Warnings of Empire

 America today embodies a paradox of omnipotence and vulnerability, the U.

 America today embodies a paradox of omnipotence and vulnerability, the U.S. military budget is greater than those of the next 14 countries combined; its economy is larger than the next three combined. Yet Americans going about their daily lives face a greater risk of terrorist attack than at any time before. This situation has fostered a psychology of vulnerability that makes Americans hyperalert to foreign dangers and predisposed to use military power in what may be self-defeating attempts to escape their fears.  

The Bush Administration's new national security doctrine, which provides a superficially attractive rationale for preventive war, reflects this uneasy state of mind. In an open society, no strictly defensive strategy against terrorism can be foolproof. Similarly, deterring terrorist attack by the threat of retaliation seems impossible when the potential attackers welcome suicide. Bizarre or diabolical leaders of potentially nuclear-armed rogue states may likewise seem undeterrable. If so, attacking the sources of potential threats before they can mount their own attacks may seem the only safe option. Such a strategy presents a great temptation to a country as strong as the United States , which can project overwhelming military power to any spot on the globe.  

In adopting this strategy, however, America risks marching in the well-trod footsteps of virtually every imperial power of the modern age. America has no formal colonial empire and seeks none, but like other great powers over the past two centuries, it has sometimes sought to impose peace on the tortured politics of weaker societies. Consequently, it faces many of the same strategic dilemmas as did the great powers that have gone before it. The Bush Administration's rhetoric of preventive war however, does not reflect a sober appreciation of the American predicament, but instead echoes point by point the disastrous strategic ideas of those earlier keepers of imperial order. …  

Proponents of the new preventive strategy charge that … "realists" are simply out of touch with a world in which forming alliances to balance against overwhelming U.S. power has simply become impossible. It is true that small rogue states and their ilk cannot on their own create a balance of power against the United States in the traditional sense. Moreover, their potential great-power backers, Russia and China , have so far been wary of overtly opposing U.S. military interventions. But even if America 's unprecedented power reduces the likelihood of traditional balancing alliances, the United States could find that its own offensive actions create their functional equivalents. Some earlier expansionist empires found themselves overstretched and surrounded by enemies even though balancing alliances were slow to oppose them. For example, although the prospective victims of Napoleon and Hitler found it difficult to form effective balancing coalitions, these empires attacked so many opponents simultaneously that substantial de facto alliances eventually did form against them. Today, an analogous form of self-imposed overstretch-political as well as military-could occur if the need for military operations to prevent nuclear proliferation risks were deemed urgent on several fronts at the same time, or if an attempt to impose democracy on a score or more of Muslim countries were seriously undertaken.  

Even in the absence of highly coordinated balancing alliances, simultaneous resistance by several trouble-making states and terrorist groups would be a daunting challenge for a strategy of universal preventive action. Highly motivated small powers or rebel movements defending their home ground have often prevailed against vastly superior states that lacked the sustained motivation to dominate them at extremely high cost, as in Vietnam and Algeria . Even when they do not prevail, as on the West Bank , they may fight on, imposing high costs over long periods.  

Precisely because America is so strong, weak states on America 's hit list may increasingly conclude that weapons of mass destruction joined to terror tactics are the only feasible equalizer to its power. Despite America 's aggregate power advantages, weaker opponents can get access to outside resources to sustain this kind of cost-imposing resistance. Even a state as weak and isolated as North Korea has been able to mount a credible deterrent, in part by engaging in mutually valuable strategic trade with Pakistan and other Middle Eastern states. The Bush Administration itself stresses that Iraq bought components for the production of weapons of mass destruction on the commercial market and fears that no embargo can stop this. Iran is buying a nuclear reactor from Russia that the United States has seen as posing risks of nuclear proliferation. Palestinian suicide bombers successfully impose severe costs with minimal resources. In the September 11 attack, Al-Qaeda famously used its enemy's own resources. …  

The historical record warrants a skeptical attitude toward arguments that security can be achieved through imperial expansion and preventive war.


Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at the Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University , and the author of From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (Norton, 2000).