EMPIRE STATE BUILDING? Is America Becoming an Empire?

Friday, February 28, 2003

Since the end of the cold war, the world has watched as the United States became, not merely the world's only superpower but what the French began calling a "hyperpower." Now, with the United States asserting its will and power on such issues as Iraq and the war on terror while rejecting contraints that the international community tries to place on it, some suggest that the term American empire is more appropriate. If America does have an empire, it is not based on territorial expansion as in past empires. So what is it based on? And would taking on the role of imperial hegemon be good for America and the world?

Recorded on Friday, February 28, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the empire that dare not speak its name.

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

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: has the United States become an imperial power? Since the end of the Cold War, of course, the United States has represented the world's only superpower. The French even call us a hyperpower. We maintain troops in more than one hundred nations, send our ships into every ocean on earth and lately have been attempting to work our will in some very far-flung places. But an American empire like the old British Empire? Perhaps.

Joining us, two guests. Mark Danner is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Niall Ferguson is a historian based at Oxford University, now a visiting professor at New York University. His latest book: Empire, the Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.

Title: Empire State Building?

Peter Robinson: President Bush in his speech at West Point last June, "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish." Second view, Michael Ignatieff in the New York Times Magazine: "The United States is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands, maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents, deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean, guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires." Does the United States have an empire to extend or a utopia to establish? Mark?

Mark Danner: It all depends on the definition of empire

Peter Robinson: We'll return to you in a moment.

Niall Ferguson: It's an empire, but an empire in denial. It looks like an empire, it acts like an empire but it refuses to call itself one because of its heritage of anti-imperial culture.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now we'll let you take the first shot at defining. In your study of the British Empire, you write about the difference between informal and formal empires. Explain and tell us how that bears on the United States today.

Niall Ferguson: It very directly bears on America's predicament right at this moment because I would say that the United States is at the tipping point between informal and formal empire. Formal empire means you run their countries. It means that India is run by a thousand British civil servants and Indians take orders from Brits. Informal empire is when a puppet regime or a sympathetic regime, to put it more politely, is financed by, supported by, gets military assistance from the United States. Now the British had that kind of empire. Originally much of their power indeed in Latin America was always exercised informally. Argentina was frequently regarded as a colony in all but name because the British controlled its finances so totally. But they didn't control its government. And I think what we're seeing at the moment is a fascinating debate, a sort of subconscious debate within America as to whether this informal empire in say the Middle East, should become a formal one. And I think that's really the key question Americans face today.

Peter Robinson: An informal empire is what we've got. Do you accept that definition, that way of looking at it?

Mark Danner: I would say informal empire is a useful phrase. It seems to me that one of the cruxes of this issue is really intervention, that is the way that Americans think of their country as intervening in the world. And usually when we talk about intervention, we're talking about military intervention, which is one of the reasons that the present moment is so interesting because we're talking for the first time about fighting an elective war. That is a war that is not absolutely pressed on the United States. And I think for many Americans, the difference between elective war and a war that's forced on them is parallel to informal and formal empire if you like. That is, the notion of actually intervening abroad, changing a government and changing an entire system of societal organization which is what's being put on the table in Iraq, is something that Americans traditionally haven't thought of themselves as being in the business of doing.

Peter Robinson: Niall has asserted that America does indeed have an empire. Let me press him on that.

Title: A Rose by Any Other Name

Peter Robinson: University of Virginia historian Phillip Zelikow: "In am empire, you control other nations," formal, "you write their laws and so on. Even in the case of an informal empire," he's been reading you Niall, "such as Britain over Afghanistan, you have something completely different from what the United States is doing." So empire is just the wrong term, "setter of examples," "upholder of international standards," those terms might, although awkward, too many syllables, are a better way of getting at the actual situation. So you buy that?

