American Empire: The REailities & Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy by Andrew J. Bacevich (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World by Walter Russell Mead (New York: Routledge, 2


Until
recently, mainstream U.S. political pundits rarely applied the term
“imperialist” to the United States. Such a term was unflattering
to a country that had won its independence fighting a colonial power
and which has long preached the ideal of national self-determination.
It was only critics of U.S. foreign policy on the isolationist right
or on the far left that employed what was seen as an epithet.

Over
the last few years, however, numerous conservatives and liberals
have come to openly embrace imperialism as a way of life in the
U.S. Sebastian Mallaby, for example, an editorial writer and columnist
for the Washington Post, advocates that the United States
and the West more generally take on the imperialist yoke to rescue
“failed states”—a “rich man’s burden”
of sorts. Even individuals normally associated with the left end
of the mainstream political spectrum echo such calls. Christopher
Hitchens, for example, has called for a benign imperialism (perceiving
the current debacle in Iraq as an example of such), while David
Rieff argues that our unfortunate, but realistic choice in today’s
world is one between barbarism and an imperialism that minimizes
such barbarism. 

From
the right-wing internationalist end of the political spectrum, Max
Boot, the head of the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal,
similarly champions an American imperium. In his The Savage Wars
of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power,
published
last year, he argues for an almost-messianic mission to spread U.S.
influence and values (in the form of liberal democracy and, especially,
capitalism) abroad and to enlarge the U.S.’s (informal) “empire
of liberty” in the process. 

Richard
Holbrooke, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
during Clinton’s second term, endorses Boot’s book, calling
it “ground-breaking” and stating that it “could change
your views on one of the most important issues facing our nation:
the use of military force as a policy instrument.” 

Andrew
Bacevich, the director of Boston University’s Center for International
Relations, would see such bipartisanship as symptomatic of the lack
of significant differences between mainstream Democrats and Republicans
about the right of the United States to dominate world affairs.
A retired Marine colonel and former West Point professor, Bacevich
was one of those people who long rejected the idea that the United
States was imperialist. U.S. policy after the fall of the Berlin
Wall and the end of East-West conflict, however, has caused him
to reconsider the notion that U.S. policy abroad is based on high-minded
guiding principles. In offering an insightful, provocative, and
erudite assessment of U.S. statecraft abroad in the 1990s, Bacevich’s
American Empire: The Realities & Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy
makes a persuasive case that “imperialist” applies to
Washington’s foreign policy. This analysis does not apply only
to the post-Cold War era, he contends. Indeed, the end of hostilities
with the Soviet Bloc merely inaugurated a new phase of a U.S. global
strategy one of “openness.” This strategy champions “free
enterprise” economic systems and liberal democratic polities
as part of a world order dominated by the United States and has
its roots in policies and practices that precede the Cold War. (Nevertheless,
Bacevich supported the fight against “those who conspired against
freedom” that embodied the Cold War—despite the many crimes
attributed to Washington during this time.) 

The
fact of empire, asserts Bacevich, enjoys broad support across the
elite political spectrum. Democrats and Republicans may differ on
the wisdom of a “star wars” shield or on “humanitarian
intervention” in a particular case. These points of discord,
however, “amount to little more than quibbles over operational
details” as there is a profound consensus about the “fundamentals”
of U.S. policy. These fundamentals include the notions that the
United States must lead (i.e., dominate) the world, that it is at
the forefront of a historical wave that will result in the rest
of the world looking increasingly like the U.S., and that it is
Washington’s duty and right to ensure that such historical
destiny unfolds. 

In
a fascinating chapter in which he analyzes the rhetoric of Democrats
and Republicans surrounding globalization, Bacevich shows how both
parties similarly employ the promises of globalization—what
he calls “the new magic lamp”—in order to legitimate
the maintenance and enhancement of U.S. global hegemony. The end
of the Cold War and the ushering in of a new era of globalization
has permitted the United States to pursue its universalizing agenda
in a relatively unfettered manner. 

Bacevich’s
concern in writing the book does not grow out of an anti-imperialist
stance. To the contrary, he wants the United States to dominate
the world. But the question that Baecevich thinks is in need of
urgent attention is “what sort of empire [U.S. citizens] intend
theirs to be.” For the United States to keep its empire requires
that Washington be smarter internationally. Hence, he warns against
the growing power of the Pentagon in the formulation of foreign
policy and excessive reliance on military force. As an antidote,
Bacevich calls for greater use of patient diplomacy. The failure
to pursue such a course of action brought about the Kosovo war,
one, in Bacevich’s estimation, that was avoidable. 

