The Draught of Dominion: Power, Reason, and the Liberal Justification of Empire


Francis Fukuyama argues that “most ‘liberal’ European societies were illiberal insofar as they believed in the legitimacy of imperialism, that is, the right of one nation to rule over another nation without regard for the wishes of the ruled.”[1] Imperialism, so the argument goes, is fundamentally illiberal. A nation cannot both rule despotically over another, and consider itself liberal at the same time. This conclusion is specious, at least from the point of view of some progressive liberals,[2] who did not realize that power swayed their opinions.

Liberalism in international relations often seeks to deny the realities produced by the distribution of power. Unfortunately for liberals, power is pivotal. This is apparent considering the role of power as it relates to liberal justifications of empire in Uday Singh Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire. As Burke implies, power pushes states to behave in different ways vis-à-vis the two variants of liberalism. In examining the impact of power on the limits of reason, this paper makes two arguments: first, power plays a role in advocating for progressive liberalism, which justifies imperialism; and second, denying[3] power plays a role in advocating for modus vivendi liberalism,[4] which rejects liberal imperialism. My fundamental conclusion is that progressive liberalism is not always inconsistent with empire, while modus vivendi liberalism is.

The argument proceeds as follows. If relatively powerful peoples deny their power, as Burke urges, they are less prone to disregard the limits of their reason. Retaining consciousness of the limits of reason precludes a universal consensus on the good life, and thereby urges the powerful people to behave in accordance with modus vivendi principles. This logical progression leads away from empire, and instead to modus vivendi liberalism. Imperialism and modus vivendi liberalism are therefore incompatible. However, if relatively powerful peoples do not deny their power, they are prone instead to denying the limits of their reason, and thereby begin to operate under the delusion that they have found the secrets to the one and only good life. Furthermore, a relatively powerful people believes itself to have progressed farther than the relatively weak. In the eyes of the powerful, therefore, the weak are children, backward and underdeveloped. This, in brief, is my take on the progressive liberalism of the 19th Century in Britain. From here the liberal justification of empire is not far away. Since the childish—the backward—represent a grave threat to the very survival of the progressive, backwardness must be met with forceful development. Forceful development operates most effectively through empire. In this way, progressive liberalism justifies and advocates for empire. The former is therefore not always inconsistent with the latter. I begin by explaining the role of power in liberal justifications of imperialism. Later, I deny power this role, and show that doing so produces a logical progression that culminates with modus vivendi liberalism.

Imperialism begins with unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity between two peoples, for Mehta, involves “contrasting traditions, self-understandings, extant political and social practices, [and] belief systems.”[5] India and Britain, for example, were unfamiliar to one another because each had “unmistakably different ways of organizing social and political life, molding and expressing individuality and freedom.”[6] In essence, Mehta acknowledges that the Indians and the British had different conceptions of the good life. Thus the confrontation of two different notions of the good life is characterized, in Mehta’s terms, by unfamiliarity.

Despite unfamiliarity, British liberals, in their quest to justify empire, thought that they could situate India in an epistemological structure, supplied by reason.[7] To explain, British liberals thought that their rationality was universal—that the general rationalistic structure into which they could organize facts was universally applicable.[8] So, for them, “both the familiar and the strange are deemed to be merely specific instances of a familiar structure of generality.”[9] Thus British liberals could pigeonhole their Indian “other as embodying the abstraction of a certain type [emphasis in the original].”[10] Reason provides both the general structure and the ability to classify and to situate even the oddest phenomena within it.[11] Mehta terms this universally-applicable schema “the cosmopolitanism of reason.”[12]

For J. S. Mill and other progressive liberals of the age, by applying the general structure, it is possible to know where a nation is in the progress of history. “History and progress are an unremitting preoccupation of nineteenth-century British liberalism.”[13] This preoccupation is expressed through a “concern with civilizational stages.”[14] Since reason supplies the general structure,

Both the eminence of the future that is present in history and the structure that is exemplified by the present are themselves given the cast of progress by a prior commitment to a rationality that identifies in the past and in the present the progressive extension into the future.[15]

The point of this rather difficult sentence is that rationality can find the one true path of progress—history has a plan, and that plan represents progress.[16] To progress is to better life.[17] All civilizations move along this progressive timeline in different stages: it is a “universalistic vision,”[18] a cosmopolitan teleology provided by reason. The farther along a nation is on the timeline, the farther it has progressed, and it is reason itself by which such progress is measured. In other words, a nation’s developing ability to use “‘higher quality faculties’”[19] reflects its progress. Working from these assumptions—the cosmopolitanism of reason and the universalistic vision or timeline—British liberals thought that they could deploy “what is deemed relevant to understanding human existence and flourishing.”[20]

To reformulate the above in slightly different terms, British progressive liberals disregarded the limits of their reason, and therefore came to believe that all societies developed in set stages that composed a teleological progression—there is one path towards the good life, and one path only. Some nations may be behind others on the timeline. But if all societies were acting with the cosmopolitan reason of British progressive liberals, all would see the timeline—were all acting with reason, all would agree on the good life.

