The New American Empire

The likely consequences of the 'Bush doctrine'

I have been pondering for quite some time just how to describe the new American Empire, but now, quite suddenly, my task has become much simpler. On September 20, the White House issued George W. Bush’s The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which describes the new empire with crystal clarity (available on the White House website--all readers of Commonweal, indeed all Americans, should read it). America will strike any nation or any group that it deems dangerous, whenever and however it feels necessary, and regardless of provocation or lack thereof. America invites allies to join in these ventures but reserves the right to act with or without allies. No nation will be allowed to surpass or even equal American military power, and indeed other nations are advised to limit or destroy any "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) they may have, and that includes Russia, China, and India. Only the United States will have large reserves of WMD, apparently because only we can be trusted to use them justly.

Although the document several times uses the time-honored phrase "balance of power," it is very unclear what that phrase can mean in a situation where we have all the power and no one else shall have the capacity to provide a balance. On top of the declaration of absolute military supremacy throughout the globe, the document reiterates, in the epigraph to chapter 3, Bush’s intention to "rid the world of evil," first uttered on September 14, 2001, in the National Cathedral. Apparently what even God has not succeeded in doing, America will accomplish. One may wonder how the George W. Bush who as a candidate in the 2000 electoral campaign so often sounded like an isolationist (we’re not into nation building), now sees himself as world ruler.Even more problematically, we can wonder how a nation whose third president advised it to avoid "foreign entanglements" finds itself the sole center of the entire globe.

Actually there is a deep relationship between these apparently contradictory stances: individualistic nationalism and national individualism. We will go it alone, either by withdrawing from the world, or by dominating it. In human history empires are a fact of life; they have not been all bad. In his War before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley argues that the Roman Empire was one of the most peaceful periods in history-fewer men under arms, and fewer civilians killed in war than in most of history. The British Empire during its heyday, roughly from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I, maintained a degree of tranquillity in the world that encouraged unprecedented economic growth. But both the Romans and the British intended to build an empire; the Americans, on the other hand, have become an empire almost by default, leaving us in no way prepared for imperial responsibilities. I can only suggest here the course of empire that the United States has taken. Expansion across North America was indeed "manifest destiny," intended to allow our growing population to occupy the continent. Beyond that, however, compared to other empires in history, our aims for direct rule were modest, peaking in the acquisitions that resulted from the Spanish-American War of 1895, and modestly diminishing (with the independence of the Philippines) since.

The American Empire has grown through the extension of what has classically been known as spheres of influence rather than direct rule. The first and perhaps archetypal step was the Monroe Doctrine that declared the entire Western Hemisphere free from European expansion. It was motivated as much by our deep-seated isolationism, our desire not to be encroached upon, as by a wish to dominate, though economic, political, and, on occasion, military domination did indeed follow. Following another episode of isolationism between World Wars I and II (symbolized by our refusal to join the League of Nations that our own President Woodrow Wilson had designed), we found ourselves after World War II as one of only two great powers in the world, and again, I would argue, we were more concerned that the Soviet bloc not encroach on the "free world" than in dominating the latter, although here, too, the record is ambiguous.

So for forty-five years after World War II our imperial sphere of influence was the entire non-Communist world, quite an expansion beyond the Monroe Doctrine. It is the third great expansion of our sphere of influence in the midst of which we now live. After the collapse of the Soviet sphere in the period 1989-91, we became the only great power, and our sphere of influence became the globe. America’s rise to world dominance was, however, not only military and political. It was economic and cultural, and again, I believe, without anyone ever quite intending it. Based on our relatively undamaged economy at the end of World War II, when the economies of all our rivals were in ruins, we became the economic dynamo of the postwar era. Even when Japan and Europe (especially Germany) became serious economic rivals, it was our model of economic life that exerted pressure on all other nations, as it does today in the so-called Washington consensus embraced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Our economic freedom, which has ambivalently fascinated the world, is closely related to our cultural freedom which rouses similar ambivalence. Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, in his 1995 commencement address at Harvard, made a telling observation: One evening not long ago I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant by the water. My chair was almost identical to the chairs they have in restaurants by the Vltava River in Prague. They were playing the same rock music they play in most Czech restaurants. I saw advertisements I’m familiar with back home. Above all, I was surrounded by young people who were similarly dressed, who drank familiar looking drinks, and who behaved as casually as their contemporaries in Prague. Only their complexion and their facial features were different-for I was in Singapore. In one sense, what Havel is talking about is globalization. But if you think about it, where, if not from America, did the rock music, the familiar-looking drinks, the clothes, and even the casual behavior originate? Informality and individuality are American trademarks, but so are consumerism, mass entertainment, and the ideology of the free market. There are certainly parts of the world that have not been touched by these cultural influences, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, but it is remarkable how soon the transistor radios and the beauty parlors re-appeared in Afghanistan once the Taliban were gone. There is almost no major city in the world where a scene such as that described by Havel could not be found. And although the language spoken in most of those restaurants would not be English, if you entered one, and spoke in English, chances are you would be understood. So, on top of global military, political, and economic power, the United States has hegemonic cultural and linguistic influence.

How are we to interpret this many-dimensional American globalization? One way would be to say that everyone in the world now has two nationalities: the one they were born with and American. Or we could go further and say we are not a country, we are the country. When Timothy Garton Ashe visited Belgrade and Pristina right after the Kosovo war, he asked young soccer players about their beliefs. Much as they hated each other, they agreed on one thing: Both groups wanted to be like Americans. When MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield interviewed young Iranians in Teheran in February 2002, she asked if they hated America. They said no; they love American things and want to be like Americans. But this love of American things is profoundly ambivalent, and mixed with envy stimulated by the many American things they know they don’t have. The Oxford Catholic scholar Nicholas Boyle has put this situation in Hegelian perspective:

[I]t precisely corresponds to the Hegelian model in that a universal process-the establishment of a global free market-is understood, and is correctly understood, as legitimating the particular features of the national life and being actualized through them. World-historical developments, according to Hegel, are realized only in the history of particular states, and if globalization is the dominant world-historical process of the last century and a half, Americanization-first of America and then of the world-is the particular form in which it is realized....The universal process of globalization has to become concrete in a particular form and it does so in the particular form of Americanization. Beyond individual statehood, for all of us, lies America.

Yet the central point I want to make is that the American polity is in no way prepared for this world-historical role that has been thrust upon us, making it doubtful that we can sustain the hegemony the national security document asserts. We remain a profoundly provincial, monolingual nation. Our current president, whether legitimate or not, is in some ways typical: when Bush visited Europe after taking office, it was said that it was his first trip to that continent. It is not just his ignorance (which has played into the hands of the small cabal of foreign-policy advisors that in fact makes the decisions) but his lack of interest in the rest of the world that is typical. Most Americans are not interested in the rest of the world and certainly don’t know much about it. Foreign news has been in decline as a proportion not only of television news, but even of newspaper reporting for decades. Our degree of national pride is unmatched in the world. Even before September 11, the National Opinion Research Center found that 90.4 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "I would rather be a citizen of America than of any other country in the world" (rising to 97.2 percent after September 11). Only slightly fewer Americans agreed with the statement that "America is a better country than most other countries." After September 11, almost half of our people agreed with the statement "The world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like the Americans." In his cover letter to the The National Security Strategy document, President Bush asserts that there is "a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." The document itself makes it clear that all other nations not merely should, but must, follow this single model--or else.

