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.