Home The Liberal Man's Burden
Home The Liberal Man's Burden

The Liberal Man's Burden

One-hundred and thirteen years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the American enterprise in the Philippines. The title of that poem has since become a byword for racist colonialism and yet its text is a sardonic recitation of the dim virtues of the "Savage wars of peace".

"Go bind your sons to exile, To serve your captives' need;" Kipling wrote. "To seek another's profit, And work another's gain. Fill full the mouth of Famine, And bid the sickness cease."

This moral imperialism has never gone away, though it is no longer thought of in racial terms. For over a hundred years, the United States has gone on trying to feed and cure the world, sacrificing for others and seeing nothing in return.

The burden has been internalized, its concept not racial, but moral. The lack of empire has not lessened it. That absence of a physical empire, of conquered provinces and colonies administered with the whip has only strengthened the might of the moral empire. And the savage wars of peace go on in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where we fight desperately to save the natives from themselves.

The liberal man's burden is the United Nations. It is the obligation to universalize national greatness by extending it around the world through a moral empire. An empire of the progressive spirit that sweeps aside the old for the new, that makes the world over in a liberal image and a liberal template. The moral empire with the world as its consensual subjects whose conquests are achieved through the transcendent superiority of its modernity and humanity.

The Pax Americana is grounded in this notion of a moral empire. Russia or China may rule territories by force, but America expands its influence by exporting the virtues of its culture. Democracy and human rights are shipped overseas, wrapped in ribbons of international law, and soon enough the world is full of Pakistani Americans, Libyan Americans, Sudanese Americans and a horde of others who are happy to rule themselves under the systems of our moral colonialism. And once this is done then we will all be living in a truly Post-American world in which there will be no need for America because we will all be Americans.

American policymakers ask themselves why the people of another nation are still not Americans and then they set out to remove those obstacles, sending food, curing disease and gifting money to take care of physical needs, and removing dictators, enabling elections and instituting free market reforms to set aside any political repression. And if their theory were correct, then once that was done the people would be Americans. Instead they remain what they are and the policymakers remain baffled.

Introducing democracy to the Muslim world has not made it American, has not made it respectful of human rights or tolerant of dissent. It is possible to be a democracy and own slaves. It is certainly possible to be a democracy and treat non-Muslims as subhuman creatures to be beaten whenever the economy turns bad. Democracy is no defense against that sort of behavior. Character is and that cannot be exported along with election monitors and purple fingers.

Systems can be exported, but not assumptions and that is where the liberal man's burden always goes wrong, because he believes that he is exporting his virtues, when he is only exporting his systems. And his systems are only expressions of his virtues, they are not his virtues. It is possible to export a CD full of Mozart symphonies, but not the ability to compose those symphonies. Similarly we can send out copies of the Constitution, but not the minds that created and maintained such a document.

The moral empire proves even more fragile than the physical empire, for it depends on the export of virtues. And for those virtues which cannot be exported, American soldiers go to the cities and deserts of other lands and mark them with their living and dead. And for those virtues, teachers, aid workers, diplomats and a thousand others go to export the unexportable, they try to bring Mozart to Pakistan and rather than learning to compose symphonies, the natives kill Mozart and leave his body in a ditch.

The Pax Americana has not cured world hunger or disease, it has not brought peace and freedom to the world. What it has done is applied band aids, thrown off a dictator here or there, fed a few children and brought the occasional glimpse of light. But the light has never endured. Sooner or later it breaks down again, if not in the same ways, then in new and more troubling ways.

A people cannot be uplifted, they can only uplift themselves. That is the fallacy of the burden with all its weary futility. Americans cannot teach Pakistanis to be Americans. They cannot even teach them to be better Pakistanis. Only the Pakistanis stand any chance of teaching themselves that. America cannot fix Africa. Only Africa can fix Africa. And only America can fix America.

Every nation has its own journey to make and its own path to walk and no other nation can make the journey for it. Some will not make it and others will. But no nation can make another nation moral and no nation can make another civilized.

America has a duty to behave morally, but it does not have a duty to make other nations moral. The virtue of helping others only extends insofar as they can be helped. Only when that help is extended beyond the point where they can be helped or where they wish to be helped, does it become a burden. And a burden is carrying that which ought to be able to carry itself.

