American Empire

Andrew Sullivan collects commentators on American imperialism, such as it is, while Salon wonders why we can’t call a spade a spade. My own take is, it’s entirely proper to consider America an empire, in the sense that empires still exist in the modern world. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

We should start with a realization that, in the post-colonial era, there really aren’t any more “empires” in the Roman, British, or (sure, why not) Akkadian sense. Bound by commerce and a decent but dearly-bought respect for the horrors of war, great powers really don’t fight great powers anymore. Nor do they colonize, aggressively assimilate lesser powers, collect satellite states, or win allies at the point of a sword. America is certainly as close as the modern world gets to No matter what the Iraq excursion was — and how exciting to use the past tense — it was not a colonial mission, in that the assimilation of Iraq as a territory was never a likely or even feasible result. Those types of national adventures died with the onset (and triumph) of early modern liberalism. Further, classical “empires” don’t negotiate as peers, as America has with Iraq’s provisional government.

If we accept that classical imperialism-by-conquest is a thing of the past, we can re-ask the question with redefined terms. Post-colonialism, “empire” feels like another way of saying “hegemony-plus” — and America might satisfy that definition. Like a hegemon, empires direct the course of the world, define international norms, and actively export their culture. The imperial difference is the implication of command (imperium), and of a unitary actor. America as hegemon shares her role with most of western Europe: when nations look to model their government on successful nation-states, founded on democratic values and based on individual self-determination, they have a choice between American- and British-style democracy, and quite often elect the former. American and European cultures mutually influence each other and, in combination, influence the rest of the world.

The difference is that, left to its own devices, America could (and often does) go her own way. The American security umbrella defends vast portions of the world which, consequentially, needn’t dedicate as much of their separate national wealth to maintaining an active military. The trade-off is, in military matters, America more often leads, with European nations serving as junior partners in the venture.

That this power even exists itself supports the claim to an American empire. What we do with it is another thing entirely. From Robert Fagles:

The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.

For so long as we possess the power, we should earn it on a daily basis. I’m not convinced we have, these last ten years, but it’s possible that we’re getting better.

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