America’s Purpose and Role in a Changed World

Let me begin by putting my own moral and ideological cards on the table, since I assume that I have been asked to participate in this symposium because of, and not in spite of, the fact that I reject the idea that America’s global hegemony is not just good for the United States but assures global peace and stability as well, and thus is good for the world. In his recent book-length article for a special issue of the New Left Review titled “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” a brilliant, implacable anatomization of the American Empire, Perry Anderson approvingly quotes Christopher Layne’s observation that “in international relations, benevolent hegemons are like unicorns—there is no such animal.” That is certainly my view. And I would add that a democratic empire (for other than its own citizens, at least) is quite simply a contradiction in terms.

Like every empire that has preceded it, the American Empire has some unique characteristics, the most salient being that it is an informal imperium. Whether this makes all that much difference to the essential character and the global agenda of the United States seems to me highly questionable. To cite a recent example, can anyone with any historical knowledge who has listened to the recordings of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland’s conversation with the US ambassador to Kyiv, about who should and who should not be allowed to replace Ukraine’s legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, honestly not hear the echo of empires past?

Many will say that the recent anti-government protests in Ukraine that culminated with Yanukovych’s ouster demonstrate I am completely wrong about this, and that an empire can indeed be benevolent. As Robert Kagan put it in “Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline,” an essay for which President Obama has expressed great admiration, “The present world order—characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers—reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions.”

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In contrast to Kagan’s relatively sanguine view of the durability of US hegemony, the inspiration for this symposium seems to be based on the editors’ perceptions that in a United States wearied and demoralized by the terrible cost (in every sense of the word) and the dismaying consequences (putting it euphemistically) of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is becoming increasingly difficult to rally “reluctant citizenry” to the cause of America’s “international engagement.” I wish this were the case, but as has so often been my experience over the past twenty years, even though I could not disagree more with Kagan politically, I could not agree more with him analytically. To paraphrase Mark Twain, a great anti-imperialist as well as a great writer, reports of the death of the American Empire are greatly exaggerated.

To ask the obvious question: why are so many, including, or so I presume, the editors of this journal and most of the contributors to this symposium, so worried? Surely, from their point of view, things are not going all that badly, although the historical assumptions that serve as their point of departure seem to me highly debatable. Is it in fact true that the United States “reigned confident and supreme” in 2000? If Americans were confident, surely not just 9/11, but the rise of Chinese economic and military power, which was already very much in train in the 1990s, demonstrated such confidence had been unwarranted to begin with, and was, if anything, a penumbral effect, not to say a narcissistic delusion, resulting from a unique event: the collapse of the Soviet empire. As Kagan rightly insisted in his essay, “To compare American influence today with a mythical past of overwhelming dominance can only mislead us.”

In my view, the editors’ anxieties over the risks and dangers that confront the United States are as misleading in their level of alarm as their portrait of the geostrategic environment in 2000 is rose-colored. Are the jihadis a real adversary? Absolutely. Are they an adversary as formidable as the Soviet Union? Absolutely not. Are poverty and illiteracy huge problems? Yes, but in fact poverty and illiteracy have been declining steadily in most of the developing world since 2000. And it is hardly unreasonable to take at least as sanguine a view of the other “threats, challenges, and vulnerabilities” that the editors enumerate.

To insist on this point is not to say that any of the challenges that the American Empire faces are easy. But this, I think, is where the editors’ use of the year 2000 as a point of comparison is highly misleading, since the 1990s were the only decade in the three-quarters of a century since the United States became the world’s preeminent power when it had no adversary. In other words, it was the world of 2000, an era in which all wars were wars of choice and global hegemony seemed to come unchallenged and virtually cost-free, that was the anomaly. In contrast, it was the world of the Cold War and now, after the hiatus of the 1990s, the world we have been living in through the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century that actually reflect the long-term historical norm.


This is not to say that all that is going on is reversion to mean. But what has changed is not that the United States faces more powerful adversaries than it ever did in the past, or that the United States is weaker than it had been previously. As Kagan points out, the period when the “declinists” had the strongest case was not now but rather the 1970s. Instead, what has changed, as both Kagan and Perry Anderson, for all that otherwise divides them, have emphasized, is the extent to which the US foreign policy establishment now must pay attention to American public opinion. As Anderson puts it, “Since the Second World War, the external order of American power has been largely insulated from the internal political system.” But now, in Kagan’s worried formulation, many Americans have convinced themselves that the United States “can take a time-out from its global responsibilities while it gets its own house in order.”

To put it bluntly, that’s what two wars that seem increasingly pointless and a financial crisis will do, not to mention the wide perception in the United States that among the greatest losers in globalization are lower-middle-class and working-class Americans. If, like the editors, I were seeking for ways that, as they put it, “American leaders can rally a reluctant citizenry” to the cause of what I would call the maintenance of the American Empire, and what I assume they would call the United States’ indispensable leadership of the world, I would accept that the era of the autonomy of foreign policy from economic concerns at home has ended, and try to address Americans’ absolutely justified fears about not continuing to steadily lose ground economically. Whether this is possible in the context of a neo-liberal economic order that the US foreign policy and business establishment is also strongly committed to is another question entirely.

But if the United States continues to pursue wars that are always advertised as great acts of conscience, and expressions of the country’s values, as well as being matters of crucial national interest that, as the editors put it, “oblige” US involvement, and then end very, very badly, even when, as was the case with the intervention in Libya, these military forays are presented as being effectively cost-free, then the growing public skepticism that this symposium clearly views with alarm is only likely to grow stronger. The editors may (awfully euphemistically, it seems to me) refer to an American public being “understandably unnerved that neither [Iraq nor Afghanistan] has a particularly friendly or stable government in place” as US forces withdraw (emphasis added), but in fact widespread popular frustration and dismay are far stronger than that.

The Republican Party, even if it takes back the Senate in November, is already splintering over social issues such as same-sex marriage, which religious conservatives now realize is at least as strongly supported by the business establishment as it is by the hated liberals. And those whom Walter Russell Mead once defined as Jacksonian Americans, who traditionally supported the wide global use of US military power, are increasingly uncomfortable with it, as the unexpected rise of Rand Paul has shown clearly. It is anything but clear that the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, many of whose leading lights are even now still pressing President Obama to reverse himself and undertake military action in Syria, has the faintest idea of how to cope with the first popular pushback since before the beginning of the Cold War, which, crucially, is coming from the right every bit as much (if not more) as from the left.

It’s worth remembering that from the War of 1812, through the forcible, sanguinary annexation of a huge part of Mexico, to the brutal suppression of the nationalist uprising against American colonialism in the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, there was an enormous amount of opposition in the United States to the imperial project. It is at least possible that in the twenty-first century the political conditions that shape and constrain US foreign policy will more resemble those that obtained in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. This does not mean the American Empire will retrench to any significant degree. But it will make its smooth administration much harder. That said, if President Obama can enthuse over Robert Kagan’s essay, which argued that “preserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment,” imagine what the far more hawkish Hillary Clinton would do should she become president. I wish I could conclude that the anxieties underpinning this symposium were warranted, and that the end of the American Empire was in the cards in any foreseeable future. But I see no reason to expect any such eventuality. The editors can stand down.

David Rieff’s latest book is Against Remembrance, a critique of the political uses of memory.

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