Global Policy Forum

The American Empire


Part 1: Reluctant Hegemon
Part 2: Righteous King
Part 3: The Fear Within

By Francesco Sisci

Asia Times
October 16-18, 2002


Part 1: Reluctant Hegemon

"Hegemonism" has recently become a derogatory byword of US foreign policy. Unilaterally, driven by the selfish pursuit of its national interests, the US is said to be willing to step on anybody's head to keep and protect its primacy in the world. But even if this blunt analysis is accurate, this in the end amounts to a normal imperial policy.

Empires are made of blood. The cross, which now symbolizes Christianity and its ideals of mercy and tolerance, was for centuries the sign of power and of the most atrocious death the Roman Empire could devise. Lines of crosses holding thousands of people were erected on the sides of roads leading to Rome warning the foreign traveler and reassuring the Roman citizen of the pitiless power of Rome. Rome was a cruel empire, and it knew it so well that Cato, speaking of the many enemies of Rome, would say: "Let them hate us as long as they fear us."

The United States, though also an empire, can't bring itself to adopt the Roman ways. It can't stand other people's hatred and even resents the fact that its foreign policy is labeled "hegemonistic". In this way the United States is unconsciously thinking along lines more similar to those of the Chinese rather than Roman Empire: Force, although sometimes necessary, must be used as the instrument of last resort; persuasion, winning the heart of potential enemies, must be preferred to terror striking the heart of the people. But this preferred policy doesn't work so well, or it is not implemented well enough. How can the US avoid being regarded as hegemonistic? Perhaps we have to take a step back and restart from the cross.

In 1966 it came as a total surprise that North Korea beat Italy in the soccer World Cup. The Italians went back home and the Koreans were so surprised that they found themselves without hotel reservations for the England venue. All rooms were fully booked, so they had to take up all the bookings the smug Italians had made. For the next round they had to live in a monastery, a terrifying experience for the North Koreans. They were sleeping alone in very austere rooms where the main piece of furniture was a huge crucifix hanging over the bed. The players were used to sleeping together in bunk beds and were quite unused to the figure of this tortured man nailed by his hands and feet. In the very place where the Italians thought their players would feel tranquil and would rest peacefully before the games, the North Koreans were uneasy.

The Jesuit missionaries who came to China in the 17th century found a similar problem. The Chinese could not understand or easily accept the idea of the crucifixion. Why would a religion of mercy choose such a cruel symbol? Why was God so cruel as to let his own son die in such a manner?

It took a lot of explanation for the Chinese converts to understand that it was the forbearance of that cruelty that made Christians what they were. At the same time the missionaries were also explaining one of the reasons of the fall of Rome. The Christians could withstand all of the Roman cruelty - they were not afraid of painful death, but would gladly embrace it as martyrdom. When subjects are no longer afraid of punishment they can't be ruled. For this reason the spiritual rule of the Church would try to work on the principle of persuasion rather than terror, similarly to the earthly rule of the Chinese empire keen on winning the hearts of the enemy.

These Christian ideals shape the ideology of the American Empire that tries to act according to merciful rules and thus according to justice. The only problem is that in the West for centuries empires could not bring themselves to apply Christian mercy while running their dominions.

In a similar fashion now the US can't do without its ideals of freedom and democracy, which are to be not national but global, and which spring from its Christian roots. The United States is born out of a revolution, and those ideas shape its way of thinking, arguably even more deeply than they shaped the Soviet Empire, where communist ideals were often a veneer to cover up wanton inclemency. For this reason the US needs to be loved and accepted. But this, strictly speaking, it is not necessary for empires, which are often driven by the simpler reasons of conquest or, if one wishes, of national interest.

Even the British Empire with its quest of bringing civilization to the barbarians had few qualms about the use of brute force in its imperial territory. Here, however, it might be interesting to notice that the contradiction between imperial necessities (the brutal use of force) and the domestic ideals of democracy and freedom eventually helped the collapse of the empire. Mahatma Gandhi used the British right to a free press and Britain's democratic ideals to convince the British public of the injustice of the British rule in India. For it is very difficult to maintain the right to a free press without also guaranteeing the right to free determination.

The US position is in many way worse than that of the British. The British wanted an empire, and claimed a right of colonization. They openly claimed to have a superior model to impose on an inferior world. In this way, they were the same as the Roman Empire. Military victory ultimately gave them the right to the empire.

The Americans don't think this way. They believe they fought and defeated two evil enemies, fascism and communism, in the world. These two victories did not give them an empire, but gave the world an opportunity for freedom and democracy.

