Imperial Temptations

Imperial Temptations

Mini Teaser: The U.S. military budget is greater than those of the next 14 countries combined. Yet Americans face a greater risk of terrorist attack than ever before. This situation fosters a sense of vulnerability that makes Americans hyperalert and predispos

by Author(s): Jack Snyder

In short, both historically and today, it seems hard to explain the prevalence of the myths of empire in terms of objective strategic analysis. So what, then, explains it?

In some historical cases, narrow interest groups that profited from imperial expansion or military preparations hijacked strategic debates by controlling the media or bankrolling imperial pressure groups. In imperial Japan, for example, when a civilian strategic planning board pointed out the implausibilities and contradictions in the militarists' worldview, its experts were thanked for their trenchant analysis and then summarily fired. In pre-World War I Germany, internal documents showing the gaping holes in the offensive strategic plans of the army and navy were kept secret, and civilians lacked the information or expertise to criticize the military's public reasoning. The directors of Krupp Steelworks subsidized the belligerent German Navy League before 1914, and then in the 1920s monopolized the wire services that brought nationalist-slanted news to Germany's smaller cities and towns. These were precisely the constituencies that later voted most heavily for Hitler.

In other cases, myths of empire were propounded by hard-pressed leaders seeking to rally support by pointing a finger at real or imagined enemies. For example, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a series of unstable regimes found that they could increase their short-run popularity by exaggerating the threat from monarchical neighboring states and from aristocratic traitors to the Revolution. Napoleon perfected this strategy of rule, transforming the republic of the Rights of Man into an ever-expanding empire of popular nationalism.

Once the myths of empire gain widespread currency in a society, their origins in political expediency are often forgotten. Members of the second generation become true believers in the domino theory, big stick diplomacy and the civilizing mission. Kaiser Wilhelm's ministers were self-aware manipulators, but their audiences, including the generation that formed the Nazi movement, believed in German nationalist ideology with utmost conviction. In a process that Stephen Van Evera has called "blowback", the myths of empire may become ingrained in the psyche of the people and the institutions of their state.

Many skeptics about attacking Iraq suspect that similar domestic political dynamics are at the root of the Bush doctrine of preventive war. In particular, they think that the Iraq project echoes the plot of recent fictions in which a foreign war is trumped up to win an election. Some suggested that the day after the November 2002 el

Essay Types: Essay