Where did progressive liberals find the certainty to declare so arrogantly that they had found this timeline—how did they know that they had found truth? British liberals were confident that they had found the universal good life only as a result of the great power of the British Empire.[21] Britain’s power prompted its liberals to assume that their nation stood taller, and saw farther. To understand this fully, it is necessary to reconsider the universal timeline of progress, and how progressive liberals ranked nations from most advanced to least advanced on it. The conclusion of the following section is that it is difficult to prevent a state as dominant as the British Empire “from achieving the bogus omniscience, which occurs when the weak are too weak to dare challenge the opinion of the powerful.”[22]

It is not the absolute power of the British that mattered, but their relative power. The great relative power of the Empire vis-à-vis the Indians (Mehta repeatedly terms this imbalance “the inequality of power”[23]) gave British liberals the certainty and “assertive expansiveness”[24] to claim arrogantly that they had found the timeline of the good life. “For arrogance is the inevitable consequence of the relation of power to weakness.”[25] Mehta points out from the start of Liberalism and Empire that, when British liberals pondered imperialism in India, they did so in full “awareness of the inequality of power”[26] between Britain and the Indians. This is reflected in numerous ways, but the most important is “the quality of confidence, inner certainty” and “confidence of judgment,”[27] which, combined with the progressive liberals’ faith in reason, produced liberalism’s “rationalistic certainties”[28]—“illusions to which a technocratic culture is…prone.”[29]

The key is where this certain judgment was applied. Here the cosmopolitanism of reason returns. Its abilities to classify and to organize “cannot avoid notions of superiority and inferiority.”[30] The reason of progressive liberals is judgmental,[31] and leads to rankings and hierarchy. Therefore, when the cosmopolitanism of reason combines with the certainties of judgment provided by power, they together cannot resist the urge to situate nations on the universalistic timeline of progress—to decide who is on the progressive path, and who is backwards. The importance of power here cannot be underestimated. When British imperialists invoked reason or progress to label a nation underdeveloped, Burke, at least, was “aware that it was usually by relying on an implicit alliance with…power.”[32] A position of power is “the perspective from which unhindered judgments can be issued.”[33] After all, “[p]ower always thinks it has…vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak…”[34] Thus vantages produced by preponderances of power are prone to denying the limits of reason: there is an “inclination of the…powerful…to obscure or deny the human limitations in all human achievements and pretensions.”[35] In sum, relative power’s effects on a powerful people’s perceptions of the limits of reason can “create a situation in which [the weak] would be too impotent to correct [the strong] when [the strong] are wrong and [the strong] would be too idealistic to correct” themselves.[36]

I consider two important implications of the above argument, that the powerful, because of their power, consider the weak backward. First, when the British conception of progress towards the universal good life confronted unfamiliarity in the form of India, British liberals dismissed that unfamiliarity—that conception of the good life. To use Mehta’s terms, the British, having only experienced their own conception of the good life, could not understand the Indian civilization, and so invoked “reason or progress as an arbiter”[37] between the two, since liberal imperialists refused to accept their incomprehension. To accept their incomprehension, after all, would have meant admitting the limits of their reason. Mehta concludes from here that when liberal imperialists invoke the universal timeline, doing so “can amount to no more than putting a name to [their] ignorance and relying on the inequality of power, or an established and favorable consensus, to make that name stick [emphasis added].”[38] With their state’s potency in the background, the British could rely on power to assert the veracity of their conception of the good life, and thereby dismiss all others.

