March 16, 2004
Illusions of Empire: Defining the New American Order
From the March/April 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs.
G. John Ikenberry is Peter F. Krogh Professor of Geopolitics and Global Justice at Georgetown University and Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. By Chalmers Johnson. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004, 400 pp. $25.00
Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. By Niall Ferguson. New York: Penguin Press, 2004, 368 pp. $25.95.
Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy. By Benjamin R. Barber. New York: Norton, 2003, 192 pp. $23.95.
Incoherent Empire. By Michael Mann. New York: Verso, 2003, 284 pp. $25.00.
After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order. By Emmanuel Todd. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 192 pp. $29.95.
The debate on empire is back. This is not surprising, as the United States dominates the world as no state ever has. It emerged from the Cold War the only superpower, and no geopolitical or ideological contenders are in sight. Europe is drawn inward, and Japan is stagnant. A half-century after their occupation, the United States still provides security for Japan and Germany -- the world's second- and third-largest economies. U.S. military bases and carrier battle groups ring the world. Russia is in a quasi-formal security partnership with the United States, and China has accommodated itself to U.S. dominance, at least for the moment. For the first time in the modern era, the world's most powerful state can operate on the global stage without the constraints of other great powers. We have entered the American unipolar age.
The Bush administration's war on terrorism, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, expanded military budget, and controversial 2002 National Security Strategy have thrust American power into the light of day -- and, in doing so, deeply unsettled much of the world. Worry about the implications of American unipolarity is the not-so-hidden subtext of recent U.S.-European tension and has figured prominently in recent presidential elections in Germany, Brazil, and South Korea. The most fundamental questions about the nature of global politics -- who commands and who benefits -- are now the subject of conversation among long-time allies and adversaries alike.
Power is often muted or disguised, but when it is exposed and perceived as domination, it inevitably invites response. One recalls the comment of Georges Clemenceau, who as a young politician said of the settlement ending the Franco-Prussian War, "Germany believes that the logic of her victory means domination, while we do not believe that the logic of our defeat is serfdom." At Versailles a half-century later, he would impose just as harsh a peace on a defeated Germany.
The current debate over empire is an attempt to make sense of the new unipolar reality. The assertion that the United States is bent on empire is, of course, not new. The British writer and labor politician Harold Laski evoked the looming American empire in 1947 when he said that "America bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, or so pervasive. ..." And indeed, Dean Acheson and other architects of the postwar order were great admirers of the British Empire. Later, during the Vietnam War, left-wing thinkers and revisionist historians traced the same deep-rooted impulse toward militarism and empire through the history of U.S. foreign policy. The dean of this school, William Appleton Williams, argued in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy that the nation's genuine idealism had been subverted by the imperial pursuit of power and capitalist greed.
Today, the "American empire" is a term of approval and optimism for some and disparagement and danger for others. Neoconservatives celebrate the imperial exercise of U.S. power, which, in a modern version of Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden," is a liberal force that promotes democracy and undercuts tyranny, terrorism, military aggression, and weapons proliferation. Critics who identify an emerging American empire, meanwhile, worry about its unacceptable financial costs, its corrosive effect on democracy, and the threat it poses to the institutions and alliances that have secured U.S. national interests since World War II.
The "E" Word
No one disagrees that U.S. power is extraordinary. It is the character and logic of U.S. domination that is at issue in the debate over empire. The United States is not just a superpower pursuing its interest; it is a producer of world order. Over the decades -- with more support than resistance from other nations -- it has fashioned a distinctively open and rule-based international order. Its dynamic bundle of oversized capacities, interests, and ideals constitutes an "American project" with unprecedented global reach. For better or worse, other states must come to terms with or work around this protean order.
Scholars often characterize international relations as the interaction of sovereign states in an anarchic world. In the classic Westphalian world order, states hold a monopoly on the use of force in their own territory while order at the international level is maintained through the diffusion of power among states. Today's unipolar world turns the Westphalian image on its head. The United States possesses a near-monopoly on the use of force internationally; on the domestic level, meanwhile, the institutions and behaviors of states are increasingly open to global -- that is, American -- scrutiny. Since September 11, the Bush administration's assertion of "contingent sovereignty" and the right of preemption have made this transformation abundantly clear. The rise of unipolarity and the simultaneous unbundling of state sovereignty is a new and volatile brew.
