Global Policy Forum

Imperialism Book Reviews


By Joseph Nevins*

Z Magazine
December 2003

American Empire: The Realities & 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, 2002

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
By Niall Ferguson

New York: Basic Books, 2003

American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization
By Neil Smith

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003

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 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?

About the Author: 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.

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