Posted: November 21, 2005
Books discussed in this essay:
leeing the old world and its imperial quarrels, millions of people crossed the oceans to become Americans. The current eagerness in foreign-policy circles to associate empire with America thus suggests a grievous misunderstanding of either or both. Much of this talk of American empire is merely another way of condemning U.S. foreign policy, or of ruing the lack of imperial bone in America's body politic. Such talk neglects the one fact that might justify the label: the U.S. government's involvement in high-stakes, low-intensity quarrels around the globe has produced confusion between friends and enemies, peace and war—the kind of confusion that is characteristic of impotent empires.
It was clear to America's Founders that the United States would be perhaps history's greatest nation, and that as the first government explicitly grounded in natural right, it should perhaps mean more to mankind than any other. Many in the founding generation, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, called the U.S. an "empire," meaning a big, rich, diverse land. This commonsense meaning survives in the state of New York's self-description: "the Empire State." Jefferson, who set the pattern for America's expansion, half-jested that since new states would be admitted to the Union on the same basis as the old, and would soon outnumber the old, America would be the first empire that acquired territories not to rule them but to be ruled by them. That generation of Americans had no trouble distinguishing their enterprise from that of real emperors, like Napoleon.
Early Americans thrilled at their country's growth, and even more at being the world's only free people (the Swiss partly excepted). Their pride increased after they had purged, in blood, the sin of slavery. As early as 1821, John Quincy Adams had dared Europeans to compare what they had given the world—sophisticated exploitation—to what America's "civilized men and Christians in a state of nature" were giving: practical farming and engineering, as well as "honest friendship," and "generous reciprocity." The century's national dream was, as John L. O'Sullivan wrote in 1841, of a cathedral with a continent for a floor, the vault of heaven as a ceiling, and a congregation of happy millions of families giving thanks for God's blessings.
For the rest of the century, Americans, generally speaking, wished the rest of the world well, demanded that it keep its troubles out of our hemisphere, and hoped that it would learn from us. By the turn of the 20th century, however, this hope led some Americans to begin to think of themselves as the world's teachers, its chosen instructors. This twist of the founders' views led to a new and enduring quarrel over American foreign policy—between those who see the forceful safeguarding of our own unique way of life as the purpose of foreign relations, and those who believe that securing the world by improving it is the test of what Larry Diamond has called "our purpose and fiber as a nation."
The current controversy over whether America was, is, or should be an empire, and of what kind, was foreshadowed by the debate between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Whereas Roosevelt reminded America that George Washington had counseled concern for our own character and interests, Wilson thought that if Americans improved the world, our character and interests would take care of themselves. This is the division that continues to shape U.S. foreign policy today: between those who want to use America's energies, including armed force, on behalf of America's peculiar interests, and those who want to use those energies—but little if any force—to improve humanity's lot. It is a contest between hard-edged nationalism and imperialism with few if any teeth.
The Twilight Struggle
During most of the half century following World War II, American elites divided between those who identified with the American people more and those who disliked Communism less. Today, roughly the same elites divide over whether the American people are worthy and able to decide our own interests—or whether, unworthy or constrained, we must somehow merge our destiny with the world's.
Anti-Communists had no doubt that America was good. They were proud that some of America's freedom and prosperity radiated out to places from Helsinki to Hong Kong—the "Pax Americana." The belief that anti-Communism was good for America, and for the world, brought together those whose primary concern was with what George Washington had called "our interest guided by our justice," and some of those who, following Woodrow Wilson, imagined that America had no distinct national interest. These liberal anti-Communists assumed there was no difference between the interests of Americans and those of mankind in general, and that our country's opposition to the Communists was but a particular instance of America's presumptive, and vigorous, opposition to tyrants everywhere and always. All anti-Communists liked to "make tyranny tremble" (as the hymn "O Columbia" put it). During the Cold War it happened that those who most threatened America's interests were Communist tyrants with global ambitions; and helping anyone against them was the essence of America's national interest. Joint war against these tyrants, by persons unequally concerned with the national interest, obscured the fact that undoing tyranny is only incidentally in that interest.