But is the resulting political formation an empire? And if so, will the American empire suffer the fate of great empires of the past: ravaging the world with its ambitions and excesses until overextension, miscalculation, and mounting opposition hasten its collapse?
The term "empire" refers to the political control by a dominant country of the domestic and foreign policies of weaker countries. The European colonial empires of the late nineteenth century were the most direct, formal kind. The Soviet "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe entailed an equally coercive but less direct form of control. The British Empire included both direct colonial rule and "informal empire." If empire is defined loosely, as a hierarchical system of political relationships in which the most powerful state exercises decisive influence, then the United States today indeed qualifies.
If the United States is an empire, however, it is like no other before it. To be sure, it has a long tradition of pursuing crude imperial policies, most notably in Latin America and the Middle East. But for most countries, the U.S.-led order is a negotiated system wherein the United States has sought participation by other states on terms that are mutually agreeable. This is true in three respects. First, the United States has provided public goods -- particularly the extension of security and the support for an open trade regime -- in exchange for the cooperation of other states. Second, power in the U.S. system is exercised through rules and institutions; power politics still exist, but arbitrary and indiscriminate power is reigned in. Finally, weaker states in the U.S.-led order are given "voice opportunities" -- informal access to the policymaking processes of the United States and the intergovernmental institutions that make up the international system. It is these features of the post-1945 international order that have led historians such as Charles Maier to talk about a "consensual empire" and Geir Lundestad to talk about an "empire of invitation." The American order is hierarchical and ultimately sustained by economic and military power, but it is put at the service of an expanding system of democracy and capitalism.
Fundamentally, then, the debate over the new American empire hinges on how extensive and deeply rooted these characteristics are -- and whether its assertion of power since September 11 constitutes a fundamental break with this liberal past.
The Global Racket
In The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson advances the disturbing claim that the United States' Cold War-era military power and far-flung base system have, in the last decade, been consolidated in a new form of global imperial rule. The United States, according to Johnson, has become "a military juggernaut intent on world domination."
Driven by a triumphalist ideology, an exaggerated sense of threats, and a self-serving military-industrial complex, this juggernaut is tightening its grip on much of the world. The Pentagon has replaced the State Department as the primary shaper of foreign policy. Military commanders in regional headquarters are modern-day proconsuls, warrior-diplomats who direct the United States' imperial reach. Johnson fears that this military empire will corrode democracy, bankrupt the nation, spark opposition, and ultimately end in a Soviet-style collapse.
In this rendering, the American military empire is a novel form of domination. Johnson describes it as an "international protection racket: mutual defense treaties, military advisory groups, and military forces stationed in foreign countries to 'defend' against often poorly defined, overblown, or nonexistent threats." These arrangements create "satellites" -- ostensibly independent countries whose foreign relations revolve around the imperial state. Johnson argues that this variety of empire was pioneered during the Cold War by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the United States in East Asia. Great empires of the past -- the Romans and the Han Dynasty Chinese -- ruled their domains with permanent military encampments that garrisoned conquered territory. The American empire is innovative because it is not based on the acquisition of territory; it is an empire of bases.
Johnson's previous polemic, Blowback, asserted that post-1945 U.S. spheres of influence in East Asia and Latin America were as coercive and exploitative as their Soviet counterparts. The Sorrows of Empire continues this dubious line. Echoing 1960s revisionism, Johnson asserts that the United States' Cold War security system of alliances and bases was built on manufactured threats and driven by expansionary impulses. The United States was not acting in its own defense; it was exploiting opportunities to build an empire. The Soviet Union and the United States, according to this argument, were more alike than different: both militarized their societies and foreign policies and expanded outward, establishing imperial rule through "hub and spoke" systems of client states and political dependencies.
In Johnson's view, the end of the Cold War represented both an opportunity and a crisis for U.S. global rule -- an opportunity because the Soviet sphere of influence was now open for imperial expansion, a crisis because the fall of the Soviet Union ended the justification for the global system of naval bases, airfields, army garrisons, espionage listening posts, and strategic enclaves. Only with the terrorist attacks of September 11 was this crisis resolved. Bush suddenly had an excuse to expand U.S. military domination. September 11 also allowed the United States to remove the fig leaf of alliance partnership. Washington could now disentangle itself from international commitments, treaties, and law and launch direct imperial rule.
Unfortunately, Johnson offers no coherent theory of why the United States seeks empire. At one point, he suggests that the American military empire is founded on "a vast complex of interests, commitments, and projects." The empire of bases has become institutionalized in the military establishment and has taken on a life of its own. There is no discussion, however, of the forces within U.S. politics that resist or reject empire. As a result, Johnson finds imperialism everywhere and in everything the United States does, in its embrace of open markets and global economic integration as much as in its pursuit of narrow economic gains.
Johnson also offers little beyond passing mention about the societies presumed to be under Washington's thumb. Domination and exploitation are, of course, not always self-evident. Military pacts and security partnerships are clearly part of the structure of U.S. global power, and they often reinforce fragile and corrupt governments in order to project U.S. influence. But countries can also use security ties with the United States to their own advantage. Japan may be a subordinate security partner, but the U.S.-Japan alliance also allows Tokyo to forgo a costly buildup of military capacity that would destabilize East Asia. Moreover, countries do have other options: they can, and often do, escape U.S. domination simply by asking the United States to leave. The Philippines did so, and South Korea may be next. The variety and complexity of U.S. security ties with other states makes Johnson's simplistic view of military hegemony misleading.
In fact, the U.S. alliance system -- remarkably intact after half a century -- has helped create a stable, open political space. Cooperative security is not just an instrument of U.S. domination; it is also a tool of political architecture. But Johnson neglects the broader complex of U.S.-supported multilateral rules and institutions that give depth and complexity to the international order. Ultimately, it is not clear what the United States could do -- short of retreating into its borders or ceasing to exist -- that would save it from Johnson's condemnation.
In Colossus, Niall Ferguson argues that the United States is indeed an empire and has been for a long time. To Ferguson, however, it is a liberal empire that upholds rules and institutions and underwrites public goods by maintaining peace, ensuring freedom of the seas and skies, and managing a system of international trade and finance. The United States is the imperfect but natural inheritor of the British system of global governance; it is open and integrative and inclined toward informal rule. Accordingly, Ferguson's worry is not that the world will get too much American empire but that it will not get enough. U.S. leaders, for all their benign intent, have unusually short attention spans and tend to go "wobbly."
In Ferguson's view, the United States shares many characteristics with past empires. Like Rome, it has remarkably open citizenship. "Purple Hearts and U.S. citizenship were conferred simultaneously on a number of the soldiers serving in Iraq last year, just as service in the legions was once a route to becoming a civis romanus," Ferguson writes. "Indeed, with the classical architecture of its capital and the republican structure of its constitution, the United States is perhaps more like a 'new Rome' than any previous empire -- albeit a Rome in which the Senate has thus far retained its grip on would-be emperors." The spread of America's language, ideas, and culture also invites comparison to Rome at its zenith.
But Ferguson is even more taken by parallels with the British Empire. U.S. presidents, from Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and
Most of Colossus retells the familiar story of the rise of U.S. global dominance as an exercise in liberal empire. What is distinctive about American imperialism, according to Ferguson, is that it has been pursued in the name of anti-imperialism. For each phase of U.S. history, Ferguson nicely illuminates the tensions between republican ideals and the exercise of global power and shows how those tensions are often resolved. The Cold War -- and George Kennan's doctrine of containment -- provides the ultimate example of this fusion of anti-imperialism and hard power. Security, openness, democratic community, political commitment, and the mobilization of U.S. power went together. The core of U.S. global rule involved the enforcement of rules of economic openness, but the United States was also willing to act forcefully to integrate countries into the liberal order.