The second important implication involves the reasoning ability of weaker nations. We have seen that relative power gives the powerful nation a confidence in judgment vis-à-vis weaker nations. With this confidence, the strong classify the weak as underdeveloped based on disparities in power. Recall, in addition, that the developing ability to use one’s higher faculties—to use reason—reflects progress.[39] Considering this, for progressive liberals to classify the Indians, for instance, as backwards is tantamount to the liberals’ saying that the Indians do not have, or cannot exercise, reason. British liberals in this way came to see the Indians as children, lacking the reason that should have been inculcated in them through a Lockean conception of schooling, as expressed in his Thoughts Concerning Education.[40] In summary, power, if allowed space in interactions between those with differing conceptions of the good life, tends “to infantilize…simply on account of the confidence of one’s own knowledge [emphasis added].”[41]

Each of these two important implications of the effects of power on progressive rankings serves to justify one of the “exclusionary strategies,”[42] which function integrally in the logic of progressive liberals who justified imperialism in India. These strategies comprised a theoretical rationale for liberal imperialists who sought to exclude the Indians from that group of people who ought to be allotted the conventional liberal rights. As Mehta explains, it is quite correct to associate liberals of the 19th Century with commitments to “securing individual liberty…through a cast that typically involves democratic and representative institutions…[and] the guaranty of individual rights…, all of which are taken to limit the legitimate use of the authority of the state [emphasis added].”[43] Each of the following progressive liberal exclusionary strategies makes an argument as to why none of these archetypal liberal liberties apply to the Indians, who are thereby deprived of any protection against the whims of the imperial state.

The first strategy corresponds to the first of my implications of disparities in power—the powerful state’s dismissal of unfamiliar forms of the good life as a result of incomprehension. British liberals of the age labelled the Indians inscrutable because they did not understand them. The notion of inscrutability helped British liberals to avoid admitting that they suffered any limits to their reason. It is not that the Indians resisted comprehension: for this implies that it was possible to understand them.[44] Inscrutability instead “designates an unfathomable limit to the object of inquiry without implicating either the process of inquiry or the inquirer.”[45] It is the fault of the Indians that the British could not understand them. Furthermore, “those who are inscrutable correspond to those inanimate objects that Hobbes claims must be represented precisely because they cannot give authority on their own behalf.”[46] Inanimate objects cannot enjoy civil liberties or participate in liberal democracy. Thus, “inscrutability clearly places a limit on political possibilities by closing off the prospect that the object satisfies the however minimal conditions requisite for political inclusion.”[47]

The second way in which progressive liberals avoided traditional liberal concerns in justifying empire relates to the second consequence of disparities in power, infantilization. Above we deduced that for a progressive liberal to label a nation backward is tantamount to his saying that that nation cannot use its higher faculties—reason reflects progress; if there is no progress, there is no reason. Without reason, the Indians could be excluded from having liberal rights. Liberty requires reason, and reason is possessed only by adults, that is, those who have reached a certain “position in a time line of civilizational and individual development.”[48] After all, representative democracy and its accoutrements depend on having reached a certain stage in the universal timeline of progress.[49] Thus liberty is not applicable to the backward, i.e. children devoid of reason. Indeed, to J. S. Mill, “[l]iberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” Since only the reasonable can satisfy this condition, the backward can be excluded from liberal rights. More advanced nations are consequently free to rule the barbarous as they will, since, in the absence of constrictive rights, there is no limit to the reach of the state.

So the Indians confronted progressive liberals as backward, inscrutable children, who had no claim to liberal rights, and who could not reason. In other words, they confronted progressive liberals as people in dire need of education. It is political liberalism’s deepest wish, after all, to bring those who are behind up to speed. For “[w]hat is latent in the liberal conception of the political is a deep impulse to reform the world.”[50] What should be the instrument of this reform? “Liberals have always associated political power with that capacious imperative for the betterment of life.”[51] Political power is well-suited to development, and, furthermore, “such progress can be brought about only through the political interdictions of the empire.”[52] For “a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of higher civilization.”[53] The progressive liberal justification of empire is complete.

However, the drive to educate is only a part of the progressive liberal motivation to reform the backward. Powerful, and therefore progressive, empires do not merely have the impulse to reform forcefully the backward, they must do so to survive. When familiarity (the good life that follows the universal timeline of progress) confronts unfamiliarity (the backward), “the relationship between the two can only be a struggle, a deathly struggle, in which power and not understanding must be deployed.”[54] Put differently, the very survival of liberal imperialism depends on its violent expansion, i.e., the reform of the backward, or, what is essentially the same thing, the assimilation of the weak. Will it prove difficult to assimilate the weak so that they comport with the universalistic vision of progressive liberalism? Certainly not. The cosmopolitanism of reason here returns a final time in the liberal justification of empire to provide, as Mehta argues, “an elaborate vision of how politically to assimilate things, even when those things are thoroughly unfamiliar.”[55]

We have seen, essentially, that power helps to break down the limits of reason, yielding progressive liberalism. Power in combination with progressive liberalism then yields a liberal justification for empire. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that progressive liberalism is not always inconsistent with imperialism. I have yet to consider, however, the second face of liberalism, modus vivendi liberalism. Guided by Burke, I explain in the following section that denying power maintains the limits of reason in liberal thought. Maintaining the limits of reason leads away from liberal imperialism, and towards modus vivendi liberalism. Imperialism is therefore inconsistent with modus vivendi liberalism.

