In my days as a student activist in the 1970s, the use of the term “imperialism” to describe US policy was generally used only in the antiwar and international solidarity movements, the writings of left-wing academics or the newspapers of small socialist splinter groups. Three decades later, the notion of American empire is gaining a degree of mainstream respectability, this time promoted by a strange convergence of right-wing unilateralists and humanitarian interventionists who see unbridled American power as the last, best hope for building a more stable world.
The most egregious recent example of this trend was the glaring red, white and blue cover story in the New York Times Magazine of January 5, “American Empire (Get Used to It),” in which Michael Ignatieff suggests that Americans are in “deep denial” over their country’s imperial role and are therefore ill equipped to understand a central reality of our brave new post-9/11 world. Ignatieff sums up the nature of America’s imperial “burden” as follows: “Being an imperial power…means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest…. It also means carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century…. In the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones–Palestine and the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, to name but two–that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past.”
In Ignatieff’s view, policing the globe is a nasty job, but, hey, somebody’s got to do it. Why not America? If you take the Bush Administration’s national security strategy document at face value, the United States is merely attempting to usher in an era of liberal democracy and free markets for all. Ignatieff accepts the Administration’s claim that its proposed war in Iraq is not about projecting US power or gaining leverage over global oil resources; it is “the first in a series of struggles to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the first attempt to shut off the potential supply of lethal technologies to a global terrorist network.”
Never mind that there is no evidence to suggest that Iraq has operational links to Al Qaeda or that the most likely sources of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials for global terrorist groups lie in Russia or Pakistan, not Iraq. Ignatieff has bought into the Pentagon’s self-serving notion of wars of counterproliferation.
Why would a human rights advocate like Ignatieff embrace American imperialism? Because, he asserts, “there are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American military power,” from the Germans and Japanese to the Bosnians, Kosovars, Afghans and “most inconveniently of all, the Iraqis.” Ignatieff’s roster of freedom overlooks the millions of people around the world–Guatemalans, Chileans, Brazilians, Indonesians, Congolese, Iranians, to cite just a few examples–who lost decades of potential freedom as a result of the actions of regimes armed, supported and installed by the US government.
It is far from clear that the new, post-cold war version of US interventionism will result in viable democracies in Afghanistan or Iraq. In the meantime, in the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush Administration has armed and aided a series of undemocratic regimes from Djibouti to Uzbekistan. Because Ignatieff believes that the slaughter in the Balkans would not have been stopped without US intervention, he is willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt in this new era.
While humanitarian interventionists like Ignatieff may be jumping on the imperial bandwagon, it is the unilateralists of the Republican right who got the bandwagon rolling. As the Times Magazine noted in its “Year in Ideas” issue of December 9, 2001, the most vocal advocates of a “new, proud, American imperialism” have come from the ranks of the Project for the New American Century. PNAC was founded in 1997 to advocate a neo-Reaganite “peace through strength” policy that stresses force and the threat of force as the primary tools for projecting US influence. Signers of PNAC’s founding statement included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams. Current key players in PNAC include neoconservative hawks William Kristol and Robert Kagan, joined by former Lockheed Martin vice president Bruce Jackson, who helped draft the 2000 Republican foreign policy platform. In the run-up to the 2000 elections, PNAC published a seventy-six-page report that advocated a far more muscular US national security strategy, which included a call to develop the capability to “remove from power…regional aggressors” like Iraq.
If this new embrace of American empire were just a passing media fancy, like Survivor or Joe Millionaire, we could dismiss it and get on with our lives. But the stakes in this debate are too high: If fully implemented, the Bush Administration’s provocative “war without end” strategy could present the single greatest threat to stability, democracy and peace in this new century. That doesn’t mean America should sit on its hands in the face of human rights abuses, terrorist attacks or the spread of nuclear weapons. It means that American power must be applied much more intelligently and cooperatively, in ways that strengthen international institutions instead of undermining them, and must make a positive contribution to fighting all major threats to humanity, from terrorism to the scourges of AIDS, illiteracy and malnutrition. Rather than the “smart-bomb imperium” referred to in Jay Tolson’s recent cover article on American empire in U.S. News & World Report, the United States should be striving to be a responsible global power that works to build institutions and relationships that will render the use of military force a last resort in the world’s trouble spots.
Just as Mark Twain and other intellectuals spoke out against the imperial projects of Teddy Roosevelt’s era, a new generation of analysts and advocates must take a stand against the “new, improved imperialism” implicit in the Administration’s national security doctrine. Then, maybe some years down the road, we’ll wake up to a spate of magazine covers on the theme of “American Empire: What Were We Thinking?”