Though we tend to think of Victorian England and imperial pride as going together like bangers and mash, actual British opinion in the era was never quite so pat. Maintaining an empire where the sun never set was a hugely expensive endeavour, after all, and by the apex of the 19th century, when London was running everywhere from Ireland to India, from Singapore to South Africa, from Burma to Belize, it was hardly self-evident that the expenditures associated with imperial upkeep — an elaborate global bureaucracy, endless far-flung military campaigns, an enormous navy capable of “ruling the waves” — were truly balanced by colonial trade and taxes. On the contrary, many found the colonies to be — in the words of the great Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli — “millstones around our necks,” and instead championed the now largely forgotten “little Britain” movement of Victorian isolationism.
The United States isn’t quite an empire, but certainly has costly dependencies. Perhaps more costly than even the great English colonies of Disraeli’s time, in fact. Either way, they’re starting to make the case for “little America” all the more persuasive.
Take Israel, for instance. America famously gives the Jewish state over $3 billion in financial aid every year, making it the single largest foreign recipient of US tax dollars and a federal expenditure costlier than many domestic programs including the Food and Drug Administration ($2.5 billion) and the Secret Service (a measly 1.5). Since the mid-1970s, when this generous tradition of handouts first began, it’s estimated Israel has absorbed close to 100 billion American dollars — the equivalent of directly running the whole country for a year.
Yet all this money doesn’t seem to buy an awful lot of obedience. For the last dozen or so years, America’s basically only given Israel two concrete demands — help the occupied Palestinian territories become an independent nation, and stop building settlements on their land. Israel, in turn, has not done either of these things. In fact, the current administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done precisely the opposite, dragging his feet on peace talks while repeatedly giving the green light to new settler colonies — including a rather galling incident earlier this month where he approved the construction of 3,100 new homes in the West Bank on the eve of negotiations with the Palestinian president. He also wants more American money, by the way.
Then there’s Egypt. At $1.5 billion per year, America gives that country only half of what Israel gets, but that’s still enough to make it — by far — the US’ second-largest overseas expense. As is the case with Israel, much of the Egyptian military is also US-armed and trained, with the two nations’ biennial, cooperative “Bright Star” war games comprising America’s single largest military exercise.
There will be no Bright Star this year, however. Obama’s cancelled it in response to the Egyptian military government’s ongoing massacre of street protesters, whose death tolls now routinely tally in the hundreds per day. Massacring civilians is against US government policy, you see, but the sticky wicket is that it’s also against US government policy to be an Islamist or a dictator, and these were the philosophies of Egypt’s previous two US-backed regimes. America also has a policy against giving money to governments that take power by using the armed forces to depose an elected one, which of course is what the current administration of General Sisi did when he overthrew President Morsi last month. But the Senate worried that enforcing that law might result in the States “losing influence” with the generals or something, so they agreed to ignore it. Another $1.5 billion on the way, Mr. General!
I’ve never liked the phrase “American imperialism,” in part because it’s an ugly and mean-spirited slur, but also because it’s simply not a very accurate way of understanding America’s relationship with the countries most financially dependant upon it. True colonies fear and respect their master; America’s exploit and distrust it. Good colonies are loyal — a former Canadian prime minister once proudly declared that “ready, aye, ready” should be his country’s only response to London’s demands — while America’s are brazenly disobedient. Effective colonies emulate the motherland as a model of success and progress; America’s embrace dramatically unAmerican ideals of militarism and religious intolerance.
There will always be a case for humanitarian aid, and aid as an instrument of assistance in times of extreme environmental disaster or existential war. But employing aid as a technique of soft imperialism, or at least a means of control and persuasion, is an American experiment that’s clearly failed.
At a time when the country is bearing so many other financial burdens and unsustainable obligations, attempting to micromanage the affairs of the Middle East — hell, attempting to merely influence allies — is looking less and less like a wise investment and more and more like yet one more heavy millstone around an increasingly crowded neck.