There are some who think that because the United States has global interests and a heart of gold, it is entitled to act just as it pleases, economically and militarily, anywhere it pleases-not a bad first approximation to the classical meaning of empire. And there are others who, as soon as they deploy the word “empire” with a curl of the lip, think they have settled the case against the United States whatever it does-for the United States is, after all, the closest thing to an imperial force in the world today.
Truth be told, there is on occasion something to be said for empires-not their cruelty, their violence, or their exploitation of subject peoples, but the law, citizenship, and stability that historically they can bring. Mainly, of course, the recommendation comes from those in the metropolitan core who fatten on the advantages of empire and suffer few of the costs. But at times there is more. As the historian Anthony Pagden writes in his excellent primer Peoples and Empire, “because of their size and sheer diversity, most empires have in time become universal, cosmopolitan societies. In order to rule vast and widely separated domains, imperial governments have generally found themselves compelled to be broadly tolerant of diversity of culture and sometimes even of belief, so long as these posed no threat to their authority.” To be sure, threats to their authority have frequently been met by ruthless, disproportionate violence. But dependents also submit to imperial power because they enjoy its benefits.
One benefit that had better be faced head-on is that empire is sometimes better than the alternative, if the alternative is a local autocracy, or al-Qaeda, or a rival empire like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. It can be better not only for the metropole of power, but also for the periphery. The extension of American power in 1945 was excellent for Germans and West Europeans in general. It bears remembering that the Islamist terrorists who demolished the twin cathedrals of the World Trade Center have no claim whatsoever to anti-imperialist credentials. Insofar as there is any political program attached to their version of jihad against “infidels” and “hypocrites”-their term for Muslim leaders who disagree with them-they cherish the caliphate of yore that was defeated by the West, and would resurrect it if they could, with no qualms about inflicting disaster not only upon America but upon the poor countries of the world whose misery they worsened with the attacks of September 11.
Leaving aside al-Qaeda, is the problem that America has too much power? Or that America, with its military supremacy, its immense wealth, its governmental and corporate command over resources, suffers from too little intelligence for all that power? The answer is both, because empire tends to make the winners complacent and stupid-perhaps even more so when Americans pretend to be disin...
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