Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Trade and the Iron Hand

In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order

Deepak Lal

Palgrave, 2004

xxvi + 270 pgs.


Deepak Lal writes as a convinced advocate of American Empire. But in the course of the book, he undermines his own reasons for defending imperialism and offers a devastating criticism of democratic imperialism and of Woodrow Wilson’s Utopianism.

Lal’s basic argument for empire is straightforward: International trade is essential to prosperity. But given a high degree of disorder, large scale trade cannot occur, or at least will be greatly impeded. Throughout history, empires have been the main means by which order has been preserved and trade promoted: "By creating order over a large economic space, empires have inevitably generated [Adam] Smithian intensive growth" (p. 43).

Applied to the present, Lal’s argument becomes this: International trade requires an imperial power. Only the United States has the resources to maintain hegemonic control. Therefore, the United States ought exercise imperial power.

Lal attempts to refute in advance an obvious counterargument. What about the evils of empire? Have not many empires tyrannized and exploited those whom they have conquered? Even if Lal is right about the benefits of empire, must not its costs be set against these?

Lal responds by distinguishing two kinds of empire. Good empires are what Michael Oakeshott calls civil associations. They are content to preserve order. The bad empires are, in Oakeshott’s terms, enterprise associations. Here, "the state is seen as the manager of an enterprise seeking to use the law for its own substantive purposes and, in particular, for the legislation of morality. . . . Most of the empires which have been regarded as evil fall into the latter [enterprise] category" (pp. 41, 43).

An empire, then, can be a force for good, so long as it avoids moralizing. Should we, as Lal wishes, support non-moralizing American imperialism?

His arguments strike me as entirely unconvincing. First, though he touts the benefits of empire for trade and economic growth, he is constrained to admit that the greatest period of economic growth in world history did not occur under the aegis of an empire. "Promethean intensive growth remains a European miracle of the anarchical systems of nation-states established after the breakdown of the Roman empire" (p. 43). Does this not give us some reason to question Lal’s claim that empire is needed to promote world trade?

Lal has ready his response. He says: "But as I have argued in detail elsewhere, it is incorrect to infer that it was this anarchy which caused the miracle" (p. 43). Suppose that Lal is right: so what? It is still not the case that empire is needed for trade and growth.

Our author’s case for American empire fares no better when we turn for this general claim to his specific assessment of present dangers that call for American action. He fears two sources of world disorder: failed states in Africa and Islamic aggression and terrorism.

The first of these may be readily set aside. The African nations are weak and do not account for a significant part of either world or American trade. Lal, incredibly, acknowledges this but finds it a cause for regret: if only Africa posed a threat to us so that we could give it the "basic order" it needs. "But (sadly)[!] with the ending of the Cold war, Africa does not represent a strategic challenge to the United States or any of the potential great powers" (p. 84).

Professor Lal possesses an enviable knowledge of his adopted American society, but evidently he has not come across the adage that warns us not to buy trouble. Even he admits, though, that "the best policy toward Africa, if direct imperialism is ruled out as being too costly, is to keep markets for African goods and capital flows to Africa open, and leave it to the Africans to sort out their own problems" (p. 85).

Lal’s real concerns lie elsewhere. Must we not act as an imperial power in order to contain Islamic terrorism? Must we not realize "the obsolescence of the view still being peddled by isolationists such as Pat Buchanan and expressed in the title of his recent book, A Republic, Not an Empire?" (p. 55).

Lal may choose to mock Jeffersonians who hope that the American empire will go away, but his own comments on the Islamic danger show, contrary to his intent, that nonintervention is far better for us and the rest of the world than empire. He finds the major threat from Islam to come from a particular variety of that religion, Wahabism: "The Saudis have directly and indirectly funded the mosques and madrasas which preach hatred against the infidels—Jews, Christians, and above all Hindus—to young minds. . . . But for the Saudis to eschew or put a stop to this funding would undoubtedly create a Wahabi backlash in Saudi Arabia and end the dynasty. . . . For the rest of the world, the poison being spread by this Wahabi evangelism is becoming intolerable. . . . If there is to be an end to the ‘war on terror,’ this poisoning of the Muslim mind clearly has to stop" (p. 97).

Has not Lal here given us an excellent argument to cease our aid to Saudi Arabia? Why support a regime that sponsors a religious ideology of this kind? Further, as Lal himself recognizes, "one of Osama bin Laden’s ostensible reasons for his jihad was the presence of Americans in the kingdom [Saudi Arabia] housing Islam’s holiest shrines" (p. 200). Does this not give us an even stronger reason to leave the area forthwith?

Lal himself feels the force of these considerations, but his imperialist ideology prevents him from urging the course of reason—immediate and total withdrawal. In his view, we should reduce our ties to the Saudi monarchy, but only after conquering Iraq. In that way, we can secure a source of oil independent of Saudi Arabia. Did it ever occur to Lal that the Iraqis might have been happy to sell us oil, were we to have ended the inhumane and ineffective blockade against them?

