Why Nations Can't Escape the Empire Trap

When George Orwell was a young man in the 1920s, he served as a British policeman in the colony of Burma. On duty there he saw, as he put it, "the dirty work of empire at close quarters." He deplored the "white man's" oppression of the "native people" in "the East." But what Orwell found most disconcerting was the trap his own country had fallen into. "When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys," Orwell wrote a few years later in his essay "Shooting an Elephant." "In every crisis he has got to do what the 'natives' expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it."

We may have moved beyond the paternalistic rhetoric of the early Orwell, but more recent jargon like "mission creep," coined during the Somalia debacle of the early 1990s, covers similar ground. In fact, the history of the past century should have proved conclusively that empires are traps, draining enormous resources and eventually enormous prestige from those who build them. Whether past imperialists saw their missions as conquerors and occupiers or liberators, peacekeepers and nation-builders, or all of the above, those Western countries that have claimed "a foothold in a foreign land," as the 19th-century naval strategist A. T. Mahan put it, have often found themselves serving interests that were no longer clearly their own.

The Obama administration is learning that lesson. It came to office a little more than four months ago committed to withdrawing from Iraq, and to stabilizing Afghanistan so it could get out of there, too. But we heard recently from U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey that plans have been drawn up in case American fighting forces have to remain in Iraq for another decade—and this despite a written agreement with Baghdad to pull all troops out by the end of 2011. Why? Not least because the Iraqis that the Americans helped put in power think they may need those forces to stay. Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi recently told a small group of reporters that he is "very concerned" about what will happen if the Americans leave. So, he suggested, the United States might well be asked to remain.

It's rare, in fact, that imperial powers decide on their own to give up any fragment of their foreign territories or influence. The British, for instance, "regarded long-term occupation as an inherent part of their 'civilizing mission'," the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote in 2003. A self-described neo-imperialist, Ferguson supported the invasion of Iraq then taking place, but worried that the Americans wanted to get out too fast. "When the British intervened in a country like Iraq, they simply didn't have an exit strategy," Ferguson wrote. Their job would be done only when the country in question met their standards of civilization, the rule of law and free markets. "The only issue was whether to rule directly-—installing a British governor—or indirectly, with a British 'secretary' offering 'advice' to a local puppet," Ferguson noted. Presumably it was this latter case that some in the Bush administration envisioned for Iraq.

The question Orwell posed was about who really pulled the strings: the empire or its subjects. And there may come a time when neither side really knows. People in the colonies, territories and countries under tutelage reach a point where they cannot imagine how they would survive without the help of a faraway power—even if they resent its interference. And the erstwhile imperialists, once they've been forced out of their largest possessions, cannot imagine giving up even a small fraction more of territory or influence, no matter how much it costs them militarily, economically or politically.

As a result, vestiges of past empires can be found all over the globe. Back in 1982 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched a full-scale war to hold on to the windswept Falkland Islands, even though they are almost 13,000 kilometers away from England and only about 290 kilometers from the shores of Argentina. The little enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast remain parts of Spain and therefore of the European Union. So, would-be immigrants from deep in Africa regularly trek hundreds and even thousands of kilometers across the desert to try to storm the fences in hopes of asylum. Meanwhile, the United States itself continues to administer remnants of the imperial possessions it took in the Spanish--American War of 1898, including Guam, Puerto Rico and, yes, Cuba's Guantánamo Bay.

But it's the French who offer the most complicated and potentially the most instructive case study in past atrophy and future ambitions. The sun never sets on what Paris calls "the confetti of empire": from French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna in the South Pacific to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland. Indeed, France's longest land border is not with Germany or Spain, but, thanks to French Guiana, with Brazil. "It is all about extending our influence," a senior official at the French Foreign Ministry says bluntly, if privately.

But is it? Equitable treaties clearly make more sense if you can get them. In May French President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated a new French military base in Abu Dhabi. Similar in purpose if not in scale to American installations in Qatar and Bahrain, farther up the coast, it is touted as a demonstration of France's changing approach to force projection. Camp Peace, as it is called (in a touch Orwell himself might have appreciated), is meant to demonstrate that France is willing to defend Abu Dhabi and to send that signal to Iran, less than 300 kilometers away. But more than a show of force, it's a show window for big-ticket French weapons systems that Paris would like to sell in the region. Unlike other French bases overseas, there is no history of French claims to sovereignty. Abu Dhabi wants to diversify its reliance on foreign defense forces. And—what is certainly the biggest break with the past—Abu Dhabi is footing the bill.

Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean are more typical. They are considered part of France's national territory, like the states of the United States. Yet despite massive subsidies funded by French taxpayers, they have been the scene of so much unrest over the past few months that Sarkozy has postponed a planned visit several times. The islanders are not fighting for independence, mind you, just for better deals from Paris to compensate for the higher cost of living in these tiny markets that have grown dependent on imports from a distant mainland.

Altogether, France's overseas possessions add about 2.6 million people to its population and 120,000 square kilometers of land to its territory, and give France the third largest area of exclusive maritime rights in the world. They produce nickel ore and codfish, they provided testing areas for atomic weapons in the past and are the site of launching pads for space exploration to this day. Yet whatever the benefits, the responsibilities and costs are greater. "Through the 1980s and even into the 1990s, some of these arguments carried real weight," says Robert Aldrich, author of Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. Now, however, they are mainly a drain on the French -budget, costing an estimated €16.7 billion per year. "In some ways," says Aldrich, "they are like old family jewels, perhaps not so valuable in monetary terms, though with a certain sentimental value."

Sentimental indeed. In the latter half of the 1980s, New Caledonia was on the verge of full-scale insurrection. Earlier this year the contagion of unrest spread quickly from Guadeloupe halfway around the world to the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Undeterred, Paris pushed ahead this spring to make Mayotte, a tiny island between Madagascar and Mozambique, the 101st département of the French Republic. The residents will be taxed, and receive welfare benefits—mainly the latter—just like on the mainland. They will be fully represented in the French Parliament and will be able to vote in all elections, including the European ones, because they will be considered Europeans, too. And eventually they will have to observe all of France's and Europe's laws and regulations.

The ostensible reason Paris took this decision is because that's what the people of Mayotte want. When the whole of the Comoros archipelago voted on its future in 1974, the other islands went for independence. Mayotte went for … dependence. And in the referendum this March, the people voted overwhelmingly for even closer ties. In a wondrous bit of rhetorical excess, French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said the whole show was "reaffirming the values that forge, today as yesterday, the unity of our Republic and our everlasting democracy."

Clearly the old "mission to civilize" endures, however culturally anomalous the results might be. Of the roughly 180,000 Mahorais, almost all are Muslims, and polygamy is widespread. But polygamy will now be against the law on Ma-yotte as it is in France. The problem of illegal immigration from the other Comoros islands to Mayotte, meanwhile, is enormous. Roughly a third of the population is considered, as the French say, clandestin. Many are pregnant women who risk their lives so their children will be born "in France" and be eligible for citizenship. The overall birthrate is such that in the next 15 years the population could reach 300,000. Already the maternity ward of the main hospital in Mayotte is France's busiest, with 20 babies born a day. Employment prospects for the kids as they grow up are slim. Of the 4,000 who enter the job market each year, only 1,000 find work. And then there's the position of the Islamic Republic of Comoros, which rules the other islands. It may be one of the most unstable governments in the world, but it claims that -Mayotte is still part of its territory, and so does the United Nations.

Indeed, attempts by the French to explain why France wants Mayotte verge on the surreal. Left-wing critics charge, with no apparent sense of irony, that the French mainland wants to exploit Mayotte for its vanilla beans and the aromatic oil of the ylang-ylang tree. If the real motive to hold on were its strategic naval value at the head of the crowded Mozambique Channel, then it's surprising a French base planned for Mayotte in the 1970s has never been built.

In fact, what made global strategic sense for Admiral Mahan in the 19th century, when he advised grabbing footholds in foreign lands, is not so logical today. In a world of missiles, nukes and Internet-inspired terrorists with box cutters, the projection of political influence is at least as important as the projection of force. The idea of empire is no longer plausible, the reality of it no longer credible. The problem is not just that old imperialists had no exit strategy, it's that in some places, there's no exit to be found.

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris