An American Empire

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A central task of the members of this American Empire, which of course includes every nation on earth, is to sort out the rules of intervention in the new world order. It is nothing more than a matter of deciding questions of jurisdiction. We know within our own United States that it makes little sense to send the Marines into Manhattan to settle a family feud. The neighbors have first jurisdiction, then the precinct police, then the borough police, the state police, the national guard, and finally, when all else fails, the federal armed forces. If we had kept these jurisdictional lines clear, Waco and Ruby Ridge might not have happened. In the Gulf War, there was not support for U.S. intervention until Kuwait’s neighbors -- particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- roused themselves and cited an Iraqi aggression that seemed sure to spread. Even then, President Bush carefully rounded up our allies in Europe, asked for congressional approval, and gave Saddam one last chance to withdraw before he pulled the trigger. The jurisdiction made sense and the local police made it clear they could not contain the outlaw aggressor. It thus seemed our national security was sufficiently at stake to warrant deployment of troops and treasure.

In writing of the "national security" concept as it emerged in WWII, Yergin observed that it is "not a given, not a fact, but a perception, a state of mind."

And what characterizes the concept of national security? It postulates the interrelatedness of so many different political, economic, and military factors that developments halfway around the globe are seen to have automatic and direct impact on America’s core interests. Virtually every development in the world is perceived to be potentially crucial. An adverse turn of events anywhere endangers the United States. Problems in foreign relations are viewed as urgent and immediate threats. Thus, desirable foreign policy goals are translated into issues of national survival, and the range of threats becomes limitless. The doctrine is characterized by expansiveness, a tendency to push the subjective boundaries of security outward to more and more areas, to encompass more and more geography and more and more problems. It demands that the country assume a posture of military preparedness; the nation must be on permanent alert. There was a new emphasis on technology and armed force. Consequent institutional changes occurred. All of this leads to a paradox: the growth of American power did not lead to a greater sense of assuredness, but to an enlargement of the range of perceived threats that must urgently be confronted.

In the Balkans, neither American jurisdiction nor its national security is at all obvious. The neighbors cannot even agree that Serbia committed aggression against Bosnia. Indeed, in 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III explicitly labeled the dispute a civil war, citing a parallel with our own, in which President Abraham Lincoln refused to recognize the right of the Confederate States to self-determination. Democracy will not work if ethnic or religious minorities can opt out of a democratic federation when it becomes inconvenient to stick around. The Wilsonian idea of self-determination is antithetical to that of Lincoln, which requires a family to debate an issue until it is worked out instead of splintering into smaller and smaller nation-states.

In an unpublished monograph written in 1992, Nationalism and the State, Reuven Brenner of McGill University in Montreal noted the trouble the Wilsonian idea has caused, having "found its way into the United Nation’s 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law, with a predictable unsatisfactory distinction between the right of self-determination and the right of secession." According to Brenner, the idea originally took hold in the Wilson administration for two reasons. First, was the hope that "the new nation-states emerging from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire would counter-balance the German nation-state." Second, was the hope that "nationalism as an idea of linking people, establishing loyalty and achieving international recognition of political legitimacy, would prove to be a strong competitor to the communist doctrine. After all, the latter also sought to link people, demand their loyalty, and obtain political legitimacy -- but was based on the notion that allegiance to social classes should dominate those of ethnicity, religion, language, culture."

The internationally recognized principle may even have made things worse by raising expectations of any group which had any grievances, and who could now appeal in the name of "self-determination" to the new Great Powers (which, when it was in their interests, were happy to comply). Such expectations could only start conflicts or prevent them from being settled more quickly. Events leading to World War I showed how this happened in the past. [Bosnia] shows how this same process is happening before our eyes.

As much as the GOP congressional leadership would love to intervene in Bosnia, to reward the Muslims and punish the Serbs, it has been correct for President Bill Clinton to hesitate. To intervene without jurisdiction makes the United States the aggressor, "Americanizing" the war, as President Clinton, the British, the French and the Russians have understood. As in the dispute between China and Taiwan, a logical approach to the strife in the Balkans is to stand by until we are asked to intervene by one party or the other to offer our diplomatic skills.

In the July 31 National Review, former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offered a brief essay on "Why America Must Remain Number One." Her fears are of a vague Orwellian future if the United States does not remain the dominant power atop the global power pyramid, with the dark influences of a future "Europe" leading the way, "a fully fledged state with its own flag, anthem, army, parliament, government, currency, and eventually, one supposes, people. I am not alone in warning that this could stimulate both the United States and Japan to safeguard themselves by forming similar protectionist empires. The world might then drift toward an Orwellian future of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia -- three mercantilist world empires on increasingly hostile terms."

Well, yes, but the arguments play against contrived fears, rather than genuine opportunities. Implicit in Lady Thatcher’s comments, after all, is a British desire to guide the United States in its new imperial role, from its long experience in that occupation. She would have us lead an Atlantic superbloc, remaining dominant over this brooding, restless "Europe," which means keeping our "legions" stationed there "for the foreseeable future." Thus, if we contain Europe with London’s help, "America remains the dominant partner in a united West, [and] then the West can continue to be the dominant power in the world as a whole." The West will contain the East. Somehow, this kind of imperial style seems much more regal and condescending than what an American imperium should be contemplating.

At one time I thought it might take another century or so for the world’s political leaders to work out questions of jurisdiction in this new Unipolar world. However, the masses of ordinary people seem to be doing it themselves, always pushing in the direction of orderly and logical spheres of influence and responsibility. The Great Powers used to work at balancing power, but the drive of ordinary people to improve upon civilization inevitably overwhelmed the dynastic leaders who played at these great games. The great opportunity in this new beginning of history rests with the ability of our country to do the balancing with wisdom and magnanimity, with democratic consultation rather than noble condescension. The United States, after all, is unique itself in the family of nations. It is the only nation that began as a state, one that brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal. The success of this experiment, which has drawn from a leadership pool that contains the children of every nation on earth, is now in a position to teach and guide the world at large. It is a benevolent American Empire that is now our responsibility, one that should hold back its threats of military might in order to influence by example.

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