Ferguson's most interesting claim is that the world needs more of this liberal American empire. This argument stems in part from the uncontroversial claim that the current international order needs enlightened leadership and that only Washington can provide it. (Ferguson holds little hope that Europe will ever overcome its preoccupation with the internal contradictions of its enlargement.) It is especially the wider system of sovereign but failed states that needs imperial supervision by Washington. In vast swatches of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East national self-determination has led to much grief. Ferguson argues without qualification that "the experiment with political independence -- especially in Africa -- has been a disaster for most poor countries." To Ferguson, the extension of liberal empire into these regions (even involving some form of colonial rule) is necessary. What precisely these imperial arrangements would look like, however, remains unclear.
When Ferguson says that he is "fundamentally in favor of empire," he is to some extent pulling a conceptual sleight of hand. What Ferguson means by "liberal empire" scholars have previously called "liberal hegemony": a hierarchical order that is still very different from traditional forms of empire. By virtue of its power, the liberal hegemon can act on its long-term interests rather than squabble over short-term gains with other states; it can identify its own national interests with the openness and stability of the larger system. The United States thus shapes and dominates the international order while guaranteeing a flow of benefits to other governments that earns their acquiescence. In contrast to empire, this negotiated order depends on agreement over the rules of the system between the leading state and everyone else. In this way, the norms and institutions that have developed around U.S. hegemony both limit the actual coercive exercise of U.S. power and draw other states into the management of the system.
Ferguson's case for the virtues of American empire hinges on his claim that in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, the world could have gone one of two ways: international order organized around independent nations or an American imperium. He maintains that a world of decentralized, competing states, many of which are not democracies, would result in chaos. This may be true; he is certainly right that stability and open markets are not easily sustained without the support of powerful states. But the notion of liberal empire conflates very different types of U.S.-led order. One in which Washington coerces other states into obedience is very different from a system of multilateral rules and close partnerships. The challenges of peace and economic development that Ferguson identifies are best pursued by advanced democracies working together. Ultimately, such a cooperative order would require that Washington transcend the atavistic habits of empire rather than pursue a more complete realization of it.
In the end, Ferguson finds invoking the image of empire useful for political reasons. Unlike the British, Americans do not believe that they operate an empire. As a result, the United States makes a flighty and impatient imperial power (in contrast to the British, who acquired a cultural mentality for global rule). Ferguson thinks that speaking honestly about the reality of American empire will foster understanding of its duties and obligations.
Yet precisely the opposite is true. The United States does not need to view the world as its Raj and deploy a colonial service to the vast periphery; it needs to find ways to exercise its power in sustained, legitimate ways, working with others and developing more complex forms of cooperative international governance. It is also extremely doubtful that the American people would accept such a massive imperial undertaking: last September, as soon as President Bush revealed the price tag for occupying Iraq, public support plummeted immediately.
Benjamin Barber's Fear's Empire presents a case against the recent unilateral impulses in U.S. foreign policy. According to Barber, empire is not inherent in U.S. dominance but is, rather, a temptation -- one to which the Bush administration has increasingly succumbed. In confronting terrorism, Washington has vacillated between appealing to law and undermining it. Barber's thesis is that by invoking a right to unilateral action, preventive war, and regime change, the United States has undermined the very framework of cooperation and law that is necessary to fight terrorist anarchy. A foreign policy oriented around the use of military force against rogue states, Barber argues, reflects a misunderstanding of the consequences of global interdependence and the character of democracy. Washington cannot run a global order driven by military action and the fear of terrorism. Simply put, American empire is not sustainable.
For Barber, the logic of globalization trumps the logic of empire: the spread of McWorld undermines imperial grand strategy. In most aspects of economic and political life, the United States depends heavily on other states. The world is thus too complex and interdependent to be ruled from an imperial center. In an empire of fear, the United States attempts to order the world through force of arms. But this strategy is self-defeating: it creates hostile states bent on overturning the imperial order, not obedient junior partners.
Barber proposes instead a cosmopolitan order of universal law rooted in human community: "Lex humana works for global comity within the framework of universal rights and law, conferred by multilateral political, economic, and cultural cooperation -- with only as much common military action as can be authorized by common legal authority; whether in the Congress, in multilateral treaties, or through the United Nations." Terrorist threats, Barber concludes, are best confronted with a strategy of "preventive democracy" -- democratic states working together to strengthen and extend liberalism.
