A diary entry from Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh, private secretary to Sir Anthony Eden and head of Middle Eastern Affairs at the Foreign Office, stood out to me. He wrote in 1955, in the midst of an Anglo-American dispute over Saudi Arabia:
The fact is that the American oil men have gone into Saudi Arabia with this vast enterprise which utterly submerged the old economy of the country, without assuming any responsibility for the political effects. It is as if the East India Company had regarded themselves as “just neutrals.”
Hitchens, citing the essayist Fouad Ajami, commented that this represented a typical case of British frustration with the Americans’ “imperialism without splendor.” I can’t help but think the British had (and have) a point.
Worse than British imperialism is imperialism that lacks self-awareness. The United States is an empire, but ashamedly so. We have no reason to be, because denying our imperial responsibilities doesn’t nullify them. Denial merely soothes Americans’ consciences and removes any sense of noblesse oblige to their subjects. (If Americans viewed Puerto Rico as a jewel in the imperial crown, rather than a quasi-independent liability, politicians might take more interest in its welfare.)
The decline of formal empire and aristocracy goes hand-in-hand with the rise of meritocracy, and brings meritocracy’s flaws with it. The quote above recalls a passage from Ross Douthat’s column elaborating on his elegy for the WASPs, in which he wrote:
[The] upper class was unwise to abandon an aristocratic self-conception in favor of a meritocratic one. On the evidence we have, the meritocratic ideal ends up being just as undemocratic as the old emphasis on inheritance and tradition, and it forges an elite that has an aristocracy’s vices (privilege, insularity, arrogance) without the sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige that WASPs at their best displayed.
Just as the new elite is as aristocratic as the old, America’s empire is as imperial as Britain’s. It would do well to admit this — well for America itself, and well for those under the new empire’s jurisdiction.