The
maintenance of empire, Bacevich tells us, also requires self-awareness.
Because the U.S. populace as a whole and much of the political class
are in denial about the nature of U.S. policy abroad, such self-awareness
is lacking. For policymakers to pretend that no such empire exists
is to risk the demise of the U.S. empire and to bring danger to
the U.S. republic. Although highly unattractive in terms of its
overall political agenda, Bacevich’s book is a very important
one to read, especially for those interested in understanding better
and challenging the empire he seeks to preserve.

While
Bacevich is interested in the broad support in elite policymaking
circles for U.S. imperialism, Walter Russell Mead’s Special
Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World

(much-acclaimed in elite circles) offers a sharply contrasting view
of U.S. statecraft. Winner of the 2002 Lionel Gelber Prize for the
best English-language, non-fiction work on international affairs,
the book attempts to answer the question why U.S. foreign policy
has been so “successful” in making the United States the
richest and most powerful country in world history. Mead’s
ho-hum goal is to dispel the view that the U.S. ruling class has
never taken international affairs seriously. 

Rather
than seeing a foreign policy consistency born of a narrow consensus,
Mead, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, perceives
a unity born of diversity, one made up principally of four schools
of thought that both compete with and complement one another. These
diverse perspectives produce a powerful “symphony” rather
than a cacophony of shouting voices, in Mead’s estimation,
demonstrating the importance of democracy to the formulation of
a successful foreign policy and the necessity of all four schools
for that success. 

Hamiltonians
advocate a strong link between big business and the federal government
and the pursuit of a foreign policy that reflects the interests
of this alliance. Wilsonians are the school of high internationalist
ideals, believing that the United States has a duty to spread democratic
values and to respect and uphold the rule of international law.
On the more isolationist side, Jeffersonians fear that international
entanglements run the risk of involving the United States in unsavory
alliances or in war; they thus champion a cautious and limited foreign
policy, preferring that the country focus its energies on enhancing
democracy at home. Finally, the Jacksonians are preoccupied with
the physical security of the United States and the country’s
economic well-being, defining such in largely populist terms. 

These
ways of seeing are “promiscuous,” Mead contends, in that
each can and often does work well with the others. U.S. citizens
respond to the schools in different ways depending on the context
they find themselves. For him, this reflects the pragmatism and
flexibility of U.S. foreign policy in addition to the liberalism
inherent in U.S. political culture. 

Besides
being novel, these ideal types are very useful in thinking about
the various strains that inform U.S. policy overseas. But while
helpful in thinking about policy debates surrounding, say, most-favored-nation
trading status for China or military intervention in the former
Yugoslavia, how much do they elucidate the almost unanimous support
within Congress and the Beltway for Israel’s ongoing occupation
and dispossession of the Palestinian people—an issue Mead completely
ignores despite its significance in U.S. foreign policy? Or, more
generally, the bipartisan support (despite occasional and weak protestations
from “Wilsonians”) for the position that the United States
has a right and duty to “lead” the world? Little to none. 

This
inadequacy is, in part, a manifestation of Mead’s failure to
link the ideas he discusses to concrete interests and a bothersome
tendency to assume that differences of political opinion reflect
just that: different evaluations by honest people trying to do their
best in a difficult and dangerous world. He thus makes some ludicrous
statements, writing, for example, that there is nothing in the historical
record that shows that “Nixon and Kissinger weren’t acting
on the basis of…an honest desire to promote the peace and happiness
of the human race.” Of the Hamiltonian position that free trade
is the best path to world peace, he argues “that belief is
sincerely held and deeply felt.” 

Similarly,
he has trouble distinguishing between form and substance, and the
selective employment of principled arguments— which inevitably
leads to hypocrisy in practice—and principled convictions and
thus generally consistent practice. Mead unabashedly informs the
reader, for instance, that Ronald Reagan “made the international
support for human rights a cornerstone of his own administration.”
He later writes that Madeleine Albright had “Wilsonian convictions”
as secretary of state—despite dutifully serving an Administration
that showed little respect for international law and true multilateralism.
Now, Mead states, Colin Powell—the man who shamelessly huckstered
in the United Nations on behalf of the Bush II White House’s
war- mongering against Iraq—leads the Administration’s
Jeffersonian wing in the Bush II administration. In reading such
characterizations, one is left wondering just how much the distinctions
between the various schools of thought mean in the real world. 