The conundrum is, what if a country doesn't want freedom and democracy? The simple answer in the US could be: this country must be fascist or communist.

Part 2: Righteous King

Unfortunately, haughty ideologies live off selfish interests. To fight fascism and impose democracy in Europe and Asia the United States needed more than a superior ideology - it needed force. In fact, it needed a huge military might that would help not only American ideals, but also the more earthly interests of the American nation and its companies.

The confusion between the two sides is so intimate that many in the United States believe that American ideals can coincide with the interests of American companies. But companies in a market are natural competitors, and the interests of US companies clash among themselves and with the interests of foreign companies, especially if the latter come from weaker emerging markets.

All in all it is impossible to convince a weaker country, say in Asia, that in order to side with freedom and democracy it must lay its market wide open and let its frail, upstart companies come under the boot of stronger US companies using their world-dominating market position.

This is bound to happen more and more, as the big fights against such ideas as communism and fascism are waning, and national interests take the front stage.

In fact, this is a completely new ball game where the United States needs to redefine itself, choosing a path true to its origin and identity but also adapting to the new environment without huge ideological clashes.

In China in the period between the 7th and 4th centuries BC the land was divided among many states, but there were periods in which a single state would become ba - overlord or hegemon. That state would lead the others, even if it didn't directly rule all the others. From the ancient word ba comes the modern Chinese baquan zhuyi, the "hegemonism" so bitter to American palates. In fact even in the Chinese literature ba came to assume a derogatory connotation as it was contrasted with the power of wang, what we might understand as the righteous king. The overlord, the hegemon, would impose its lead only by the use of force, while the wang, the righteous king, would lead by virtue, by what in modern terms we could define as persuasion.

Can the United States now lead by persuasion and not merely by force? This it is what it would like to do, and what could be necessary to forestall what al-Qaeda terrorists hoped to trigger - a new war of ideas of Muslims against the rest of the world.

But to forestall this war and future challenges, the US has to change the perception it gives and mark its power as wang, not as ba - it must transform its perception from baquan zhuyi to wangquan zhuyi, the power of the righteous king. This is something the Americans feel they are (or want to be) but this perception is often not shared abroad. The gap between the domestic and foreign perceptions of US policy also contributes to the frustration of the American public with foreign intervention and fuels further drives toward isolationism and unilateralism in her actions.

All this is extremely important for the war on Iraq, as that war will have three aims: to combat terrorism, to control oil resources, and to enforce world order. On all these fronts the United States must win not only for its own good, but for that of the world. Here the war of ideas (or, if one wishes, of propaganda) is even more important than that fought on the battlefield. The war of ideas in fact presents many more snares than that of the military, and yet it is arguably grossly overlooked.

The present division of opinions in Europe on the war could be very dangerous for both Europeans and Americans. Although in Asia many pundits have overstressed the many commercial frictions on the two sides of the Atlantic, in fact the partnership between Western Europe and the United States has shaped the past century. The main war theater for the two most formidable threats to the world was Europe, and it was there that the Americans and free Europeans defeated first fascism and then communism. To think that the US would go it alone and fight terrorism without Europe would be a huge break from a century of experience and would have unfathomable consequences for both the US and Europe.

What Europe does not understand, or the United States has not been able to explain convincingly to Europe, is the importance of the fight against terrorism. Europe has lived with terrorism for decades. First it was domestic, although sponsored by the Soviets (Red Brigades, Rote Armee Faction), then the threat came from the Middle East. Both Moscow and the Middle East were very close to Europe, they could not be made to disappear. The policy in Europe has thus been to live with terrorism and minimize its effects, without trying to eradicate terrorism completely. This frame of mind clashes with that of the United States, which feels it must and can eradicate terrorism. Europeans tend to think that terrorism can't be eradicated and that attempts to do so could bring about even worse scenarios. This debate could be endless, as both sides could present a good case that could hardly be conclusive on either side.

But the issue is imperial order, not mere safety.

For about three decades a cartel of oil producers, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has blackmailed a cartel of industrial countries by controlling the price of the energy fueling the industries. During these three decades the industrial countries have withstood the pressure by means of a series of economic and technical measures to minimize the use of oil and differentiate the sources of energy.

Ultimately the oil producers were unwilling to bring their threat to a showdown because they were afraid that an even bigger enemy, the Soviets, could make use of the weakness of the industrial countries, defeat them and then come for a reckoning against the oil producers as well. In a way the fear of the Soviets was greater than the temptation to bring the industrial countries to their knees. At the same time the presence of the Soviets also served to restrain the industrial countries from any pushy action against the OPEC countries for fear that this could trigger a Soviet intervention in the Middle East.

