Reject the Myths of Empire

Americans need to stop thinking like imperialists and we need to stop buying into the myths of empire, including the myth that defeat in some peripheral theater is a world-historical disaster.

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Ross Douthat suggests that defeat in Afghanistan will have adverse consequences for the U.S. elsewhere in the world:

That said, defeats on distant frontiers can also have consequences closer to the imperial core. The American imperium can’t be toppled by the Taliban. But in our outer empire, in Western Europe and East Asia, perceived US weakness could accelerate developments that genuinely do threaten the American system as it has existed since 1945 – from German-Russian entente to Japanese rearmament to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Douthat is making a slightly more subdued version of the bogus credibility argument, but it is still wrong. It doesn’t make sense that a defeat in Afghanistan would threaten the US position in Europe or East Asia. The nature of a peripheral war where the US has no vital interests is that it is peripheral, and therefore its effects for good or ill are bound to be limited. US defeat should be a cause for humility, reflection, and learning, but if anything it should focus Washington’s attention on those interests that are truly important. To borrow from Douthat’s Roman comparisons, defeat in the Teutoburg Forest or during Julian’s disastrous Mesopotamian campaign had little or no effect on the wider empire. If there is a lesson to draw from them, it is that it is unwise to take big risks with unnecessary military campaigns.

One reason why the US embarks on these unnecessary military campaigns is the conceit that it is an empire that must police the “frontiers.” A normal country with a normal foreign policy would not delude itself into believing that it has the right or responsibility to try to pacify “distant frontiers.” Its leaders would not try to con the public into continuing unnecessary wars for the sake of “credibility” and prestige. If we would free ourselves of these pointless wars, we ought to give up on the imperial pretensions that keep them going for decades. That means that Americans need to stop thinking like imperialists and we need to stop buying into the myths of empire, including the myth that defeat in some peripheral theater is a world-historical disaster. Jack Snyder identified this as the first myth of empire in Myths of Empire:

Just as proponents of expansion have promised that cumulative gains will lead to imperial security, so too they have warned that losses in the empire’s periphery can easily bring a collapse of power at the imperial core, through any of several mechanisms: a cumulative erosion of economic and military resources; the increasing difficulty of imperial defense owing to the loss of strategic forward positions; or the progressive abandonment of the state by its allies, who might infer that it would not live up to its commitments.

As Snyder notes, it is “[r]elatively satisfied powers like Britain and the United States [that] have been especially prone to this domino theory.” This is a myth used to justify continued intervention in peripheral conflicts by trying to tie something that doesn’t matter to a state’s security to its core interests. If you “fear some of the possible consequences of the weakness and incompetence exposed in that retreat,” as Douthat says he does, you are buying into this myth.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.