An American Empire

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August 24, 1995


By Jude Wanniski

The end of the Cold War in 1991 marked not only the end of the Soviet experiment in communism, but also the dawn of a unique epoch in the history of civilization. For the first time since all of humankind lived in the Garden of Eden, there is now only one nation alone on earth that clearly sits atop the global pyramid of power. Throughout the history of the world, there have always been several national experiments in political economy underway at the same time. Even at the peak of the Roman Empire’s dominance of its portion of the civilized world, other empires thrived in Asia, Africa and in the western hemisphere. In a quest for an ideal, each was experiencing a variant form of governance, testing separate evolutions of social, cultural and economic organization. In the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, England was the dominant imperial power in its realm, on which the sun never set. Neither the United States nor Russia were under its sway, however. The U.S. was engaged in its own experiment in political economy, while czarist Russia was still attempting to make dynastic capitalism work.

These trial-and-error strivings for perfection continue today around the planet, but for the moment the United States alone dominates the entire world’s experimentation in organization. Without exception, every nation-state looks up to the United States as the undisputed leader in history’s long march. Each wishes to know what we have in mind. How shall we proceed to organize ourselves in this new American empire? What is the nature of the new world order that accompanies the first singular leader in all of history? How shall we go about determining the limitations on our powers and the extent of our responsibilities? The questions are different than any we have ever encountered, requiring that our people think about the world differently than we ever have before. There is no historic guidebook to help us at this frontier of boundless opportunity. All the rules have been written for a world of adversarial divisions. This means we must think through with extraordinary care the steps we take and the paths we choose. Major missteps can only mean we will lose this preeminence and find new power pyramids forming to challenge our leadership. To avoid that possible occurance, we might first do well to think through where we have been.

At the start of the 20th century, the newer democratic structures of the United Kingdom, France and the United States were still in competition with the dynastic forms that had prevailed throughout the history of civilization, chiefly in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Russia, China and Japan. The First World War essentially ended dynastic rule as a serious competitor to democratic rule. The world was left with three major forms of democracy, according to its broadest definition -- a system that theoretically allows any citizen, including those of the lowest birth, to rise to political leadership of the nation. In other words, leadership emerging from the common pool. Prior to the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century, there were never sufficient resources to educate entire populations from birth in preparation for leadership. The masses permitted themselves to be taxed in order to finance the educations of a small elite, who would be able to guide them through adversity. This pattern was broken with the French Revolution, coincident with popular rebellion against the use of the increased national wealth to finance a leisure class instead of relevant political leadership. As more national wealth was freed to educate a larger share of the population, the selection pool for political leadership was broadened. In the West, religious leadership was drawn from the common pool beginning with Moses, a man of ordinary birth who by a quirk of fate was educated by the dynastic elite to where he could liberate his people. With the birth of Christ, the masses demonstrated that from among them a spiritual messiah could arise without the help of a dynastic elite.

From the French Revolution through the 19th century, there was an acceleration of the process, by which the selection pool for leadership positions in all aspects of society was broadened. Ordinary people demonstrated a willingness to die in battle in order to preserve the gains of this expansion of democracy. At the armistice of WWI, the United States found itself atop one of the three power pyramids, representing the nations considered the capitalist democracies. The Soviet Union emerged as the leader of the socialist democracies. Germany emerged as the leader of the fascist democracies. The term democracy seems discordant when linked with socialism and fascism, because we equate democracy with competitive elections in multi-party systems. Yet socialist and fascist democracies draw their leadership from the broad, common pool. The difference is that their competitive elections occur in one-party systems, with individuals advancing up the ranks as they do in corporate democracies. Alas, except where mandatory retirement rules are observed, such corporate democrats who rise to the top tend to stay there until removed by death or force of arms. WWI was supposed to be the war that would end all wars, making the world safe for democracy. The assumption was that democracies would always find ways to settle their national differences with peaceful instruments. The Wilsonian concept of a League of Nations, which embodied that ideal, obviously assumed too much. Our own democracy almost did not survive the differences, north and south, on the slavery question.