It is one of the ironies of history that the national culture that embodies the world spirit today is hostile to government and commmitted to the enhancement of the freedom of individuals to pursue their self-interest with as little interference as possible. The trouble is that when this American ideology gets translated to the international realm it means that the United States must be allowed to act freely, unfettered by international institutions, including specifically the United Nations, but also unfettered by any other compact, covenant, or international agreement. Does Bush realize that when he calls the United Nations "irrelevant" and compares it to the League of Nations should it not bow to our will, he is doing just what the Germans, Italians, and Japanese did in the 1930s: making the League of Nations "irrelevant" by refusing to abide by its decisions? The list of the agreements that we have either broken or refused to sign is too long to list here. The reason why even the most innocent sounding of them, such as the treaty to protect the rights of children, is rejected is that they encroach on American sovereignty: the absolutely sovereign American self must not be fettered.

The American administration justifies its insistence on immediate action by arguing that the United Nations has shown a lack of backbone in doing anything about the menace of Saddam. Of course, when we had the chance in 1991, we didn’t do anything about him either. Most nations in the Middle East and the rest of the world would be glad to see Saddam go, but they fear the evil they do not know more than the evil they know: An invasion has incalculable risks. The American campaign against Saddam is clearly a consequence of September 11, yet the rest of the world is not convinced that September 11 has made Saddam any more dangerous than he was before. We may yet get the Security Council to authorize force on our terms, but we will pay a price for the arm-twisting we have employed, and we can expect little help from other nations in dealing with the dangerous and certainly expensive consequences of military action. The nemesis of empires has always been overextension: military failures abroad, and bankruptcy at home.

The doctrine spelled out in The National Security Strategy document seems to be headed exactly in that direction. Nicholas Boyle, after saying that "Beyond individual statehood, for all of us, lies America," goes on to say: "And that is true for Americans too, though for them it is true in a special, paradoxical, and not necessarily comfortable way. To be the chosen intermediary of the world spirit is to be chosen in the end for destruction," a destruction to which "America is not immune." It does not take a Hegelian to know that the assertion of absolute power provokes the assertion of absolute counterpower. Last year, the day after September 11, a front-page editorial in the French newspaper Le Monde stated and restated the phrase, "We are all Americans now." But a year later, on September 10, 2002, the same writer, Jean-Marie Colombani, observed that "the solidarity reflex of one year ago has been drowned in a wave that leads one to believe that, in the world, we have all become anti-American."

Even if an "anti-American" is still a kind of "American," it is not the kind that should give us cheer. Is there any way to reverse, or even slow, the fateful course upon which we appear to be set? Could we use our vast imperial power to transcend the idea of empire? Imperare means command, and in the modern world, the idea of government by command has been replaced, at least in principle, by government by the consent of the governed. Could we give up command and replace it by the profoundly American principle of consent arising from public discussion, not force? Instead of decreeing the "single model" which the whole world must follow, could we instead work for a network of treaties, agreements, even international police forces, in which all the plurality of nations can participate? Instead of sabotaging every treaty, could we not promote as the principle of international order the democracy we claim to support-not "I am the king of the mountain and you will do what I say"-but all of us bound by a thousand ties of interdependence?

Some may think my argument unrealistic in a world where nation-states often place their own interests above all else. I would argue that in the present world the very idea of national interests must be rethought. It is in the ultimate best interest of every nation that transnational institutions replace nation-state power politics. China and/or India could become economic superpowers in the next half-century and our military dominance could falter. It is surely in our interest to connect all nations, great and small, in agreements that limit weapons and mandate arbitration rather than assume we will always have the capacity to dominate the world by force.

My great fear is that this latest American outburst of "the arrogance of power" will mobilize most of the world against us. But to look at the headlines or watch the evening news, it does not appear that many at the highest level of the United States government share such a fear. We have embarked on an endless "war on terrorism" in which the invasion of Iraq is only the next step-until exhaustion sets in. A chance for another course, another role for America in the world, depends ultimately on the reform of our own culture. A culture of unfettered individualism combined with absolute world power is an explosive mixture. A few religious voices have been raised to say so (see, among others, the recent special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, "Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11"). The question of the hour is whether our fellow citizens, not to mention our leaders, are ready to hear such voices.

Published in the 2002-10-25 issue: 

Robert N. Bellah is professor of sociology emeritus, University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is The Robert Bellah Reader (Duke University Press).

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