COMMANDING HEIGHTS: American Empire

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Since the end of the cold war, the United States has been the world's only superpower, accounting for 43 percent of the world's military expenditures. During this time, America has led major interventions into Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Are the United States and the world better off when America follows a unilateral, interventionist foreign policy? Or should the United States reduce its overseas presence and instead emphasize international cooperation? Peter Robinson speaks with Niall Ferguson and Ivan Eland.

Recorded on Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Just the pax, ma'am. Pax Americana, that is.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.

[Music]

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: inthe 21st century, is it better for the United States to behave like Superman or Clark Kent? Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has become the world's dominant and indeed the world's only superpower. One fact, the United States today accounts for 43% of the entire world's military expenditures. As you'll hear, our guests both believe the United States fits the description of an empire. In recent years, the United States has led interventions into Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter without what might be termed universal international consensus. Is it better for the United States and the world when the United States projects its power abroad, pursues its own foreign policy, behaves like an empire? Or should we instead reduce our overseas presence and stress international cooperation?

Our guests today: Ivan Eland, a fellow of the Independent Institute and the author of The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed. Niall Ferguson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of Colossus: Tthe Price of America's Empire.

Title: Commanding Heights

Peter Robinson: Quotation, "American bestrides the world like a colossus. Neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound or so pervasive." That is British economist and politician Harold Lasky in 1947. Still true? Ivan?

Ivan Eland: Yes, but I'm afraid it may destroy the republic.

Peter Robinson: Niall?

Niall Ferguson: Oh, it's certainly true in many ways. The United States…

Peter Robinson: Truer.

Niall Ferguson: …is more powerful because the Soviet Union has gone.

Peter Robinson: All right now, let's spend a moment or two defining what both of you mean by empire. Let me give you another quotation. President George W. Bush, June 2003, "This country does not seek the expansion of territory. Our goal is to enlarge the realm of liberty." Rome conquered the known world. Great Britain established colonies around the globe. In what way exactly does the United States represent an empire? Ivan?

Ivan Eland: Well, I think it's a much more informal empire of bases, one-sided alliances and military interventions all over the world. It's not a formal British or Roman style empire where the territory is taken in annex. We don't operate that way.

Peter Robinson: Niall?

Niall Ferguson: Well, the Romans went in…

Peter Robinson: You do want to use the word empire?

Niall Ferguson: Oh, absolutely. I mean I certainly do as an academic. I wouldn't recommend an American politician to use it but it seems to me as an historian, I would regard this as one of the great empires. I mean, there have been many in history. One often forgets this because the discussion is rather constrained by the assumption that imperialism only refers to maybe the 19th and early 20th centuries. But empires have…

Peter Robinson: I've opened it up for you by referring to Rome.

Niall Ferguson: Absolutely. And you go right back to Mesopotamia, to ancient Egypt. Empires are really an integral part, if not the dominant part of history. And the United States is an empire not just because it has military bases all over the world. It's more than that. The United States projects its political institutions. It projects its culture. It is done not only through military power but also through corporations, non-governmental agencies. An empire in that sense is a multi-faceted thing. The key common factor--what all empires do is that they project their power beyond their own borders. And in that term, in that sense...

Peter Robinson: You're agreeing with all of this?

Niall Ferguson: …the United States is an empire.

Ivan Eland: Well, I think free trade and cultural exchanges in immigration--many cultures influence the world. I think the real difference between the United States and other countries is that we're the only great power on the planet right now that intervenes outside its own region. And it does so on a regular basis.

Peter Robinson: Let me put it the other way around to the two of you then. The distinguishing factor of empire is not merely its military power, or even its cultural influence but its use of coercion, its compulsion. The Romans told other people what to do. The British ran India. The United States by contrast--there have been exceptions, of course, but over six decades in which the United States has been for part of the period, one of two superpowers and now the signal superpower--is how much it has refrained from using coercion, where we've got troops placed abroad and we have them all around the world. There are signed agreements with those other countries. Quite often we're there at the invitation of the countries where the troops are based. What's striking is not the way we've thrown our weight around but the way we've refrained very carefully from throwing our weight around.

