Is There an American Empire? (Michael Walzer, Fall 2003, Dissent)

When Rudyard Kipling called empire “the White Man’s burden,” he was stating, in the ideological idiom of his time, a simple fact: power brings responsibility with it. But the burdens of hegemony can’t be borne alone; they have to be shared. A rationally governed hegemonic power doesn’t act unilaterally to repel aggression or stop massacres or take on the (very difficult) work of nation building; it marshals coalitions. These will be coalitions of the willing, obviously, but the willingness has to be won by consultation, persuasion, and compromise. In recent years, our government has sought to avoid any serious version of these three necessary processes, as if its leaders want to manage the world all by themselves. That ambition is probably a better explanation of the Iraq War than any provided by the theory of imperialism. But America’s leaders can’t manage the world. In the aftermath of what has turned out to be a very incomplete victory in the war against Saddam, they obviously need help managing a single country. As I write, they are looking for help, but still without committing themselves to consultation, persuasion, and compromise. It is hard to gauge the learning curve of the Bush administration. But it will learn sooner or later that hegemony, unlike empire, rests on consent.

What kind of left politics follows from this understanding of American power? We need a long response to this question, and right now I have only a short one. In Britain, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leftists were “little Englanders,” that is, they advocated independence for the colonies. The United States is already committed to independence-even Bush & Co. are against “microadministration”!-and also, rhetorically, at least, to democracy. One thing the left can do is to insist that this commitment be honored not only in words but also in performance, even when the performance compromises hegemonic power. Is the United States prepared, for example, to help create a government in Iraq capable of saying no to its American patron, the way the Turks did? (I don’t mean that we have to work for a Shiite theocracy.) How many “interests and tendencies” contrary to its own is our government ready to acknowledge and accommodate for the sake of global stability? What sort of “equilibrium,” with what other groups, is it willing to accept? V. I. Lenin once wrote that “the task of the intelligentsia is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.” He didn’t mean it, but the idea is useful. The task of a democratic hegemon is to make its own role less central, the exercise of power more and more consensual.

This will never be the chosen task of the people currently in power in Washington. Even the minimal goal of a better equilibrium, a more compromised hegemony, a more effective defense of democratic government, can only be achieved through oppositionist politics. Opposition will have to come first from inside the United States: American liberals and leftists should be advocates of self-limitation, which would be the real meaning of signing on to (and then upholding) instruments such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, or the Kyoto accords, or the International Criminal Court-and also of accepting greater mutuality in world trade and opening our doors to third world imports. All these involve qualifications of hegemony, the acceptance of universal rules, equally applied, and hence they constitute “sacrifices of a corporate nature.” As Gramsci suggests, however, these sacrifices don’t eliminate hegemonic power; they modify it in ways useful to humanity, but at the same time they represent a form of intelligent maintenance. The Democratic Party should certainly be capable of that much (though its leaders seem, right now, barely capable of anything). But those of us who want more than this, who are worried about and opposed to the rule of a single hegemon, need external allies-first in the society of states and then in international civil society.

It’s almost necessary to feel sorry for Mr. Walzer, a decent seeming man left floundering by the reluctant realization that it is the Right enacting his ideals globally, not the Left.

MORE: (via Mike Daley):
The Selective Solidarity of the Left (Danny Postel, 11.24.03, In These Times)

Why are American progressives by and large silent about the situation in Iran today?

How many American progressives knew who Shirin Ebadi was before she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month? Almost no one. By the same token, how many of us knew who Rigoberta Menchú was before she won the prize in 1992? Many, if not most of us: We’d seen her speak, read her autobiography, or simply had come to know her story by osmosis in activist circles.

Consider the number of Guatemalan solidarity groups that have come onto the scene over the years. How many American progressives, at some point between the early ’80s and the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, were involved, at one level or another, in solidarity work around Guatemala? Tons of us. Why the difference?

What is going on in Iran doesn’t lend itself to the kind of analytical prism through which progressives made sense of Central America during the high tide of our solidarity activism, the Reagan years. In Central America, military juntas and death squads, in concert with feudal elites and corporate oligarchs, were running the show with the active support of the United States. In a nutshell, a bloodbath of imperial domination, rapacious exploitation, scorched earth terror, and mass murder—in which the United States was complicit from top to bottom.

But what happens when people are struggling against tyranny and repression that is not being perpetrated by the United States or its proxies and when—to take the case of Iran today—the regime in question is a sworn enemy of the United States.

Let’s face it: It’s just plain uncomfortable for progressives to say anything that sounds like it could also come out of the mouth of George Bush or Paul Wolfowitz.

Jeremy Brecher argues in Foreign Policy in Focus, however, that “failure to defend human rights in such circumstances only plays into the hands of the Bush juggernaut.” Progressives must, he contends, be known as “people whose fundamental solidarity is not with one or another government but with all people who are struggling for liberation from oppression.”

The solidarity, of course, is against America, not in favor of the freedom of other peoples.

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