Lal inadvertently provides another reason we should reject the imperialist program he favors. He warns us against trying to impose our own system of values and beliefs on foreign countries. In his view, terrorists are apt to be educated young men with some exposure to Western education. They cannot cope with the Western challenges to their accustomed Islamic way of life. In particular, Western sexual freedom puts them under intolerable pressure, and they lash out in fury against us. In our imperialist endeavors, Lal warns, we must keep intact the prevailing morality lest the terrorists rise against us more than they have already done. He condemns those who urge that we impose democracy and Western values on this region. To do so will lead to disaster; Lal’s favored imperialism resolutely avoids such meddling. Would it not be simpler to stay out of their way altogether? Lal promotes imperialism as a means to counter terror; but it seems that without an interventionist policy, we would not have to confront a terrorist threat.

In economic matters, Lal is a firm supporter of the free market; and he develops a model of the state as predator that could be taken from Franz Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock. Yet this state skeptic wishes the American state to assume a gigantic burden. We must, as an example, solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and impose a peace settlement on the Middle East. "The primary task of a Pax Americana must be to find ways to create a new order in the Middle East. . . . Far from being objectionable, imperialism is precisely what is needed to restore order in the Middle East. . . . The purpose of the American imperium would be to maintain the threat or actual use of force to prevent any international disorder arising from the region. Additionally, some way has to be found for maintaining domestic order in the states in the region" (pp. 99–100). Lal devotes some attention to arguing that the United States has the material resources to carry out the program he suggests.1He never asks why we should trust the state to limit itself to the benevolent program he envisions.

How can someone of Lal’s undoubted intelligence fail to see  these obvious problems? I should like to offer a suggestion that can be no more than highly speculative. Lal, though he teaches in America and has strong ties to England, remains at heart a committed Indian nationalist. Hence his surprising remark, earlier quoted, that Wahabi Islam is a threat "above all" to Hindus. The United States need not be seriously menaced by Islamic terrorism unless, by intervention in the Middle East we embroil ourselves in matters that do not really concern us. India is not so fortunate. Many Muslims in Pakistan and India itself wish to reconstitute India as a Muslim theocracy and are not averse to using violence to achieve their goals. Hence Lal’s alarm over Saudi financing of Wahabi Islamic schools in Pakistan. Further, if America follows an imperial course, Lal looks forward to a commanding role for cosmopolitans such as himself: "Moreover, the United States and many other countries are recognizing dual citizenship. . . . With the growth of a cosmopolitan class . . . of primarily U.S. trained technicians and executives at work in many different countries, the core of a global ‘Roman’ political and economic elite—open to the talents of all—already exists. It could run this new U.S. imperium" (pp. 74–75).

A book by Deepak Lal cannot be wholly bad. While defending his own version of imperialism, Lal is anxious to refute competing programs of American world meddling. His criticism of Wilsonianism rewards close study. Wilson sought to achieve a Utopia, in which all nations would adhere strictly to moral principles. National interest as a guide to policy was outdated; instead, "the instrument for achieving this Utopia was to be the League of Nations, which would ensure collective security by bringing transgressors of the new order into line through sanctions" (p. 56). Lal raises a simple but decisive objection to this program: economic sanctions do not work. "These sanctions, as the 1990 detailed study by Gary Hufbauer and his associates shows, have been ineffective and inefficient in serving foreign policy goals" (p. 58, citing G. Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Revisited, 1990).

Lal cites a little-known comment by Wilson, written in 1886, that tells us all we need to know about the aims of that pretentious busybody: "For it is very clear that in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same" (p. 226). We can now better understand what Wilson meant when he said, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

Lal is an excellent economist, and when he confines himself to issues that affect economic development, he has a great deal to offer. In a brief but brilliant account of global warming, he notes that scientists, such as Stephen Schneider, who advance alarmist models to justify government interference with the free market "openly admitted they were creating alarm about a phenomenon which they themselves recognized was highly speculative" (p. 149).

But do not the alarmists have a point? If we follow their advice and restrict economic development, what is the worst that can happen? We will not be as prosperous as we otherwise might have been, and we will have taken precautions against an imaginary danger. If they are right, we have averted disaster. Is it not better to be safe than sorry? Lal, here following Julian Simon, uncovers a fatal flaw in this reasoning. Economic growth tends to increase population; a restrictive environmentalist policy means that population will be less. Must not the interests of those people prevented from coming into existence be taken into account, when the costs of restricting the market are assessed? "[Paul] Ehrlich [an extreme environmentalist] bets what he thinks will be the economic gains that we and our descendants might enjoy against the unborn’s very lives" (p. 151, quoting Simon). n MR

1For a very different view, see Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (Verso, 2003).


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