The
breadth and depth of Mead’s grasp of U.S. diplomatic history
is truly impressive. But Mead’s presentation of that history
suffers due to, among other things, his focus on high-minded ideals.
He fails, for example, to discuss issues of power and thus makes
no effort to explain how and why certain modes of thinking about
particular issues become more salient, why certain issues and agendas
become important or dominant, and who is in position to make this
happen and why. Only in the final chapter does he even attempt to
do so, mentioning that “[l]obbies, sometimes unrelated to any
of the major schools, also seize hold of the foreign policy apparatus.”
Similarly, there is no appreciation for low-minded agendas and how
they inform foreign policy. Greed, for example, merits no treatment,
nor does racism. Mead does write that the Jacksonian school long
practiced racist exclusion in terms of the domestic polity, but
he does he not discuss it in terms of U.S. practice abroad, apart
from mentioning and quickly dismissing racism as a factor in the
ferocity of Washington’s bombing of Japan during World War
II.

Mead
bends over backwards to treat each school on its own terms and to
offer a fair assessment. In doing so, however, he is insufficiently
critical. Despite the hype surrounding the book, it ultimately challenges
little. To the contrary, it reinforces the tired notion of U.S.
exceptionalism. Thus, he paints U.S. deployment of violence as inherently
less brutal than that of Washington’s enemies. In doing so,
he sometimes grossly understates the human devastation wrought by
the United States. 

In
the case of Vietnam, for example, Mead reports that “some 365,000
Vietnamese civilians are believed to have died as a result of the
war” during the U.S.-dominated phase. To understand why Mead’s
data differ so radically from the figure of one to three million
Vietnamese civilian deaths that most historians attribute to Washington,
one needs to go to the endnotes. There, the reader learns that Mead
does not include civilians killed in the ubiquitous “free-fire”
zones, noting that they were counted—presumably by the Pentagon
—as military casualties. 

Such
mischaracterizations are perhaps a function of Mead’s convictions.
While, in the end, he confesses to being partial to Jeffersonianism,
he admits to liking all four schools as he sees them collectively
necessary for a “successful” U.S. foreign policy. Thus,
despite the supposed anti-imperial credentials of the Jeffersonians,
Mead embraces a U.S. empire. Although he acknowledges “the
many imperfections and injustices that exist in the present international
system,” he calls on the United States to “deter others
from challenging the basic institutions and features of the global
system.” These are hardly words of inspiration—except
to one dedicated to an ugly global status quo dominated by the United
States. Mead—unlike Bacevich— seems to be unaware of how
conservative he is. 

Although
Mead is not fully convinced of the wisdom of continued American
domination of the global system, Niall Ferguson is. A professor
of economic history at New York University and at Oxford, he described
himself in a recent New
York Times Magazine
piece as a “fully paid-up member of
the neoimperialist gang.” 

Ferguson’s
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the
Lessons for Global Power
is not so much a history of the British
Empire as it is an account of what he calls Angloglobalization—globalization
as promoted by imperial Britain and its colonies. In telling this
story, Ferguson does not pretend that this process was a bloodless
one. Slavery, massacres, dispossession, and “ethnic cleansing”
are very much part of his account. But he is bothered by the fact
that discussions of imperialism only talk about its ugly legacies
and not its beneficial ones as well. 

In
this regard, he endeavors to show that the British Empire has done
more than any other organization in history to bring about the free
movement of goods, capital, and labor—for Ferguson’s neo-classical
mind, keys to prosperity—and to impose “Western norms”
as they relate to law, order, and governance. Today, it is only
the United States that can lead this imperial, modernizing role.
Indeed, it already is doing so to a significant extent. But—unfortunately
from Ferguson’s perspective—“it is an empire that
lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture
to those backward regions which need them most urgently.” Echoing
Bacevich, Ferguson calls the United States “an empire in denial.” 

The
heart of Ferguson’s book grew out of a series he helped to
produce for British television. As such, it sometimes has the feeling
of a “history-lite” with its emphasis on interesting characters
and their idiosyncrasies. As such, there is probably little here
for those who know a good deal already about the rise and fall of
the British Empire. But for a less specialized audience, there is
much of interest as it is written in an engaging style that shows
an appreciation for varying perspectives. 

Nonetheless,
Ferguson’s book is remarkably thin in substantiating its grandiose
claims. The key assumption—one he never discusses—is that
modernity is an unadulterated good that all peoples should have.
He knows of no other way—at least one that is less bloody—to
have brought about the modernization of so much of the world other
than through British imperialism. Other European powers, he argues,
were less beneficent in cultivating Western institutions and/or
more violent. 