The difference between aid and empire, is that when aid is unending then it becomes empire, when there is no foreseeable point at which it ends and when extending it ensures dependency rather than the alleviation of a temporary condition, then it is not aid but empire. And that which can carry itself but chooses not to becomes a permanent burden and a corrupt power relationship is born built on revulsion and dependency, the familiar one of the welfare state where the master is the slave and the slave is the master, becomes a stain on two pairs of souls.

Exceptionalism is the core of nationalism. There are no shortage of nations that believe that they are fated to save the world. And to its credit the United States has saved the world, but saving the world is not the same thing as changing it. Resources and determination extended and expended in the right place and at the right time can save the world. But changing the world requires more than that, it requires even more than the big ideas that people imagine change the world, it requires that people take responsibility for their own actions and their own consequences.

The liberal man's burden acts in direct opposition to this, lifting away actions and consequences, and retarding the development of entire nations. Instead of making the world a better place, it makes it worse and instead of bringing progress, it turns the clock back, because moral colonialism is in its own way no different from any other kind of colonialism.

The most devastating aspect of colonialism is that it destroys a people's faith in itself, in its own power, its own judgement and its own industry. And it is doubly devastating when it had little of these things to begin with. The moral empire undermines the character of a people almost as well as its more brawny cousin does. It takes away any reason for progress and then wonders why that progress never seems to materialize.

The liberal man's burden is based on an unspoken superiority, the superiority which attends all liberal humanitarian impulses, the superiority of the sensitive man or woman who is ethically aware over the ethically unaware. But this superiority is a fleeting thing when the savage wars of peace begin and the price to be paid for trying to teach ethics to the unethical itself comes to seem highly unethical.

War is not made for either the preservation of the moral high ground or for its export to foreign parts. It is not fought to bring about a global state of peace, but so that those who fight it shall have peace, anything else is foolishly futile and a self-nullifying act that ends up shedding more blood than it saves.

The press of events in the 20th Century forced America to take on great power, but it reacted to that power by adopting the model of FDR, who ran for as many terms as he lived, instead of the model of Washington who stepped down as soon as it was feasible. The difference between these two kinds of power is the difference between Caesar and Cincinnatus , it is the difference between empire and expedition and between burden and virtue.

It is now long since past time to put down that burden. It is not America's mission to teach democracy to the Muslim world or to export any of its virtues by gentle means or harsh. The first duty of every society is not the export of its virtues, but their safeguarding. Only then can that society serve as an example to the world that inspires, rather sacrificing its virtues to teach virtue to the world.


  1. For a man who once wrote an impassioned essay against American isolationism, you're sounding exceptionally isolationist. I'm glad to see that progress is being made, even it took Obama's follies and a dead ambassador.

  2. Aiding one's allies instead of one's enemies is not isolationism. Isolationism is refusing to have any allies at all.

  3. Eli A.29/10/12

    Isolationism is the rebutt of those who have swallowed the hook, line & sinker of the globalist who poses as anti-globalist but who reveals his true stripes whenever Nationalist sentiments threaten the effort to convert all peoples of the earth away from allegiance to their own nation's flag to being loyal global citizens with no allegiance expressed except to humanity at large. Isolationism is worse than terrorism, because it means you aren't willing to pay the cost in blood and loss of freedom it will actually take for global unity under one law and one government to become legitimate reality. Isolationism means you want others to pay that price, when the democracy if nations have already voted and agreed that the U.S.A. should bear the biggest portion of that price. Isolationism means you want to own your own stuff and not be a good sharer with those who bombed you and tried to destroy your Nation. Isolation is a state of peace and quiet, away from squalor and violence. Want America to butt out and stop being imperialist? You can't have it both ways.

  4. There is a sane middle ground between isolationism and transnationalism.

  5. Anonymous29/10/12

    Brilliant essay. Your ideas are also reflected in the new work on the concept of 'humanitarian racism' that is coming out of Scandinavia right now. That implied superiority of those who help others who are assumed to be incapable of taking care of themselves because of their ethnicity or history, particularly when such assistance becomes more harmful than hopeful. 'Moral colonialism sums up the current state of the foreign aid and asylum industries perfectly.

    One major obstacle to reforming this situation is that liberals don't like independent, self-sustaining nations, and are doing the best they can to do away with them.

  6. I wasn't clear if you are using the word 'liberal' here in its classical or its current colloquial sense. Could you clarify?

