America's Empire Is an Empire Lite


By Michael Ignatieff *

New York Times
January 10, 2003

In a speech to graduating cadets at West Point in June, President Bush declared, "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish." When he spoke to veterans assembled at the White House in November, he said: America has "no territorial ambitions. We don't seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others."

Ever since George Washington warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic's permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but "empire" describes the awesome thing that America is becoming?

It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.

If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial. But Sept. 11 was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of American power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed.

America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man's burden. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.

It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere. It is an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad. But that does not make it any less of an empire, with a conviction that it alone, in Herman Melville's words, bears "the ark of the liberties of the world."

In this vein, the President's National Security Strategy, announced in September, commits America to lead other nations toward "the single sustainable model for national success," by which he meant free markets and liberal democracy. This is strange rhetoric for a Texas politician who ran for office opposing nation-building abroad and calling for a more humble America overseas.

But Sept. 11 changed everyone, including a laconic and anti-rhetorical President. His messianic note may be new to him, but it is not new to his office. It has been present in the American vocabulary at least since Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles in 1919 and told the world that he wanted to make it safe for democracy.

At the beginning of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776, Edward Gibbon remarked that empires endure only so long as their rulers take care not to overextend their borders.

The characteristic delusion of imperial power is to confuse global power with global domination. The Americans may have the former, but they do not have the latter. They cannot rebuild each failed state or appease each anti-American hatred, and the more they try, the more they expose themselves to the overreach that eventually undermined the classical empires of old.

The Secretary of Defense may be right when he warns the North Koreans that America is capable of fighting on two fronts -- in Korea and Iraq -- simultaneously, but Americans at home cannot be overjoyed at such a prospect, and if two fronts are possible at once, a much larger number of fronts is not.

If conflict in Iraq, North Korea or both becomes a possibility, al-Qaeda can be counted on to seek to strike a busy and overextended empire in the back. What this suggests is not just that overwhelming power never confers the security it promises but also that even the overwhelmingly powerful need friends and allies.

Empires survive when they understand that diplomacy, backed by force, is always to be preferred to force alone. Looking into the more distant future, say a generation ahead, resurgent Russia and China will demand recognition both as world powers and as regional hegemons.

America needs to share the policing of nonproliferation and other threats with these powers, and if it tries, as the current National Security Strategy suggests, to prevent the emergence of any competitor to American global dominance, it risks everything that Gibbon predicted: overextension followed by defeat.

America will also remain vulnerable, despite its overwhelming military power, because its primary enemy, Iraq and North Korea notwithstanding, is not a state, susceptible to deterrence, influence and coercion, but a shadowy cell of fanatics who have proved that they cannot be deterred and coerced and who have hijacked a global ideology -- Islam -- that gives them a bottomless supply of recruits and allies.

After 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet empire, American presidents thought they could have imperial domination on the cheap, ruling the world without putting in place any new imperial architecture -- new military alliances, new legal institutions, new international development organisms -- for a postcolonial, post-Soviet world.

The Greeks taught the Romans to call this failure hubris. It was also, in the 1990s, a general failure of the historical imagination, an inability of the post-Cold-War West to grasp that the emerging crisis of state order in so many overlapping zones of the world -- from Egypt to Afghanistan --would eventually become a security threat at home.

Radical Islam would never have succeeded in winning adherents if the Muslim countries that won independence from the European empires had been able to convert dreams of self-determination into the reality of competent, rule-abiding states. America has inherited this crisis of self-determination from the empires of the past.

Its solution -- to create democracy in Iraq, then hopefully roll out the same happy experiment throughout the Middle East -- is both noble and dangerous: noble because, if successful, it will finally give these peoples the self-determination they vainly fought for against the empires of the past; dangerous because, if it fails, there will be nobody left to blame but the Americans.

The dual nemeses of empire in the 20th century were nationalism, the desire of peoples to rule themselves free of alien domination, and narcissism, the incurable delusion of imperial rulers that the "lesser breeds" aspired only to be versions of themselves. Both nationalism and narcissism have threatened the American reassertion of global power since Sept. 11.

The core beliefs of our time are the creations of the anticolonial revolt against empire: the idea that all human beings are equal and that each human group has a right to rule itself free of foreign interference. It is at least ironic that American believers in these ideas have ended up supporting the creation of a new form of temporary colonial tutelage for Bosnians, Kosovars and Afghans -- and could for Iraqis.

The age of empire ought to have been succeeded by an age of independent, equal and self-governing nation-states. But that has not come to pass. America has inherited a world scarred not just by the failures of empires past but also by the failure of nationalist movements to create and secure free states -- and now, suddenly, by the desire of Islamists to build theocratic tyrannies on the ruins of failed nationalist dreams.

Those who want America to remain a republic rather than become an empire imagine rightly, but they have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests. The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike.

Even so, empires survive only by understanding their limits. Sept. 11 pitched the Islamic world into the beginning of a long and bloody struggle to determine how it will be ruled and by whom: the authoritarians, the Islamists or perhaps the democrats.

America can help repress and contain the struggle, but even though its own security depends on the outcome, it cannot ultimately control it. Only a very deluded imperialist would believe otherwise.

About the Author: Michael Ignatieff is director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government and a frequent contributor to the National Post.

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