Le Monde Diplomatique
September, 2002

Westward the course of Empire
by Philip S. Golub*

The aftermath of the terrorist attacks has revived imperialist ideology in the United States, rather than caused it to query its world role. Writers do not hesitate to draw parallels between their nation and ancient Rome, which they hold to be a model for world domination in the 21st century.

A WHILE before 11 September the American historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, suggested that despite the "absence of international checks and balances" in the modern unipolar world, the United States would not "stroll too far down the perilous highway to hubris . . . No one nation is going to be able to assume the role of world arbitrator and policeman" (1). Like many American intellectuals, he remained confident about US democracy and the rationality of decision making. And Charles William Maynes, an influential voice in US foreign policy, asserted: "America is a country with imperial capabilities but without an imperial mind" (2).

But now we must face facts: a new imperial doctrine is taking shape under George Bush. Now is reminiscent of the late 19th century, when the US began its colonial expansion into the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, the first steps to world power. Then the US was seized by great imperialist fervour. Journalists, businessmen, bankers and politicians vied to promote policies of world conquest.

"American economic leaders were fixing their eyes on the industrial supremacy of the world" (3) and political leaders were dreaming of a "splendid little war", as Theodore Roosevelt put it, to justify international expansion. "We have a record of conquest, colonisation and expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century. We are not about to be curbed now," said Henry Cabot Lodge, the leading ideologue of the imperial camp, in 1895 (4). Roosevelt, an admirer of the British imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling, believed the national destiny was clear: "I wish to see the US the dominant power on the Pacific Ocean. Our people are neither cravens nor weaklings and we face the future high of heart and confident of soul, eager to do the great work of a great world power" (5).

Summing up the imperialist fashion of the era, the journalist Marse Henry Watterson wrote in 1896: "We are a great imperial Republic, destined to exercise a controlling influence upon the actions of mankind and to affect the future of the world as the world was never affected, even by the Roman Empire" (6). Haughty but premonitory words.

US historians have generally considered the late 19th century imperialist urge as an aberration in an otherwise smooth democratic trajectory. The US had emerged from a war of independence to cast off British colonial domination, and had played its part in the Enlightenment project against absolutist continental European monarchies. Surely this experience inoculated it once and for all against the virus of imperialism?

Yet a century later, as the US empire engages in a new period of global expansion, Rome is once more a distant but essential mirror for American elites. In 1991 the US found itself the only remaining great power. Now, with military mobilisation on an exceptional scale after September 2001, the US is openly affirming and parading its imperial power. For the first time since the 1890s, the naked display of force is backed by explicitly imperialist discourse.

"The fact is," writes Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist and a spokesman of the neo-conservative right, "no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the late Roman Empire" (7). According to Robert Kaplan, a conservative essayist and an international policy mentor to Bush, "Rome's victory in the Second Punic War, like America's in World War II, made it a universal power" (8).

Even writers closer to the political centre feel obliged to refer to Rome. Joseph S Nye Jr, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Assistant Secretary of State for Defence under the Clinton administration, began his latest book: "Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others" (9) (see box 'Don't go it alone').

The historian Paul Kennedy, who made his name in the 1980s with his premature prediction of US imperial overstretch, goes further: "Nothing has ever existed like the disparity of power [in the present world system]. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap. 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 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" (10). In inner and outer circles of US power all agree - "the US is enjoying a pre-eminence unrivalled by even the greatest empires of the past" (11).

The recurrence of comparisons with Rome and the omnipresence of the word empire in the US press are not just descriptive; they reflect the emergence of a new imperial ideology. In an article by Max Boot, a Wall Street Journal columnist, under the title "The Case for American Empire", he writes: "It is striking - and no coincidence - that America now faces the prospect of military action in many of the same lands where generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns. These are all places where Western armies had to quell disorder. Afghanistan and other troubled foreign lands cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets" (12).

Dinesh D'Souza is a far right ideologue and researcher at the Hoover Institution, who caught the public attention with theories on the "natural" inferiority of Afro-Americans. In a recent article, "In praise of American empire", he argued that Americans must finally recognise that the US "has become an empire, the most magnanimous imperial power ever" (13).

These apologists of empire are not confined to the far right. Imperial thinking has also infiltrated academia. Stephen Peter Rosen, head of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, maintains with scientific detachment that: "A political unit that has overwhelming military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behaviour of other states, is called an empire. Our goal is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order" (14). An order, as a more critical Harvard professor emphasises, entirely "crafted to suit American imperial objectives. The empire signs on to those pieces of the transnational legal order that suit its purposes (the WTO), while ignoring or even sabotaging those parts (the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, the ABM Treaty) that do not" (15).

Radical departure

The idea of empire is a radical departure from the image, as articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, that Americans have of themselves and their country, as a democratic exception among nations. This contradiction is no longer a cause of great concern. Those who still have any scruples, and they are increasingly few, qualify the words empire and hegemony with adjectives such as benevolent or gentle. Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment writes: "And the truth is that the benevolent hegemony exercised by the US is good for a vast portion of the world's population. It is certainly a better international arrangement than all realistic alternatives" (16).

A century ago Theodore Roosevelt used almost exactly the same words. Rejecting any comparison between the US and Europe's colonial predators, he wrote: "The simple truth is there is nothing even remotely resembling imperialism in the development of the policy of expansion which has been part of the history of America since the day she became a nation. There is not an imperialist in the country that I have met yet" (17).

