April 13, 2000
could well be that as somebody who makes his living manipulating
words I have an undue and unjustified faith in the importance and
ultimate efficacy of calling phenomena by their proper names to
advance understanding and enlightenment. Even granting that such
is probably an unwarranted hope, however, I can't help but be encouraged
that with the cold war over and the sole-superpower era struggling
to be born, it is now possible to talk about empire again without
having the discussion dominated by Leninist (pro and con) understandings
and shibboleths. More people have less interest now in concealing
the fact of the American empire, and even discussing the pros and
cons of maintaining or expanding it.
It is hardly novel, of course, for various paleos, conservative
and libertarian, as represented by Chronicles
magazine at the Rockford
Institute and the Ludwig von
Mises Institute, both of whom pine for the restoration of the
Old Republic, to bewail the growth of an American empire and to
call it by its proper name. The Chronicles crowd, with their
love of classical Greek and Roman allusions (some of them quite
apt), has been singing this tune for some time. The Mises Institute,
whatever its other shortcomings, still looks to Murray
Rothbard as its founding inspiration, and Murray, in all of
his fascinating manifestations, hated the American Empire and never
hesitated to call it that.
To find a frank discussion of an American empire in places closer
to the belly of the beast, however, is a bit more unusual. Last
summer The National
Interest, published by Irving Kristol and edited by the
former Australian diplomat Owen Harries, printed a fascinating piece
by James Kurth, who teaches political science at Swarthmore and
is associated with the American Enterprise
Institute, called "The Adolescent Empire." The reference
was to the American empire in its current manifestation, and what
Mr. Kurth viewed as its dim prospects for continuing domination.
Drawing on European perceptions, which have always viewed the United
States more as an imperial power than as the idealistic republic
we naive yanks prefer to see, he compared the American version of
empire to past recent empires in terms of "the empire's particular
vision of politics, economics, culture, and ultimately of such fundamentals
as human nature and the meaning of life itself. These together comprise
its imperial idea." Thus the Hapsburg Empire was built around
a Roman Catholic vision, the British Empire around a Protestant
and commercial ideal, the French Empire around the ideal of the
Rational Nation-State, and so forth.
Key to Kurth's imperial morphology was the "ideal human type"
each empire promoted and valued. The Hapsburg's ideal valued experience
and mature judgment, found in men-of-the-world in their fifties.
The British valued the mature soldier and civil administrator in
his forties. The French thought the rational ideals needed to rule
others wisely could be acquired more through education than experience,
thus treasured people of action in their thirties. The Nazi and
Soviets valued courage, strength and loyalty amounting to blind
obedience, typically found in twenty-somethings.
The modern American empire that grew during and after World War
II, Kurth says, was founded by unusually mature and experienced
Europhiles the Marshall-Acheson-Kennan "wise men"
who were "present at the creation" and flexed its
hegemonic muscles during a period when Europe was also run by mature
conservatives like Adenauer, Churchill and DeGaulle. In its present
manifestation, however, "while the peace component based upon
military protection is becoming more ambiguous and the prosperity
component based upon open economies is becoming more dubious, the
'soft power' component of popular entertainment based upon global
media is becoming more pervasive." And American culture is
popular culture rather than high culture, its ideal type the popular
entertainer or sports star. "In short, the ideal human type
of the American imperial idea is the adolescent." And "in
the end in its erratics, its entertainments, and its emptiness
an adolescent empire will be no empire at all."
didn't go so far as to note the appropriateness of the Adolescent
Empire being presidented by the Perpetual-Adolescent-in-Chief, but
I don't mind.
The neo-imperialists (they've been neo-everything-else, so why not?)
at the Weekly Standard
found all this alarming enough to devote a recent article to the
dread phenomenon of resurgent isolationism on the right, citing
Kurth along with the Buchananites as laggards with insufficient
zeal for the world-cleansing reformist potential of a Sole Remaining
Superpower in the right hands or even in bedraggled Clintonian
hands so long as the right people are viewed as real players in
the imperial city. And sure enough, budding oppositionist heresies
from predictable and surprising quarters botched the build-up to
Bill and Al's Excellent Adventure in what could have been a splendid
little make-believe war against the Evil Saddam.
first it seemed that only foreigners opposed the idea of a first
strike against the Saddam, but that foreign opposition seems to
have legitimized latent questions among Americans. And, sure enough,
the first time the lieutenants of the imperial expeditionary force
placed themselves in contact with some actual American citizens
outside the Beltway, they were practically hooted off the stage.
more damaging than the delightfully noisome hecklers were the reasonably
searching and informed questions asked by more outwardly polite
members of the audience much better questions, not so incidentally,
than are asked by media professionals at most Washington news conferences
to which the top national security officials in the government
had no coherent answers. Indeed, the meandering babbling by the
Curly-Moe-Larry troika in Columbus did more to undermine the usual
unquestioning support by Americans for a president's foreign designs
in the early build-up stages than either the hecklers or Boris Yeltsin.
The erosion of what had been expected to be automatic support was
more important in the decision to accept the results of U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan's mission to the Beast of Baghdad than anything
contained in the meaningless piece of paper he brought back.