The Empire Strikes Out: The “New Imperialism” and Its Fatal Flaws

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Since the September 11, 2001, terroristattacks on the United States, several commentatorshave advanced the idea of security throughempire. They claim that the best way to protectthe United States in the 21st century is to emulatethe British, Roman, and other empires of thepast. The logic behind the idea is that if theUnited States can consolidate the internationalsystem under its enlightened hegemony,America will be both safer and more prosperous.Although the word "empire" is not used, theBush administration's ambitious new NationalSecurity Strategy seems to embrace the notion ofneoimperialism.

The idea, however, ignores the fact thattoday's world bears little resemblance to the oneover which Britain or Rome once presided. Twodifferences are obvious: First, the world is farmore interconnected today, which makes theconsequences of sanctimonious, arrogant, orclumsy international behavior riskier politically,diplomatically, and economically. Second, thepotential costs associated with making enemiestoday are far greater than they were for empirespast. Indeed, the British and the Romans werethe targets of assassinations, arson, and otherforms of anti-imperial backlash, but that activitywas typically small-scale and took place far fromthe mother country. Forms of backlash today, incontrast, could be large-scale and directed atAmerica's homeland.

Most of all, the strategy of empire is likely tooverstretch and bleed America's economy and itsmilitary and federal budgets, and the overextensioncould hasten the decline of the UnitedStates as a superpower, as it did the Soviet Unionand Great Britain. The strategy could also havethe opposite effect from what its proponentsclaim it would have; that is, it would alarm othernations and peoples and thus provoke counter-balancingbehavior and create incentives forother nations to acquire weapons of massdestruction as an insurance policy againstAmerican military might.

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of Putting "Defense" Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World (2001).