By contrast, anti-anti-Communists thought the Soviets weren't so bad and that Americans weren't so good. Most of them, also following Wilson, wanted America to take an active role in the world, but they worried that the American people were not "progressive." For example, William Appleman Williams argued in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1958) that America's anti-Communist majority was on the wrong side in the world's struggles. Latter-day progressives thought also that the use of force in international relations—especially American force—was illegitimate. They fretted that America's power was too great, especially given how the American people wanted to use it.
Echoing the Soviet charge that the American people were "imperialists" and a danger to the world, a generation of American elites campaigned to save the world from America. They took power by defeating their own country in Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter's first foreign-policy speech in 1977 celebrated a defeat that, he said, had saved America from itself. The author of Carter's words, Anthony Lake, became national security advisor to President Clinton, and led a foreign policy that minimized the use of American power, while also putting American resources to work for progressive global forces. By then the Soviet Union, the standard-bearer of global progress for so many progressives, was dead and discredited.
By the 1990s, whether anyone liked it or not, and to the surprise of all, America was the only superpower. What should America do now, and why?
Three options, in principle, soon presented themselves, in writings by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Joshua Muravchik, and Patrick J. Buchanan. Liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., writing in Foreign Affairs ("Back to the Womb?" 1995) argued that the American people endanger the world by insisting on deciding for themselves how to deal with it. For Schlesinger, this "unilateralism" is the functional equivalent of "isolationism." Only by harnessing the American horse to the world's cart have statesmen like Franklin Roosevelt caused the country to do good rather than harm. In short, the world needs to be saved from an America that will not play its proper role. (Paradoxically, much of Schlesinger's earlier public career had been devoted to restraining Americans' eagerness to intervene against the former avatars of progress, the Communists.) Bitterly does Schlesinger resent the American people's coolness toward multilateral institutions that embody the progressive world-mind. He wants Americans to support the United Nations, to engage in peacekeeping missions, to increase foreign aid by vast sums, and above all to serve multilateral causes cheerfully.
Schlesinger's point is not that America and the world would be better off if American soldiers were killing and overthrowing the world's bad guys. Instead, he recommends that Americans expose themselves to danger as part of largely peaceful, multilateral efforts at progressive reform. A good Wilsonian, he does not believe that war is a legitimate tool of national statecraft. Some force, however, may still be needed to enforce multilateral administrative decisions.
Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership (1996) is nearly a mirror image of Schlesinger's argument. His point of departure is the same as Schlesinger's: Americans are needed in the world, but would rather live their comfortable lives "than rule—or lead—others." But note well: Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that "there is no authority higher than America…. In short, America must accept the role of world leader." He is all for "unilateralism." He wants us, unilaterally, to lead the world where we think best. In the course of fighting Communism, America did a lot of good. Now, more good remains to be done. Only America has what it takes to help people free themselves from the remaining bad guys. We Americans have the moral legitimacy that comes from disinterestedness, and the power; we should also have the will. As William Kristol and Robert Kagan put it in a 1996 Foreign Affairs article, declining responsibility for "the peace and security of the international order…becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor."
This position amounts to the benign, temporary "imperialism" advocated by Norman Podhoretz in the pages of Commentaryand the Claremont Review of Books ("Symposium: The Path to Victory," Fall 2002). Neither Muravchik nor Podhoretz nor, for that matter, Kristol and Kagan—never mind President George W. Bush, whom they imagine their kindred soul—has addressed just how much force this transformational imperialism is to employ, against whom, for what purpose, and for how long. Decent, humane persons that they are, they hope to employ a minimum. More important, they expect that only a minimum will be necessary because, once America helps foreigners cast off their chains, they will be our eager pupils.
But what to do with recalcitrant pupils? Or with ones we may judge vengeful, misguided, corrupt, or overenthusiastic? How much less temporary, how much more forceful, must American imperialism become to avoid doing more harm than good? In the process of helping them build heaven on earth, how many do we have to send to heaven (or elsewhere)? Moreover, just how willing are these advocates of empire to oversee imperial violence? Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, tells us in Squandered Victory (2005), his memoir as a proconsul of democracy in Baghdad, that he never ventured out of the protection of American warriors.
