American power and the fate of empire

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University

Benjamin R. Barber, Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy, New York, W.W. Norton, 2004 (224 pp). ISBN 0-39332-578-4 (paperback) RRP $23.95.

Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, London, Penguin, 2004 (400 pp). ISBN 0-71399-770-2 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the Fall of the Republic, London, Verso, 2004 (224 pp). ISBN 1-85984-578-9 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire, London, Verso, 2003 (284 pp). ISBN 1-85984-582-7 (hard cover) RRP $39.99.

Empire has returned as both a serious subject of scholarly interest and, arguably, a serious object of international diplomacy. The attacks of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ revived calls for the United States to assume (if it had not done so already) the mantle of empire. Exactly what kind of empire the United States is supposed to be—or to become—remains unclear. For those attempting to define it, the United States has been variously described as an ‘incoherent’, ‘liberal’, ‘virtual’, or ‘consensual empire’.

Whatever we call it, the United States today is not like the empires of the past. We can get a sense of the difficulty of defining the American empire by reflecting on the metaphors used to describe this ‘new’ imperial power. Conservative British historian Niall Ferguson, for example, has recently called the United States a ‘liberal empire’ (p. 27), an ‘empire by invitation’ (p. 87), an ‘ephemeral empire’ (p. 204), an ‘informal empire’ (p. 206), a ‘debtor empire’ (p. 279), and most idiosyncratically a ‘sedentary colossus … [a] strategic couch potato’ (p. 295)! Ferguson’s metaphorical acrobatics reflect an old problem in writing about American imperialism, both pro and con; that is, how to reconcile the tensions between the brutal mechanics of imperial rule, and the ideological commitment of the United States to liberal and democratic values.

The United States, Ferguson argues, is the best hope for liberal democracy across the globe. He provocatively claims that America should use its power, like the British did in the 19th century, to export liberal values, democratic institutions, and free trade, and thereby maintain a global ‘Pax Americana’. Ferguson’s worry, though, is that the United States is not enough of an empire. More precisely, American citizens are unwilling to see themselves and their nation as an empire. Ultimately, he argues, this failure will have severe repercussions because it means that America will not show the nerve to do what is necessary to sustain a global empire (pp. 24–29). Perhaps more importantly, they will also fail to set their own house in order (of which, more later).

Whatever we call it, the United States is not like the empires of the past.

Ferguson contends that the lessons of successful imperial power (which he draws mainly from the British experience) require the United States to commit to the logic of imperial power. This means that they must be prepared to apply maximum force when needed (he cites Vietnam as an example of America’s failure to apply enough force (p. 96); but they must also try to avert the need for brute force by stringing their imperial subjects along with misinformation about their real intentions. Like the British Empire, Ferguson contends, the US Empire speaks the language of liberal values and free trade (pp. 183–99), but the United States has shown itself reluctant to conquer and hold territory, preferring a strategy of relatively quick intervention and regime change (p. 13). This policy is unlikely to work in the myriad failed and failing states around the world.

Ferguson blames this disastrous global situation on decolonisation, and asks whether some peoples might not be better off under ‘imperial governance’ requiring the ‘partial or complete suspension of their national sovereignty’ (p. 170). He dismisses the United Nations, Europe, China, and NATO as alternatives to, or rivals of, the imperial power of the United States (pp. 148–49, 256, 261). Like it or not, the United States is the only entity able to provide a solution. To do so, they must take a leaf out of the British book of empire, and do what Britain did in Egypt. The United States must intervene with sufficient force, constantly claim to be keen to leave, but remain firmly in place for as long as it takes to ensure that domestic institutions are well and truly secured (pp. 222–23).

In making this case, Ferguson betrays the hubris of the professional historian. In drawing putative lessons from history, one is left with the firm impression that the lives of actual human beings don’t count for much. Of course state failure is a problem. But it seems rash to blame it on decolonisation without taking account of how newly independent nations have been subjected to an international economic regime that reflects the interests of the developed economies (many of them former imperial powers). Similarly, it is doubtful that the United States could maintain the careful duplicity that Ferguson associates with British control of Egypt (assuming that he is right about that). It is unlikely that American protestations that they want to leave Iraq would make any difference to the militants of Fallujah or Ramadi. Developments in military and communications technology mean that whatever kind of empire might exist today, it would have to operate in a very different way to the British or any other empire of the past.

Ferguson betrays the hubris of the professional historian.

Like Ferguson, Chalmers Johnson is aware of tensions between imperial realities and liberal democratic pretensions, but he takes the latter rather more seriously. The current United States empire he argues, is in flagrant contradiction with its liberal and democratic traditions. Johnson and Ferguson agree, however, that the real turning point in recent global history was not the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The post-Cold War environment of newly independent, but economically parlous states opened the way for the United States to extend its strategic control of oil reserves, and to enhance its tactical, geo-political presence (Johnson pp. 217–53). Thus, the United States opted for a highly militarised empire represented by the myriad of large and small US bases around the world (725 at last count) (pp. 24, 156–60). For Johnson, these bases act not only as a reminder of the American presence, but also as a mechanism of US power, a ‘skeleton’ of empire (p. 187). The costs of maintaining this empire are high in both money and material (pp. 102–119). Another high cost has been the loss of democratic oversight and control of the military (pp. 121–30). Perhaps, then, if Johnson is right, it is not that Americans don’t want an empire, but that they don’t know they have one!

It is tempting to equate foreign bases with imperial power, but American military presence does not necessarily correlate with political domination. British sociologist Michael Mann argues that far from creating greater security for the United States, its network of foreign bases creates greater hostility and insecurity (p. 22). Mann’s central thesis is that the United States is an unrivalled global power, but the more it exerts its power, the more deeply it becomes embroiled in dilemmas of its own making. If America is an empire, he writes, it is a peculiarly ‘incoherent’ empire: despite its massive military might, the United States apparently has little or no capacity to build (or re-build) nations (pp. 80–97). And while the ideological power of American cultural values is ubiquitous, these values seem to excite as much hostility as admiration (pp. 118–120). Finally, the United States has blundered badly in the struggle against terrorism, failing to recognise that a military ‘solution’ will simply fuel more terrorism (pp. 160–170). Nonetheless, Mann (along with Barber) is generally more optimistic than Ferguson or Johnson. For Mann, an enlightened policy of multilateralism holds the key to the struggle against terrorism, failed and ‘rogue’ states. Most importantly, he contends, the world does not need an American (or any other) empire: genuinely multilateral institutions are a better and safer bet than American hegemony (pp. 264–65). The question of American empire, then, is a non-starter. In Mann’s view, the United States simply ‘does not have imperial political powers. The Age of Empire has gone.’ (p. 97).

If America is an empire, Mann writes, it is a peculiarly ‘incoherent’ one.

Mann’s thesis is not misguided, but it does ignore the ubiquity of indecision and incoherence in all empires. The ancient Athenian statesman Pericles, for instance, traced the ‘imperial dignity’ of Athens to its willingness to conquer, which entailed both harsh sacrifice at home and incurring hatred and envy abroad. Empire, he told the wavering Athenians, ‘is like a tyranny’ and like any tyranny their empire could not perhaps be morally justified. Most importantly however, having achieved an empire, the Athenians could not afford to let it go. To do so would invite disorder and ruin. Nonetheless, as Polybius, historian of Rome’s empire, warned, even the mightiest empires face inevitable decay and collapse. Significantly then, empire holds out the promise of order and peace, but also presents the peril of decline into chaos.

The United States is, perhaps despite itself, committed to an imperial task of securing a global order defined in large measure by its own interests. Nonetheless, if contemporary observers of American society are right, Americans today (like Pericles’ Athenians) are also unwilling to pay the high economic and moral costs of empire. But they probably have little choice. Empires have always been uncertain creatures. The desire for global order sits awkwardly alongside the body count of conquest and foreign domination. Every empire is also haunted by the Polybian fear of eventual collapse and its aftermath. This fear lies at the heart of Benjamin Barber’s analysis of the current situation of the United States—caught between its awesome military capability and the fear that its use engenders both at home and abroad.