Niall Ferguson: Certainly. In the last few years three sovereign states have been attacked militarily and their regimes have been effectively changed. It began in the case of Kosovo and it's continued through Afghanistan and Iraq. Now when the British went into Iraq in 1917, they proclaimed, we come not as conquerors but as liberators. Frankly, it's not the first English speaking empire in history to use that kind of language. And the United States is doing much the same.

Peter Robinson: 70,000 troops in Germany. Is that part of our empire?

Niall Ferguson: Well it was, yes.

Peter Robinson: The Germans are begging us to leave them there. We want to move them out. The Germans want them there.

Niall Ferguson: Hang on a second. There's a problem here which we need to clarify. Empires are not solely based on coercion, which is what you just said. They're not.

Peter Robinson: It's a distinguishing factor.

Niall Ferguson: No, it's not something that makes the United States unique.

Ivan Eland: I agree with that. It's not necessarily coercion. I think that in some cases--we certainly have used a lot of coercion. I mean, if you look at a list of the U.S. interventions since World War II, particularly in the developing world, better to count the countries that we haven't intervened rather than the countries that we have. My point is that we've intervened in a lot of different countries. The United States has used its military power but also I think even in the these alliances, do you really think during the Cold War and even after the Cold War, that we are going to let Germany, Japan, France, the U.K., develop some authoritarian system. I mean, ultimately we would use our power to rein that in.

Peter Robinson: The Philippines asked us to get out of a base. We got out of the base, Subic Bay. The Japanese have asked us to behave differently and reduce numbers of troops in Okinawa. We've done so. I'm not suggesting that the United States is a puny little power among many other powers. Of course not. But I am saying that there's something fundamentally different in the way the United States deploys its power around the globe from the way the great empires in the ancient world did so or even Great Britain in the 19th century.

Niall Ferguson: I think Great Britain in the 19th century really is much more similar than you're allowing. After all, British power simply could not have been maintained over 25% of the world's land surface if there had been an exclusive reliance on coercion. Collaboration is much more important than empires. Empires simply can only be sustained if there is consent in the majority of territories that are within the imperial ambit. And that's the case in the American empire today.

Peter Robinson: Let's put the American imperial impulse in historical context.

Title: Colonial Ambitions

Peter Robinson: Historian Paul Johnson: The United States "was an imperialist creation, enlarging its borders as and when it needed space and opportunity afforded. The early Americans were more imperialist than the English." You buy that?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I argue this in my book Colossus. The United States begins as an empire, albeit in opposition to another empire but it's very clear that the Founding Fathers see the future of the United States as an imperial future. They intend to expand territorially across the North American continent. It's one of the few things that Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Washington all agree on.

Peter Robinson: They all agree on. You quote George Washington who refers to the new country as "a nascent empire." Thomas Jefferson refers to us as "an empire of liberty." Ivan, in your book, you argue--now let me quote you to you, "U.S. empire erodes the founding principles of the American Constitution." Yet Niall has just said that a number of the fellows who worked on the Constitution saw the country as imperial from the beginning. Explain yourself.

Ivan Eland: Well, I think our definition is somewhat different. Imperial to me means ruling foreign peoples, not incorporating them into the country. Our movement west was more of an aggressive nation building exercise because we incorporated these territories. We're always going to settle them with English colonists and then bring them into the country as a whole. Our first overseas colonial adventure was in the Spanish American War, I think where we ruled the people without intending to bring them in, letting them keep their language, customs, et cetera.

Niall Ferguson: But hang on. By that measure, then the Russian empire of the 19th century wasn't an empire. The Chinese empire hasn't been an empire. I mean, you can't simply distinguish between imperialism meaning ruling places overseas and nation building which is somehow okay. It wasn't okay for the indigenous peoples of North America…

Ivan Eland: Well, I'm not saying that it was okay. I'm just making that distinction. I think we're quibbling over the definition.

Peter Robinson: No, we're not doing that.

Ivan Eland: No, I think we are.

Peter Robinson: Let me tell you why I don't think so--because if the impulse to expand is there from the beginning, it's quite understandable that it takes its form expanding into the continent as long as the continent exists. But you're suggesting that something quite different happened at the Spanish American War, even more singly after the Cold War, but what Niall is suggesting is you can see a continuity throughout American history. That's the point I'm putting to you. Do you agree with that or you think there's something fundamentally different taking place in the 20th century?

Ivan Eland: Well, I think the founders set up our system when they saw the European monarchs take their countries to war and the common people both giving of their lives and money. And so the founders were very suspicious of a lot of military interventions overseas and particularly in Europe at the time. And they wanted the new country not to do that and they also wanted the Congress, the people's branch of government to declare war. And, of course, we've gotten away from all those principles. So I think there's some other founding principles of the republic that are very in danger. And I think that's the primary problem I have with empires, the internal consequences here.

Peter Robinson: Ivan sees a pure republican period in American history which is later corrupted as we become imperial. Are you going to let him sustain that distinction?

Niall Ferguson: Oh, I think that's largely imaginary. It's one of these constructs that modern Americans love to make about the Founding Fathers, to canonize them, to turn them into saints but we know…

Peter Robinson: …but prepare for a counterattack.

Niall Ferguson: We know from Alexander Hamilton who in many ways, was the most explicitly imperialist of the Founding Fathers and is now, of course, the most fashionable since Ron Chernow's biography--that the aim was always much more to replicate and improve on the British and indeed the French model of political power in the United States. And Hamilton does that. I mean, he very clearly sees the need to take from British institutions those things--the financial institutions in particular--that made Britain powerful and do it better. Do it on an even larger scale in the North American continent. And that is precisely what happened.

Ivan Eland: Of course, the Jeffersonians triumphed over the Hamiltonians in the most important election. We heard the recent election as being the most important but…

Peter Robinson: 1800 is the big one for you?

Ivan Eland: …the election of 1800, yes, and the Jeffersonians had a different model I think than that. And they were suspicious. George Washington was suspicious of standing armies. Thomas Jefferson and many of the founders--I think even Alexander Hamilton was suspicious of large standing armies.

Peter Robinson: Next, what's so bad about empire anyway?

Title: Rah Rah for the Raj

Peter Robinson: Consider our immediate predecessors global superpower, the British Empire. Quoting you, Niall: "Without the spread of British rule, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world. Though it fought many small wars, the empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since." On balance then, unfashionable view where you come from. You wish to argue that the British Empire represented a force for good.

Niall Ferguson: On balance. I think one has to recognize that empires have balance sheets. And most people who talk about empires today particularly when they talk about the British Empire, only look at the debit side. They only look at the negative side of empire. And that's absurd because it's clear that in the 19th century, what the British were doing in not only ruling formally a very large part of the world but also informally influencing say Latin America despite the Monroe Doctrine--was to introduce an order which is still recognizably the order that we regard as good today. It was based on free trade, free labor mobility, free capital mobility. It was also based on ideas of the rule of law and yes, representative government, that again today seems still to be regarded by most people as good.

Peter Robinson: So we have the diffusion of liberal values under the British Empire. You can go all the way to the Pax Romana, second century under Rome. Empires can do good things. What's so bad about the notion of empire anyway?

Ivan Eland: Well, I think I would say that empires, first of all, they don't pay. It's better for free trade and I think the British economists of the 18th century really proved that empires are not cost effective and also this idea that we're going to transform the world. I mean, we haven't been very successful. The United States hasn't been very successful. And you, in your book, say we just don't spend enough time in these countries but it costs a lot of resources. I mean, we've dumped hundreds of billions in Iraq already. And…

Peter Robinson: We haven't been successful in less than two years?

