A Victorian idealist in the White House

The left opposes the war for the wrong reasons. Bush is not a dumb hick who wants to fight the Iraqi

"Our calling as a blessed country is to make this world better . . ." Yeah, right. As if. Change the channel.

I suspect that few, if any, readers of the New Statesman will have heard (or read) President Bush's State of the Union speech from beginning to end. But as I listened to it in an icy New York, I was fascinated. I have argued for some time that the United States can learn important lessons from the history of the British empire. I had not expected the lessons to be learnt so quickly. For this was an authentically Victorian speech, offering a vision of global redemption through the unabashed exercise of economic and military power.

To be sure, those who abhor Bush as the personification of Republican turpitude heard what they wanted to hear. "If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm . . . we will lead a coalition to disarm him . . . If war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military and we will prevail."

Yes, that was the bottom line. But what was really 19th century about Bush's speech was what came before the belligerence: his call to Americans to go "into the world to help the afflicted and defend the peace and confound the designs of evil men" - to "remember our calling as a blessed country to make this world better".

It is terribly easy to deride this sort of thing. Even before he was elected (oh yes, he was), Bush had been the perfect butt for a certain kind of facile British humour - the sort that invariably caricatures him as a halfwit cowboy.

But the biggest mistake the European left made about Ronald Reagan - whom Bush increasingly resembles, as the New York Times Magazine pointed out on 26 January - was to underestimate him (or "misunderestimate", as Dubbya would say). By now the more intelligent commentators on the east side of the Atlantic should have grasped that, in order to win the hearts and minds of small-town America, Republican presidents have to exude homespun simplicity. But no, it's easier to feel superior - to dismiss Bush as another idiot savant like Chance the gardener.

Let's get real. The left should hate Bush not because he is dumb, but because he is so smart. From the least promising of beginnings, he has fashioned a position of unrivalled strength. He struck precisely the right, spine-tingling note of righteous vengefulness in his response to 9/11. And since then, he has smashed the Democrats in the midterm elections, wrong-footed his critics by going to the UN over Iraq and exploited the economic downturn to push through some brazenly regressive tax cuts. Bush is someone you need to take seriously, especially if you hate the things he believes in, namely capitalism, Christianity and the "American way of life". Make no mistake: these are the things George W Bush wants not just to defend, but to export.

Gore Vidal (who does hate all three) is dead right about one thing: America has become an empire, with a classically imperial mission to impose its values on the rest of the world, for the rest of the world's own good. Yet Bush himself is not quite an emperor. For this is an empire that has far more in common with the British empire of a century ago than with the Rome of the Caesars. At its apogee, the British empire was run by elected statesmen. The same is true of Bush's American empire. It is an empire that must justify itself to an electorate more interested in the bread-and-butter issues of employment, healthcare, tax and pensions.

Consider that State of the Union address again. What could be more eminently Victorian than the way Bush preceded his threat of war with the promise of a $15bn programme "to turn the tide" against Aids in Africa and the Caribbean?

He's not the first western leader to talk this way. Back in October 2001, Tony Blair made a remarkably similar speech to the Labour Party's annual conference in Brighton. In it he spoke with fervour of the "politics of globalisation"; of "another dimension" of international relations; of the need to "reorder this world around us". The impending war to overthrow and replace the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, he suggested, was not the first step in the direction of such a reordering; nor would it be the last. For "the power of the international community" could "do it all . . . if it chose to" and "A partnership for Africa, between the developed and developing world . . . is there to be done if we find the will." Not since before the Suez crisis has a British prime minister talked with such unreserved enthusiasm about what Britain could do for the rest of the world.

Like Bush and Blair, the Victorians regarded overthrowing rogue regimes from Oudh to Abyssinia as an entirely legitimate part of the civilising progress; the Indian civil service prided itself on replacing "bad" government with "good"; while Victorian missionaries like David Livingstone had an unshakeable confidence that it was their role to bring the values of Christianity and commerce to the same "people round the world" to whom Tony Blair wishes to bring "democracy and freedom".

Nor do the resemblances end there. When the British went to war against the dervishes in the Sudan in the 1880s and 1890s, they had no doubt that they were bringing "justice" to a rogue regime. The Mahdi was in many ways a Victorian Osama Bin Laden, a renegade Islamic fundamentalist whose murder of General Gordon was the "9/11" of the era. The Battle of Omdurman was the prototype for the kinds of war the US has been fighting since 1990, against Iraq, against Serbia, against the Taliban - and soon against Iraq again.

Just as the US air force bombed Belgrade in 1999 and will bomb Baghdad in 2003 in the name of "human rights", so the Royal Navy conducted raids on the West African coast in the 1840s as part of the campaign to end the slave trade. When Bush and Blair justify intervention against "bad" regimes by promising aid and investment in return, they are unconsciously echoing the Gladstonian Liberals, who rationalised their military occupation of Egypt in 1882 in much the same way.

Since at least the time of J A Hobson, the left has made the mistake of assuming that the desire (in Bush's phrase) "to make this world better" is mere window-dressing of imperialism, with the reality of economic self-interest lurking behind it. But this was and remains an oversimplification. The US does not stand to gain a great deal from controlling the oilfields of Iraq - certainly not more than it will cost to invade and occupy the country. Nor will billions of dollars spent on combating Aids in Africa yield dividends in the copper or diamond futures market.

No, the culture of imperialism would not be so enduring if it did not have some genuine moral content. As President Bush prepares his country for what may prove to be a new departure in the history of American imperialism - direct and overt intervention in the governance of a Middle Eastern state - his strength of purpose should not be underestimated.

Readers of the NS will naturally oppose the war. But they should oppose it for the right reasons. It is happening not because of George W Bush's foolishness, but because of his faith; not because of "Big Oil" but because of even bigger ideals. You may not like them. But they are as real as the "commerce, Christianity and civilisation" on which the last great English-speaking empire was based. And not so very different.

Niall Ferguson's Empire: how Britain made the modern world is published by Allen Lane and broadcast by Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9pm