  7. Western civilization is a fragile, tenuous thing. If men are afraid to protect its foundations, then all they can expect is for the Huns, Visigoths, and Muslims to rush in and loot it, to kill the men, rape the women, and enslave the children. Islam, for example -- to underscore Daniel's point -- is an old dog, 1,400 years old, and it can't be taught new tricks. It can't even be house-broken. It is rabid and will bite the hand that attempts to pet it or put it on a leash.

  8. Anyone who thinks isolationism is an answer to anything should go ask someone from Hawaii who is old enough to have lived through Pearl Harbor how good isolationism works. But not being isolationists doesn't mean we need to attempt to rebuild a sespool like Afghanastan. We didn't ask Afghanastan to harbor the terrorists who murdered 3000 of our civilians. And if I remeber, we didn't have troops in Iraq at that point of time eiteher.

  9. @Adam. Japan didn't strike Pearl Harbor because we were such good isolationists. Just the opposite.

    The only thing that's going to cure our meddling is the same thing that has so many Americans suddenly in favor of smaller goverment: bankruptcy.

  10. Japan would have gone for Hawaii sooner or later as it continued its expansion and its search for strategic bases.

    But there's an isolationist argument for why we should have never taken Hawaii... or California.

    The problem with the isolationist argument is if we really had avoided international entanglements, we would have remained a British colony instead of making an alliance with France.

  11. Ravis- Read a history book. After WW I the US foreign policy changed drastically. We didn't have a presence world wide, they shifted to the Reservist dominate focus we still currently apply in troop levels.

    WWII had been happening; the US said unmistakably that we would not join the war over and over. Japan attacked us because they were determined to rule the world and were coming for us eventually. They didn't do it just to inspire us to join the war.

  12. Anonymous29/10/12

    Well, that was caused by the lessons from WW2, where America managed to fix several countries - Germany and Japan. Imo America can fix some countries, but it can not fix all countries. It should thread carefully, on a case by case basis.

  13. Anonymous29/10/12

    Republican George Bush also believed the solution was democracy. Many Republicans supported the overthrow of Gaddaffi and are supporting the "rebel" in Syria to overthrow Assad to usher in democracy which they expect to transform the region to a more US friendly place. This is not only a liberal view.

  14. I had the impression that Japan attacked at because we had imposed a steel embargo on them.At least that was a rationale if not the actual reason.

  15. VA_Rancher29/10/12


    Here's the thing as I see it... Either we discover a way to civilize "Joe Arab/Muslim" so he has LESS interest in becoming a human bomb, or we need total war everybody vs. Islam, no quarter.

    I kinda liked W's dream of giving the common Muslim in Mid-East jobs, wives, mortgages, etc. so he was too busy having a future to blow himself and others up.

    A very good friend once said to me, "The problem with that whole 'Tolerance' movement is one cannot tolerate intolerance." Ponder that for a moment and honestly do YOU really think there is a way to ignore Islamic Mid-East where they WON'T fester, grow, and come out looking for a fight?

    It is way over my pay grade. I cannot find a solution where we can simply leave them to their own devices and hope for the best. That is exactly how the Taliban took over A-stan to start with...

    Be well,

  16. Anon, Germany and Japan were semi-democratic before the war and we didn't so much fix them, as their leaders and cultural elites made a conscious decision to go pacifist, in no small part because they lost devastating wars

  17. pygmies, the practical issue was that Japan wanted an Asian empire and it had to push all European empires out for that, which included us, keeping strategic bases in what Japan considered its territory was a non-starter,

    but even if we gave up Hawaii, Japan would not have been satisfied with that in the long run

    too many in their military had been fantasizing for years about a war with America

  18. Rancher, either devastating war or a balance of terror based on a devastating war are about the only historically viable options

  19. Jewish supporter30/10/12

    What is the real motive behind our overzealous attempts to save the world? For the "useless idiots" I think it is their secular moral equivalent to the crusades. But the underlying motives of those that shift ideology in a direction they favour, is more likely to bring Western democracies to their knees. It is a form of wealth distribution/socialism, that will weaken our countries, and bring about the crisis into which they will step at the right time.

  20. Pax Americana provided cover for Arafat in 1981 Beirut when he was in Israeli sniper's crosshairs, while american plains circled the skies above the harbor.

    Pax Americana did everything to support the US BIG TRADE with the Arab Occupied World, at the expanse of every vital security interest of Israel, for decades.