The three power pyramids were unable to contain their differences and were driven to the use of force, first in World War II, in which the capitalist and socialist powers teamed to defeat the fascist. This left the two remaining power pyramids to compete. The coincident discovery of the atomic bomb in the United States -- led by emigres from the fascist states -- changed the history of warfare, making it impossible for the two remaining power blocs to settle their differences through direct confrontation. In the Cold War, so named to distinguish this new form of global antagonism, lower levels of force were used in the battlefields of Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan as well as in lesser skirmishes in Africa and South America. The Cold War ended with the economic exhaustion of the socialist democracies. Gueorgui Markossov, who was political counselor of the Soviet Embassy in Washington as the Cold War came to an end, believes the single event that most discouraged his superiors in Moscow was their observation that even as the U.S. budget deficit was rising during the Reagan arms buildup, taxes had been cut and interest rates were falling. "It seemed like magic," says Markossov, now an official with the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

With this triumph, the United States and its style of democratic capitalism now extends its reach, its example and its influence to every corner of the planet, without any apparent threat to its national security. Our ever-vigilant national security watchdogs continue to imagine potential military threats, but in each instance these appear to be relatively trivial residual problems of the Cold War. Having faced down a Soviet menace of 10,000 nuclear warheads, our military leaders are not really worried about a bomb being acquired by a North Korea or Iran or some other straggler from the Cold War chess games. The chief reason Americans admire General Colin Powell, I think, is that he understands these pipsqueak adversaries will not use weapons of mass destruction against us unless we try to annihilate them. It was this wisdom that led Powell to call off the "turkey shoot" in Iraq, refusing to heed the urgings of our most ferocious hawks that we mow down Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, capture Baghdad and destroy Saddam himself.

It was enough that we demonstrate a willingness to shed American blood to end Iraq’s aggression against its neighbors, once it became clear that Iraq’s neighbors themselves were prepared to shed the blood of their children to halt the aggression. If President George Bush had rejected General Powell’s advice, we might well have achieved our objectives with small additional loss of American lives. The lesson would have been double-edged, however. Observing the awesome, unforgiving might of the United States, every little country in the world would have been forced to think about acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, with which to threaten an America bent on annihilation of their leaders and armed forces in similar circumstances. Just as we understood in the Cold War that our weakness could be provocative to an adventurous and expansive USSR, every nation-state would be alarmed by an American government that displayed carelessness in its use of force. If our own citizens reacted violently against our federal government, following Waco and Ruby Ridge, why should we expect foreigners to exercise restraint? A bullying Uncle Sam invites private militias at home and defensive secret weapons projects abroad.

The concept of empire throughout history has had at its core a central authority’s protection of a diversity of people. Empires were always meant to embrace and harmonize myriad cultures, religions, ethnicities, languages. Smaller and weaker groupings of people willingly submit to a central authority if the advantages of membership outweigh the costs. The just application of a protective cloak is paramount in such relationships and remains so today. The Soviet Union, the "Evil Empire," as President Reagan termed it in 1982, began with an idyllic vision of harmony and diversity, in a communal dictatorship of the proletariat. Its decline and fall resulted from the central authority’s ascending taxation of individual freedoms even as collective benefits steadily declined. On the other hand, since its unconditional surrender in August 1945, Japan has been relatively comfortable under the protective cloak of the American imperium. There are inevitable frictions having to do with commercial engagements and burden sharing. At times these seem to strain to the breaking point, especially as our government tests Tokyo’s submissiveness. Invariably, though, the Japanese people to this point have been satisfied with the justice available in our imperium. It was our government that backed down earlier this year in our latest trade confrontation, when Tokyo refused to dictate our terms to their auto industry. In addition, their own democracy is transparent enough to persuade us that there is no hidden intent in Japan to develop weapons of mass destruction.

For the American Empire to succeed in producing a Pax Americana in the 21st century, we must first recognize that a posture appropriate in a world at war is inappropriate in a world at peace. In the past half century of Cold War, diplomacy was always an important adjunct to our military might. In reorganizing our thoughts for this unique epoch, it is military might that must play the ancillary role to that of creative diplomacy. Japan, for example, has less reason to bend to our will for military considerations. For that matter, so does the rest of the world. The considerations are now more subtle, having to do with the trust we can command in managing the peace. The face the United States presents to the entire world should be smiling, open, generous rather than glowering, dark, and threatening. (Father is in the background, ready to discipline if necessary; Mother is in the foreground, offering to teach.) House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is struggling to find his way in this direction, refers to himself as a "cheap hawk." Jack Kemp, another global optimist, says he is a "heavily armed dove." Yet neither has really broken from the Cold War perspective that has shaped their political careers. They are still quick to rattle sabers and the B-2 flying brontosaurus. This widespread perspective is not satisfied that U.S. spending on national defense is greater than the rest of the world combined. Old habits die hard.


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