Whereas Muravchik, like Schlesinger, sees the American people's unwillingness to involve itself in other nations' affairs as a problem to be overcome, Patrick J. Buchanan's A Republic, Not An Empire (1999) sees it as the foundation of America's character and success. For Buchanan the most obvious mistakes in foreign policy are forgetting the national interest and national autonomy, as Schlesinger's internationalists do; and making commitments that one cannot, or does not intend, or does not manage to keep—the tendency of such as Muravchik. For example, in the former Yugoslavia the U.S. government, by following the Europeans' lead, hazarded American lives unnecessarily and made a bad situation worse. Similarly, the assertion that peace and liberty everywhere are our vital interest leads to more wars than necessary, and unbalances ends and means. Hence our commitments, e.g., to the territorial integrity of Poland and the Baltic states, which the U.S. government has no capacity or intention of keeping, are blusters to be followed by betrayals. This serves neither America nor mankind.
Buchanan's book is a review of American diplomatic history, showing that the American people back up only commitments that make sense to them, and that their sense is pretty good. His reflexive economic protectionism has been edited out of his praise for 18th- and 19th-century American diplomacy. This is just as well, since the founders he reveres most were in fact free-traders rather than protectionists (and then only for national security purposes). And Buchanan's hostility to Israel, for which he is well known, is here assimilated to a general condemnation of any foreign policy beholden to ethnic interest groups. But Buchanan's antipathy toward Israel clashes with traditional American statecraft, since few things are clearer than the natural tendency of Bible-reading Americans, from John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, to identify with Israel. Buchanan does not see why that makes us, as much as Israel, a target for Islamic radicals. Hence in practice he does not favor war against this set of America's enemies.
In principle, however, Buchanan neither favors nor opposes any given international undertaking. He merely insists on measuring each against real needs, and against the forces available in any given circumstance. By that measure the only difference between Schlesinger's and Muravchik's approaches to American foreign affairs is whether the U.S. government serves the empire or runs it.
The issues should now be clear: Should Americans use force to defend concrete interests, or to improve foreign peoples? What warrant is there for Americans to design and implement—not merely to prefer—a grand design for the world? Whence comes America's unique strength, and for what is America fit? Official explanations have been muddled.
New World Order
In January 1992, the Defense Department proposed making America unchallengeable militarily, while persuading other nations that "they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests." But President George H.W. Bush rejected such muscular nationalism. He would foster "a new world order" in which the U.S. would take its part, alongside the Soviet Union, the U.N., and "the allies." The Bush team fought the 1990 Gulf War and lived its aftermath according to this vision. In deference to the Arab world and the U.N., it spared Iraq's Ba'athist regime, fostered a ruinous "peace process" in Israel, sold Lebanon to Syria—cheap—and made matters worse in Africa by intervening multilaterally with token force. Just as President Clinton would do later in Bosnia and the Middle East, the goals were worked out between U.S. and foreign officials; the legitimacy stemmed from a combination of the U.N. and "the allies"; and the money plus halfhearted force came from America. The U.S. did not impose itself. Events did the imposing.
When the second Bush Administration came to office, its rhetoric on foreign affairs reflected the Defense Department's view. But in fact that view did not get a chance to affect policy until September 11, 2001, and afterwards did so only intermittently. The 2004 presidential campaign seemed to sharpen and renew the choice about America's international role: the Democrats accused George W. Bush and the Republicans of seeking America's national interest without due regard for "the allies," the U.N., and "the world," and urged that America harmonize its interests with mankind's. Thus thrown politically into the proverbial briar patch, the Republican campaign gloried in the unilateral, military defense of American interests. President Bush stated, and repeated in his Second Inaugural Address, that American power would reach unilaterally into foreign countries for their own good, as well as America's. But this, and his statement that America can remain free only if the rest of the world becomes free, straddled the basic issues presented by Schlesinger, Muravchik, and Buchanan.
Since 9/11, however, several eminent authors have advanced instructive positions on these issues.
In his 2004 book, The Sheriff (see Mackubin Thomas Owens, "Have Gun, Will Travel," CRB, Fall 2004), Colin Gray argues that the world needs a sheriff, and that the U.S. had better be it. Gray, a professor of international politics and strategic studies at the University of Reading, England, endorses the historian Donald Kagan's judgment that everyone tends to be better off when the world's tone and agenda are set by one or more states "that wish to preserve the peace," rather than by a balance between predatory powers.
Today's world is lucky that the U.S. is the only superpower and that it has no predatory instincts. Since peaceful order is preferable to the opposite, and since any number of lesser powers may choose to disrupt that order, all states may benefit if non-predatory America quashes the disrupters. It cannot quash all disrupters all the time, and trying to do so would likely be more disruptive than any disruption. Ideally, the sheriff nation should consult with other governments enough to give them the sense that it is acting on their behalf as well as its own. Choosing when to act on the world's behalf, and doing so in a manner that does not make matters worse, is tricky business.
Whereas Boston University professor of international relations Andrew Bacevich (American Empire, 2002) calls this business "empire" and contends that American policymakers have entered local quarrels intending explicitly to create an "American imperium," Gray thinks this "overstated," that the U.S. has not defined a role for itself, and that the role it should play is better described by the Anglo-Saxon "sheriff" than by the Latin "emperor."
By far the trickiest part of sheriffing is learning precisely how to do it without animating the cycles of opposition and reprisal that haunt empires. Two parties to a dispute may come to object to the best possible resolution simply because it is imposed, suggested, or even favored by the U.S. And the U.S. itself may come to be hated not so much because one party or another in a dispute has been hurt by its intervention, but because all may blame it for not having realized their dreams. Such was the world's reaction to Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Gray has no doubt that anti-U.S. terrorism is a price that Americans pay for their involvement in the Middle East. He calls for very wise sheriffs.
The paramount difficulty, however, is making the sheriff's role actually benefit the American people. "The actions of this American Sheriff of order are guided frankly by a national interest discriminator," Gray writes. "If the United States does not serve itself through its peacemaking behavior its career as Sheriff will be brief indeed." True.
The reader concludes, then, that requiring the sheriff to make fewer troubles than he fixes, while unambiguously serving his own interest, well nigh wipes out the presumption in favor of American action abroad. What remains—interventions that pursue concrete interests worth more than the cost of pursuing them—is the stuff of traditional, 19th-century American statesmanship. (To be sure, this is not to be confused with modern "realism," on which more below.)
Gray and others point out what is obvious to all: America in the 21st century must rub up against the rest of the world far more than it did in the 19th. Hence a greater scope of action would seem inevitable. William Odom and Robert Dujarric call this America's Inadvertent Empire (2004; see Carnes Lord, "Dreams of Empire," CRB, Fall 2004).
"Structurally and qualitatively it differs fundamentally from all past empires," they argue. "Using the terms imperial and empire risks confusion because these words convey notions of hierarchy and power, subordination, and dominance that are either missing from the American empire or only loosely institutionalized." Contrary to real empires, this one does not extract wealth but fosters it, and attracts peoples to join it, not fight it.
Why, then, use the word "empire" with the conspiratorial connotations Bacevich implies? The answer seems to be that the authors wish to instruct U.S. policymakers in the tasks that "a liberal empire must accomplish." These tasks involve "imperial garrisoning," without any "time clock" or definition of victory. (This is similar to the American imperial service that Max Boot proposes in The Savage Wars of Peace, 2002; see Patrick J. Garrity, "Small Wars, Big Deal," CRB, Fall 2002.) And in fact many U.S. officials like to think of themselves as the world's most important people.
Odom (formerly Zbigniew Brzezinski's right-hand man on the Carter Administration's National Security Council staff) and Dujarric (a senior associate with the National Institute for Public Policy) spend much of their book showing that the U.S. is indeed more powerful militarily, more vigorous demographically, more productive economically, more creative intellectually, and more pervasive culturally than any other nation. These discussions' quantitative nature seem to support the authors' assertion that any country of similar dimensions, "a united Europe, for example, might be able to lead" the world as well as the U.S. But the entire book argues against that—as does common sense.
What makes America so different from the West, never mind the rest, and how do these differences shape America's international role? The key, says the book, is "American institutions." "[P]atterns, rules and practices most often manifested in organizations—political, social, and economic…they also include ideologies, which are made up of beliefs—religious, moral and cultural—that individuals use to explain and rationalize the world around them." Such language is tone-deaf to the experiences of real Americans. For example, the book's exposition of U.S. military power makes no attempt to explain why 21st-century Americans, virtually alone among modern peoples, are willing to give their lives for a just cause. Nor is there any account of the fact that Americans are the modern world's most religious people—not to mention that its armed forces and their supporters are the most religious sectors of the population. Might this have something to do with American power?
The book grasps at least one aspect of America's uniqueness: liberalism in its original sense. It stems from medieval feudalism: the absence of "such things as independent public rights," coupled with the absolute importance of religious conscience. This is what America's revolutionaries were defending against Britain's modern statism. Liberalism, which is often confused with democracy, is responsible for America's character and for the character of its great influence. Because Americans believe that "all men are created equal," the American empire cannot be compulsive. It must be one of attraction.
And it is. The U.S. economy has the lowest transaction costs. Military relations with the U.S. protect rather than offend, etc. Others want in. But the book's partial understanding of liberalism obscures other factors. The Establishment view of things, reflected in such books as Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), is that the attractiveness of the modern world economy, fostered by American liberalism, eventually must overcome parochial quarrels. But that is not happening.
Surprisingly, most of Odom and Dujarric's recommendations for policymakers are decidedly non-imperial: above all, maintain American institutions and guard them with military power. They advise us to "cultivate liberal institutions" as the basis for international relations. And because liberalism, not democracy, is the key to all good things, merely spreading democracy is a bad idea. Buchanan would not disagree. But the authors argue that the U.S. government should allow "mature constitutional states" to influence U.S. policy because these are "full stakeholders in the empire"—though the authors say in the same breath, don't let them influence our policy to the extent of endangering the American patriotism at the empire's core. How much one can dilute the American people's freedom without destroying their patriotism, Odom and Dujarric do not disclose. Knowing where that patriotism comes from would help.
In principle, their recommendations, like Gray's, are positioned in the triangle between Schlesinger, Muravchik, and Buchanan. The practical thrust of Gray's book as well as Odom and Dujarric's is the same: balance America's core interests with those of the countries with which it has the most interaction.
By contrast, historian Niall Ferguson, a British subject, is unambiguous in Colossus (2004; see Carnes Lord, "Dreams of Empire," CRB, Fall 2004): America is an empire regardless of what anyone, especially Americans, might think. Because America bestrides the world like a colossus, "empire it is, in all but name." "Emperors call themselves what they like, and so do empires." For Ferguson, all human activity has the same objective purpose: domination. The rest is what Marx called "superstructural"—the subjective rationalization of objective fact.
This Marxist imposition of preconceived categories onto historical events passes for sophistication, and is the essence of modern "realism" in international relations.
In between much filler, the book combines the three classic tenets of European anti-Americanism: (1) Americans have always exacerbated their imperial grasping by their hypocrisy; (2) Americans are insufficiently experienced in hypocrisy and must learn it from the masters; and (3) Americans are both stupid and on the wrong side of things, and deserve the troubles they bring on themselves. These points were as familiar to John Quincy Adams as to readers of 20th-century Communist propaganda or today's European media.
Ferguson's sneering condescension is mitigated by his ignorance. For instance, he claims that "there were no more self-confident imperialists than the Founding Fathers themselves," and that Woodrow Wilson renounced imperialism. In fact, the maxim of America's statesmen until Wilson was political non-involvement with others unless absolutely necessary—and certainly not in their internal affairs. Wilson called for abandoning this "isolationism," urging reluctant Americans to fix the world's troubles. Describing U.S. policy in Germany and Japan after World War II, Ferguson writes, "For an empire in denial there really is only one way to act imperially with a good conscience, and that is to combat someone else's imperialism." This is nothing but puerile Marxist psychoanalysis.
Ferguson even manages to blame the United States for terrorism. You see, the U.S. helped "Israel establish military superiority over the Arab counties, forcing the Palestinians to resort to terrorism…." (Emphasis added.) Ferguson denies any relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. To prove this, he quotes from Osama bin Laden's justification for jihad against America. But he does not notice that while bin Laden's fatwa names America once, it mentions Iraq three times. Ultimately, Ferguson advises America to imitate Britain with regard to Iraq: declare withdrawal 66 times and then stay for 72 years. Why can't the Americans do empire with style—the way the British did, he laments—and without all this nonsense about right and wrong?
Ferguson likes imperialism but not imperial America because he detests America's culture, which he calls a "novel Protestant-Deist-Catholic-Jewish fusion." It does not occur to him that without this culture there would be no American power to speak of.
Libertarians are part of the noble American tradition that sees government power as a threat to individuals. America's Founders had to reconcile their own distrust of "standing armies" with the necessity of having them—and especially a navy—to be respected by foreign nations. Statesmen in this tradition welcomed American expansion only so far as it had no ill effects on liberty. Thus Thomas Jefferson and James Madison designed the Northwest Ordinance to ordain equality between old states and new; and Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln sought to condition the admission of new states on the containment of slavery. A half century later, even Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, who had advocated a bit of benign imperialism themselves, returned quickly to the American mainstream: American power is for keeping foreign influence at bay—not for wantonly exercising American influence around the world.
Independent Institute senior fellow Ivan Eland takes this tradition to such an extreme in The Empire Has No Clothes(2004) that these American statesmen would not recognize it. According to Eland, the U.S. has not had, and does not have, very much legitimate need for military force. Unlike other libertarian anti-Communists, he claims that "both the United States and the Soviet Union [he puts them on the same level] used the exaggerated threat from the other side as an excuse for their forward deployed empires." He sees America's foreign relations in the 20th century as a series of subterfuges that were little more than excuses for empire-building.
On the basis of shaky conspiratorial assumptions, he makes the standard, solid American arguments against imperialism. We have neither the right nor the power to make the world over in our image. Trying to defend everything leads to defending nothing. Spreading power abroad diminishes its sources at home. While we need to safeguard the world's key regions from being overrun by hegemons who would threaten us, we should do this from offshore, and not by involving ourselves in local quarrels. Involvement in foreign quarrels means augmenting our own. And though we must surely have enough armed force to discourage or avenge attacks on our own citizens, we must also, as Theodore Roosevelt advised, not provoke such attacks by speaking too loudly. More executive power means fewer liberties. All true.
But then Eland goes on to blame American imperialism, and especially America's friendship with Israel, for the fact that Arabs kill Americans. In fact, his answer for every actual or possible controversy with foreigners is to blame America, and then advise us to give in. In practice, there are no interests to defend, and America never has justice on its side—only a gross and illegitimate hunger for empire.
And yet Eland's book is the only one discussed here that touches, however maladroitly, on the most essential question, the one that occupied Thucydides and Livy, and that absorbed the American Founders: at what point, and in what ways, does a great republic ruin itself through foreign ventures?
War and Peace
The United States government's massive, intrusive, and complex presence in the four corners of the globe cannot be denied. The U.S. directs major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But these do not fit dictionary definitions of war. U.S. military and civilian personnel advise governments in Colombia and in many other places engaged in civil war. American diplomacy is the hinge of deadly struggles in Israel and Taiwan. In parts of the world where there is no shooting, the U.S. government is involved—if only verbally—in local controversies of deadly importance. Nevertheless, though it is really at peace with few, nowhere does the U.S. government wage real war. This of course is what so often happens to imperial powers: because they seek to dominate rather than eliminate enemies, they seldom wage real wars. Nor can they ever really be at peace with those they are trying to manage. Is America somehow trapped in an imperial role?
All agree that the American people want no part of empire. But great power (so goes the near-consensus) requires exercising imperial responsibility. If the great power shuns responsibility (for sheriffing, for doing good, for spreading liberal institutions) the world will slide into war, and the great power will lose the peace.
This makes no sense. In fact, so-called imperial America does not peacefully enjoy its core interests, never mind the peaceful control of an empire, for the simple reason that it is not making war in order to establish peace, anywhere. The main question underlying the current, surreal discussions of American empire is whether Americans should or should not get involved in quarrels that they are unwilling, or unable, to end with peace secured by war.
Power is not to be confused with empire, and empire is not to be confused with either war or peace. None of the above is to be confused with success. Not all great powers, or even imperial powers, confuse war and peace. The Roman republicans who built the great empire, Livy tells us, made their wars "big and short." Then they had peace as they wanted. Dead enemies are the firm foundations of peace.