    Fair-minded Americans may believe all the noble things they want, but the CIA/State/BigOIL/BigTRADE conglomerate do not.

    The support of the Islamist overtaking of the ME and North Africa, the so called "Arab spring", was a calculated policy on their behalf. Obama proclaimed before his election in 2008, that he "will stand with the Muslims wherever the winds of change will blow in the Muslim world" and he stood by his promise - the intended "change" being the "democracy" nay, Islamization of those countries. Iran is already a democracy by his standards.

    The real puppetmaster of Obama is Brzezinski who proclaimed in Nov 2008 speach at Chattham House (find it on the utube) the policy of 1. Partnering with England/France/Germany; 2. engaging Russia/China/Brasil/India; 3. accommodating "regional powers such as Iran"; 4. PACIFYING ISRAEL (in these words exactly).

    Pax Americana is subservience of the US to the Arab Muslim interests in the Balkans in the 1990s, and in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

    Nagibulla's regime was moderte, and secular.

    Izetbegowitch was an avowed Khomeinist since the 1970s.

    USA/CIA supported the KLA terrorists and fought alongside the "Al Zwahiri fighters" in Bosnia, according to the republican Senate committe of mid 1990s. Look it up.

    Pax Americana also meant betrayal of South Vietnam to its fate.

  21. Undulating Arrow30/10/12

    The liberal man's burden is, above all, the unwillingness ... or fear ... of opening his eyes to the reality of human biodiversity.

    He finds endless excuses to avoid it. The legacy of colonialism. Bad government in dysfunctional countries. Lack of education. Not enough rock concerts to raise money for Third World pigpens.

    All those are results, not causes, or irrelevant. The real problem is that not all people are created equal intellectually, and some races just plain don't have what it takes.

    You write: "Americans cannot teach Pakistanis to be Americans. They cannot even teach them to be better Pakistanis. Only the Pakistanis stand any chance of teaching themselves that. America cannot fix Africa. Only Africa can fix Africa."

    True, but you don't want to admit why Pakistanis and, above all, Africans can't fix themselves. Sub-Saharan Africans have average IQs variously estimated at 70 to 85. They simply don't have the brainpower to build or even run anything but primitive societies. Big Ju-Ju kings are the natural rulers of such people.

    Let evolution take its course. Let the low-IQ populations kill each other off in wars and die of disease. Harsh? Yes. What's worse, though? -- Generation after generation, multiplying their populations at fantastic rates because we supply food and medicines, enabling them to invade Western countries and sink their welfare systems, which is happening faster and faster.

  22. One little comment and suddenly everyone forgets that isolationism comes in two flavors. Stupid isolationism is where you wrap yourself in your tallit (or your American flag) and ignore the world until it comes and bites you on the arse. Smart isolationism is where you carve out an exclusive sphere of influence, and mercilessly smash anyone and anything that threatens your total dominance over that sphere of influence, but otherwise ignore whatever goes on outside your sphere of influence.

    The stupid isolationists' response to today's Iran is to ignore it so they can lose a hundred million American lives fighting a nuclear war with it later. The smart isolationists' response to today's Iran is to call Strategic Air Command and turn the place preemptively into a self-lighting glass parking lot.

    Viginia Rancher here can't find a solution to the Islamic threat, for example, because he is not a smart isolationist. I, on the other hand, can find an easy solution to the problem of the Islamic threat. It involves making an example of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, followed by a deadline of 48 hours to stop all Islamic terrorism and incitement directed against American interests. If the deadline is not met, we have the weapons to extend the self-lighting glass parking lot from Morocco to the border of India. Problem solved. Total cost: a few hundred million bucks. Total American casualties: zero. It should have been done in 1998, but the country was being run by idiots and sex maniacs, instead of normal human beings. Sadly, nothing has changed since.

  23. Good points, all. But by liberal do you mean "Progressivist" liberal of the neo-hippies who now run academia and find themselves happily in power in America, or what Milton Friedman called "Classical Liberals"?

    After all, it's not just under the banner of "liberalism" (of whatever version) that the US has gone to wars in the desert, funneled weaponry to Islamists, played both ends against the middle when stoking wars between Iraq and Iran and turned Saddam Hussein into a leashed dog until we had to put the old dog down, and spent billions on Israel. These were also all performed under the watch of "exporting values" from those comfortably labeled "Conservative".


Post a Comment

You May Also Like