Barber's overly idealized vision of cosmopolitan global governance is less convincing, however, than his warnings about unilateral military rule. Indeed, he provides a useful cautionary note for liberal empire enthusiasts in two respects. First, the two objectives of liberal empire -- upholding the rules of the international system and unilaterally employing military power against enemies of the American order -- often conflict. As Barber shows, zealous policymakers often invoke the fear of terrorism to justify unilateral exercises of power that, in turn, undermine the rules and institutions they are meant to protect. Second, the threats posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are not enough to legitimate America's liberal empire. During the Cold War, the United States articulated a vision of community and progress within a U.S.-led free world, infusing the exercise of U.S. power with legitimacy. It is doubtful, however, that the war on terrorism, in which countries are either "with us or against us," has an appeal that can draw enough support to justify a U.S.-dominated order.
Michael Mann also warns of a dangerous, and ultimately unsustainable, imperial turn in U.S. foreign policy. This "new imperialism," he argues in Incoherent Empire, is driven by a radical vision in which unilateral military power enforces U.S. rule and overcomes global disorder.
Mann believes that this "imperial project" depends on a wildly inflated measure of American power; the United States may have awesome military muscle, but its political and economic capabilities are less overwhelming. This imbalance causes Washington to overemphasize the use of force, turning the quest for empire into "overconfident and hyperactive militarism." Such militarism generates what Mann calls "incoherent empire," which undermines U.S. leadership and creates more, not fewer, terrorists and rogue states.
In his distinguished scholarly work on the history of social power, Mann, a sociologist, has argued that four types of power drive the rise and fall of states, nations, empires, regions, and civilizations: military, political, economic, and ideological. Applying these categories to the United States, Mann concludes that it is, in a jumble of metaphors, "a military giant, a back-seat economic driver, a political schizophrenic, and an ideological phantom."
Mann acknowledges that the United States is a central hub of the world economy and that the role of the dollar as the primary reserve currency confers significant advantages in economic matters. But the actual ability of Washington to use trade and aid as political leverage, he believes, is severely limited, as was evident in its failure to secure the support of countries such as Angola, Chile, Guinea, Mexico, and Pakistan in the Security Council before the war in Iraq. Moreover, Washington's client states are increasingly unreliable, and the populations of erstwhile allies are inflamed with anti-Americanism. American culture and ideals, meanwhile, hold less appeal than they did in previous eras. Although the world still embraces the United States' open society and basic freedoms, it increasingly complains about "cultural imperialism" and U.S. aggression. Nationalism and religious fundamentalism have forged deep cultures of resistance to an American imperial project.
Mann and Barber both make the important point that an empire built on military domination alone will not succeed. In their characterization, the United States offers security -- acting as a global leviathan to control the problems of a Hobbesian world -- in exchange for other countries' acquiescence. Washington, in this imperial vision, refuses to play by the same rules as other governments and maintains that this is the price the world must pay for security. But this U.S.-imposed order cannot last. Barber points out that the United States has so much "business" with the rest of the world that it cannot rule the system without complex arrangements of cooperation. Mann, for his part, argues that military "shock and awe" merely increases resistance; he cites the sociologist Talcott Parsons, who long ago noted that raw power, unlike consensus authority, is "deflationary": the more it is used, the more rapidly it diminishes.
The French essayist Emmanuel Todd believes that the long-term decline predicted by Mann and Barber has already started. In a fit of French wishful thinking, he argues in After the Empire that the United States' geopolitical importance is shrinking fast. The world is exiting, not entering, an era of U.S. domination. Washington may want to run a liberal empire, but the world is able and increasingly willing to turn its back on an ever less relevant United States.