Burke “reflected with great seriousness on situations in which the exercise of power was implicated with consideration of cultural and racial diversity, contrasting civilizational unities…alternative norms of political identity and legitimacy.”[56] In short, he considered unfamiliarity, produced by the clash of differing conceptions of the good life. Mehta explains why he did so: “It is to illustrate and reform features of…[British] power, along with the ideas and presumptions that sustain it, that Burke is led to a consideration of India’s civilizational and cultural integuments [emphasis added].”[57]

Burke’s skepticism of imperialism[58] derived from his views on power. For him, interaction between Indians and British should not have been a conversation between Lockean children and their progressive tutors. Burke realized what I have argued, that power infantilizes. He comprehended that power is a “distorting intoxicant because it is based on a prior denial of the real challenges that attend the task of…understanding those over whom it is exercised.”[59] In fact, to Burke, if there was a child in the conversation between the Empire and India, it was surely a British child, who had resolved recklessly to use the power disparity to his advantage, having drunk an “intoxicating draught of authority and dominion…”[60] Burke knew that the combination of youth and power leads to despotism.[61] Thus, to avoid incomprehension, despotism, and infantilization, Burke urged that the interaction or conversation between the British and the Indians be one in which power was denied.[62]

As I have shown, the failure to deny power leads to certainty in judgment. Certain judgment, in turn, results in progressive liberals who believe that they have found the one true universalistic vision, and who deploy that judgment to rank conceptions of the good life on the hierarchy of progress. Power helps to tear down the limits of reason. Thus, to deny power is to leave the limits of reason intact. It is no wonder, therefore, that Burke “expresses a tolerance that is grounded on an acceptance of his own limitations and his own possible obtuseness to other practices…”[63] Burke denied power in his own mind, and accepted the limits of his reason, unlike his progressive liberal contemporaries.

The most important result of Burke’s ability to deny power and thereby to accept the limits of his reason was his understanding of nationalism. Burke, in contrast to the Mills, saw the Indians as having history, which has “produced a social coherence”[64] in India. In other words, Burke recognized in the Indians the “ingredients of nationhood.”[65] This illuminated for him a contradiction with progressive liberal imperialism. Nationalism to Burke “is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers, and in space.”[66] So the Indians had history, and thus their own timeline, one distinct from that of the progressive liberals. Indeed, an implication of Burke’s nationalistic notion of history is that it “eschews a general ethical or political viewpoint…such as an abstract account of human progress…or of man as a progressive being…as serving as a surrogate for power.”[67] Burke discovered that nationalism rejects the universal timeline of liberal imperialists because of the latter’s roots in power, and thereby militates against the very idea of progressive liberalism.

From here the argument against liberal imperialism, and in favor of a more modus vivendi approach, is all but complete. Considering the present ingredients of nationalism in potential subjects like the Indians, Burke “cannot countenance power arrogating to itself the right to meddle with other peoples’ history.”[68] Burke could not endorse attempts to interfere with another established conception of the good life, to mold a nation, possessed of its own timeline, so that it would comport with a purportedly universal vision of progress.

In summary, Burke’s arguments for British restraint derived from “a deep, even reverent humility that [he] feels in the face of differences—cultural, economic, and political.”[69] This humility led him to accept norms that seemed thoroughly strange to him—to accept a certain “darkness as perhaps stemming from the limits of his own circumscribed vision.”[70] To reformulate this is slightly different terms, Burke urged a more modus vivendi approach because he accepted the limits of his reason, which cannot comprehend conceptions of the good life that contrast so greatly with his own. Nor can reason derive the universal timeline of progress: Burke retained, with Niebuhr, “the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.”[71]

