Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

America has become an empire, a fact that Americans are reluctant to admit and that critics of America regard with great alarm. Since the end of the Cold War, America has exercised an unparalleled and largely unrivaled influence throughout the world. No other nation has ever enjoyed such economic, political, cultural, and military superiority. Consequently the critics of America, both at home and abroad, are right to worry about how American power is being used.

The critics charge that America is no different from other large and rapacious empires that have trampled across the continents in previous centuries. Within the universities, intellectuals speak of American policies as “neo-imperialist” because they promote the goals of empire while eschewing the term. America talks about lofty ideals, the critics say, but in reality it pursues naked self-interest. In the Gulf War, for example, America’s leaders asserted that they were fighting for human rights but in truth they were fighting to protect American access to oil. The critics point to longtime American support for dictators such as Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran, and Marcos in the Philippines as evidence that Americans don’t really care about the democratic ideals they give lip service to. Even now America supports unelected regimes in Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. No wonder, the critics say, that so many people around the world are anti-American and that some even resort to terrorism in order to lash out against the imperial exercise of American power.

Are the critics right? They are correct to note the extent of American influence but wrong to suggest that America is no different from colonial powers such as the British, the French, and the Spanish that once dominated the world. Those empires—like the Islamic empire, the Mongol empire, and the Chinese empire—were sustained primarily by force. The British, for example, ruled my native country of India with nearly 100,000 troops.

American domination is different in that it is not primarily sustained by force. This is not to deny that there are American bases in the Middle East and the Far East or that America has the military capacity to intervene just about anywhere in the world. The real power of America, however, extends far beyond its military capabilities. Walk into a hotel in Barbados or Bombay and the bellhop is whistling the theme song from Titanic. African boys in remote villages can be spotted wearing Yankees and Orioles baseball caps. Millions of people from all over the globe want to move to America. Countless people are drawn to American technology, American freedom, the American way of life. Some critics, especially from Europe, sneer that these aspirations are shortsighted, and perhaps they are right. People may be wrong to want the American lifestyle and may not foresee its disadvantages, but at least they are seeking it voluntarily.

What about the occasions, though, when America does exercise its military power? Here we can hardly deny the critics’ allegation that America acts to promote its self-interest. Even so, Americans can feel immensely proud of how often their country has served their interests while simultaneously promoting noble ideals and the welfare of others. Yes, America fought the Gulf War in part to protect its oil interests, but it also fought to liberate the Kuwaitis from Iraqi invasion.

But what about long-lasting U.S. backing for Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern dictators such as Somoza, Marcos, Pinochet, and the Shah? It should be noted that, in each of these cases, the United States eventually turned against the dictatorial regime and actively aided in its ouster. In Chile and the Philippines, the outcome was favorable: The Pinochet and Marcos regimes were replaced by democratic governments that have so far endured. In Nicaragua and Iran, however, one form of tyranny promptly gave way to another. Somoza was replaced by the Sandinistas, who suspended civil liberties and established a Marxist-style dictatorship, and the Shah of Iran was replaced by a harsh theocracy presided over by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

These outcomes help highlight a crucial principle of foreign policy: the principle of the lesser evil. This means that one should not pursue a thing that seems good if it is likely to result in something worse. A second implication of this doctrine is that one is usually justified in allying with a bad guy in order to oppose a regime that is even worse. The classic example of this occurred during World War II: The United States allied with a very bad man, Stalin, in order to defeat someone who posed a greater threat at the time, Hitler.

Once the principle of the lesser evil is taken into account, then many American actions in terms of supporting tin-pot dictators such as Marcos and Pinochet become defensible. These were measures taken to fight the Cold War. If one accepts what is today an almost universal consensus that the Soviet Union was indeed an “evil empire,” then the United States was right to attach more importance to the fact that Marcos and Pinochet were anti-Soviet than to the fact that they were autocratic thugs.

But now the Cold War is over, so why does America support despotic regimes such as those of Musharaff in Pakistan, Mubarak in Egypt, and the royal family in Saudi Arabia? Once again, we must apply the principle of the lesser evil and examine the practical alternative to those regimes. Unfortunately there do not seem to be viable liberal, democratic parties in the Middle East. The alternative to Mubarak and the Saudi royal family appears to be Islamic fundamentalists of the bin Laden stripe. Faced with the choice between “uncompromising medievals” and “corrupt moderns,” America has no choice but to side with the corrupt moderns.

Empires have to make hard choices, but even if one disagrees with American actions in a given case, one should not miss the larger context. America is the most magnanimous of all imperial powers that have ever existed. After leveling Japan and Germany during World War II, the United States rebuilt those countries. For the most part, America is an abstaining superpower: it shows no real interest in conquering and subjugating the rest of the world, even though it can. On occasion the United States intervenes in Grenada or Haiti or Bosnia, but it never stays to rule those countries. Moreover, when America does get into a war, it is supremely careful to avoid targeting civilians and to minimize collateral damage. Even as American bombs destroyed the infrastructure of the Taliban regime, American planes dropped rations of food to avert hardship and starvation of Afghan civilians. What other country does such things?

Jeane Kirkpatrick once said that “Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is.” The reason that many Americans don’t feel this way is that they judge themselves by a higher standard than they judge anyone else. Thus if the Chinese, the Arabs, or the sub-Saharan Africans slaughter ten thousand of their own people, the world utters a collective sigh and resumes its normal business. By contrast, if America, in the middle of a war, accidentally bombs a school or a hospital and kills 200 civilians, there is an immediate uproar and an investigation is launched. What all this demonstrates, of course, is America’s evident moral superiority. If this be the workings of empire, let us have more of it.

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