In discussions of foreign policy, one doesn’t regularly encounter the word evil. The reason being that for many in the West the reality of evil has been reduced to serial killers in mystery novels. For the most part it retains its transcendent horror only for the declining number of people in the Western world who distinguish between morals and religious belief. Ronald Reagan made it clear that he believed in the existence and persistence of evil in the Soviet Union. And now it’s clear that President Bush believes in an “axis of evil” that includes North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
The responses to the president’s phrase “axis of evil” and its policy implications range from the acerbic humor of those who think he has confused himself with the mysterious Shadow of radio fame (who “knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men”) to the furor of many European and American commentators who consider the Bush administration’s words and actions simplistic, arrogant, irresponsible, and disconnected.
Let me settle one issue: Evil exists. Since at least the second century, Christians have argued about its nature, but all Christian theologians assumed the existence of evil, although their characterization of it as the absence of good is wrong! Today, it is novelists such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Connelley, and P. D. James, not theologians, who make the most compelling characterizations of evil.
Evil persons (Charles Manson), evil ideologies (Nazism), evil regimes (Stalin’s), and evil actions (those of Mao and Pol Pot) do exist. Still, it may not be immediately obvious why President Bush used this particular word.
There are four reasons.
• The seriousness of a threat is often confused with the size of a country, the size of its army, the size of its economy, and so on. Bush’s emphasis on evil is intended to dramatize the fact that, regardless of size, evil is always dangerous.
• For important members of the administration—including the president himself—the Christian concern with evil is personal, not simply metaphorical.
• The word evil culturally resonates in America because most people in the United States are Christian, a remarkably high proportion of whom regularly practice their religion. In short, Bush knows he has an audience that understands him.
• Bush meant to signal to our enemies that “there is a new sheriff in town”—that Bill Clinton is no longer president.
The New Sheriff and His “Empire”
Much more than symbols are involved in this contrast of presidencies. The Clinton administration denied in principle the central place of war in a great power’s repertoire. Clinton began with the idea that the United Nations would be a major force in lessening violent conflict. It failed. He believed that trade and aid would by themselves largely remove sources of conflict. They didn’t. He also incorrectly believed—like too many Republicans in the Bush administration—that “democracy” is the natural condition for all peoples in all cultures. Never mind the 4,700 years it took for democratic republicanism to appear, along with the improbable circumstances related to its appearance in the West; the culturally, politically, and historically extraordinary circumstances surrounding its postwar development in Germany and Japan; and the failure of our recent democratization efforts in countries such as Bosnia and Haiti.
The result of all this was a Clinton foreign policy of genuflection. His administration’s failure was not so much in underestimating world dangers as in trying to remove them by “paying off” regimes such as North Korea, Russia, and China in return for their promise to be good.
Bush’s statements and his cabinet’s strategy herald a radical revision of American foreign policy and consequently a radical revision in America’s global role. The strategy appears to be based on three pillars: identification of the enemy, intimidation of the enemy with language and deployment, and, when necessary, the use of violence to eliminate the enemy. The Defense Department’s identification of possible hostile targets and preemptive-strike doctrine amount to an operational strategy designed to map and militarily respond to the very different types of violent threat emerging in the aftermath of the Cold War.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, I argued that occasionally it would be necessary for the United States to act unilaterally; that war could not be eliminated with utopian expectations of global democracy, capitalism, and human rights; that soon new anti-Western “movements of rage” with new ideologies, leaders, and strategies would appear; and that consequently America would need a new conceptual map and operational strategy to deal with the world’s new political and ideological geography.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that I am not offended by the Bush administration’s use of the presumably unsophisticated word evil; not frightened (concerned, yes) by a new political-military strategy, intended like previous American strategies to deter others from inflicting nihilistic violence on us. Nor am I surprised, let alone embarrassed, by the condescending criticism emanating from many circles in Western Europe.
I am intrigued by the implications of America’s new role in the world after September 11. To grasp this evolving role means coming to grips with the idea and reality of empire. Even more remarkable than the absence for the first time since the French Revolution of a politically centered, militarily powerful, international anti-Western political ideology is the absence of empire everywhere in the world for the first time in more than 5,000 years. The First World War brought to an end the Ottoman, tsarist Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires. The Second World War ended not only the Nazi and Japanese empires but also those of Great Britain, France, Holland, and Portugal. And the end of the Cold War meant the extinction—the remarkably peaceful extinction—of the most powerful empire in history, the Soviet empire.
Not everyone agrees that no empire currently exists. Quite the contrary, some argue that the Cold War was a contest between the Soviet empire and imperial America, a contest whose outcome is the unprecedented power and uncontested position of the imperial winner: the United States. As evidence, they point to the existence of U.S. military bases and personnel around the world; to the fact that currently the U.S. defense budget is greater than the combined military budgets (practically speaking) of all other nations in a world where no effective military rival to the United States exists.
I take a different view. During the Cold War the United States was more than a nation-state but something other than an empire. For one thing, unlike any empire, the United States enjoyed a remarkable degree of voluntary, governmental, and popular support from its most important Cold War (European) allies; did not directly select and control the composition and behavior of allied governments in the manner typical of empires (e.g., the Soviet Union); and did not exploit allies as other empires have. In fact, we created the conditions for the remarkable economic growth of Germany, Japan, and Western Europe.
My interest, however, is with the present, not the Cold War. And now it is legitimate and important to ask whether we are witnessing the organization, justification, and actions of a new American empire, one radically unlike our rather puny empire in the nineteenth century or our largely voluntary one in the twentieth century. A number of hostile critics, from MIT professor Noam Chomsky to Chinese general Fu Quangyou, have no doubt that America is following a strategy of global empire, and they condemn us for it. In fact, Professor Chomsky condemns us for practically everything. I get the impression that the only things America could do to placate Chomsky and Co. would be to renounce our global role and return to our 1783 borders. However, much of the criticism is well intentioned, and criticism and apprehension about a possible American empire are not surprising. What is surprising is the number of American officials and intellectuals who agree that America is creating a global empire and who favor this development.
It’s a Bad, Bad World
I believe the growing interest in empire has two sources. First, the major phenomenon in the post–Cold War period has not been democratic transition but rather the reality of and potential for state disintegration. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, and Czechoslovakia speak to the reality. Indonesia, Pakistan, India, China, and several other nations speak to the potential.
Second, and most important, state disintegration is preceded, accompanied, and followed by “wildcat violence”: violence with multiple, overlapping, but weakly connected points of origin and organization; violent “movements of rage” that ignore and elude state boundaries but that draw on the resources of and possibly collaborate with virulently anti-Western states; violent movements that lack global power but enjoy global reach.
What makes state disintegration particularly ominous today is the genuine possibility that movements of rage will combine the elusiveness of wildcat organization and violently dispersed actions with the compactness and destructiveness of modern chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration’s doctrine—imperial or not—is a positive response to the likely proliferation of wildcat violence in a context of state disintegration and dangerously unpredictable states (such as North Korea and Iraq) that may offer movements of rage access to insidious weapons. If the Bush administration’s policy is one of identifying, intimidating, and possibly eliminating wildcat violence with global reach and horrendous consequences, then I favor it—even if that effort includes new imperial notions of extraterritoriality and spheres of influence (but not, except in the most exceptional of circumstances, prolonged occupation of entire countries). But I add one crucial proviso that we make every effort to have Western or Western-like countries (e.g., Turkey) share this effort.
A Little Help from Our Friends
Why does America need Western allies? To begin with, the West is simultaneously the global military power and the global cultural minority. The West is the only culture in the world with a history based on individual liberty, democratic republicanism, and market capitalism. It would be absurd to cut ourselves off from our natural West European allies.
Second, precisely because America’s unique political signature is liberty, whereas empire’s signature is always inequality, any American effort must do everything possible to avoid the imperial temptations of self-righteousness and arrogance that led 13 American colonies to justifiably revolt against British imperial rule.
Any diplomatic or military problems that arise from promoting a more militarily powerful and politically active Western Europe will be much less costly than an effort by America to respond alone to international wildcat violence. Isolation, whether personal or national, always produces frustration, delusion, and irrational action. America would be no exception.
Third, any attempt to identify, intimidate, or eliminate all wildcat violence with a potentially global reach is beyond the intelligence-gathering, logistical, material, and emotional resources of even the United States. The United States will have to align itself with less-powerful allies in various regions and become as adept at military diplomacy as it has always been with military technology.
However, to have difficulties with allies assumes they exist. Clearly, the most difficult task facing the Bush administration is finding many, particularly among our most long-standing and important ones. Jim Woolsley, former head of the CIA, recently pointed out that, with the exception of Great Britain, the rest of Western Europe acts a lot like the townsfolk in High Noon. When a threat appears, the (European) townsfolk plead for the (American) sheriff to protect them, but when it’s time to courageously step up and offer the sheriff help, they point to pressing domestic concerns. Then, after the sheriff has saved the day, they criticize him for having acted unilaterally.
Well, the American sheriff saved Western Europe’s gas in the Gulf War and before that its assets in World War II. If America becomes a unilateralist power, an empire without checks and balances, Western Europe will have itself to blame.
The West Is Here to Stay
Several years ago Samuel Huntington prophesied a world of “clashing civilizations.” He announced that the West had entered a period of relative decline and would soon face a powerful Chinese and Islamic threat. He followed this prediction with a defeatist prescription: The United States and the West should recognize how exceptional their 250-year global role has been, adopt a defensive, divide-and-rule global strategy, and hide out in a Western cultural bunker.
His error is glaring. To begin with, a civilization without a core nation as its leader is more a residual reference than a powerful presence. What does it mean to talk about Islamic civilization? Who is Islam’s national leader? Iran, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iraq? There is none. And who politically and militarily defines Sinic civilization? Should China attempt to do so, it will find powerful opposition from Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and both Koreas.
The fact is that, far from being in decline, the West is the only civilization with a core power, the United States, whose economy, military, democracy, and strategy enable it to act and lead coherently and effectively on a global basis. The recent “defection” of Germany and France may crucially alter the fact, or, hopefully, lead to a Western civilization with checks and balances, not vetoes. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the dominant political reality is not “clashing civilizations,” “criminal anarchy,” the “end of history,” or “globalization”—none of which offer a solution to national and international wildcat violence. The dominant political reality remains the nation-state—in particular the Western nation-state and its trinity of private liberty, public equality, and political fraternity. And dominant above all others is the United States, the nation with the most-developed self-correcting democratic institutions in the world.
No one knows whether the United States will respond in an imperial manner to a world of disintegrating states and wildcat violence where elusive move-ments of rage might gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
In principle the choice between exorcising evil and allowing evil to metastasize from small beginnings to horrific endings (à la Hitler and Stalin) is no choice at all; it is a political and moral imperative. However, in practice, we must be alert to the fact that a preemptive strike against a country such as Iraq might well lead to an entire region engulfed in civil war. No responsible American statesman can ignore this possibility. No decision-maker or adviser can allow themselves the Don Quixote–like illusion that democracy will follow a victorious war and occupation of Iraq. Hopefully, the Bush administration has enough sober Sancho Panzas to temper the all-too-strident Don Quixotes.