By Kwasi Kwarteng

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.

My own parents grew up in the Gold Coast of Africa, as British power ebbed, so I feel I have a direct connection with this phenomenon of collapsing empires. The Gold Coast, of course, became Ghana in 1957, the year after the Suez crisis. Today I am a member of Parliament, so I have a double perspective on empire.

Much as the Second World War has been identified as the end of the British Empire, future historians may well see the financial crisis of 2008 as the end of the American empire. Yet, the retreat of American power, particularly in the Middle East, has potentially left the world considerably more unstable and uncertain.

America is a much smaller figure than the colossus that seemed to bestride the world in 1989, when an article titled “The End of History?” could, paradox though it was, be taken seriously.

The suspicion has always lingered that America was a less than enthusiastic imperial power. It never sought to administer foreign lands directly and indefinitely, even though the presence of American bases in Japan, Germany, Britain and, more lately, in Saudi Arabia did look like soft imperialism. Read more…

Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, is the author of “Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World.”

As published in www.nytimes.com on April 16, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 17, 2012, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Echoes of the End of the Raj).


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