The Burden (MICHAEL IGNATIEFF, January 5, 2003, NY Times Magazine)
A historian once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in ”a fit of absence of mind.” 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.
Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest. It also means carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century — Ottoman, British and Soviet. In the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones — Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two — that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past. […]
America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. 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.” […]
Regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire’s interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state. The Bush administration would ask, What moral authority rests with a sovereign who murders and ethnically cleanses his own people, has twice invaded neighboring countries and usurps his people’s wealth in order to build palaces and lethal weapons? And the administration is not alone. Not even Kofi Annan, the secretary general, charged with defending the United Nations Charter, says that sovereignty confers impunity for such crimes, though he has made it clear he would prefer to leave a disarmed Saddam in power rather than risk the conflagration of war to unseat him.
Regime change also raises the difficult question for Americans of whether their own freedom entails a duty to defend the freedom of others beyond their borders. The precedents here are inconclusive. Just because Wilson and Roosevelt sent Americans to fight and die for freedom in Europe and Asia doesn’t mean their successors are committed to this duty everywhere and forever. The war in Vietnam was sold to a skeptical American public as another battle for freedom, and it led the republic into defeat and disgrace.
Yet it remains a fact — as disagreeable to those left wingers who regard American imperialism as the root of all evil as it is to the right-wing isolationists, who believe that the world beyond our shores is none of our business — that there are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American military power. It’s not just the Japanese and the Germans, who became democrats under the watchful eye of Generals MacArthur and Clay. There are the Bosnians, whose nation survived because American air power and diplomacy forced an end to a war the Europeans couldn’t stop. There are the Kosovars, who would still be imprisoned in Serbia if not for Gen. Wesley Clark and the Air Force. The list of people whose freedom depends on American air and ground power also includes the Afghans and, most inconveniently of all, the Iraqis. […]
America has been more successful than most great powers in understanding its strengths as well as its limitations. It has become adept at using what is called soft power — influence, example and persuasion — in preference to hard power. Adepts of soft power understand that even the most powerful country in the world can’t get its way all the time. Even client states have to be deferred to. When an ally like Saudi Arabia asks the United States to avoid flying over its country when bombing Afghanistan, America complies. When America seeks to use Turkey as a base for hostilities in Iraq, it must accept Turkish preconditions. Being an empire doesn’t mean being omnipotent. […]
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.
This is a terrific essay–by all means, go read it all–but it seems to do violence to the very concept of imperialism to call American hegemony “empire”. Where empires have historically sought to unify many lands under one ruler or to exploit those lands to the benefit of that ruling power, it is the very essence of our mission in the world to be able to bow out of the affairs of our fellow nations and deal with them, if at all, as sovereign powers, in control of their own, preferably peaceful, destinies. So, for instance, there’s a great deal of chatter, especially on the Left, about our war with Iraq being a “war for oil”. Surely we do want to be able to buy the oil produced by a free and democratic Iraq, but does anyone really labor under the delusion that we want to run Iraq ourselves? In none of the various nations with which we’re at war or soon will be–Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, etc.–will we have any role in governing the country by 2005. What kind of empire is that?
The new American empire?: Americans have an enduring aversion to planting the flag on foreign soil. Is that attitude changing? (JAY TOLSON, 1/13/03, US News)
Finally, though, is imperialist the right word for describing the objectives set out in the Bush Doctrine? Is empire the right word for America? Even though a historian like Gaddis finds it apt, others are deeply troubled by the usage, including Bush himself. “We have no territorial ambitions,” he said in a speech last Veterans Day. “We don’t seek an empire.”
Many scholars object to the word for sound historical reasons. “In an empire, you control other nations, you write their laws, and so on,” says Zelikow. “Even in the case of an informal empire, such as Britain over Afghanistan, you have something completely different from what the United States is doing.”
Zelikow explains that a special vocabulary of empire began to develop around the time of the Boer War at the turn of the last century. It was adapted by the defeated nations of World War I to describe the victors. Marxists of the Russian and Chinese persuasion perfected the word’s vagueness in order to paint all capitalist powers as imperialists. “Over the last generation,” Zelikow says, “people have come to describe any nation with influence over another as an empire. It doesn’t tell you anything, but it brings a lot of baggage with it.”
A country that produces nearly a third of the world’s gross domestic product and whose military spending tops that of the next 20 countries combined is capable, obviously, of exerting wide influence through both soft power (including everything from MTV to McDonald’s) and hard military muscle. But so far, the United States has seldom–with the exception of 1898–demonstrated that it wants to directly dominate the internal affairs of other nations. This does not mean that America has not engaged in some heavy-handed meddling with other nations’ governments: Throughout the Cold War, for instance, Washington helped bring about “regime change” in Iran, South Vietnam, Chile, and other nations as part of its larger strategy to contain and roll back the communist tide. In the years between the fall of the Soviet empire and September 11, a period that columnist Krauthammer first dubbed the “unipolar moment,” Americans demonstrated that they had little idea of what to do with their massive power, apart from marveling at it while the “new economy” soared skyward. At most, under Clinton and Bush before him, the United States acted like the benign but barely attentive custodian of globalism. Now, however, it knows that peace, prosperity, and the spread of human rights are not automatically guaranteed. Their survival will require the expenditure of American will and might. But Americans will have to decide in the long run whether they want to extend the unipolar moment into what Krauthammer recently proposed as the “unipolar era.”