The NS Essay - Send forth the best ye breed

Geoffrey Wheatcroft explains why the left wants the white man's burden again

We have won a great victory, and acquired a new province. Already you can hear Kosovo spoken of as a "protectorate", echoing the good old days when the red-painted corners of the globe included such imperial territories as the Bechuanaland Protectorate, one of the nicer euphemisms of the Age of Empire, along with the even better "mandate".

Some Americans are now saying quite bluntly, Ferdinand Mount writes in the Sunday Times, "We'll have to stay in Kosovo not for months or years but for a generation." As Mount says, the great problem at the end of the century is not so much external aggression and international war, which the United Nations was designed 50 years ago to deal with, but the breakdown of law and order inside ostensibly sovereign countries: Bosnia, Lebanon, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Grenada, Liberia, Haiti, Somalia.

In Africa, the breakdown has been so grave that various commentators, from the English Tory Peregrine Worsthorne to the American liberal William Pfaff, have written about the possible need to recolonise the continent. Mount observes that even the liberal left - perhaps they especially - thinks that the west was culpable in not intervening in Rwanda. In a lecture in London, J K Galbraith has just said that the end of colonial rule has also meant the end of effective government. In a humane world order "we need a mechanism to suspend sovereignty . . . to protect against human suffering and disaster".

Reading these writers, I heard a bell ring. Hadn't someone said this before? There it was on my bookshelves in the large, black-bound Collected Verse, published by eerie coincidence exactly 100 years ago: "Take Up the White Man's Burden". Kipling's famous poem of that name (or do I mean poem of that famous name? I wonder how many people who know the title have read it) was inspired, as its subtitle says, by "the United States in the Philippine Islands 1899": it is astonishingly apt to the US in the Balkans in 1999.

The Americans had spent a hundred years or more minding their own business, creating their own republic and following their manifest destiny to expand westwards, but not sending armies outside their country's borders. In 1898, they had fought for the first time a conventional war with the decaying Spanish empire, and acquired the Philippines as well as Puerto Rico, to Kipling's delight. He sensed that his own country was at the apogee of her imperial greatness from which she must decline, and that the torch must be passed westwards. It made sense, in Kipling's own terms.

Kipling has been wilfully misunderstood by the left. No phrase of his was more quoted, or more misrepresented, than "the lesser breeds without the Law". As George Orwell wrote in his own politically incorrect way, "this line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles", conjuring up the image of a pukka sahib kicking a coolie. But the notorious line actually refers to the Germans. It comes from the poem "Recessional", written in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, as a warning against imperial arrogance and hubris. Since the subject peoples of Africa and Asia were then incapable of those failings, "lesser breeds without the Law" patently doesn't describe them. Orwell himself misses a point, I think. The lines go:

If , drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law -
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Kipling is a precise as well as a mysterious writer, and "Or" suggests a deliberate antithesis. I suspect that the Gentiles were the Germans, in all their new boastful pride, and the lesser breeds were some more contemptible imperial power, such as the Italians.

But Orwell was right when he defended Kipling from leftist detractors; more right than he may have realised. Kipling was obviously an imperialist, and arguably a racist, but he was not a reactionary. I am not even sure that he was what Orwell calls "a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays". Kipling was contemptuous of the established order, even in small ways. He declined all honours, including the OM, and privately referred to King Edward VII as "a corpulent voluptuary" - not the language of respectful church-and-crown Toryism.

Far from being a sentimental nostalgist for happier days, Kipling believed passionately in progress. His writings are shot through with rapturous celebrations of the machine age, of ships and railways. And he believed just as passionately in the empire as an agent of progress.

This was an entirely natural connection. As A J P Taylor put it, Europeans in the late 19th century believed that they "had achieved the highest form of civilisation ever known" and had a duty to take it to benighted, uncivilised peoples. And Taylor added correctly that "these were radical beliefs". As the Age of Empire reached its high-water mark and began to ebb, the left took up the cause of anti-colonialism, in a way that required a certain rewriting of history, not least its own.

In the 19th century, many people had fought against slavery and the exploitation of the weak. Admirable men and women gave their lives to the abolition campaign in the 1850s and to end Leopold's murderous regime in the Congo 50 years later. But you will search Victoria's reign in vain for anyone on the left, any more than the right, who thought that Africa, or even Asia, had civilisations that bore serious comparison with Europe's. There were "Negrophiles" who believed in paternalist benevolence towards black Africans, but there were no "Africanists" of the Basil Davidson type. Few were more disdainful than Marx himself of what he thought of as inferior peoples and cultures. He came close to commending Europe's expansion in general - how could the rest of the world come to socialism if it had not first passed through some form of bourgeois rule? - and he approved of the Raj in particular, because "the British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore inaccessible, to Hindu civilisation".

