The liberal tradition has long had a deeply fraught relationship with imperialism. In the late nineteenth century, British liberals embraced free trade, individual liberty, and the rule of law, while also defending the United Kingdom’s empire. In recent decades, liberal internationalist ideas have found their way into arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention, preemptive war, and campaigns to spread democracy—all of which critics often deride as imperialism in new guises. Bell’s masterful study represents one of the best efforts yet to untangle the many ideological and political knots that bind liberalism and imperialism. In a series of rich intellectual portraits of leading Victorian-era thinkers (including John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and L. T. Hobhouse), Bell shows that most British liberals at that time saw empire as a necessary—or even vital—part of the liberal project that “civilized” states were pushing forward. Only much later, after two world wars and long struggles against fascism and communism, did the liberal vision became a more universal secular creed whose ideological and political principles could be reliably seized on by opponents of empire.
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