© 2001 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com
takes an empire,' say several U.S. thinkers |
|Emily Eakin The New York
Tuesday, April 2, 2002
Struggling to get a handle on U.S. foreign
policy? For starters, try dusting off your Livy and boning up on the
Second Punic War. Or dip into a good history of 19th-century
Britain, paying close attention to those dazzling military campaigns
in the Middle East - the Battle of Omdurman, say, or the Second
Today, America is no mere superpower or hegemon
but a full-blown empire in the Roman and British sense. That, at any
rate, is the consensus of some of the most notable U.S. commentators
"People are now coming out of the closet on the
word 'empire,'" said the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
"The fact is no country has been as dominant culturally,
economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the
world since the Roman Empire."
Americans are used to being
told - typically by resentful foreigners - that they are
imperialists. But lately some of the nation's own eminent thinkers
are embracing the idea. More astonishing, they are using the term
with approval. From the isolationist right to the
imperialist-bashing left, a growing number of experts are issuing
stirring paeans to American empire.
The Weekly Standard
kicked off the parade early last fall with "The Case for American
Empire," by The Wall Street Journal's editorial features editor, Max
Boot. Quoting the title of Patrick Buchanan's last book, "America: A
Republic, not an Empire," Boot said, "This analysis is exactly
backward: the Sept. 11 attack was a result of insufficient American
involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in
our goals and more assertive in their
Calling for the military occupation of
Afghanistan and Iraq, Boot cited the stabilizing effect of
19th-century British rule in the region. "Afghanistan and other
troubled lands today," he wrote, "cry out for the sort of
enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident
Englishmen in jodphurs and pith helmets."
Since then, the
empire idea has caught on. In January, Charles Fairbanks, a foreign
policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, told an audience at
Michigan State University that America was "an empire in formation."
Last month, a Yale University professor, Paul Kennedy - who 10 years
ago was predicting America's ruin from imperial overreach - went
"Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of
power," Kennedy wrote in the Financial Times of London. "The Pax
Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain's army was much smaller
than European armies and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the
next two navies - right now all the other navies in the world
combined could not dent American maritime supremacy. Napoleon's
France and Philip II's Spain had powerful foes and were part of a
multipolar system. Charlemagne's empire was merely western European
in its stretch. The Roman Empire stretched further afield, but there
was another great empire in Persia and a larger one in China. There
is no comparison." The most extended statement from the empire camp
to date is "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos"
(Random House, 2001), a recent book by the journalist Robert
Arguing that "times have changed less than we think,"
Kaplan suggests the nation's leaders turn to ancient chroniclers -
as well as Winston Churchill's 1899 account of the British conquest
of the Sudan - for helpful hints about how to navigate today's
world. He devotes a chapter to the Second Punic War ("Rome's victory
in the Second Punic War, like America's in World War II, made it a
universal power") and one to the cunning Emperor Tiberius. Granted,
the emperor was something of a despot, writes Kaplan. Still, he
"combined diplomacy with the threat of force to preserve a peace
that was favorable to Rome."
If that sounds familiar, you've
got the right idea. "Our future leaders could do worse than be
praised for their tenacity, their penetrating intellects and their
ability to bring prosperity to distant parts of the world under
America's soft imperial influence," Kaplan writes. "The more
successful our foreign policy, the more leverage America will have
in the world. Thus, the more likely that future historians will look
back on 21st-century United States as an empire as well as a
republic, however different from that of Rome and every other empire
Classicists may scoff at the idea that
democratic America has much in common with the tyrannical Rome of
Augustus or Nero. But the empire camp points out that however
unlikely the comparison, America has often behaved like a conquering
empire. As Kennedy put it, "From the time the first settlers arrived
in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an
imperial nation, a conquering nation."
behavior continues today. "The United States has bases or base
rights in 40 countries," he said. "In the assault on Al Qaeda and
the Taliban, they moved warships from Britain, Japan, Germany,
Southern Spain and Italy."
Today, the empire scholars
acknowledge that America tends to operate not through brute force
but through economic, cultural and political means. The idea seems
to be that it is easier to turn other people into Americans than for
Americans to make war on them.
"We are an attractive empire,
Boot said. And that, empire enthusiasts say, is the reason to root
for a Pax Americana. In an anarchic world, with rogue states and
terrorist cells, a globally dominant United States offers the best
hope for peace and stability, they argue.
"There's a positive
side to empire," Kaplan said. "It's in some ways the most benign
form of order."
Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune