Totem and Taboo | The Nation


Totem and Taboo

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Amid a welter of books denouncing America's newly acknowledged empire, it is refreshing to come across one so brazenly celebratory as Colossus. Niall Ferguson is one of the talented band of itinerant Britons who yearn for the empire their fathers and grandfathers lost, and who have migrated to the United States in search of one to which they can attach themselves. Their enthusiasm for the United States to assume its "imperial responsibilities" is reflected in their ardent support for the Iraq war and their impatience with, even their scorn for, the doubters. They play that role much better than the dour promoters and strategists within the Bush Administration.

About the Author

Ronald Steel
Ronald Steel, the author of Temptations of a Superpower and other books on US politics and diplomacy, teaches...

Although this book, partially stitched together from journalistic pieces, has a patchy feel, it makes its case for a "liberal empire" with a certain zest. Imperial control by a distant power, Ferguson tells us, is a good thing for some new and untidy countries. It teaches them how to run a decent and efficient state. If the instruction has not worked so well in certain former European colonies, that is because "even the best institutions work less well in landlocked, excessively hot or disease-ridden places." And what are we to make of cool and sanitary places like Russia, where democratic institutions also don't seem to work very well?

But even if empire is supposedly good for those on the receiving end, Ferguson has little hope that the United States is up to the task of bestowing the favor. Not only does it lack the will, he tells us, it suffers from an economy weighed down by excessive spending on Medicare and Social Security (though not, he reassures us, on the Pentagon's weapons). "Imposing democracy on all the world's rogue states" would not seriously strain the US military budget, he argues, but Americans are too soft and selfish to get their priorities straight. They apparently don't want to spend their careers administering natives in sticky and unsanitary places. They lack an imperial frame of mind. And so, he laments, the nascent American empire that began so promisingly is likely to end in an untidy and self-indulgent recessional.

This, without the lamentations, is pretty much the judgment of Michael Mann, a sociologist who shares Ferguson's land of birth but not his imperial nostalgia. In Incoherent Empire, Mann sees his adopted land not as the little train that shouldn't, but as the train that will soon find that it couldn't. The problem, he believes, arises not from the rise of another ambitious great power or from imperial overstretch, as some critics have predicted, but from uneven power resources that will lead to "imperial incoherence and foreign policy failure." The United States would be in "no significant danger," he says, if it stopped "seeking to drive into the ground the few failing communist remnants in the world, seeking extra-territorial control over oil supplies, stationing American troops where they have no business, invading foreign countries uninvited, and supporting state terrorists."

Well, he may be right. But extending their area of influence and control is what great powers do. It is also what small powers try to do when they can. To behave otherwise might be commendable, but it would also mean a revolutionary change in American foreign policy. George W. Bush may be more crude in his language and his methods than previous Presidents, but he is following the same road map. It will take more than exhortation to persuade him or his successors to do otherwise.

Indeed, it will be extremely difficult, if even possible, to behave dramatically differently. Style is one thing, substance another. Bush offends by his style. He enjoys confrontation and the humiliation of those opposed to his will. Consider his treatment of old allies like the French and Germans in the run-up to the Iraq war. Another President, like John F. Kennedy, would have put the mailed fist in a smooth glove. Yet this, with more nuance, will likely be the path pursued by John Kerry should he succeed Bush. Both his campaign speeches and his choice of advisers reaffirm an imperial role. The difference is a matter of style.

The United States today is what it is, and has been at least since 1945: a great imperial power with global interests to protect and advance. George W. Bush strikes a discordant key. Yet in most respects he sings the familiar tune, and it is unlikely to change in any major way, regardless of who occupies the White House, until the tectonic plates of the global power equation have moved into a new alignment. In the meantime, what we may have most to fear is not major war or crippling terrorist attacks but, as Brzezinski has warned, whether "global hegemony could endanger American democracy itself."

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