Todd's prediction derives from a creative -- but ultimately suspect -- view of global socioeconomic transformation. He acknowledges that the United States played a critical role in constructing the global economy in the decades after World War II. But in the process, Todd argues, new power centers with divergent interests and values emerged in Asia and Europe, while the United States' own economy and society became weak and corrupt. The soft underbelly of U.S. power is its reluctance to take casualties and to pay the costs of rebuilding societies that it invades. Meanwhile, as U.S. democracy weakens, the worldwide spread of democracy has bolstered resistance to Washington. As Todd puts it, "At the very moment when the rest of the world -- now undergoing a process of stabilization thanks to improvements in education, demographics, and democracy -- is on the verge of discovering that it can get along without America, America is realizing that it cannot get along without the rest of the world."
Two implications follow from the United States' strange condition as "economically dependent and politically useless." First, the United States is becoming a global economic predator, sustaining itself through an increasingly fragile system of "tribute taking." It has lost the ability to couple its own economic gain with the economic advancement of other societies. Second, a weakened United States will resort to more desperate and aggressive actions to retain its hegemonic position. Todd identifies this impulse behind confrontations with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Indeed, in his most dubious claim, Todd argues that the corruption of U.S. democracy is giving rise to a poorly supervised ruling class that will be less restrained in its use of military force against other democracies, those in Europe included. For Todd, all of this points to the disintegration of the American empire.
Todd is correct that the ability of any state to dominate the international system depends on its economic strength. As economic dominance shifts, American unipolarity will eventually give way to a new distribution of power. But, contrary to Todd's diagnosis, the United States retains formidable socioeconomic advantages. And his claim that a rapacious clique of frightened oligarchs has taken over U.S. democracy is simply bizarre. Most important, Todd's assertion that Russia and other great powers are preparing to counterbalance U.S. power misses the larger patterns of geopolitics. Europe, Japan, Russia, and China have sought to engage the United States strategically, not simply to resist it. They are pursuing influence and accommodation within the existing order, not trying to overturn it. In fact, the great powers worry more about a detached, isolationist United States than they do about a United States bent on global rule. Indeed, much of the pointed criticism of U.S. unilateralism reflects a concern that the United States will stop providing security and stability, not a hope that it will decline and disappear.
Rulers or Rules?
Is the United States an empire? If so, Ferguson's liberal empire is a more persuasive portrait than is Johnson's military empire. But ultimately, the notion of empire is misleading -- and misses the distinctive aspects of the global political order that has developed around U.S. power.
The United States has pursued imperial policies, especially toward weak countries in the periphery. But U.S. relations with Europe, Japan, China, and Russia cannot be described as imperial, even when "neo" or "liberal" modifies the term. The advanced democracies operate within a "security community" in which the use or threat of force is unthinkable. Their economies are deeply interwoven. Together, they form a political order built on bargains, diffuse reciprocity, and an array of intergovernmental institutions and ad hoc working relationships. This is not empire; it is a U.S.-led democratic political order that has no name or historical antecedent.
To be sure, the neoconservatives in Washington have trumpeted their own imperial vision: an era of global rule organized around the bold unilateral exercise of military power, gradual disentanglement from the constraints of multilateralism, and an aggressive effort to spread freedom and democracy. But this vision is founded on illusions of U.S. power. It fails to appreciate the role of cooperation and rules in the exercise and preservation of such power. Its pursuit would strip the United States of its legitimacy as the preeminent global power and severely compromise the authority that flows from such legitimacy. Ultimately, the neoconservatives are silent on the full range of global challenges and opportunities that face the United States. And as Ferguson notes, the American public has no desire to run colonies or manage a global empire. Thus, there are limits on American imperial pretensions even in a unipolar era.
Ultimately, the empire debate misses the most important international development of recent years: the long peace among great powers, which some scholars argue marks the end of great-power war. Capitalism, democracy, and nuclear weapons all help explain this peace. But so too does the unique way in which the United States has gone about the business of building an international order. The United States' success stems from the creation and extension of international institutions that have limited and legitimated U.S. power.
The United States is now caught in a struggle between liberal rule and imperial rule. Both impulses lie deep within the American body politic. But the dangers and costs of running the world as an American empire are great, and the nation's deep faith in the rule of law is undiminished. When all is said and done, Americans are less interested in ruling the world than they are in creating a world of rules.