Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Why America is not an empire

America as empire is nonsense, of course, but there you are. You hear it incessantly from the Left, with its monumental narcissism and historical ignorance. Even people who should know better use the terminology of empire, but only at the price of serious distortion.

What is an empire? An imperial relationship is when people A rules people B without any consent or input from people B. It's a political, not an economic, concept. Empires have been important in the development of civilization because, until the last few centuries, they were the only successful large-scale civilizational units. Only in recent times and certain places, has a new and more advanced type of civilization appeared, one based on common consent and self-interest, undergirded by the "social contract." (See here, here, and here for this all-important feature that makes modern societies modern.) Its characteristic political unit is not the empire, but the nation-state, because its characteristic political principles are individual citizenship and self-rule by representation, not rule by outsiders.

It's useful to be reminded of where actual empires come from and what they look like to clear the air of this pseudo-question. Historically, empires have arisen when a people develops a large advantage over neighboring peoples in organization, technology, surplus wealth, and military prowess. They are typically exporters of surplus people and (with modern empires) of surplus capital. In their mature forms, they are also exporters of political order, as they encounter neighboring peoples who lack the same skill at organization and are often either primitive or decadent. The exported political order might also include culture and religion. This feature requires an aristocracy or at least a class that can function as one.

The most important example in Western history was the Roman empire, an entity that still influences our lives to this day. (Pick out all the Latinate words in this posting.) The Roman empire had two halves, the Greek-speaking East and the (over time) Latin-speaking West. In ancient times, the former was old, wealthy, highly populated and urbanized, but by the time the Romans took over, militarily weak and politically decadent. The latter was new, poor, poorly populated, and agrarian. To the East, the Romans exported political order to a place that could no longer could generate its own. From the East, the Romans imported capital, people, and culture. To the West, the Romans exported order, capital, and high culture to places that never had it. From the West, they imported little except slaves (in the early empire). The Roman empire was, in part, a result of the breakdown of the Roman republic. Imperial institutions replaced republican ones, although the latter lingered on as vestiges. The modern West was hatched in the ruins of the western Roman empire.

The most important modern empire was the British. Unlike the Roman empire, the British was a sea empire, largely based on commerce, with a "light" military presence. Unlike the Romans, the British also (except for the American Revolution) voluntarily phased out their empire, by modifying their imperial rule over non-Britons into partial, then complete, independence. It was the world's first self-liquidating empire, a tribute to the Britons' own system of representative government at home. During the era of the British empire, this representative system grew stronger, deeper, and broader, and many British imperial possessions inherited some form of it. The self-demolition of the British empire was not totally voluntary: some Britons wanted to hold on to it. But Britain's bankruptcy after World War II forced the issue.

America's sole experience with empire came in the wake of the Spanish-American war (1898-1900),when it came to control three former Spanish colonies, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Each one was treated differently and had different fates. Because the United States is a republic, it could not claim indefinite rule over these possessions, and it didn't. Each one was put on the road to political independence after World War I. American involvement was longest, deepest, and most successful in the Philippines, where the Filipinos were promised independence during World War II for their loyalty in fighting the Japanese (and they did fight, fiercely). They became independent in 1946. The Puerto Ricans eventually rejected independence in favor of a semi-imperial relationship, where Puerto Rico has internal self-government, and external foreign policy and military matters are taken care of by the American federal government, with significant amounts of federal money flowing in on net. The least successful was Cuba, which was prematurely cut loose from the US in 1934 and immediately turned into a dictatorship (Batista), overthrown in 1959 by the Soviet-oriented revolutionary Castro. Cuba today is a half-finished imperial project abandoned by two superpowers and ruled by a dictator who's turned the island into a tropical prison.

America is the world's dominant power and its remaining superpower. It's fair to call it a "hegemon" (a legitimate word sometimes used pejoratively). It is the linchpin of the civilized world's security and economic system. That does not make it all-powerful in some absolute sense. American foreign policy has largely focused on exporting international order, while leaving internal order within countries up to those countries, with a few exceptions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia). Exporting international order is much easier and well within American capabilities. Imposing internal order within countries is much harder and probably beyond anyone's power.

It follows that, while America is powerful yet not omnipotent, America needs friends and allies to help. The help is in our interests and theirs, often much more in theirs. This is the type of "hegemony" to be expected of a superpower nation-state in a world of other nation-states. It is based on the reality and legitimacy of the nation-state system, yet recognizing that some nations are much more powerful and critical to the system than others.

But American dominance has evolved in a curious and unhealthy way in Europe, the Middle East, and east Asia, where many countries have abandoned the ability to defend themselves and developed significant problems with political legitimacy. They have come to rely on the US and yet resent that dependence. The current agony we're in now is the result of other countries' backing away from military defense and foreign policy, figuring, let the US do it - and, let the US take the heat. Here is the crux of why people feel America is an "empire," even though it isn't: it's become a republic with a quasi-imperial role, an uncomfortable and unsustainable situation. Americans, both ordinary voters and foreign policy experts, were unprepared for this post-Cold War development. The US military is too small to serve as an imperial force and depends on allies able and willing to pull their own weight. But apart from a handful of exceptions, many American "allies" are actually "military welfare" cases. The US can fill this void only imperfectly and suffers, in some sense, from imperial understretch. (Yes, you read that right.)

But the solution is not to try to turn America into an empire, an impossible goal in any case. America is a middle-class, commercial republic, as well as a net importer of capital and people, three facts enough to kill the "empire" conceit. And it has no aristocratic imperial class or ethos - such things are foreign to American culture and society, fueled as they are by immigrants who all must get along within a framework of political and legal equality.

So let's hear no more of it: we're not an empire, never were, and aren't becoming one. We certainly shouldn't try. The real question is: can our relationship with our so-called allies be changed? And can they police their own corners of the globe and take control of their fates?

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