America’s Vulnerable Imperialism

NEW HAVEN: In the wake of September 11, 2001, American political observers have adopted a surprising new piece of conventional wisdom: the United States has become an imperial power, and a global one at that. The old left-wing epithet “American imperialism” has become a term of approbation on the right and among many in the center. Exhibit A would be the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and exhibit B would be the occupation of Iraq. Beyond that new consensus, however, opinion has remained quite wildly divided. I count at least five radically diverging views.


One is that the United States, formerly only a republic, has now, without quite meaning to, also become an empire. Whether we like our new role or not, we have to get used to it. The writer Michael Ignatieff has expressed this view in the The New York Times Magazine and in his book Empire Lite, as has Robert Kaplan in his article “Supremacy by Stealth” in The Atlantic.


A second is that the United States cannot now become an empire, because it has been one for very a long time – at least since the Second World War, if not the whole twentieth century; and you cannot become what you already are. This is the view is of Noam Chomsky, but it is not confined to critics on the left. You can find it, for example, in American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy, by the former military officer Andrew J. Bacevich.


A third view is that the United States, the world’s only superpower, is not yet quite an empire but should now frankly become one. It should spend the funds necessary to have its way in Iraq and throughout the Middle-East. The hawkish columnist Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard, advance this view. They fault the administration for failing to summon means to match its ends.


A fourth view contends that, yes, the United States is already an empire, but we’re botching the job – the British did it better. This is the theme of, among others, the British historian Niall Ferguson, in his book Empire: the Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.


Finally, there is the view that the United States was an empire for a long time, but now it is in decline, or is even collapsing. The heyday of American empire was in fact the immediate post-World-War-II period, after which its preeminence has faded. Charles Kupchan of the Brookings Institution develops this view in The End of the American Era, as does the scholar of empire Immanuel Wallerstein in his latest book The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World.


The American empire seems, depending on whom you read, to be expanding or collapsing, an old story or a new one, bestriding the world or melting away, staying the course or slinking toward the exit.


There are, of course, many kinds of empire and many definitions of empire. Some emphasize military strength, some economic exploitation, some cultural dominance. And yet whatever else empire may or may not be, it must, to deserve the name, include political dominance: the periphery must do what the center commands. Yet it is curiously just this aspect – the matter of political power – that the champions and builders of American empire appear to have scanted, or even overlooked entirely.


The administration’s occupation policies in Iraq are an example. Certainly, The Bush administration’s declared intention of democratizing the entire Middle-East has the look of imperial political ambition. Yet at the same time, the administration has announced a likely reduction of American troop levels in Iraq. As in regard to the imperial project as a whole, we are left to wonder whether the United States is surrendering control or asserting it more firmly, pushing democracy or scuttling it, withdrawing or escalating, leaving or digging in, cutting and running or staying the course.


But the most astonishing instance of political neglect is the administration’s omission before the war even to attempt to plan for the political future of Iraq. (The Pentagon in fact brushed aside the Future of Iraq plan that the State Department had drawn up.) The White House appears to have imagined that once the conventional battle against the ancien régime was won, its job was done, and a new state would build itself. When the president stood on the aircraft carrier under the made-in-the-White-House banner, “Mission Accomplished”, he seems to have meant the military mission alone, and not to have conceived that military victory means little if it cannot be translated into political victory.


Historically, the political power of empires has depended on the creation of an indigenous force that both was prepared to carry out the commands of the imperial power and was grudgingly tolerated by its own people, whose acquiescence, however embittered, in the whole arrangement has always and everywhere been the sine qua non of imperial rule. But it was just this acquiescence that, in the course of the twentieth century, ran out in almost every country in the world, yielding to the resistance movements that were the main specific cause for the collapse of every single one of the great empires of the twentieth century, from the British to the Soviet. If the Iraqi people turn out to lack this rebellious sentiment – and so far there is no sign that they do – they will be one of the very few exceptions to the historical rule.


But has the administration, awakening belatedly to this central dilemma of the occupation, perhaps solved its political problem by deciding to immediately set up a provisional government? The new twist in policy is said to consist of “turning over” power to “the Iraqis,” but it’s not clear that the United States in fact yet possesses political power in Iraq or that the Iraqis in question – all American appointees – have or can acquire stature in their own country. For power, imperial or domestic, is not a fixed asset, like oil reserves, which can be turned over by one owner to another. In truth, the United States, for all its armed might, cannot really be said to exercise political power in Iraq, and it cannot hand over to someone else what it doesn’t yet possess. If a provisional government is to wield power, it will have to build it from the ground up. But if and when it – or some other political grouping in Iraq – does really win power, it may no longer choose to take orders from the imperial center in Washington. In that case, the United States will have helped create the force that throws it out of Iraq.


The United States today is an unmatched military power. It is a great economic power. Yet politically – in Iraq and elsewhere – it is weak. And an empire with no political cement to hold it together is a sheet of loose sand. The consuls and proconsuls on the Potomac may have donned the imperial purple prematurely.


Is the United States, then, actually a global empire? Not quite yet. Can it become one? We’ll see.



Jonathan Schell is a visiting fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and a visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School. He is the author of “The Real War, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People”.


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