War, Peace, and the State, Part 2

XXI. The Debate Over US Empire in the Age of Bush II

The opportunity provided US rulers by the criminal attacks of 9/11/01 has led to an outpouring of new works on the theme of American empire. On the pro-imperial side of the ledger stand those who see the US Empire as a benign, essential upholder of world order on the model of the Athenian, Roman, or British empires. In general, the British example is the one most on offer, for obvious cultural-linguistic reasons.

That so many pro-imperial writers now use the actual E-word is a sign that they think they have won and that there really is no debate needed. On the other hand, the new state of affairs may be an improvement on earlier discussions taking the form of "first there is an empire, then there is no empire, then there is."

Pride of place in pushing the shining example of the British Empire goes, naturally to our cousins across the water. Foremost among these is Niall Ferguson, whose book, Empire: The Rise and Decline of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003), draws the expected lessons.

Paul Johnson, "From the Evil Empire to the Empire for Liberty," The New Criterion, 21, 10 (June 2003), meditates on sovereignty and is glad it slipped from the hands of the Papacy and ended up where it belongs, with the British, and then the American state.

Stanley Kurtz, "Democratic Imperialism: A Blueprint," Policy Review, 118 (April 2003), exhorts Americans to look to the "liberal imperialism" developed at the India Office by such worthies as John Stuart Mill. (For a negative view of liberal imperialism, see Joseph R. Stromberg, "Kantians With Cruise Missiles," Antiwar.com, December 23, 2003, and "John Stuart Mill and Liberal Imperialism," Antiwar.com, May 18, 2002.)

Finally, for reason in the service of madness, nothing beats the many books and essays, widely available and too numerous to cite, by Victor Davis Hanson of National Review.

Given the sheer size of the Liberal and Conservative – and now Neo-Conservative – interventionist scholarly infrastructure that grew up during the long constitutional and intellectual coma known as the Cold War, there is far too much pro-imperial and "benign hegemonist" literature to discuss here. For a useful overview of the imperial "socialists of the chair," see the Right Web a site that is perhaps unique in being able to tell libertarians and paleoconservatives from the now largely Neo-Colonized Right Wing.

Poised somewhere between the paladins of empire and the critics of empire, is Michael Ignatieff, “The American Empire: The Burden,” New York Times Magazine, January 5. 2003.

We now turn to the critics of the current phase of empire building.

Gore Vidal, Dreaming War (New York: Nation Books, 2003), and Norman Mailer, Why Are We At War? (New York: Random House, 2003), carry forth a long-running critique of the imperial process.

Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003), is a tour de force by an Anglo-American sociologist who has long been interested in forms of power in human history. Here he argues that various ideological and structural faults will make the run of the US Empire rather briefer than its advocates think.

Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), is an important critique by a long-established authority on East Asia. See also Johnson's earlier book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000).

Claes Ryn, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003) sees the US imperial thrust as arising from ideological deformations of American democracy traceable to Rousseau. A shorter version of the thesis is found in Claes Ryn, "The Ideology of American Empire," Orbis, (Summer 2003).

Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). Here he rediscovers the wisdom in the historical vision of Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams. Bacevich's doubts about empire may be traced through a series of essays in First Things appearing from about 1995 onwards. In addition, The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), a collection edited by Bacevich, brings together a range of writings on the US Empire – from those of empire-deniers and empire defenders to those of mild and harsh critics of the empire.

Written before the recent excitement, Isabelle Grunberg, "Exploring the u2018myth' of hegemonic stability," International Organization, 44, 4 (Autumn 1990), pp. 431–477, is usefully debunks, as a form of myth, the claim that a benevolent empire is necessary to an orderly world. Another pre-9/11 piece, Jeffry A. Frieden, "International Investment and Colonial Control: A New Interpretation," International Organization, 48, 4 (Autumn 1994), pp. 559–593, suggests arguing that under certain circumstances a metropolitan power will intervene to secure control of physically immoveable resources important to that power's extractive industries. (Oil comes to mind.)

Anatol Lieven, "A Trap of Their Own Making," London Review of Books, 25, 9 (8 May 2003) is a moderate critique of the US imperial project, and from the Marxist Left, Tariq Ali, "Re-Colonizing Iraq," New Left Review, 21 (May–June 2003) is of interest.

For a useful collection of articles from the Left on empire, see Third World Traveler. For libertarian and/or paleoconservative treatments, see LewRockwell.com, American Conservative, and Antiwar.com, which is also a huge clearinghouse for many points of view, as well as Americans Against Bombing.

Several journalists have made hard-hitting contributions to the analysis of imperial doctrine and practice since 9/11, too many to list here; they include Eric Margolis, Robert Fisk, Jim Lobe, Justin Raimondo, Alan Bock, John Pilger, Karen Kwiatkowski (ex-military with an insider's perspective), among others.

February 9, 2004