Providing aid to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan puts the U.S. in a grim and familiar role. As the world's superpower, America helps the earthquake-stricken and storm-ravaged around the globe—whether it's providing satellite imagery, dispatching aircraft carriers, or sending financial assistance. In the wake of the storm, President Obama went through the ritual of calling the president of the hard-hit country to reassure him of U.S. commitment and sympathy.
In his public statements, Obama has noted that "the friendship between our two countries runs deep," but there's been no mention of the Philippines having once been an American possession. To some extent, that might be understandable. Remember, this is a president who was raised in part in the Pacific Rim and who is accused by some on the right of having an anticolonial mentality. But it also betrays a discomfort with this country's imperial period, an uneasiness that extends to our actions in the present day.
The U.S. rarely acknowledges its colonial past, which is, perhaps, not surprising for a country proudly formed as a breakaway colony itself. By contrast, other colonial powers, particularly France, retain an active role in their former dominions and never forget how those ties came to be. Great Britain is holding its annual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next week. When French President François Hollande dispatched troops to the former West African colony of Mali to battle a Qaida-affiliated insurgency, the colonial ties seemingly appeared in every account.
The difference between France and the U.S. isn't just about tone. America not only is loathe to acknowledge its occupational history in places like the Philippines (or Cuba or Puerto Rico), but also is reluctant to acknowledge its current hegemonic role. "We don't do empire," Donald Rumsfeld said at the start of the Iraq War. True, the U.S. isn't imperial in the strictest sense, but it might be hard to make the distinction in some nations, whether its war-torn Afghanistan or peaceful Panama, whose independence was forged by U.S. support so we could build a canal and which uses the dollar as one of its official currencies.
The economic historian Niall Ferguson, who's often controversial, was surely right when he said America is "an empire in denial"—a global power that doesn't think of itself that way and thus stumbles into foreign entanglements without the sense of history or commitment that other former colonial powers once brought, and occasionally still bring, to their conduct of foreign affairs. His point is that if the U.S. thought like an empire, there would be no delusion that you could be in and out of Iraq in five years without a long, lingering involvement or that taking out Iranian nuclear facilities could be a matter of air strikes. Memory helps breed wisdom.
Most Americans are oblivious to the fact that the Philippines was an American protectorate until the end of World War II. The U.S. grabbed it after winning the Spanish-American War rather than seizing it from indigenous peoples, but it lost some 4,000 soldiers putting down rebellions after it was over. And America kept a heavy hand after 1945, establishing military bases to prosecute the Cold War and the Vietnam War, and supporting the "conjugal dictatorship," to use the phrase of writer Gina Aposta, of Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-crazed wife, Imelda. Today there is a more respectful rapport. While Manila has enshrined a no-foreign-base rule in its constitution, the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia has been well received in the Philippines, where territorial disputes with China are problematic. At the same time, person-to-person contacts are widespread: Some 600,000 Americans live in the Philippines and there are 3 million Filipino-Americans, many of whom are devoting themselves to typhoon relief.
But that's a far cry from France's relationship with Africa, where it snapped up countries and never entirely let go. The French even have a word for the continuing ties to the region: Françafrique. It began as a positive term coined by the president of Côte D'Ivoire in the 1950s but now has a negative connotation—the use of soft and hard power to keep a hand in African affairs. Whether the French presence on the continent is a positive one or not, it's a commitment that hasn't wavered. France has staged 30 military interventions in Africa since 1960. In Mali, it was eager to be the tip of the spear. It's telling that this comes at the same time France withdrew early from Afghanistan. The ties that bind are the colonial ones. "While there have been changes in emphasis, there has been tremendous consistency in French governments maintaining a role in former colonies," says Nicholas Dungan of the Atlantic Council.
Many factors drive the French connection to Africa—trade, culture, military—but it's more a sense of national self-interest than noblesse oblige, experts say. "I don't think there's any guilt," says one Western diplomat who served in the region. As François Mitterrand said in 1957, long before he became president, "Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century."
The lesson here for the U.S. isn't to emulate France's muscular attachment to her former possessions. It's not that France is kinder to its colonies. "I think we'd have the same response to any country we had a good relationship with," says Joshua Kurlantzick, an Asia expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, commenting on our response in the Philippines. But recognizing that we were once an old-style colonial power can help us understand what our responsibilities are as a modern iteration of one. It's something to keep in mind as we help the Philippines and pass the 13th anniversary of the Afghanistan War.
This article appears in the November 16, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Forgotten Empire.