Entry from January 9, 2003

All of a sudden the idea of American empire seems to be in the air. Of course it has been there for a long time in the view of those who despise the more expansive sorts of American foreign policy. Up until now, pretty much every believer in American empire, from Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky on the left to Pat Buchanan on the right, has also been an opponent of American empire. But now Niall Ferguson, the distinguished Oxford historian, has published an apology for Britain’s imperial past called Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World — to be published in America under the title Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power — which identifies America as “an empire in denial” and recommends, like Kipling, that we take up (gulp) the White Man’s Burden. Coincidentally, Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has written “The Burden,” a long piece for the New York Times Magazine with the same gist.

Well, sort of. Actually, Ignatieff spends much of his time agonizing over “the case for empire,” weighing up the pros and cons. Should we or shouldn’t we go the imperial route? Do we dare to eat a peach? “Even at this late date,” he writes, “it is still possible to ask: Why should a republic take on the risks of empire?” And even though he concludes that “Virtuous disengagement is no longer a possibility,” he likes dithering about it so much, and displaying his liberal conscience in recommending such deliciously conservative measures, that he never quite gets around to answering the question of what an empire is, let alone “an empire lite.” Answers turn out not to be in his line. He’s too fond of asking unnecessary and unanswerable questions. “The question, then, is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough. Does it have what it takes to be grandmaster of what Colin Powell has called the chessboard of the world”s most inflammable region?”

Who can possibly know at this stage? But the answer to the question of why we should take on the risks of empire is actually quite simple. It is because we have no choice. Some time ago I wrote (Diary of June 27, 2002) of how the idea of “capitalism” was a socialist con-trick. If you give a name, especially a name with an “-ism” attached to it, to things as they are, you automatically presuppose that there is some alternative “system” and so make plausible things as they aren’t. Half the battle for socialism was won (it was the other half that proved tricky) when the defenders of “capitalism” adopted the socialist view that things as they were constituted a rival “system” to things as they weren’t and never would be, and tried to defend it not as a necessity but as a better system — better, that is, than the one that purported to offer universal peace, prosperity and happiness. Spot the weakness in this defense of capitialism.

Yet who, then or now, has ever seen anything resembling the socialist paradise for which so many were prepared to fight and die? Those places claiming to be “socialist” were either inefficient welfare states squatting on the backs of “capitalist” economies or thugocracies in which those economies, in the form of black markets, were simply driven underground. Among the other “isms” that benefitted by the same con-trick was “imperialism.” For, like “capitalism”, “imperialism” represented things as they were pretty much throughout human history until someone thought to name it and so imply that there was an alternative. And we are still very much the prisoners of this kind of thinking, even though the last century should have taught us its inadequacy.

For who has ever seen a world in which small and weak nations are the equals of large and powerful ones? Who has ever seen one in which the latter do not (at least) push around and bully the former? Ignatieff says that “the core beliefs of our time are the creations of the anticolonial revolt against empire: the idea that all human beings are equal and that each human group has a right to rule itself free of foreign interference,” but who has ever witnessed an international order in which these “core beliefs” were anything but pious hopes? The smaller and weaker nations will be led, whether we like it or not, and if we choose not to lead them, the leadership they will get will be inimical if not fatal to our interests. We cannot say, on the one hand, that we choose not to exercise global hegemony and on the other that we also choose to maintain our stratospherically high (in global terms) standard of living, our access to foreign markets and our right to exercise control over our own.

The world naturally seeks order, and there is no one in the world remotely qualified to provide it but the United States of America. To answer Ignatieff’s question, republics become empires because of the inertia of success. America’s success, like Rome’s in the first century B.C. or Britain’s in the 19th century, is unprecedented. We could choose not to be successful any longer, or to be much more moderately successful, only in theory. The fact is that we will not, any more than the empires that have succeeded ours on the planet have done; any more than McDonalds will decide to close down all its corporate operations and go back to being a sandwich shop in San Bernardino. That’s just not the way the world works. The Buchananite and Chomskyan vision of a virtuous Little America refusing to throw its weight around in the world is, like Ignatieff’s self-conscious and guilt-ridden critique of “the core beliefs of our time” (the core superstitions would be more like it), mere sentimentality.

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