The sharp distinction between peace and war is peculiar, indeed—to successful powers. It is the essence of statesmanship. It certainly was characteristic of American statesmanship during the 18th and 19th centuries. George Washington's maxims, at once to "observe good faith and justice toward all nations," to "cultivate peace and harmony with all," and to "prepare for war" in order to earn peace, were hardly original. By contrast, the progressive notion (endorsed by Elihu Root, Nicholas Murray Butler, David Starr Jordan, and Woodrow Wilson, among others) that war could be abolished by reforming foreign governments and by collectively guarding the peace was very original. Wilson argued that reform and guardianship would eliminate the need for force amounting to war. He promised disarmament. His opponents countered that widespread meddling and commitments guaranteed war, and that disarmament guaranteed defeat. "Speak softy and carry a big stick," called the Rooseveltians. But Wilsonians abjured sticks, and spoke loudly. Traditional statesmanship won the 1920 elections. Confusion between war, peace, and "involvement" won the hearts and minds of American elites for three generations. America has had little peace since.
Friends and Enemies
During the Cold War, it became conventional wisdom that trying to win this "twilight struggle" would be foolish, not to mention vulgar. War and peace belonged to a simpler age. "Crisis management" replaced strategy. Old-fashioned attention to the relationship between ends and means had to be discarded. Inconclusiveness would be a permanent feature of the modern world, as would the Soviet Union.
No surprise then that throughout the Cold War the U.S. government's many parts undertook disparate, often overlapping, sometimes contradictory ventures in the four corners of the earth. Each part had different ideas about who were America's true friends and its true enemies, as well as different agendas often based on different views of America itself. As in China between 1946 and 1949—as in 1960s Vietnam—the different U.S. agendas clashed, whipsawing local clients. General George C. Marshall's attempt to save China failed because he could not reconcile State, CIA, the Army, and various American politicians. Recall that while William Colby's CIA supported Vietnam's Diem regime, the State Department overthrew it. In Iraq, too, the struggles between Americans may prove more significant than any between us and our foreign enemies.
Few remember that George Washington issued such strict guidelines for the conduct of foreign affairs because his America had almost torn itself apart over virulent antipathies against France or Britain. Domestic partisanship had fed on foreign quarrels. It would be remarkable, indeed, if today our inherent divisions did not feed on our many prolonged, inconclusive involvements in bloody foreign quarrels.
Today, the not-so-new, sophisticated elite consensus appears to be that our many prolonged, inconclusive involvements are a permanent feature of America's life in the modern world. Some call it empire. But if it is an empire, it is so only by adding together adventures that have no common theme, and whose purposes the various imperialists involved do not share, either in general or in specific instances. In fact, each involvement abroad becomes one more occasion for exacerbating conflicts among Americans.
President Bush's reaction to the events of September 11 further muddied America's understanding of our relationship with the world. He could have addressed the fact that Arabs had struck America on behalf of causes espoused, and embodied, by a number of Arab regimes. He could have declared that in doing so these regimes had put themselves in a state of war with the American people—and he could have proceeded to undo our foes, regime by regime. That war would have left many enemies dead and many potential ones eager to avoid the experience. That, and that alone, is true peace.
Instead, President Bush deferred to parts of what some might call the U.S. government's "imperial infrastructure," the State Department and CIA, which have long-standing stakes in many Arab regimes, e.g., Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority. He absolved the regimes of responsibility, and proclaimed war on an abstract noun, "terrorism," to achieve some indeterminate global effect. In pursuit of this so-called war, he has raised America's rhetoric, profile, and presence around the world, harming many who do not count and killing few who do. Occupations are not wars. Criminal investigations are not wars. Democracy-building and nation-building campaigns are not wars. Unlike wars, they do not produce victory, nor its offspring, peace.
The United States is not at peace, and it is not making war. To this extent alone the accusation of empire—the dawdling kind that wastes its core resources—sticks. If we continue to trifle with empire rather than establishing peace, we shall reap stalemate, retreat, and the domestic strife that is empire's bitterest consequence.