a debate that has been brought to the fore in the UK in terms of the relationship between our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the consequent antagonising of a significant proportion of the Muslim population in reaction to these episodes. The second of course is the resistance mounted by those subject to imperialism – the insurgencies and terrorist groups that spring up in the wake of our interventions and which may prove incredibly durable, but which now present the added menace of being highly portable.

So what ultimately is the contemporary value of Bell’s arguments to policymakers? I would propose that there are three points of real importance. The first is to recognise, courtesy of Imperialism’s historic ability to manifest itself in indirect as well as direct forms, that one does not actually have to be in charge of a space to exert great effect upon it, to be in other words an imperial power. Thus as Bell states, if imperialism in the form of actual ‘Empires’ has retreated to the wings then the structures and ideologies of modern economic order is still imperial in nature – ‘neoliberalism’ is simply latest manifestation of capitalist imperialism. This is not a pejorative value judgement. It is simply a reflection of cold, hard reality. We (US/UK) are in effect still imperial powers, the difference being that we seek to colonise not with our people but with our values, our cultures and our ideas, all of which we consider to be superior to those alternatives that we encounter. And if that is what we are, then we should not be surprised when others recognise us as being the same. The second point is that modern western Empires often carried the ideological virus that eventually aided their demise. The wars of national liberation fought post 1945 against the British and French in particular saw the liberal ideals of ‘rights’ and individual freedoms ‘weaponised’ by the subjects of imperial rule in order to challenge the status quo. Nowadays, the inherent hypocrisy of exporting our ‘values’ by force will always serve to undermine such adventures to the point of failure. And finally, and rather prosaically, if the debates highlighted by Bell have echoed in some respects since the age of Rome, then it is likely that they will continue to echo far into the future. In other words, for those of us who think about this stuff, it’s stuff worth thinking about.

Image: Soldiers of the Argyles Infantry on the move during the Boer War, via Wikimedia commons.









3 thoughts on “Liberal Interventions and the Relevance of Imperial History

  1. Excellent, thanks for drawing my attention to this Chris. My only criticism of Bell’s analysis (not yours) is that there should be a third ideology of resistance that you might term ‘external’. In the ‘realist-geopolitical’ context that is the resistance to imperialism by other states or nations with a real or perceived interest in the region of imperial focus. Particularly where that external state or nation is a pseudo-, nascent, ‘wannabe’ or post imperial power itself or has its own ‘commercial-exploitative’ interests in the region. In historic terms an example might be Russia’s attempts to thwart British imperialism in Afghanistan in the 19th century; in modern terms I guess I’m thinking of Iran’s role in the resistance to recent western interventions in Iraq. Any thoughts?


  2. An interesting article, and most of it is undoubtedly true. I have often tried to make some of these points to ‘practitioners’ of recent interventions, military and civilian (mainly British Army Officers and FCO/DFID officials) but they are usually too embarrassed by such a ‘politically incorrect’ if obvious comparison to be able to accept it, let alone to consider its implications, and apart from occasional glib ill-informed references to history lack the inclination to study the past in any useful detail or the ability to draw any lessons from it.

    Regardless of their rights and wrongs modern ‘interventions’ are in a far weaker position than their Imperial predecessors as they lack both their self-confidence and their detailed understanding of the societies they are dealing with, the latter perhaps only slowly and painfully (and incompletely) gained but still eventually achieved to some extent. Modern interventionists are so short term in their thinking and planning that they cannot contemplate any seriously constructive long term involvement (even if that would really make much difference, which is another matter) and so lack the committment and fail to do the planing that might sometimes produce some sort of success, and so are doomed from the start.

    On a matter of minor detail the photograph at the top of this article is not of the ‘Argyles Infantry'[sic] but of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, previously the 91st & 93rd Highlanders/Regiments of Foot, certainly an infantry regiment but never known as the ‘Argylls Infantry’ let alone as the ‘Argyles’ or ‘Argyles Infantry’, either of which appellations would have had them reaching for their dirks!


  3. Interesting Chris. But why use ‘commercial-exploitative’, ‘realist-geopolitical’, and ‘liberal-civilizational’ when what is really meant is: ‘money’; ‘power’; and ‘god-fearing’ as I think our ancestors would have understood them? Similarly, to refer to a ‘backdrop of liberal political theory’ against a timeline that is as much Whig and Tory as it is ‘Liberal’ (of all sorts …) and Conservative & Unionist (with some Labour thrown in …) is using labels that may be neither appropriate, nor consistently applicable, nor accurate … or as my OU Tutor used to say:’Whiggish!!’.

    Finally, where would you put the late Richard Holmes in your opening list?


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