As
for modes of law, order, and governance, to say nothing of the economic
systems, that pre-existed and were undermined by imperialism, they
are presumably of little value. Ferguson does not even entertain
the idea that that which British imperialism destroyed in its former
colonies might have led to something better had people, places,
and practices been left alone.

But
perhaps that is because Ferguson assumes that, had not Britain conquered
the world, some other more ruthless and less “progressive”
(modernizing) empire-builder would have done so. In his view, British
imperialism is a relatively benign one. This helps explain why he—and
so many other elites in the United States—today endorses U.S.
imperialism. 

But
there is also another reason: Washington’s imperialism is geographically
different from London’s. Unlike imperial Britain, Japan, or
France—so the thinking goes—the United States has generally
not been interested in, nor pursued, territorial conquest. Instead,
it has allegedly achieved its global influence through relatively
“civilized” means, one in which geography (a narrowly
conceived one) does not figure. 

The
unique nature of the United States’ global dominion is the
subject of Neil Smith’s American
Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization
.
While the bulk of the book is an intellectual and political biography
of Isaiah Bowman—the most prominent and influential American
geographer of the 20th century, a former president of Johns Hopkins,
and a founder and stalwart of the Council on Foreign Relations—its
greater purpose is to show how changing conceptions of geographical
space reflected a specific U.S. notion of empire and how the associated
practices have helped to realize this notion. 

Smith
is a professor of geography at the Graduate Center of the City University
of New York. Not surprisingly, he brings the academic discipline’s
sensibilities to his project. The result is a book that is complex,
challenging, and often dense. Smith often gets too bogged down in
the details of Bowman’s life and does not sufficiently develop
and substantiate the link between the ideas and practices embodied
by Bowman and the contemporary U.S. empire. But given the book’s
rich and novel detail and its myriad significant insights, it is
a book well worth a careful read. 

One
of Smith’s core arguments is that geography has been central
to the imagining and making of the U.S. empire. It is a geography
that is different from the old imperialist view that saw space as
absolute or as the endowment of natural resources of a particular
territory. Instead, it is one that perceives space as socially constructed,
the outcome and a reproducer of particular political and economic
processes, rather than primordial and unchanging. 

Bowman
embodied these changing conceptions and was able to act on them
through his policy work and through his position as advisor to Woodrow
Wilson, at the Paris Peace Conference, and Franklin Roosevelt during
World War II. In doing so, he helped to give birth to and further
the notion that territorial control was passé as a way of achieving
global dominance. European colonialism had helped to unite the world,
integrating the so-called Third World into a West-dominated world
economy, one over which the United States would soon reign supreme.
World War II provided the ultimate opening for the United States
to take advantage of the world market created by European powers.
It is in this light that we should understand (albeit markedly inconsistent
and internally contradictory) U.S. support for post-war decolonization
and self-determination—at least in the formal sense. Smith
characterizes this vision as one of “global economic access
without colonies,” one paired with a geostrategic vision of
“necessary military bases around the globe both to protect
global economic interests and to restrain any further military belligerence.”
(Today, the United States has military bases in more than 60 countries
and territories.) 

The
U.S. empire is thus predicated on a global market—albeit one
over which a “ruling class that remains tied to the national
interests of the United States” has a disproportionate amount
of influence—rather than on a sub-global economic sphere made
up of colonized areas ruled by and centered on a single “mother
country.” It is a “nationalist globalism” in Smith’s
words. As such, partnerships are an important component of U.S.
imperialism as are global institutions such as the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Together, these partnerships (with
other wealthy countries and with “Third World” elites)
and international institutions help to resolve the geographical
contradiction between a world of national territorial states and
an increasingly globalized economy. In line with such thinking,
direct territorial control is not necessary. The post-war world
order that has evolved is one of a “structurally unequal economic
encounter between poor and wealthy economies…organized through
the seeming equanimity of economic exchange.” In this regard,
the market serves simultaneously as “camouflage and mechanism
for continued imperialism, albeit without colonization.” 

The
choice is thus not one between a benign imperialism and barbarism—a
false distinction—but between imperialist barbarism and a world
order radically different from the apartheid-like one in which we
all currently reside. The question is, do we have the ability to
envision such a world order and the courage to struggle to achieve
it?
 


Joseph Nevins
teaches geography at Vassar College. He is the author of
Operation
Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making
of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.