Niall Ferguson: But of course, that's precisely what the British said they were doing, too. I mean, the characteristic way in which the Victorians justified the exercise of power overseas was that they were doing it to promote civilization and commerce. They also promoted explicitly Christianity, which the United States is very leery of doing. But when you look at it, if you like, with the glasses of the present time, what you see is a powerful, Anglophone country, the United States exporting commerce and what it regards as civilization, which in political terms is democracy. I don't think there is a profound difference there except that Americans feel, just as the Victorians did, that there must be something morally superior about what they're doing because it's Americans who are doing it.

Peter Robinson: So we have an empire and we might as well use the word.

Peter Robinson: It does sit uncomfortably though, doesn't it?

Mark Danner: As this discussion suggests, empire is the beginning of the discussion not the end of it. The ambivalence that one easily identifies at the heart of Americans' attitudes towards this is extremely important, that American unilateralism and American isolationism are two sides of the same coin and there are specific reasons through history why these forces have coexisted, as it were, and that the fight over taking a new role, whether we want to call it an imperial one or not, is profoundly illustrative of that kind of stress in American history. And we're at the point now--what I would call the third struggle, the third struggle over definition during--well, less than a century. The first one is after World War I, the second after World War II, the third in effect…

Peter Robinson: Hold it now, after World War I, there was a struggle. Wilson said we must be internationalists, the Senate said no and the Senate won. We became isolationists for a couple of decades, right?

Mark Danner: Well, isolationist once you point out in a very peculiar American definition, isolationist America occupied Nicaragua, occupied the Dominican Republic, occupied the Philippines, occupied Haiti, occupied Cuba, had strong interests in China.

Peter Robinson: Robust isolationists.

Mark Danner: Isolationism is usually a word used with respect to Europe more than anything else. But it's true; there was a struggle in 1919, 1920. Wilson felt there should be a stronger involvement in the League of Nations. His opponents, led by Henry Cabot Lodge won, killed Wilson in the end. And the U.S. withdrew its power from Europe and in the view of many of those who would later be leaders after World War II and who were at the time of this fight, young men, World War II followed the night the day, World War I. That is, it was subsequent to this withdrawal of American power. Therefore the key struggle after World War II was to somehow convince Americans that their power must remain in the world. And this is the Truman Doctrine speech from which President Bush and certainly his speechwriters have learned because you see its influence throughout the speeches he's delivered since September 11th. That speech set out a particular kind of world that divided it between good and evil, communist and anti-communist, two vast systems of government. And it set out a worldwide crusade to protect freedom. The realists at the time, the prominent realists, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Walter Littman, hated this speech. They felt it was irresponsible. It set forth a worldwide crusade that America could not accomplish and it also would tax its resources. And it also failed to set a criteria for distinguishing vital interests from subsidiary interests. And for many of these gentlemen that's what happened in Vietnam, that it became a political fact--anti-communist crusade became a political fact. That political fact made it impossible to withdraw from Vietnam, as Lyndon Johnson admitted he wanted to do in 1964, and led to a disaster there. Now we're seeing a very similar attempt now to set forth a division of the world into good and evil, this time based not on communism but on terrorism.

Peter Robinson: Onto the question of intent.

Title: What's My Motivation?

Peter Robinson: It would seem to me that the public is as you say reluctant, but even the president is reluctant, that a correct way of understanding what's taking place now is that we are finding ourselves engaged abroad because we have no choice. September 11th changed everything and that in fact, the Victorians may have been exporting Christianity and engaging in a world trading system and so forth--to some extent, we're doing that but the dominant motive, at least at this moment, is really national security. Do you buy that?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I certainly buy it in the case of President Bush, who before 9/11, indeed throughout his election campaign for the presidency had emphasized that he was a president who was going to bring the boys back home and not engage in the kind of interventions in far off places of which American voters knew nothing, that had characterized the Clinton presidency. And so it was a complete 180 degrees turn…

Peter Robinson: It was a prototypical American experience in that he got smacked by international reality.

Niall Ferguson: Exactly. That was precisely the experience that Woodrow Wilson had who had been, at election time, all for avoiding such entanglements and then became the messianic visionary here who was going to transform the entire world order and rewrite the rules of international relations. Now in the same way, somebody who sort of instinctively is an isolationist who then has a sort of wakeup call on the scale of 9/11 is quite likely to come up with pretty radical ideas. And I think President Bush has in the doctrine of preemption that says essentially the United States can intervene against any nasty little rogue regime it doesn't like the look of which might one day have weapons of mass destruction.

Peter Robinson: A rather loose interpretation but we'll let that pass for now.

Niall Ferguson: That is pretty much the inference that the rest of the world has drawn from the doctrine of preemption.

Peter Robinson: We will come to the rest of the world in a moment. So what I'm probing for here is the right way for Americans to think about the present moment…

Niall Ferguson: But can I just follow this through because it seems to me the problem is that although he's made that leap, he's realized what he didn't realize before 9/11, that the United States cannot simply ignore what goes on in far off places because they can actually have a bearing on life in the United States, a very direct and violent bearing. What he hasn't yet seen is that if the United States is going to intervene against rogue regimes, be they in Afghanistan, be they in the Balkans, be they in the Middle East, it is not something that can be done in the timeframe of a matter of months.

Peter Robinson: That sets up the point I'm trying to get at here. Mark, is the correct way for Americans themselves to think about the present moment and if we think about it as a question of national security and go into it with great reluctance, then every urge is get the job done and come home. Get it over with. Accurate or inaccurate, at least you can understand the impulse. We want to go in there, get rid of Saddam Hussein and go back to the status quo antic. Now the question is, is that realistic? Is it indeed even useful? Presumably we're going to have to be in Iraq for a long time. To supply those troops in Iraq, you're going to have to keep the carriers in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf and you're going to have to keep the bases in Germany no matter how bad relations are with Germany, we're going to need flights, even trying to get in and get out quickly presupposes an entire imperial, I shrink from using the word, but a kind of entire imperial structure. And so maybe the way for us to think about it is we're not just stuck for the present moment but for some period of decades, it just is the case that as history has unfolded, we are the dominant power and we ought to be looking for ways to use our influence to the greater good aggressively, robustly, and just thinking about it differently. What do you think?

Mark Danner: Well, as history has unfolded, we are indeed the dominant power. That is not in question. The question is how we use that power. I think there is still a profound ambivalence within the government. There are people certainly who believe as you just said that the United States must go in, do what it has to do and get out. The president, at the American Enterprise Institute, bound himself to a rather expansive vision of what the United States wants to accomplish in the Middle East. That is to bring democracy and stability to Iraq and to start what one proponent of the administration has called a "democratic tsunami" across the Middle East.

Peter Robinson: The day before giving that speech he said the goal was disarmament. And then he gave the speech and now the goal seems to be, well, a new Middle East.

Niall Ferguson: It seems to me that in that very important speech…

Niall Ferguson: …the president said something, which was completely historically incorrect.

Peter Robinson: Incorrect?

Niall Ferguson: Completely incorrect because what he said was that after World War II, and this is a good analogy to draw to begin with, the United States demonstrated that it could use its military force and its great example to transform the two biggest rogue regimes in all history, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan into stable capitalist democracies. And essentially he held this up as an example of what is possible with a much less formidable rogue regime like that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But then he said something which wasn't true, and he said: well, we didn't leave behind occupying armies, we simply left behind constitutions and democracies. And that's just a complete falsehood because the reality is that there are still bigger contingents of American troops in Germany and Japan than anywhere else overseas and also that the formal occupations of these countries in the wake of their defeat in 1945 lasted respectively seven and ten years. Now I don't think anybody in this administration is prepared to contemplate an occupation of Iraq of that duration. And that's what it needs.

Peter Robinson: Next topic. Can America afford an empire?

Title: How Much is that Country in the Window?

Peter Robinson: Niall Ferguson: "Britain's defense expenditure averaged little more than 3% of net national product between 1870 and 1913. Nor should anybody pretend that at least in fiscal terms, the cost of expanding the American empire, even if it were to mean a great many small wars like the one in Afghanistan would be prohibitive." We can afford it. Do you grant that point?

Mark Danner: No, not really. It depends on the political perception at home of whether this is a vital interest…

Peter Robinson: Talking about fiscal terms.

Mark Danner: To tell you the truth, I'm not qualified to say whether it can afford it in fiscal terms but I also would say that there is no answer in fiscal terms completely divorced from politics.

Mark Danner: Whatever figures you assert in relative GDP terms, this venture will occupy the front of America's consciousness for the next several years. And if it goes wrong and indeed if the economy continues going sour, voters don't necessarily vote on the growth rate. They vote on their perception of their own…

Peter Robinson: "The burden of empire is of long duration and democracies are impatient with long-lasting burdens, none more so than America, especially if the imperial guarantor finds itself dragged into a regional conflict that is one long hemorrhage of its diplomatic and military authority," Michael Ignatieff in the New York Times Magazine once again. So the question here is, you tell us we have an empire but the suggestion is that this just is fundamentally unsuited to the character and history of this republic and the American people will put up with it and pay for it as long as it seems directly related to our national security and no longer.

Niall Ferguson: It's a bit of a cliché really isn't it, that Americans watch Mel Gibson in The Patriot and still think of themselves as the colonial rebels throwing off the evil empire in the red coats. This idea that Americans are somehow congenitally incapable of exercising power overseas is extraordinarily unhistorical because of course, a hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt was having no difficulty at all selling to Americans the idea that they should go beyond the Monroe Doctrine and jolly well take over Central American, the Caribbean and anywhere else they felt like going. So I think one has to be very careful about generalizing in the way that Michael does there. I do agree with him in one respect. I think going back to what we just said, America does have the resources to do this. And I think there's no question that there's never been a power as economically out of sight relative to other powers as the United States is today, far more powerful potentially than the United Kingdom ever was. There was never a time when we controlled this share of global GDP. But I think Mark's right, it's not a question really of resources, it's a question of will. And all I would say is can the American people get real? Are they constantly going to be told that every colonial intervention, or call it what you will, is going to be another Vietnam? Or can they come to terms with the reality that they are the global hegemon and they simply do have a moral responsibility to take the kind of action that seems likely to be taken against Saddam Hussein and was taken against Afghanistan?

Mark Danner: Let me argue with that. First of all, I don't think the American people will ever view their role in the world as a moral responsibility to bring order to disorderly places.

Niall Ferguson: They've got to realize that. We need to change the political culture of this country.

Mark Danner: You know, it's very difficult. I had an argument recently with Gary Hart who said the American people have to grow up, they have to become mature. And, one can't argue with the political culture that way, I don't believe. The resources we should be talking about here are not financial, because financial resources are not as you ably point out, in question. We have them in plenty. The resources we're talking about are political ones and in that regard we should think about how the present war has been sold and I use the word advisedly to the American public, it's being sold as an answer to a question. The question is, how can we be safe? The answer is, we can attack Iraq, change its government and install a new one. Now it may well be and I think it is likely, that that answer if it ever appears to be real will not be real for at least a number of years, which is to say that this war, it seems to me, is quite likely to bring with it increased domestic terrorism. Now we're talking about the American people growing up and the question is, with another attack on the United States or several others or perhaps a series of attacks in which terrorism becomes somewhat habitual here which is possible, whether the United States, whether the American people will draw from that the conclusion that they need to take a more assertive role in the world, fight more wars, send their troops to more countries, spend more money in military spending abroad, or whether they will think that perhaps this war was a bad idea and brought with it a lot of domestic death and mayhem

Peter Robinson: Let's move onto the global reaction to American hegemony.

