U.S. Empire? Let’s Get Real

July 2, 2003 • Commentary
This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2003.

Not long ago, during the swinging ‘90s, we were celebrating the coming era of globalization. The “content providers” of the decade wrote books and articles called “The Rise and Fall of the Nation‐​State” and “The Borderless World.” They predicted that the business cycle would die, that the Dow would reach 12,000 (or was it 24,000?), that power would shift from government to businesses and that the merger between Time Warner and AOL would change the world as we knew it.

Indeed, rereading those forecasts should provide us with some perspective about the scenarios being drawn today, sometimes by the same pundits, who envisage the rise of a global American empire in which the United States, exploiting its unequaled military power, will make the world safe for its interests and ideals.

Click “American empire” on your Internet search engine and you’ll be linked to hundreds of Web sites, newspaper columns, magazine articles and books that discuss and debate Washington’s new imperial role around the globe. An influential group of American neoconservative intellectuals has been advancing the notion that America should and will enjoy a long “unipolar moment.” Critics here and abroad have been challenging this unilateralist American approach. The war in Iraq is fodder for both sides.

But the talk about American empire in the first decade of the 21st century is probably going to sound a lot like the chatter about globalization we were hearing in the last decade of the 20th century — an intellectual fad produced by pundits searching for catchy phrases and colorful metaphors to explain complex reality.

Not that change isn’t real.

The collapse of communism, worldwide economic liberalization and the advancement of information technology have all affected global politics and social systems. But the business cycle didn’t go away. The bears returned to Wall Street. The AOL Time Warner merger flopped. And the nation‐​state is alive and well, its power even strengthened in response to outside challenges, ranging from terrorism to SARS. Reality — and complexity — bites.

Now, consider the notion that the duopoly of the Cold War, United States versus the Soviet Union, will be replaced by a monopoly — the American empire. It’s a fact that the United States is the strongest military power in the international system, in the same way that elements of globalization are a reality. But just as globalization hasn’t smashed the nation‐​state, U.S. military supremacy probably won’t transform America into an empire. Economic costs, public opposition and potential challenges from other global players will get in the way.

That was the experience of Britain during the 20th century as it tried unsuccessfully to secure the foundations of its empire. In the Middle East, driven by oil and strategic interests, it tried to establish a new order. Britain put the Hashemites in power in Jordan and Iraq, set up the Saudis, maintained influence in Egypt and tried to end the cycle of violence between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. Sound familiar?

We know how that movie ended. The costs of the British Empire in the Middle East and elsewhere proved to be higher than the benefits. Resistance from regional players, including terrorists; challenges from global powers, including its ally the U.S.; and economic decline and opposition at home eventually led to a long and painful British withdrawal from the region, culminating in the 1956 Suez debacle.

The new U.S. script adds a Wilsonian democratic soundtrack to the British imperial production, but the contradictions between a realist pro‐​stability mind‐​set and idealist pro‐​democracy sentiments are bound to make it even more difficult to sustain this American democratic empire project. The situation will only invite regional and global players to challenge the American attempts to monopolize power in the Middle East and around the world.

Instead of empire and monopoly, Americans should be thinking more in terms of oligopoly. To advance its legitimate interests in the Middle East and in the region some have called the Crescent of Instability — stretching from the Balkans to the borders of China — the United States should be playing a leading role in an ensemble cast of great powers.

The only realistic scenario aimed at advancing global U.S. interests will have to be based on cooperation with the European Union, Russia, China and India, as well as several mid‐​sized powers like Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Such a diplomatic‐​military cooperative system would not only help contain terrorism and deal with instability in the Middle East and its periphery, it would also help bring China and India further into the international system as stable and pro‐​status‐​quo powers.

Of course, “ensemble of great powers” doesn’t sound as trendy or as sexy as empire. But such a scenario is in many ways more in tune with the realpolitik tradition of a complex world than the imperial fantasies advanced by neoconservative intellectuals who fashion themselves realists.

After all, intellectual fads of the moment like empire — or the total triumph of globalism — cannot become a basis for long‐​term policy. In most cases, they are overtaken by events and are eventually rejected even by those who had once celebrated them.

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