Not only did the idea that all nations and cultures are equal take a long time to arrive, so did the idea that imperialism was a racket based on material exploitation. Materialism doesn't, in fact, provide a very satisfactory explanation for colonial expansion. Bengal nabobs or West Indian planters could make big money, but most of Africa was seen as a dead loss economically, as it was, and the motives for the scramble for Africa in the 1880s and 1890s were not material.

Our subsequent attitudes were largely conditioned by J A Hobson's writings about the Boer war, which led to his famous book Imperialism. This example was highly misleading. South Africa really did have a glittering prize in the form of the Rand gold mines, and the Boer war (for all the high-minded imperialist claptrap about protecting the South African natives) really was fought for material reasons, to keep the Rand safe for the mining companies. But the drive for investment that Hobson discerned did not have to mean formal imperial conquest. A century ago, the Argentine and Chile were largely, and very profitably, owned by the City of London. But in South America we had the wit to make money without the tedious and expensive responsibility of sending armies and administrators.

In the Balkans today, the west plainly can have no base material motive. Nobody has suggested that the west wants to get its hands on the natural resources of Kosovo: there aren't any. We intervened, President Clinton says, because otherwise "we wouldn't have been able to sleep at night". We showed, Tony Blair says, that the west was "prepared to stand up for the values of civilisation and justice". All this is supposedly quite new. "Increasingly," Michael Elliott writes in Newsweek, "the great wars of this century, in which national survival was genuinely at stake, look like aberrations rather than the norm."

But is that true? Did Britain really fight for "national survival" in 1914-18 and 1939-45? We may have been broadly fighting on the old balance-of-power principle, to prevent one power dominating Europe, but our proximate reasons for entering the wars were altruistic and chivalrous, to protect Belgian neutrality and then to protect Polish sovereignty.

In other words, there is nothing at all new in wars being fought, in the eyes of those who fought them, for the values of civilisation and justice. That was just what imperialists thought they were doing when they brought the rest of the world their "mission civilatrice". Call it what you like, Ferdinand Mount writes, " 'liberal imperialism' or 'humanitarian intervention' or 'strategic co-operation' - but the empire is back".

So it is, and "back" is the operative word. Kipling might not have used those phrases, but this is precisely what he was saying in "The White Man's Burden". We have fought another of what he called "the savage wars of peace". Our duty now in Kosovo is clear.

Take up the White Man's burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Why, K-For could almost take that stanza as its motto. Our soldiers in Pristina and Prizren had better remember

in patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride.

If Kipling's poem had a purpose, it was remarkably successful. He sent "The White Man's Burden" to Theodore Roosevelt, hero of the war against Spain in Cuba, destined to be president from 1901-09, and one of the more ludicrous recipients of the Nobel peace prize. Roosevelt passed it on to Henry Cabot Lodge, saying wrongly that it was "rather poor poetry" but rightly that it was "good sense from the expansionist viewpoint".

And the Americans did take up the white man's burden. Woodrow Wilson was acting in Kipling's spirit when he finally broke with the American isolationist tradition and took the US into the Great War in 1917. Shortly before, he explained that he had attacked Mexico "to teach these people to elect good men".

That strange mixture of expansionism and moralism continued through another world war and a cold war. Even the left applauded when the GIs were "fighting fascism" in 1941-45. Yet American conservatives suspected then that idealistic war-waging to make the world safe for democracy might one day meet its nemesis, as it did in Vietnam. But remember that was not a reactionary war in its origins, and the US had no material motive in South-east Asia. It was famously begun by "the brightest and the best", the Kennedy liberals, who would have been unable to sleep at night if they had not intervened on behalf of civilisation and justice.

So there is a clear line running from President Roosevelt to President Wilson to the second President Roosevelt to President Kennedy, and thence to President Clinton. Kennedy's inaugural speech promised that America would pay any price and shoulder any burden for the defence of freedom; that burden again, generations after Kipling.

What goes around comes around. We have spent most of the 20th century shedding the white man's burden. How strange that, a century after the phrase entered the language, we should be taking it again. And we must be prepared once more, in Kipling's blunt and bleak words, to

Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

And we had better get used once more to

The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard.

I hope we know what we are doing.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export