One widely held definition of a state is that a state is a body that successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a territory. The German sociologist Max Weber first proposed this definition in 1919, in the chaotic aftermath of World War I. Interestingly, he included the qualifier “successfully” in his definition. To constitute a real state, a government cannot merely claim the sole right to use force; it must make this claim stick. It must be successful in convincing its people, civil-society groups and, most importantly, other states to accept its claim.
In the twenty-first century, the United States effectively claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force worldwide. Whether or not it makes this claim in so many words, it makes it through its policies and actions, and America’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force is generally accepted by most of the governments (if not the peoples) of the world. That is not to say that all American uses of force are accepted as legitimate, but that all uses of force that are accepted as legitimate are either American or actively supported by the United States. The world condemns Russian intervention in Ukraine but accepts Saudi intervention in Yemen, and of course it looks to the United States to solve conflicts in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq. The United States has not conquered the world, but most of the world’s governments (with the exceptions of countries such as Russia, Iran and China) and major intergovernmental organizations accept America’s lead. Very often they ask for it.
This American domination of global affairs extends well beyond hegemony. In the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom was a global hegemon. Britannia ruled the waves, and from its domination of the oceans it derived extraordinary influence over global affairs. But China, France, Germany, Russia and later Japan continually challenged the legitimacy of British domination and tested it at every turn. Major powers certainly believed that they could engage independently in global statecraft and acted on that belief. France did not seek British permission to conquer its colonies; Germany did not seek British permission to conquer France.
Twenty-first-century America dominates the world to an extent completely unmatched by nineteenth-century Britain. There is no conflict anywhere in the world in which the United States is not in some way involved. More to the point, participants in conflicts everywhere in the world, no matter how remote, expect the United States to be involved. Revisionists ranging from pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to Bolivian peasant farmers who want to chew coca leaves see the United States as the power against which they are rebelling. The United States is much more than the world’s policeman. It is the world’s lawgiver.
The world state of so many fictional utopias and dystopias is here, and it is not a nameless postmodern entity called global governance. It is America. Another word for a world state that dominates all others is an “empire,” a word that Americans of all political persuasions abhor. For FDR liberals it challenges cherished principles of internationalism and fair play. For Jeffersonian conservatives it reeks of foreign adventurism. For today’s neoliberals it undermines faith in the primacy of market competition over political manipulation. And for neoconservatives it implies an unwelcome responsibility for the welfare of the world beyond America’s shores.
In fact, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the United States has become an imperial world state—a world-empire—that sets the ground rules for smooth running of the global economy, imposes its will largely without constraint and without consideration of the reasonable desires of other countries, and severely punishes those few states and nonstate actors that resist its dictates.
No one ever likes an empire, but despite Ronald Reagan’s memorable phrase, the word “empire” is not inseparably linked to the word “evil.” When it comes to understanding empire, history is probably a better guide than science fiction. Consider the Roman Empire. For several centuries after the ascension of Augustus, life under Rome was generally freer, safer and more prosperous than it had been under the previously independent states. Perhaps it was not better for the enslaved or for the Druids, and certainly not for the Jews, but for most people of the ancient Mediterranean, imperial Rome brought vast improvements most of the time.
ANCIENT ANALOGIES notwithstanding, no one would seriously suggest that the United States should attempt to directly rule the rest of the world, and there is no indication that the rest of the world would let it. But the United States could manage its empire more effectively, which is something that the rest of the world would welcome. A winning strategy for low-cost, effective management of empire would be for America to work with and through the system of global governance that America itself has set up, rather than systematically seeking to blunt its own instruments of power.
For example, the United States was instrumental in setting up the International Criminal Court, yet Washington will not place itself under the jurisdiction of the ICC and will not allow its citizens to be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC. Similarly, though the United States is willing to use UN Security Council resolutions to censure its enemies, it is not willing to accept negotiated limits on its own freedom of action. From a purely military-political standpoint, the United States is sufficiently powerful to go it alone. But from a broader realist standpoint that takes account of the full costs and unintended consequences of military action, that is a suboptimal strategy. Had the United States listened to dissenting opinions on the Security Council before the invasion of Iraq, it would have saved hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. The United States might similarly have done well to have heeded Russian reservations over Libya, as it ultimately did in responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
A more responsible (and consequently more effective) United States would subject itself to the international laws and agreements that it expects others to follow. It would genuinely seek to reduce its nuclear arsenal in line with its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would use slow but sure police procedures to catch terrorists, instead of quick but messy drone strikes. It would disavow all forms of torture. All of these policies would save American treasure while increasing American power. They would also increase America’s ability to say “no” to its allies when they demand expensive U.S. commitments to protect their interests abroad.
Such measures would not ensure global peace, nor would they necessarily endear the United States to everyone across the world. But they would reduce global tensions and make it easier for America to act in its national interests where those interests are truly at stake. Both the United States and the world as a whole would be better off if Washington did not waste time, money and diplomatic capital on asserting every petty sovereign right it is capable of enforcing. A more strategic United States would preside over a more peaceful and prosperous world.
In pondering its future course, Washington might consider this tale from the ancient world: When Cyrus the Great conquered the neighboring kingdom of Lydia, he allowed his army to loot and pillage Lydia’s capital city, Sardis. The deposed Lydian king Croesus became his captive and slave. After Cyrus taunted Croesus by asking him how it felt to see his capital city being plundered, Croesus responded: “It’s not my city that your troops are plundering; it’s your city.” Cyrus ordered an immediate end to the destruction.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.