But the Soviet Union is no more.

Part 3: The Fear Within

The Gulf War of 1992, by which time the Soviets were no longer a danger, should have brought the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to an end. But the fact that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein miraculously managed to survive despite his military defeat dragged out for years a situation in which OPEC, while not as powerful as in its heyday, was still controlling the throttle of oil prices.

Against this backdrop cynical observers could read al-Qaeda's terrorism as an effort by certain Saudis to regain full control of their land (and their oil, which had been under loose US tutelage since the Gulf War) by trying to kindle the implosion of the United States through terrorist actions.

The implosion or fall of the US would have been bad news not only for Europe, but for the rest of the world. A cowering, wounded United States would have precipitated a global economic downturn, dragging down all emerging markets, China's included, and would have created a huge vacuum of power that no one could fill. This in turn could have brought about chaos for developed and developing nations, with the only benefit going to the ultimate producers of energy and fundamentalist faiths such as Wahhabi Islam. Incidentally, both happen to reside in the same place - Saudi Arabia.

It is thus important while cracking down on actual or future terrorism to regain control of oil at the same time, in order to keep energy at a reasonable price for all those who want to carry on with economic development. In this case the interests of India, Japan, the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, China, the developing countries and to a degree Russia are consistent: all want low oil prices to finance their growth. The control of oil resources, then, can be at an optimal crossroads of idealism (the fight against terrorism) and imperial motivation (a check on the price of energy). This could be the card for the establishment of a new world order in which the United States after years of wobbling in a vacuum without big fights against big faiths (fascism, communism, fundamentalist Islam) could spin off a new perspective of rapid economic development for everybody.

The idea is that if you strive for development you will be rewarded, while if you squander your inheritance or resources you'll suffer. Many OPEC countries appear to be in the latter category. Many of them have used oil riches to let Bedouins live into their old age with modern comforts. They often did not invest in modern industry, they did not use their God-sent resources to build modern states that could survive with or without oil. They look like those people of the old European rentier aristocracy who complained about their dwindling income but did nothing to replenish it, while the new aggressive bourgeoisie was working hard on building its fortunes.

The war against Iraq, then, could be an opportunity for new economic development. This could be the base for the new American wangquan zhuyi, true rulership. The American Empire could then try to reconcile with itself. The United States is the strongest, everybody knows it, and no nation in its right mind can challenge it. Not only that, but in the present shaky world balance, the US has to be this way for decades before new balances can emerge. A political vacuum without the United States would now be dangerous for developed and developing countries alike.

But the fear is, can a country with such overwhelming military power restrain itself? Might not a mad general seize power and launch a nuclear holocaust? Might not a president go mad and singlehandedly drive the world to the end? The US for the first time in the history of the planet can in fact do just that, and the world could not assemble a coalition capable of resisting it - its military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, are arguably superior to those of all other countries put together.

The world therefore must ultimately rely on American goodwill that Washington won't go nuts. Objectively, this is a condition of hegemonism: to change it into true rulership the US must make an extra effort to soothe friends and foes. This will reinforce its rule and extend it into the future. This was ultimately the trick played by Chinese imperial dynasties, which tried to affirm their right to rule the world (tianxia, all that is under heaven). Cynically, one could say that they launched a soft war on their subjects and enemies alike to buttress their rule. Although they also used force, this, at least ideally, came many steps after the use of peaceful persuasion.

The United States currently wields immense cultural muscle by its domination of the movie, television, music and software industries, the so-called soft power, yet the administration of President George W Bush doesn't convincingly explain (or think through) its political moves, to win the political war before the military war. The rift with Europe is due to this deficiency in the political war. Hegelians and Confucians alike would tell the Bush administration it needs to keep the upper ideological hand; without this, all the soft power could crumble and all the world would be in danger.

In China, for instance, allegedly home of many opponents of US hegemonism, pundits are against the unilateral use of US force, and see it as a danger for the US and the world order. They could be appeased by better-founded, better-argued rulership, because China can't hope to replace the United States for many decades, and an old known master is better than a new unknown master or total confusion.

If this is the case in China, arguably it is so in every corner of the world. Therefore the US has nothing to be afraid of but itself ... and this, both for the United States and the rest of the world, might be the real concern.


More Information on Empire?
More Information on Former Empires and Comparative Analysis

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.