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How Do You Run An Empire On The Cheap? What We Could Learn From The Brits


Harry Crocker (disclosure: a book editor with whom I have worked, and a friend) has a new book out on the British Empire. No, it’s not an attack on our cousins across the pond. It’s a defense of the British Empire and thusly titled The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire. What can we learn from those regal, tea-drinking colonists today? Plenty, says Crocker. And based on his piece over at the Washington Times (I have not read the book yet) he has a point. How did the Brits run their global empire so successfully for so long? They pulled it off because they were, well, cheap. He writes:

The British Empire was always run on the cheap. Indeed, it was often run by free enterprise, whether in the form of the British East India Company or by lone adventurers like James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, who paid for his wannabe British colony out of his own pocket and ran it quite well; so well, in fact, that one can only wish that trust-fund graduates of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, Stanford,Sewanee, and Washington and Lee, who read “Lord Jim” in college and have a taste for adventure and good deeds, might put their financial inheritance to practical use and work their way into governing Darfur,East Timor or Guinea-Bissau. That would surely be a far more effective way of helping the tribes of Darfur, the Timorese or the people ofGuinea-Bissau than joining the Peace Corps or working for the United Nations or getting a Ph.D. and lecturing on the evils of colonialism.

Even when the British government was footing the bill, economy was a byword, which is why, unlike us, the British Empire was content to punish Afghan regimes that didn’t behave without occupying the country and trying to “nation-build.” It’s why Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) installed a Hashemite monarch to govern Iraq after World War I and turned to the Royal Air Force to keep the peace there (it was cheaper than ground troops; and the British intervened again in a big way only in World War II when they reversed a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq). It’s why the British relied on “martial races” (Gurkhas, Sikhs and others) that they defeated in combat and then turned into allies, using them to police native territories. It’s why Lord Cromer said of Lord Kitchener, a career soldier, that he “won his well-deserved peerage because he was an excellent man of business; he looked after every important detail, and enforced economy.” In other words, he ensured his troops did not waste ammunition and he kept tight screws on the costs of his campaigns.

This runs in contrast to the way we run things today. Crocker continues:

The United States, alas, shuns the idea of being an imperial power. Instead we’re a welfare state power. During the Vietnam War, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson extended the “Great Society” to Southeast Asia to the point that the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (better known by its acronym MACV) became, in the words of historian Walter McDougall, “less like a comrade-in-arms to the Saigon regime than a nagging social worker.” In Afghanistan, the attitude seems to have taken hold that corrupt warlords are to be shunned rather than cultivated and put to good use; so instead of warrior races filling the Afghan army and police force we have effeminate, mascara-wearing, cannabis-smoking, hand-holding types who are the despair of their American trainers. The British Empire would never have spent – and never did spend – more than a trillion dollars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, British imperialists had specific objectives – keeping the peace on the Northwest frontier, denying Russian influence on Afghanistan, maintaining a friendly regime in Baghdad (to guarantee access to Iraqi oil) – and achieved them in the most economical way possible.

Jolly good analysis, me thinks, if you are going to run an empire.


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