Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock
April 13, 2000
It 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."
He 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.
At 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.
Even 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.
Does this nascent yet surprisingly effective popular opposition to lofting bombers over Baghdad indicate a massive and growing recognition of and opposition to the growth of imperial ambition by our titular leaders? Probably not. Probably at least as many of the doubters in Columbus and elsewhere if my unscientific soundings mean anything were of the Saddam-needs-his-butt-kicked-but-Clinton-ain't-the-guy-to-do-it school as of the it's-none-of-our-business school. But even hawks of that brand will not provide a reliable constituency for future imperial adventures. The American desire for quick, decisive military encounters rather than long struggles, the almost universal demand that an "exit strategy" be in place before a commitment is made have been noted often enough to sound cliched, but this cliche seems to hold some truth.
The truth is that most Americans outside a relatively tight circle of foreign-policy professionals (and academics who study them and media that cover them) have no desire at all for this country to be an imperial power. We can get whipped up over thugs like Saddam or by media coverage of famine or civil war for a while, but most Americans are much less eager to try to fix all those problems directly than are our sole-superpower deep thinkers.
Furthermore, most Americans have little confidence that those running foreign policy institutions have the knowledge, expertise or competence to fix those problems even if they had the resources they think they need. Whether this arises from legendary American insularity and self©absorption or from a sophisticated understanding of just how deep and particular are the roots of many of the world's conflicts, how unlikely they are to yield to wellªmeaning but bumbling outside intervention, there's a solid if not always self-conscious bias against the United States being an outright, acknowledged empire.
Indeed, the builders of the American empire studiously avoided that word, as aware as the next person of the country's roots in rebellion against empire and devotion to some variant of the founding myths of individualism and democratic zeal. Woodrow Wilson built the foundations of empire on a rhetoric of anti-colonialism, FDR expanded it through a crusade against fascism, and the cold warriors expanded it further on the need to cooperate to contain an historically unprecedented threat. With that threat removed, today's imperial advocates have to speak in the language of spreading the blessings of democracy and free markets, crusading for universal political and spiritual values and protecting the innocent victims.
As the emotional dust from February's drumbeat for war clears, however, more Americans may find time to grapple with a disturbing fact that marks the proposed bombing of Baghdad as a quintessentially imperial enterprise. At no time during the propaganda build-up did anybody wonder very publicly if there shouldn't be at least a pretext other than defiance of U.N. inspectors, so it could at least be billed as a response to aggression. George Bush's Iraqi adventure followed an actual Iraqi invasion of a neighboring country, Kuwait. The anticipated Clintonite bombing would have been a clear case of unprovoked except in the most abstract of senses aggression by the United States of America, the land of the free.
Administration spinmeisters didn't even bother to try to make a case or construct a scenario in which the American bombing could be viewed as an essentially defensive response to aggressive behavior. Saddam had displeased us by defying the U.N. (never mind that the U.N. itself wasn't nearly as upset), and the sole remaining superpower has certain responsibilities and prerogatives in the world it dominates. That includes, apparently, first strikes or unprovoked aggression against countries we find unsettling or annoying.
Now those who have fancied themselves our masters have more than once eagerly desired to get the United States involved in wars and have maneuvered shamelessly to make it happen. Until now, however, they have had the decency, the respect for the ideals and myths the country cherishes about itself, to arrange for the wars to be initiated or expanded by some aggressive act by another country, even a phony one like Tonkin Gulf in Vietnam. Until now, Americans have preferred to believe they only responded to aggression, that they weren't the type of country to initiate it.
An idealistic protector of recognized national rights and sovereignty might not initiate aggression, but an imperial power that believed it had a mission to protect stability and put down disturbances might well consider the kind of punitive, pre-emptive strike the compassionate Clintonites had in mind for Iraq. If this way of viewing the incident gains credence, more Americans might be pushed to consider whether they really want their country to be the policeman, or even the sheriff (presumably a more limited role) of the world on the taxpayers' dime. An increasing acknowledgment that the United States has become an imperial power, despite our history and ideals, could cause more Americans to consider foreign policy issues in the context of imperial ambition or overstretch rather then viewing them as ad hoc, isolated crises.
If they do, I am still able to hope that Americans will find ways to let their leaders know that they want no part of being an empire or running the world.
This article originally appeared in Liberty, May 1998.
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