With the overwhelming relative power of the Empire in the background, British progressive liberals tended to disregard the limits of their reason. Power had lent a certain confidence to their judgments. The most important judgments they made with this confidence concerned the stages of other nations on a universal timeline of development. Ignoring the rights of peoples like the Indians because they were backward children, or simply inscrutable, progressive liberals yielded to their deep impulse to reform, and justified imperialism. Progressive liberalism is therefore not always inconsistent with empire, for the former justifies the latter. If power is denied, on the other hand, the limits of reason remain intact. Acknowledging his reason’s limits, Burke was farsighted enough to comprehend nationalism, the nature of which conflicts with progressive liberalism. Burke’s suggested alternative was something highly redolent of modus vivendi liberalism, an accepting conversation among adults: for in “such a conversation power is denied space, and in this sense the empire becomes an impossibility.”[72] Modus vivendi liberalism is thus inconsistent with empire—the two lie at the ends of different logical trains, one accepting power, one rejecting it. Several conclusions emerge. First, when great power erodes a state’s belief in the limits of its reason, progressive liberalism can combine with that power in a dangerous way. Powerful states that convince themselves that they have found truth possess great potential to justify idealistic recklessness, including imperialism, especially towards the unfamiliar. Furthermore, Mehta is quite correct to note that liberal justifications of empire are “intellectual precursors of Francis Fukuyama’s confident projections regarding the ‘end of history.’”[73] What else is the “end of history” but a claim to have found the endpoint of the universal timeline of progress? This idea possesses the potential to justify some recklessness, too. Second, there is a possibility for progressive liberal nations to perceive the “backward” as threats to the very survival of their progressive ways of life. The nature of such threats has the potential to provoke illiberal responses.[74] Third, nationalism vitiates the very heart of the progressive liberal project. Burke revealed as much by arguing that each nation has a history, a developmental timeline of its own. Fourth, modus vivendi liberalism presents itself as a sane alternative to liberal imperialism and its accomplice, progressive liberalism, since modus vivendi liberalism has resisted the intoxicating effect of power. Unfortunately, though, the effects of power are difficult to deny.

[1] Fukuyama 1989

[2] I expand at great length on what I term “progressive liberalism” later in the paper.

[3] I use “deny” in the same way as Mehta in this context. See Mehta 1999, 34, 44, 217.

[4] Modus vivendi liberalism, as explicated in Gray (2000), advocates for acceptance of the fact that there exist many different valid conceptions of the good life. Societies should practice noninterference in accordance with this fact.

[5] Mehta 1999, 8–9

[6] Ibid., 11

[7] Ibid., 18

[8] Ibid., 18

[9] Ibid., 20

[10] Ibid., 24

[11] Note that the ability to classify is not the same as the ability to comprehend. I return to this important point later.

[12] Mehta 1999, 20

[13] Ibid., 77

[14] Ibid., 88

[15] Ibid., 85

[16] Ibid., 84

[17] Ibid., 79

[18] Ibid., 77

[19] Ibid., 88

[20] Ibid., 25

[21] Ibid., 44

[22] Niebuhr 1952, 137

[23] Mehta 1999, 28

[24] Ibid., 11

[25] Niebuhr 1952, 112

[26] Mehta 1999, 11

[27] Ibid., 11

[28] Ibid., 45

[29] Niebuhr 1952, 147

[30] Mehta 1999, 20

[31] Ibid., 79

[32] Ibid., 21

[33] Ibid., 11

[34] Niebuhr 1952, 21

[35] Ibid., 147

[36] Cited in Niebuhr 1952, 133

[37] Mehta 1999, 28

[38] Ibid., 28

[39] Ibid., 88

[40] Ibid., 60

[41] Ibid., 44

[42] Ibid., 48

[43] Ibid., 3

[44] Ibid., 68

[45] Ibid., 68

[46] Ibid., 68

[47] Ibid., 68

[48] Ibid., 71

[49] Ibid., 81

[50] Ibid., 79

[51] Ibid., 78

[52] Ibid., 87

[53] Ibid., 106

[54] Ibid., 104

[55] Ibid., 20

[56] Ibid., 155

[57] Ibid., 165–6

[58] Though skeptical of empire, Burke never advocated for dismantling it. He was too conservative for that.

[59] Ibid., 34

[60] Burke, “Fox’s India Bill Speech,” 5:402–3, cited in ibid., 32

[61] Ibid., 174

[62] Ibid., 34

[63] Ibid., 164

[64] Ibid., 164

[65] Ibid., 189

[66] Burke, “Speech on the State of Representation of the Commons in Parliament,” cited in ibid., 188–9.

[67] Ibid., 164

[68] Ibid., 164

[69] Ibid., 164

[70] Ibid., 164

[71] Niebuhr 1952, 88

[72] Mehta 1999, 217

[73] Ibid., 214

[74] For an argument quite similar to this one, see Desch 2007/2008, 8


Desch, Michael. 2007/2008. “America’s Liberal Illiberalism.” International Security

32 (Winter): 7–43.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest: Summer.

Gray, John. 2000. Two Faces of Liberalism. Blackwell: Cambridge.

Mehta, Uday. 1999. Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British

Liberal Thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1952. The Irony of American History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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