Title: Gulliver's Trevails

Peter Robinson: Let me give you quickly two models for the way the rest of the world responds to empires. One, Napoleonic Europe. Eventually Britain, Russia, Germany, put together a coalition against Napoleon. So you have an imperial power arising and it seems to call forth its own opposition. The second, Pax Romana, the great Roman peace. The Romans insure peace and stability on the entire known world at the time. They're constantly fighting little conflicts on the borders but fundamentally you have the feeling that large chunks of their empire are quite happy to have the Romans solving the fundamental problems of peace and order. Which example is the more relevant to the current American situation?

Niall Ferguson: Well, the Roman example is better than the Napoleonic example…

Peter Robinson: Do you think so despite the Germans and French...?

Niall Ferguson: Because the Napoleonic regime was the rogue regime. You've got this all the way around, rather the wrong way around, Peter. The points about the Napoleonic regime was that it was the last ditch attempt by the French to challenge the dominance of the British Empire, which had been almost totally established by the end of the eighteenth century. And its Napoleon's regime, which is the product of a radical revolution, that poses the threat to the status quo.

Peter Robinson: George Will: "NATO's primary function is no longer collective security. It is to give collective weight to European nations and their dealings with America. The United Nations' crucial function is to enmesh America in inhibiting procedures, hence the diminution of NATO and the U.N. will emancipate America." Should it be American policy to diminish NATO and the United Nations?

Mark Danner: No, I don't think it should be and obviously the Administration up to quite recently hasn't thought it should be either. Clearly the U.S. went to the United Nations because it thought it was in its interest to do so. Now why? Among other things it seems to me, it felt that Americans would feel better about this war if it was given the U.N.'s stamp of approval. Meanwhile what's happened, I would argue, is very interesting. I don't think it is comparable to the Soviet veto power exercised over so many years. It seems to me that you have governments on the one hand seeking to checkmate the United States for their own interest, which is obviously in the French case, but also they are seeing a political gold mine in opposition to the United States. And this is a real thing. If Schroeder can run in Germany on an anti-U.S. ticket and win, this is not a good thing for the United States and it won't do to simply say well, he's a terrible fellow, and the French, they're awful and all the rest. In this particular venture and the damage it has done simply in terms of world opinion toward the United States I feel will have long-term effects.

Peter Robinson: Last question, how will history regard this era of American dominance?

Title: The Good, the Bad or the Ugly

Peter Robinson: Niall Ferguson in his latest book Empire, the Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power: "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." A century from now when historians look back at this moment, will they argue, as Niall does of the British Empire, that the American role in the world did far more good than harm?

Mark Danner: I hope they will argue that. I think the present venture in Iraq will tell the tale. The question it seems to me doesn't come down to a prophetic pronouncement on the U.S. mission in the world…

Peter Robinson: Oh, but it's television, have a little fun…

Mark Danner: It comes down to the question very often of nuts and bolts. Can you establish easily a democratic regime in a country that's ethnically so divided? Is that possible? Will it bring greater goods in the region or will it bring greater turmoil? And these are things I think one can calculate.

Peter Robinson: Give me a summation a century hence of an American empire.

Niall Ferguson: Already the record is pretty impressive. A future historian will look back and say that the United States succeeded in defeating the greatest rogue regime in all history, not only Nazi Germany and Japan but ultimately the Soviet Union was brought to its knees by American confident assertion of American power overseas. But what they may add, and this may be the pessimistic payoff line, is that unfortunately Americans failed to learn the lessons of their successes in World War II and indeed in the Cold War but instead drew the wrong conclusions from minor wars like the one that they had fought unsuccessfully in Vietnam and the little war that they waged against Saddam Hussein. And the conclusion they drew quite wrongly was that America would get terribly unpopular if it kept this kind of stuff up and everybody should pack their bags, all the soldiers should come home and America should call the whole imperial project off. Now if that's the conclusion a hundred years from now, the world will be a very unsafe place and the terrorists alas and rogue regimes will have won.

Peter Robinson: Mark Danner, Niall Ferguson, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.