How Rick Santorum and America can be 'exceptional': Avoid empire

Rick Santorum suggests national health care sank the British Empire and sees America as the rightful heir to British global domination. But empires are largely based on racism and exploitation. To be 'exceptional' America must resist the idea it knows what’s best for everyone else.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Republican presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum, speaks as he campaigns at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Prayer Breakfast in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sunday, Jan. 15. Mr. Santorum has suggested the British Empire fell because it instituted social welfare programs like national health care.

I just returned from a quick trip to Great Britain, which once ruled a fifth of the world’s inhabitants and a quarter of its land mass. But then the British instituted a system of social welfare, including national health care, which diminished their strength and confidence – and paved the way for the dissolution of their empire. 

So said presidential hopeful Rick Santorum earlier this month in Iowa, where he ran a close second to Mitt Romney in the Republican caucuses. Critics quickly seized on Mr. Santorum’s confused chronology, noting that the British left India – the jewel of their empire – in 1947, and their National Health Service wasn’t established until 1948.

Yet when I recounted Santorum’s remark to a colleague in England, he had a very different response: “Why does the guy like empire so much?”

The answer isn’t hard to find. Like most of the other GOP candidates, Santorum seems to see America as the rightful heir to British global domination. All we need is a firm belief in our own superiority, which the British allegedly forsook after World War II.

“One hundred years ago, the sun didn’t set on the British Empire,” Santorum told his Iowa audience. “If you look at that empire today – why? Because they lost heart and faith in their heart in themselves and in their mission…. Not just for the betterment of the world, but safety and security and the benefit of their country.” Today, Santorum added, the United States has “taken up that cause.”

But the rest of the world will look askance at Santorum’s analogy – and with good reason. Like other modern empires, Great Britain’s was based largely on racism, exploitation, and violence. Before we Americans assume the British imperial mantle, then, we might pause a moment to look at its actual history.

And it begins, yes, with race. After losing the United States – which revolted, remember, against Mother England – the British Empire governed mostly people of color. It also developed elaborate racial codes and rationales, insisting that “the British race” – i.e., white people – had a natural right to rule others. “The white man in Africa is not prepared and never will be prepared to accept the African as an equal, socially or politically,” declared a British official in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1934 – in a typical statement.

Nor did empire bring economic security and prosperity to its subjects, as apologists often claimed. In India, life expectancy actually decreased 20 percent under British rule. Indian per capita output rose just 10 percent between 1850 and 1950; after India won its independence, by contrast, per capita output soared 50 percent in just 25 years.

And when people around the world resisted British imperialism, the famous medical journal The Lancet wrote in 1865, there was only one appropriate response: terror and violence. Colonial subjects had either “to be constantly kept down with a rod of iron,” The Lancet frankly declared, “or slowly exterminated.”

Eight years earlier in 1857, in the Great Uprising of India, British soldiers had forced Hindu and Muslim insurgents to eat beef or pork, respectively, before hanging them. They even burned Muslims and buried Hindus, deliberately inverting the faiths’ funeral traditions as a warning to other rebels.

In the 1930s, as the Indian freedom movement gained steam, roughly 100,000 Indians would die in British prisons. In the much smaller colony of Kenya, during the Mau Mau rebellions of the 1950s, as many as 130,000 were killed and 320,000 were interned in concentration camps. Thousands of Kenyans also faced torture: In the most gruesome case, a British officer forced captives to eat their own testicles.

To be fair, Santorum didn’t endorse everything the British did. Be he also needs to understand that linking America’s contemporary role to the British empire – or to empire, period – puts it in some very nasty company. Yes, America is now the dominant power in the world. But to exercise that power wisely, it needs to remember its own founding creed, rooted in its own anti-colonial past: All men are created equal, with the right to determine their own fates.

Most of all, Americans must avoid the hubristic idea that we know what’s best for everyone else. But Santorum and most of the other GOP candidates bridle at any such suggestion. Indeed, they routinely flay President Obama for caring too much about foreign opinion, and not enough about “American exceptionalism.” In the same speech where he invoked the British Empire, Santorum claimed that Mr. Obama was unnecessarily reluctant to defend American interests overseas. “We have a president who doesn’t believe in America,” Santorum sniffed.

And that brings me back to the conversation with my colleague in England, who happens to be Irish. As he wryly pointed out, nobody in Ireland – which suffered three centuries of vicious British rule – would ever put in a good word for imperialism.

Neither should we. If we really want to be an “exceptional” world power, we should resist the idea of empire wherever it arises. Despite what you hear from Rick Santorum, health care didn’t bankrupt the British Empire. In all the ways that matter, it was bankrupt from the start.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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