One of the pre-eminent contemporary American political philosophers, Barber has previously written of the global confrontation between the values of ‘Jihadist’ fundamentalism and terrorism, and the globalised values of American-style consumerism (that he aptly named ‘McWorld’). Fear’s Empire takes up this theme, but focuses more closely on the American domestic response to the terrorist threat. Barber’s thesis is not that there is such a thing as an American empire, but that the current ‘war on terror’ constitutes ‘an empire of fear’ opposed to the values of democracy (p. 33). America’s ‘preventive’ or ‘pre-emptive’ war on terror is based on the generation of fear at home, a fear that undermines American democracy and gives impetus to militarism and insularity. ‘Preventive war’ also propagates fear abroad and unwittingly cultivates greater anti-Americanism and more terrorism (p. 109). Barber’s refrain is that there is no ‘military solution’ to terrorism. While terrorists must be fought, the causes of terrorism have also to be removed, and the only way to do this is to cultivate democracy.

For Barber the ‘war on terror’ constitutes ‘an empire of fear’ opposed to the values of democracy.

Democracy, Barber suggests, is the only political mechanism that can resolve differences peacefully and create a genuinely law-governed interdependence of citizens across the globe. This is Barber’s view of the alternative to the current phenomenon of commercial, neo-liberal globalisation. ‘CivWorld’ is his term for this alternative, embodying interdependence and global citizenship based on a shared commitment to civilised values and international law (pp. 217–232). A more successful strategy for combating terrorism then, is a strategy of ‘preventive democracy’ (p. 54); not simply the export of American democracy, but genuine and painstaking efforts to foster, ‘democracy within nations and democracy in the conventions, institutions, and regulations that govern relations among, between and across nations’ (p. 164). Barber is clear that democracy cannot be imposed at the point of a gun (p. 189), nor can it be achieved quickly (p. 193). Ultimately, America’s destiny as a world power hinges more heavily on its capacity to build democracy and shape world citizens, than it does on its military might. Though he exhorts American citizens and policy-makers to embrace this alternative strategy, its prospects seem more remote today (after the re-election of President Bush) than they were when Barber wrote.

Interestingly, all four authors agree that the future of the American Empire (if we assume that there is one) looks bleak. Barber is reluctant to label the United States an empire, but he argues convincingly that its current strategy of ‘preventive war’ is unsustainable. America’s special pleading for its right to defend itself through pre-emptive strikes corrodes the multilateral structure of world order; while its capacity to succeed in this ‘war’ requires a global ‘dominion’ that is no longer feasible in our globalised world (Barber p. 119). Ferguson’s is perhaps the most pessimistic of the four; after all, his book’s title not only lauds ‘the rise’, but also predicts ‘the fall’ of America’s Empire. Mann, Johnson, and above all Ferguson, hone in on the Empire’s domestic Achilles heel; the United States simply lacks the strength in its domestic economy and population growth to sustain global empire. The empire of ‘free trade’ is likely to be brought down by the spiralling rates of household debt, and an ageing population (Ferguson pp. 268–85; Mann pp. 50–51; Johnson p. 309).

Australians must determine how much our interests coincide with serving in the imperial projects of our powerful ally.

One of Polybius’ most astute ‘modern’ readers was Niccolo Machiavelli. His solution to the nightmare of imperial corruption and collapse was renewed commitment to citizen virtue in the founding of a new political order. It is perhaps fitting then, that Chalmers Johnson concludes on a distinctly Machiavellian note, by exhorting ‘the people’ to ‘retake control’ and ‘cleanse’ the American polity of its imperial ‘corruptions’ before it is too late (p. 312). Achieving this kind of transformation however, would require something akin to Barber’s recommendation of a wholesale renunciation of fear and the shabby rhetoric of American ‘exceptionalism’ and virtuous purity (p. 116).

As a small power allied to the United States, Australians will watch with interest, but the prospects of a Machiavellian popular resurgence seem remote at best. The United States today seems more committed than ever to an imperial strategy of intervention in ‘trouble spots’ across the globe, and American decision makers will decide in their own interests how to locate those ‘spots’ and what ‘trouble’ they present. As an avowed American ally, Australia must determine the extent to which its own interests coincide with serving in the imperial projects of its powerful ally. Australians, then, must consider how far they wish to commit themselves to the global strategies of a power that seems increasingly to embody the uncertainties and the perils of empire.

Bruce Buchan teaches history and moral and political philosophy in the School of Arts, Media and Culture at Griffith University. His research focuses on the relationship between war, state formation, and empire in the development of Western political thought. He is currently researching the evolution of concepts of sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty in colonial and post-colonial Australia and Canada.