Thursday, August 14, 2008

Does America want an Empire?

Niall Ferguson has written another strange book: Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, 2004. Paul Kennedy, perhaps inspired by Ferguson’s strangeness wrote a strange review: “Mission Impossible?” for the New York Review of Books. Kennedy is an historian in his own right and begins by discussing the views of Mackinder and Leo Amery pertaining to empire. Mackinder (in a 1904 article and a 1914 book) thought Mahon wrong when he emphasized the importance of sea power. Mackinder thought that whoever controlled the European Heartland controlled the world. Leo Amery on the other hand (writing shortly after the kittyhawk flights) wrote “It will not matter whether they are in the centre of a continent or on an island; those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and of sciences will be able to defeat all others.”

Kennedy notes that America has validated Amery’s prescience. America is able to “defeat all others.” Surely, Kennedy tells us, any nation which demonstrates its ability to “defeat all others,” which has 130,000 troops in Iraq, about 30,000 in Kuwait, and 15,000 in Afghanistan as well as airbases and training bases in Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is behaving in an Imperial manner.

Kennedy notes that the idea that the US is an imperial power is heavily contested. Most people in the “developing world” think that it is. “Most Europeans seem to think so, too. In the United States itself, however,” the opinion of many politicians and pundits” denies “that America has any imperial intentions.” With this Kennedy at last gets to Niall Ferguson who declares the US to be an empire by redefining the term: “empire is now seen more as the exertion of undisputed influence than as the formal annexation of another land.”

I subsequently read Ferguson’s Colossus. Niall Ferguson would like for the US to be a successful empire, as good in the 21st century as Britain was in the 19th. But Ferguson thinks that “America cannot ‘hack it’; that is to say, [we] do not have the social, cultural, and political strength to produce a ruling class that would benignly administer Iraq for the seventy or so years, as the British administered Egypt. The sons of the British elite competed fiercely to get into the India Civil Service, the Colonial Service, the Sudan Service. Nowadays, he says, Harvard and Yale graduates are going off to law school or to Wall Street. Besides, which members of the proselytizing Neocon elite have ever served in the military, or have children in the military? How many members of the US Senate have a child in the military? Which of our vigorous Neocons are willing to send off their daughters to rule Mosul for the next thirty years? We are still under the shadow of Vietnam. And so, Ferguson teases us: we should be an imperial nation, but we haven’t the guts to be one.”

If Ferguson is being at all serious, and he sounds serious, then there is a glaring absurdity in his argument. We in the US insist (despite what Kennedy purports to be the opinions of an advisor and an undersecretary) that we are not an empire and don’t wish to become one. Why should Ferguson insist that we are an empire and that we aren’t going to be a very good one, when we aren’t trying to be one at all? He compares us to the British Empire and doesn’t think we are going to be able to match it, ignoring the fact that we aren’t trying to match it.

I believe that Kennedy and Ferguson are attempting to force the U.S. into the wrong paradigm. A better one is that presented in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience by John Lewis Gaddis, 2004. We aren’t after empire. We are after security, and we seek security most strongly after we have suffered a surprise attack showing us to be more vulnerable than we thought we were. Critics ask, “what does Iraq have to do with Al Quaeda or Afghanistan?” Kennedy and Ferguson imagine that we are extending our empire, but Gaddis sees Iraq as the most potent threat to our security after we have dealt as best we could with the immediate threat of the Al Quaeda base in Afghanistan.

There is so much to learn and keep track of that many want to imagine that we are living in an earlier time and ask in what way Iraq threatens the continental shores of America. But our National Interest is no longer bounded by our shores. We do have interests in the Middle East. We buy their oil and it is vital to our national interests, or security, that this oil not be denied to us and our allies. Iraq was the most potent threat to our security in the Middle East.

If Ferguson is right, I thought when I read his book, then there should be some American group (Wolfowitz and Perle?) urging that we rule Iraq for something like the 70 years that Britain ruled Egypt. But if Gaddis is right, we will be delighted to leave Iraq as soon as the threat to our security in the region has been neutralized. We can see that we are headed in Gaddis’ direction and not Ferguson’s.

Lawrence Helm

No comments: