The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

Mini Teaser: A look at the New Atlantic Initiative.

by Author(s): James Kurth

The Soviet empire was unique in another way. In almost every empire,
and certainly in the other five that we are discussing, the imperial
people have been economically and, yes, culturally more advanced than
the subordinate ones. The Russian empire was one of those rare and
perverse cases where the imperial people were less advanced than
those that were subordinate. The Russians combined superior power
with inferior culture. This made their empire particularly loathsome
to East-Central Europeans.

The Russians therefore had an especially difficult task in
legitimizing their empire with a higher idea. Of course, they
initially made a big effort to have that imperial idea be Marxist
ideology, but this was soon replaced in practice with the claim that
Soviet communism and the Soviet development model were superior in
providing for economic growth. By the early 1980s, however, this
particular imperial idea clearly had been proven false, and it now
actually delegitimized the empire and helped to bring about its
sudden fall.

What was the ideal human type of the Soviet imperial idea? In the
Stalinist era, it was of course "the new Soviet man", the industrial
worker whose virtues were strength, endurance, loyalty, and, in time
of war, heroism. Like those of the SS man, these were the virtues of
a young man in his twenties. But in the later decades of the Soviet
empire this young Soviet man grew older, while not acquiring any new
virtues or maturity. Indeed, it soon became clear that in the Soviet
imperial idea there was no place for any ideal human type, but only
different kinds of utterly prosaic, mundane, and boring human beings.

Young Empire, Mature Americans

During and after the Second World War, American power and
presence--the American empire of the European tale--underwent a great
leap outward from the Western Hemisphere to the world itself, or at
least to Western Europe and Northeast Asia. "Present at the creation"
of this new, world-spanning empire was that extraordinary generation
of "wise men"--especially George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and George
Kennan--and three successive (and successful) presidents--Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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