I Dream of Empire

I Dream of Empire

Mini Teaser: Empires have always inspired American imagination, for good and for ill.

by Author(s): The National Interest

Empires have always inspired American imagination, for good and for ill. In the Star Wars saga, "the Empire" represented the forces of darkness and conformity, seeking to destroy all vestiges of individualism and creativity. Yet at the same time, the attractions of universality, of unity within diversity, of peace and security writ large, have also sung a siren's song.  Consider the wonderful scene in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), when representatives of all the nations under Roman tutelage arrive to pay homage to Marcus Aurelius (played by Alec Guiness, who later would take up the fight against the "Empire" as Obi-Wan Kenobi). Here, the message is that under Rome's rule of law, all people are equal in brotherhood and shared citizenship.

The plethora of books examining the themes of America as empire continues to expand, as successful hardcover books are re-issued in paperback form and new contenders enter the fray.

Three recently sent to the editorial offices of The National Interest include the paperback version of Andrew Bacevich's American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy; Jim Garrison's America as Empire: Global Leader or Rogue Power?, and William Odom and Robert Dujarric, America's Inadvertent Empire.

Bacevich's contribution to the subject has been to eloquently demonstrate that this question of "American Empire" is not some new, post-9/11 phenomenon but is rooted in a bipartisan strategy of preserving "openness" in the international system, which mandates the deployment of U.S. power to keep the various routes (trade, communications, etc.) open and functioning. Thus, the U.S. is "a liberal democracy intent on presiding over a global order in which American values and American power enjoy pride of place" and prepared to use force and coercion to bring this about. Bacevich noted how, even if the U.S. has never created a "formal" empire--actually taking control of territories or formally depriving other states of their sovereignty--its strategy of maintaining powerful forces in "several regions of pivotal geopolitical importance" and of seeking to spread (and impose, if necessary) American institutions and values means that the United States is engaged in imperial governance.

So what to do with this imperial governance, for what ends?  Odom and Dujarric argue that the United States is a new type of imperial power, "wealth-generating and voluntary"--in other words, a cooperative empire where the clients benefit as much as the metropole. This, in their view, creates incentives for states to align with the United States but also to voluntarily reform their own domestic political and economic institutions along liberal lines to qualify for membership.

Odom and Dujarric maintain that this empire is sustainable over the long run, unless the United States itself takes steps that erode its foundations. They note that the European Union, even if successful in achieving full integration of its members in a liberal regime, would still face real obstacles to becoming a first-class military power. And they point out that an EU that is committed to liberal principles is more likely to be an ally and partner than rival. No, the real threat comes from U.S. actions that prevent the American empire from being "wealth-generating and voluntary."  Here, they point out, the jury is still out as to whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq--already extracting a high political and economic cost--will in fact weaken the foundations of the American imperial system.

But if Odom and Dujarric maintain that the U.S. can create a viable liberal empire--something not unlike the model proposed by Anatoly Chubais for Russia's role in Eurasia--then Jim Garrison argues that the U.S. is in a position to completely transcend imperial politics, by using the fact that no real major competitors remain in the world to begin laying the foundation for effective global governance. In discussing the rise and fall of previous empires, he maintains that imperial governance itself is not sustainable in the long-term, but that the United States can use its pre-eminent power to oversee the transition to a new global political order.

But a cautionary note has been sounded by Cornell University Professor Jeffrey W. Taliaferro.  In his Balancing Risks: Great Power Intervention in the Periphery, Taliaferro takes up the question of why great powers undertake risky interventions in areas of the world where there is no direct threat to their vital interests? He concludes that leaders engage in a "balance-of-risk" approach, intervening not to augment power but to stem losses "in material power, international status or reputation." The book presents several case studies (German and Morocco in 1905, the U.S. in Korea (1950-51), and turns it attention to present-day efforts in its conclusion. Here, Taliaferro's warning is quite prescient as the U.S. faces increased difficulties in Iraq and the coalition undergoes strain: "Preventive war to remove rogue regimes may entail the prolonged occupation and reconstruction of these countries … other states can and will withhold cooperation in a number of areas."

And in the end, the United States is not prepared, in this reviewer's opinion, to fully assume the burdens and costs of imperial governance. This is why, as Bacevich chronicles, the U.S. has always sought proxies in maintaining its policy of openness and has never fully committed itself to remake the world in its own image. The visions presented by Odom, Dujarric and Garrison are only realizable and sustainable if there is broad consensus among Americans to invest the country's blood and treasure to meet those objectives.

Essay Types: Essay