Sebastian Mallaby writes for the Washington Post, which, despite its reputation after Watergate and its belated opposition to the Vietnam war, has become more jingoistic since last September. Mallaby calls himself a "reluctant imperialist". Writing in the review Foreign Affairs in April 2002, he suggests that the current world disorder obliges the US to pursue imperialist policies. He apocalyptically pictures the third world, its bankrupt states, uncontrolled population growth, endemic violence and social decay. He maintains that the only rational choice is a return to imperial rule. Third world states threatening Western security should be placed under direct control. He concludes that: "Non-imperialist options, notably, foreign aid and various nation building efforts, are not altogether reliable. The logic of neo-imperialism is too compelling for the Bush administration to resist" (18).

Bush does not seem to be trying too hard to resist. He is reluctant to invest in nation building or commit the US to humanitarian interventions. But he is quick to deploy US armed forces all over the world to crush the enemies of civilisation and forces of evil. His vocabulary, with its constant references to civilisation, barbarians and pacification, betrays classical imperial thinking.

There is no knowing quite what Bush learned at Yale and Harvard, but since 11 September he has become the unlikely Caesar of the new imperial camp in the US. According to Cicero, Caesar "fought with the greatest success against those most valiant and powerful nations and the other nations he alarmed and drove back and defeated, and accustomed to yield to the supremacy of the Roman people" (19). In much the same way Bush and the new US right now plan to secure the US empire through war, subjugating fractious third world peoples, overthrowing rogue states and perhaps even taking direct control of bankrupt post-colonial states.

Under Bush, the US hopes to achieve greater security and prosperity through the force of arms, rather than international co-operation. It is prepared to act alone or in temporary coalitions, unilaterally and in defence of narrowly-defined national interests. Instead of dealing with the economic and social causes that nurture recurrent violence in the South, the US is fuelling instability. That its objective is not territorial gain but control makes little difference. Benevolent or reluctant imperialists are imperialists all the same.

In the new US worldview, third world countries must submit to a new period of colonisation or semi-sovereignty. Europe would have to make do with a subordinate role in the imperial system. Far from being an autonomous power Europe is seen as a dependent zone, lacking the willpower and resources to defend itself, and subservient to US decisions to wage war. It would have to find its place in a new imperial division of labour in which "America does the bombing and fighting, the French, British and Germans serve as police in the border zones, and the Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavians provide humanitarian aid" (20).

As Michael Ignatieff notes, apart from the British, the US trusts its allies so little that it excludes them from any but the most menial peacekeeping tasks. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who initiated the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, formulated the idea, now widely shared in Washington, arguing that the US should seek to "prevent collusion and maintain dependence among the vassals, keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together" (21).

Charles Krauthammer puts it even more bluntly: "America won the cold war, pocketed Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic as door prizes, then proceeded to pulverise Serbia and Afghanistan and, en passant, highlighted Europe's irrelevance with a display of vast military superiority" (22). This contempt goes a long way to explain the tension that has affected transatlantic relations since 11 September.
Pursuing this hard imperial option will condemn the US to building walls around the West. To borrow a powerful phrase from the South African writer, John Michael Coetzee, the US, like all previous empires, will spend its remaining period of power, however long it lasts, haunted by a single thought: "How not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era" (23).


* Journalist and lecturer at the Institute of European Studies, University of Paris VIII - Saint-Denis.

(1) Arthur Schlesinger Jr, "Unilateralism in Historic Perspective", in Understanding Unilateralism in US Foreign Policy, RIIA, London, 2000.

(2) Charles William Maynes, "Two blasts against unilateralism", in Understanding Unilateralism in US Foreign Policy, op cit.

(3) Quoted by William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Dell, New York, 1962.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Quoted by Howard K Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1989.

(6) Quoted by David Healy in US Expansionism, the Imperialist Urge in the 1980s, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison (Wisconsin), 1970.

(7) Quoted in "It takes an empire say several US thinkers", The New York Times, 1 April 2002. See also C Krauthammer, "The Unipolar Moment", Foreign Affairs, New York, 1990.

(8) Quoted in "It takes an empire say several US thinkers", op cit.

(9) Joseph S Nye Jr, The Paradox of American Power, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.

(10) Paul Kennedy, "The Greatest Superpower Ever", New Perspectives Quarterly, Washington, winter 2002.

(11) Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.

(12) Max Boot, "The Case for American Empire", Weekly Standard, Washington, 15 October 2001, vol 7, no 5.

(13) Christian Science Monitor, Boston, 26 April 2002.

(14) "The Future of War and the American Military", Harvard Review, May-June 2002, vol 104, no 5.

(15) Michael Ignatieff, "Barbarians at the Gate?", New York Review of Books, 28 February 2002. See also Pierre Conesa and Olivier Lepick "The new world disorder", Le Monde diplomatique English language edition, July 2002.

(16) Robert Kagan, "The Benevolent Empire", Foreign Policy, Washington, summer 1998.

(17) Howard K Beale, op cit.

(18) Sebastian Mallaby, "The Reluctant Imperialist, Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire", Foreign Affairs, New York, March-April 2002.

(19) Cicero, On the consular provinces, XIII, 32-35 et passim.

(20) Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness, Why Europe and the US see the world differently", Policy Review, Washington, June-July 2002, no 113.

(21) Quoted by Charles William Maynes, op cit.

(22) Washington Post, 20 February 2002.

(23) John Michael Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, Secker & Warburg, London, 1980.

Translated by Harry Forster


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