Ivan Eland: Well, I mean, I'd just say what does the taxpayer get for this? And I don't think it gets very much. I mean, as I mentioned before…

Peter Robinson: So your argument is…

Ivan Eland: …I want to make this point. I want…

Peter Robinson: …that it's too expensive for Americans?

Ivan Eland: Well, we get this influence in other countries but do we really get trade concessions from our allies? No empire has been cost effective and ours is the less cost effective of any that I can imagine because we don't get what the Romans got. We don't get what the British get--one-sided trade agreements, et cetera. Romans get conquest. And we don't get any of that. Our allies don't even open their markets to us.

Niall Ferguson: I do think that's a very narrow notion of what a cost benefit analysis of empire would look like. And I think we ought to broaden out the discussion to look at the benefits of empire.

Peter Robinson: Ivan is opposed to an American empire. Well then, how would he change America's role in the world?

Title: American Idle

Peter Robinson: How should the United States unwind its empire now--which you wish it to do, right?

Ivan Eland: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Ivan Eland: I think what we really need to do is reassess some of the Cold War military deployments and Cold War alliances that we still have. And to some extent, the President has done that implicitly because of the Iraq war soaking off troops from South Korea and perhaps even Europe.

Peter Robinson: Rumsfeld has announced a gradual redeployment of troops--you'd be in favor of that? Getting those troops out of Europe?

Ivan Eland: Well, I'd bring them home.

Peter Robinson: You'd bring them home?

Ivan Eland: He wants to create new bases. And, of course, we're now in Central Asia, the Philippines, etc., going back into the Philippines, etc.

Peter Robinson: So you want us just to wrap up NATO, withdraw from NATO, for example, the North North Atlantic Treaty Organization which was clearly formed to keep the Soviet Union from taking over Western Europe. Right? You want to just drop out of that--I'm asking you as a practical matter--what would you advise Bush in his second term to do?

Ivan Eland: Well, I think over a few years--I don't think we ought to pull the rug out from under any of our allies but I think gradually, yes, because you have alliances for security. You don't have alliances for alliances sake. And that's what we've come down to in the post-Cold War era is that we still have these alliances around and the enemy is gone.

Peter Robinson: All right, Niall, now to your analysis. The United States today, you, "is an empire with almost unrivaled military and cultural power," both of you agree with that, "but when it comes to what might be called imperial governance, it is an empire which precisely because it doesn't recognize its own existence, consistently underperforms." Explain yourself.

Niall Ferguson: Well, what I tried to show in Colossus is that the United States ought to be a much more successful liberal empire than Britain ever was because its resources are vastly greater and its culture is also rather more appealing to foreigners than our culture of afternoon tea and Cricket ever was. But somehow or other, most interventions that the United States has undertaken since the 1890s have not, in fact, been as successful as those two models of Japan, West Germany, that President Bush has consistently cited to justify his policy of nation building. Why? Well, I suggest that if you're an empire in denial, if you refuse to accept your imperial character, you are likely to do rather less well than other empires. It's actually quite an obstacle to believe that there's something fundamentally different about American power. And the most obvious way this manifests itself is in the impatience of American politicians and voters when it comes to any intervention. To imagine that Iraq could be turned from a basket case which is what Saddam Hussein turned it into--into a functioning democracy in the space of two years is an astonishingly fantastic project. It's completely unrealistic. The British would have regarded decades as fairly optimistic.

Ivan Eland: It certainly is. And I think one of the problems that we have is that we justify our empire with anti-imperialist rhetoric so then people say well we're not an empire so the public support for these things are not there. I mean, we bomb from 15,000 feet in Kosovo because we're afraid to take casualties. And the politicians know that if the military intervention is not in the security interest of the United States that the people aren't going to support it. So, of course, we do these half-baked military operations, Lebanon, Somalia, Vietnam and I would say probably Iraq is going to go down the same road.

Niall Ferguson: Well, here we agree. It's just that Ivan thinks therefore you should give up and not do anything at all. My point is that it's simply not an option to give up and do nothing at all. This is where your cost benefit analysis is flawed. You're not asking the question what would the world be like if the United States reverted to isolationism?

Ivan Eland: The world got along fine without the United States before…

Niall Ferguson: I'm utterly baffled by the notion that the world was just fine when the United States had an isolationist foreign policy. I'm sorry but my recollection of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s is rather different.

Peter Robinson: So just what would the world look like without an American empire?

Title: Imagine There's No Empire

Peter Robinson: We wrap up the American empire. Tell me what the world looks like.

Niall Ferguson: Well, let's just ask ourselves what happens if the United States withdraws from Europe altogether, from the Middle East. Let's leave aside the other more peripheral theaters of operation. It's far from clear to me that everyone is going to sit around strumming guitars and singing John Lennon's Imagine. The reality is that the world is not a stable place. There are at least twenty countries…

Ivan Eland: I would agree with you…

Niall Ferguson: …there are at least twenty countries that are either sponsors of terrorism or they are run by dictators aspiring to or already possessing nuclear weapons or they're in states of such appalling civil war that people's lives are being lost in the millions. It's not an option for the United States which is the only contender to be the world's policemen today, to walk away and say it's too expensive for us to do this. With our ten trillion dollar economy, we cannot afford to have anything to do with these problems.

Peter Robinson: So without the American cop on the beat, things get worse all around the world including for the United States?

Niall Ferguson: Well, they certainly will get worse in the Middle East. We can say that for sure. If the United States were to follow Ivan's advice and simply pull out of Iraq tomorrow, then it seems to me clear…

Peter Robinson: No, he's more careful than that.

Niall Ferguson: Well I caricature your argument. I'm sorry. But let's say wind up the position in Iraq over the next two to four years. The problem is that Iraq has the potential to be an even bigger disaster area than Lebanon was when the U.S. pulled out.

Peter Robinson: Your view of the world without the United States.

Ivan Eland: Well, of course, you know, we have a situation where we have rich allies facing much poorer countries. And South Korea has thirty times the GDP of the North and the Persian Gulf is the same. And in Europe, it's the same.

Peter Robinson: Meaning South Korea ought to be able to defend itself. The Saudis ought to be able to stick up for their own interests. They don't need Americans looking out for them.

Ivan Eland: They have a higher GDP than Iran does.

Peter Robinson: The notion that rich allies or that the Germans or indeed the British need us around when bases in their own countries…

Ivan Eland: Well they don't. Yeah. I mean, you have the EU which could…

Peter Robinson: So you're saying that these wealthy allies ought to be able to take care of themselves.

Ivan Eland: Yes, in one way or another. We have great powers which can police their own regions. You have international organizations like the EU which have more GDP than the United States. You have balance of power. The world existed with the balance of power before and to say that the United States…

Peter Robinson: What he's talking about is a form of welfare reform. What happened under New Gingrich and Bill Clinton's welfare reform--is that welfare payments got scaled back and to the astonishment of the Editorial Board of the New York Times, people didn't descend into poverty. They went out and got jobs. So he's saying that we scale back the American empire and countries that have been on the American military, political dole like Germany and South Korea will suddenly be forced to take care of their own regions.

Niall Ferguson: Well, I'm happy to gamble on Saudi Arabia's fate if the United States pulls out of the Middle East in the next few years. And if Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda come to power in Riyadh, you'll say, just fine, right?

Peter Robinson: Test case. If Bill Clinton had said to the Germans and the British and all the Europeans, look, Yugoslavia or the former Yugoslavia, if that thing falls apart, that is your sphere of influence. It's on the European…

Niall Ferguson: But hang on…

Peter Robinson: I'm asking you what would have happened. Would they have eventually stepped in?

Niall Ferguson: I'm sorry, Peter, but you don't need to ask that. Because it was tried. That's exactly what the United States said in the early 1990s…

Peter Robinson: Yeah, but if you gave them another year or two would they have finally pulled themselves together?

Niall Ferguson: No, absolutely not.

Ivan Eland: We eventually intervened and bailed them out.

Niall Ferguson: Yeah, and there's a reason for that.

Peter Robinson: I'm asking what would have happened if we hadn't.

Niall Ferguson: But Peter, there's a reason…

Ivan Eland: They would have eventually had to do something about it. What would have happened, the conflict would have gone on until they had to do something about it…

Niall Ferguson: This is a fantasy. We know exactly what happens when the United States does nothing. We saw it in Rwanda as well as in Bosnia. The reality is that the Europeans do not have any significant military capability...

Ivan Eland: They're never going to get them if we keep doing it for them.

Niall Ferguson: Nor do they have the resolve.

Ivan Eland: Well, what incentives do they have?

Peter Robinson: Finally, advice for President George W. Bush on empire and foreign policy.

Title: Be It Ever So Humble

Peter Robinson: Last couple of questions here. George W. Bush, give him your one or two lines of advice as regards foreign policy and the American empire that you would like to see him do in the second term.

Ivan Eland: Well, I think he had it right when he was first elected the first time and that was let's run a more humble foreign policy. He criticized Bill Clinton for doing exactly what Niall wants to do. Too many military interventions. I want to get this point--conservatives seem to not really think that government action in a domestic sphere has much good for society. Yet when we go overseas and do it, they seem to say oh yes, we can go reform these other societies when our government has no legitimacy over there. It has some legitimacy here.

Peter Robinson: Ivan, you've got to address this point. When he was elected and talking about a more humble foreign policy, that was before 9/11. We've suffered a terrorist attack. How does that affect your argument in regards to Bush?

Ivan Eland: Well, I think we should have fought Al Qaeda and not gotten into Iraq because I think we've only made the problem worse.

Peter Robinson: All right. Your advice for George Bush in his second term?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I'm not sure that he needs my advice because I think he's already made…

Peter Robinson: I can assure you he doesn't think so.

Niall Ferguson: I think he's already made it very clear that he intends to stick at it in Iraq, not to quit. And he also intends to continue the war against terror which means to continue to put pressure on countries that support terrorist organizations. My advice to him for what it's worth would be do not underestimate how much in the way of manpower and money it's going to cost to get it right in Iraq. And do not expect the results to come quickly. And the second point is bear in mind that you will be vulnerable to precisely these sorts of criticism from isolationists if you do not get your domestic finances in order. Your biggest priority in your second term is domestic fiscal reform, tax reform and controlling the expenditure on Medicare and Social Security. That is where the American empire is vulnerable, not overseas.

Peter Robinson: Last question: John Ikenberry writing in Foreign Affairs, he poses the question--this is my question to you. "Will the American empire suffer the fate of the great empires of the past, ravaging the world with its ambitions and excesses until over-extension, miscalculation and mounting opposition hasten its collapse?" In a quarter of a century, will the United States remain the world's only superpower? This is a question implicitly about China, the European Union--a quarter of a century from now, will we remain a superpower, an imperial power?

Ivan Eland: No, I don't think so and it's not just the 7% defense spending. I think it's the commitments. I mean, Britain went from an empire to a middling power in 30-some years when it fought two wars. And so if you have commitments to…

Peter Robinson: We're already over-extended?

Ivan Eland: Yes, I mean, look at Iraq. We can't even fight in one small country without over-extending our military. And also I agree with Niall that the domestic financing is going to be a crucial issue.

Peter Robinson: Quarter of a century from now, Niall.

Niall Ferguson: I think there's a real risk that the United States will pull back from its imperial commitments, partly because of arguments like Ivan's and partly because of domestic fiscal crisis. But I don't think that there are any rivals waiting in the wings to take its place. I don't see China as some kind of superpower in the making nor, for that matter, do I see the European Union as in any sense capable of controlling security in its part of the world.

Peter Robinson: Niall Ferguson, Ivan Eland, thank you very much.

Ivan Eland: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.