The new imperialism

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When the United States took over the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1899, British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in praise of imperialism. Each stanza began: "Take up the White Man's burden."

After World War II, colonialism became a nasty word. The Philippines - and just about every other colony - won political independence.

But today Kipling's call to spread, as he saw it, civilization to remote parts of the world could be rephrased "Take up the Western Man's burden." The industrial nations are once again asking how much they should help poor countries establish good government and greater prosperity. University of Rochester economist Stanley Engerman calls it a "new, good imperialism."

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Good imperialism - if it exists - deals more with economics than the political control of the past. Academic economists have been revisiting colonialism to see if they can find clues as to what encourages or discourages progress in poor nations. Trade unions want to impose "fair labor standards" on developing countries. Most industrial nations rely on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other development institutions to provide technical, economic, and governance advice to poor countries. Foreign aid often becomes a tool to impose Western ideas on struggling nations.

To some - especially those in the developing world - this new imperialism can look a lot like the old colonialism, except that permanent occupation is no longer the means of control.

Iraq is seen as Exhibit A of the new imperialism. President Bush ordered the invasion of the country, claiming a need to remove weapons of mass destruction. When no WMDs were found, the proclaimed purpose evolved into removing a dictatorship and establishing a democracy. Some Europeans and those in the Middle East remain skeptical, suspecting the US of wanting to ensure control of Iraqi oil.

But in the US, the generally accepted thesis is that the US does have a "burden" to help. Americans want to be involved in spreading democracy and encouraging free enterprise. How much of a burden they're willing to bear is another question.

In Iraq, the "help" became a war with more than 1,500 US military deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in costs. By now, most Americans would be reluctant to attempt to force democracy and capitalism on, say, Syria, Burma, and Iran.

It's not even clear that the eventual Iraqi government will be pro-Western. For example, whether it accepts permanent American military bases on its soil remains to be seen. America's other grand experiment in new imperialism - Afghanistan - does seem willing to allow permanent US bases, despite suspicions of US imperialism, because the government faces threats from warlords.

Still, some economists see value in armed intervention. One is Gary Hufbauer, of the Institute for International Economics in Washington, who wonders if the United Nations or Washington could bring some stability to the Congo, Angola, and a long list of other desperate countries through takeovers. Any military invasions would be modest, since the armed opposition would probably be weak, unorganized, and poorly armed compared with the insurgents in Iraq. With more peaceful conditions, these nations with their rich mineral resources could make greater economic progress, he says.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations stepped into the turmoil in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. But there was insufficient follow-up to make a long-term difference, Mr. Hufbauer says. "My guess is that the West is unable to do things even for those countries in which it might make a positive change."

One exception could be Bosnia, where, after NATO ended the civil war, a "high representative" of the Western powers still exercises major influence if not control over the government.

Some recent academic research offers hints at what could work to stimulate democracy and economic development.

One goal should be to avoid extreme income inequality. Those former European colonies with legacies of big divides between the rich and poor tended not to invest as much in schools and other infrastructure that lift development, note Professor Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff, an economist at the University of California at Los Angeles. That pattern of inequality was reflected in the proportion of people who could vote in what were far from perfect democracies.

In 1850 in the US and 1867 in Canada, 12.9 percent of the population had the vote, the scholars point out. That sounds low, but it was enough that their governments tended to look after the educational and other needs of their people. In that same era, by contrast, only 1.6 percent of Chileans and 0.1 percent of Mexicans could vote. None could vote in most other Latin American nations. So it was easier to institute dictatorships. Poor governance is a key reason Latin American economies have lagged far behind the US or Canada.

While democracy tends to go together with prosperity, it's difficult to prove that prosperity breeds democracy, notes an unpublished paper by Daron Acemoglu, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and three other economists. Outsiders can help poor nations, Professor Acemoglu says. But it remains up to each nation to develop the political institutions necessary for a vital economy.

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