The liberal democratic world is always racked by conscience. Sometimes it has a bad conscience about intervening in other countries' affairs; at other times, it has a bad conscience about failing to intervene. It is the second kind of bad conscience that is now moving into the ascendancy.
Imperialism is making a comeback. For long a term of abuse among progressives, it is now being re-examined for its virtues, most notably by Robert Cooper, an adviser on foreign affairs to Tony Blair.
In an important book, Empire, published two years ago, Dominic Lieven, professor of Russian government at the London School of Economics, wrote that "in its time empire was often a force for peace, prosperity and the exchange of ideas across the globe . . . for example, British rule in India or West Africa at the begin-ning of the 20th century was both more unequivocally imperial and often possessed a genuine sense of responsibility and ethics." Lieven was then conscious of being politically incorrect: not now.
America - which had at least until Suez in 1956 seen empire as the regrettable reflex of the old world states, or until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the territorial equivalent of Soviet ideological totalitarianism - now holds the word up to the light with a more mature appraisal of its possibilities. The attack on the World Trade Center has been the catalyst, though not the cause. 11 September was, wrote Max Boot in the conservative Weekly Standard soon after the event, "a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition: the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation".
The implicit belief behind this statement is that everyone wants to live like westerners in liberal democracies - a belief that received a strong boost from the collapse of the Soviet empire. Tony Blair subscribed to the belief during his recent talk at the George Bush Sr Presidential Library in Texas. He said that he found odd the view that people in remote parts of the world liked authoritarianism or poverty: his experience was that they wanted the same security, prosperity and improving future for their families that we do.
The extension of this is the acceptance that the world's most powerful states should use force to stop the worst depredations of those tyrants, mass murderers and warlords who prevent people having a decent life. This is not just to be moral: indeed, if morality were a strong spur, there would have been many more interventions already. It is also to secure our own borders and our own safety: 11 September, again, was a strong prompter of that. The two impulses are fusing into a new imperative.
The massacres and savageries committed in the recent past, sometimes with our indirect aid, have highlighted the human - and security - price of allowing conflicts to play themselves out, or of intervening too weakly to prevent them from doing so. The Carter administration backed the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations from 1979. The Reagan administration supplied half a billion dollars' worth of aid to Saddam Hussein while he was making war on his own Kurdish citizens. In Bosnia in the early 1990s - especially at Srebrenica and Sarajevo - Serbs were allowed to kill Bosnians with little hindrance; in Rwanda in 1994, Hutus slaughtered Tutsis for 100 days without foreign interference. A late intervention in Somalia in 1992-93, which ended in the deaths of 18 US marines and the dragging of their bodies through the streets, was taken by many western leaders as a warning against humanitarian involvement.
There seems to have been a change of attitude since then. In the early 1990s, there were already partially - and very tardily - successful interventions in the Liberian civil war by a Nigerian-led UN force; and the no-fly zones in northern Iraq policed by the US, the UK and France allowed one million Kurds to return, admittedly in desperate conditions, to their homeland. The Clinton administration led a military force into Haiti in 1994 to force the return to power of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of the country, who had been deposed in a military coup. Sierra Leone, racked since the mid-1990s by a hideous war, has at last been returned to a precarious peace by the intervention of the British army, which remains in place.
The military intervention that has done most to bolster the case for "robust" action has been in Kosovo, where a de facto protectorate has been established over a region which is still formally part of Serbia, but which has in fact "won" its independence with the aid of the US-led force. It remains a contested affair: it lacked UN sanction and thus a firm base in international law. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo described the action as "illegal but legitimate".
Since the mid-1990s, serious work has been done on trying to square that "illegal but legitimate" circle. The Australian government established, in November 1995, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons - a bold effort to raise a moral wave for the elimination of nuclear weaponry at a time when it was becoming increasingly obvious that they were proliferating dangerously. However, the Labour government that had established the commission was itself removed, and the impetus faltered.
In 1997, the Carnegie Corporation set up the Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict - an ambitious effort to grasp the nettle of "legitimate" intervention. What was required, its report said, was the development of "an international commitment to the concept of prevention . . . and a working portfolio of legal standards that rest on a normative consensus regarding the responsibilities of governments to themselves and to their peoples".
That such "legal standards" were lacking was underscored by Blair in April 1999, when he said that "the most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts". The report of the Carnegie Commission, however, was not picked up, and the Foreign Office has tried since Blair's speech to identify such circumstances by seeking consensus on rules of intervention - but without success.
The latest effort is the most ambitious and promising. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sponsored by the Canadian government, responds to a challenge from the UN secretary general Kofi Annan. During the Millennium Assembly in September 2000, he called on the international community to build a new response to "massive violations of human rights and international law". The commission reported last year: in the course of its deliberations, based on round tables staged throughout the world, it produced the concept of a "responsibility to protect". This means that a state will lose the right to sovereignty and immunity from intervention if it fails so badly to protect its own citizens that very large numbers are at risk - or, worse, if the state power itself makes war upon a significant section of them.
Today's debate on contemporary imperialism focuses on the possibility of re-constituting a kind of neocolonial directory of states willing to bear the rich man's burden of policing the world in order to make it safe for all. This month, Robert Cooper came closest to articulating the new vision.
In an essay written for a pamphlet published by a think-tank, the Foreign Policy Centre, he argued that advanced states had gone beyond warfare and zero-sum international relations to a form of co-operation that legitimises large-scale and constant interventions in each other's affairs. This is the "postmodern world". But in the modern and, even more, the pre-modern world, the old anarchies and threats remain. In the latter, these threats - like that of al-Qaeda - are vast.
The postmodern world must, says Cooper, offer a (so far as possible) voluntary imperialism that would bring order, law and the occasional exemplary war to those parts of the world that cannot rule themselves. It is "a new kind of imperialism - one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values". It is, however, urgent that it be developed: "In the modern world, the secret race to acquire nuclear weapons goes on. In the pre-modern world, the interests of organised crime - including international terrorism - grow greater and faster than the state. There may not be much time left."
The collection in which the essay appears, Reordering the World, also contains short essays by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and by Tony Blair. Straw writes that, "when we allow governments to fail, warlords, criminals, drug barons or terrorists fill the vacuum . . .". Blair writes that "the events of 11 September finally shattered the illusion that we can exist in a bubble . . ."
In these politicians' visions of a reordered world, the imperative to intervene - the responsibility to protect - now plays a larger and larger role. The consciousness of time running out is palpable.
We are not neo-imperialists yet, but we might soon be.