Commentary

“Empire” — A Losing Political Issue

Not quite a year ago, when the euphoria over the U.S. military’s sweeping victory over Saddam Hussein’s armies was at its high point, Washington was consumed with talk of empire.

“No need to run away from the label,” wrote Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, “America’s destiny is to police the world.” Harvard’s Michael Ignatieff agreed. “Imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary,” he said, “just because it is politically incorrect.” Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, who both served on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, admitted that, for them, “the real debate is not whether to have an empire, but what kind.”

And yet, the American people seemed unconvinced of the supposed benefits of empire. In July 2003 the American Enterprise Institute hosted a debate to discuss the straightforward proposition: “The United States Is, and Should Be, an Empire.” Arguing in the affirmative was Niall Ferguson, the author of the best-selling book Empire, who had elsewhere asserted, “empire is a form of international government that can work — and not just for the benefit of the ruling power.” At the AEI debate, Ferguson surveyed the scope of American power — military, economic, and cultural — and concluded, “the only thing that is really quite remarkable about the American empire … is the fact that Americans refuse to believe in its existence.”

Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, and Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade from 1993 until 1995, foresaw a similar disconnect between Washington insiders enamored of empire, and those beyond the Beltway who had little appetite for imperial burdens.

Arguing that the United States was “an empire in all but name,” Garten urged the president to convince the American people not that an empire is unwise, but rather that Americans must send “their sons and daughters” abroad to rebuild countries damaged by American military intervention.

Specifically, Garten called for the creation of a “colonial service” akin to the former British Colonial Service.

This seems unlikely, at least in the near term. In his prime time press conference last week, President Bush went out of his way to disavow any imperial intentions. Discussing the ongoing military operations in Iraq, and talk of a long-term occupation there, Bush affirmed that the Iraqi people “do not support an indefinite occupation — and neither does America. We are not an imperial power, as nations such as Japan and Germany can attest.”

But while the president may shy away from the term empire, the conduct of our foreign policy is clearly guided by a presumption that the United States is, and should be, the world’s only superpower. The National Security Strategy declares that the United States shall maintain its predominant position in the world at all costs, even acting preemptively if and when would-be rivals emerge, or appear likely to emerge.

But while the possession of a military force that is second-to-none might appear on the surface to be a manifestation of imperial domination, the proponents of empire claim that the United States is not really an empire because it has noble intentions. The Bush National Security Strategy pledges to reshape the world according to our image, and establishes as a core object of U.S. policy the creation of a world that is “not just safer but better.” Left unsaid, but implicitly understood, is that the United States will determine what is better. So much for the rhetoric from the 2000 campaign when candidate George Bush questioned America’s right to “go around the world and say, `This is the way it’s got to be.’”

While citizens of Rome reveled in their glorious empire, and the British “hailed Britannia,” Americans have yet to embrace the term, or the concept behind it. And they are unlikely to do so. Most Americans, even those who did not pay attention during their high school history classes, will remember that America seceded from the British Empire.

This is the part of our history that many modern-day imperialists would prefer to forget. For most of our country’s history, Americans resisted the imperial impulse. They were guided by the Founders oft-stated warnings that a republican form of government was incompatible with an imperial foreign policy. The Founders feared empire because it subverts the freedoms and liberties of citizens at home while simultaneously thwarting the will of sovereign people abroad.

The general public is right to be skeptical of empire. On balance, the objections to an imperial foreign policy can be summed up in a single sentence: empire is problematic because it threatens our liberty and economic security at home, and it is counterproductive abroad. Knowing of Americans’ long-standing opposition to the concept of empire, the imperialists are unlikely to put this question before the public for a vote. Instead of admitting that the costs of empire are great — and growing — the Bush administration and its ideological allies dismiss the costs of empire with a wave. The most common refrain — that the cost of whatever we are doing is far less than the costs of another terrorist attack — is deceptively simple because it is impossible to disprove a negative. In the highly unlikely event that there is never another terrorist attack, we will never know how much such an attack might have cost. Whatever was spent to prevent such an attack, therefore, will be deemed to have been worth it. In the more likely event that another terrorist attack does occur, the defenders of the strategy of empire will declare that the attack would certainly have had far graver effects, or that there would have been far more attacks, if the money hadn’t been spent — and then call for still more money to solve the problem.

There is an alternative to empire, however — one that is in keeping with America’s traditions and values. Beginning last summer, a group of scholars, policy makers, and concerned citizens formed the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. Spanning the ideological spectrum from left to right, and attracting supporters from across the country, the Coalition is united by our opposition to an American empire. We are dedicated to promoting an alternative vision for an American national security strategy that is consistent with American traditions and values. This continues to be the organizing principle on which we operate. (See our Statement of Principles.)

To counter the arguments of those who favor empire, the coalition holds conferences, and media events, promotes research, and communicates a vision of the alternatives to empire, including a restrained foreign policy that protects American interests.

For the advocates and opponents of empire, the key question revolves around the opinions of our fellow Americans. Will open advocacy for empire in this political season be an asset, or a liability? If history is any guide, and it often is, the American people will favor prudent, responsible foreign policies that defend U.S. national security interests while rejecting imperialist fantasies.

Christopher Preble is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy (www.realisticforeignpolicy.org) and the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.