An Imperial Denial

Despite prevalent public discourse, "empire" is not a four-letter word - and it is time for the United States to begin to walk the imperial walk, writes Deepak Lal. In fact, suggests Lal, throughout history, the world has been most stable under the control of empires. The United States, like empires of yore, demonstrates its dominance through unparalleled military and economic strength. Unfortunately, the US denial of its true identity may ultimately result in its undoing. In failed nation-building efforts in Iraq, for instance, the effects of US inconsistency are quite clear: "By denying its imperial role, it has not paired military power with a complementary administrative structure required to run an empire." Further, Washington's attempt to impose its own ideology onto others may prove another crucial error. If the US refuses to clean up its act and responsibly shoulder its imperial burden, warns Lal, then someone else will: In due time, China and India may indeed emerge as viable challengers. –YaleGlobal

An Imperial Denial

If the United States were to accept its identity as an empire - and act accordingly - the entire world would benefit
Deepak Lal
Thursday, January 6, 2005
More than military might? The US failure to accept its imperial role has impeded nation-building efforts in Iraq.

LOS ANGELES: US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously told al-Jazeera, "We don't do empire." And that denial is a problem.

A lot of ink has been spent in writing, mostly denouncing the American Empire ever since the US intervention in Afghanistan and removal of the Saddam regime in Iraq. From a historical perspective, however, American imperium should be applauded, not decried. For world stability, order, and economic growth, US-led globalization is the only viable course. If the United States - pushed by confused thinking and resistance from its elite - shuns this role, other powers will eventually step in to fill the void.

As I have recently argued in my book, In Praise of Empires, the starting point must be to recognize the United States not merely as the world's hegemon, but as an empire. Imperial control can be exercised directly or indirectly: The British Raj in India (as well as the Roman empire) combined approaches, directly administering only part of its territory, and managing the rest under local princes overseen by British political officers. Today, the United States maintains or seeks an indirect empire in large parts of the world.

And this is the best course. Throughout human history, empires have promoted both peace and prosperity. This is because their Pax has fostered the order required for any social life to exist in an otherwise anarchical international society of states. This Pax has also engendered prosperity through what is today labeled "globalization," linking areas of disparate resource endowments into a common economic space. The collapse of empires has led both to the destruction of prosperity and the breeding of disorder. As a result of the social and political disorder following the fall of Rome, the standard of living in Western Europe fell dramatically - without returning to comparable levels for 500 years.

Most of the world has lived under empires since civilization began. The European system of states, which still colors international relations, has been a historical anomaly. Empires have arisen because of asymmetric military and economic advantages, which have allowed part of an anarchical system of states to dominate the whole. The European system survived because no single state acquired a continuous military or economic advantage sufficient to create a pan-European empire; rivals bearing similar economic strengths quickly adopted any military advances. The post-Renaissance European gunpowder empires, for instance, were an overseas extension of the battle for the mastery of Europe. Given the shifting economic strength of the European powers, their continental and overseas dominance remained ephemeral.

As the progenitor of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was the dominant economic power from about 1820 to 1870. With the subsequent control of the seas, Britain created the first truly global empire. But with the diffusion of industrialization to Germany - and most importantly, the United States - its predominance slipped. By the end of the 19th century, the United States had overtaken Britain as the world's major economic and military power. But the Americans remained unwilling to take over the imperial task from Britain. Instead, at Versailles, US President Woodrow Wilson ushered in the "Age of Nations," in which peace would be maintained through collective security (as enforced by the League of Nations). With the failure of the Versailles treaty to pass the US Senate, the country slipped into isolationism. The League of Nations and its successor, the Untied Nations, have proven abysmal failures in maintaining the peace through sanctions, for as Hobbes said: "Covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all."

It was only after World War II that a bipartisan political elite has, first surreptitiously and since 9/11 openly, created a Pax Americana based on its preponderant economic and asymmetrical military strength. But, given the continuing resonance of the Wilsonian vision of the United States as the only moral nation in the world, US domestic discourse still shuns the "E" word. This leads neither to honesty nor clear thinking on how America should discharge the imperial role that has been thrust on it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ongoing debates about Iraq.

With its 1990s revolution in information technology, the United States now has an unassailable military advantage, visible in the stunning military victories in toppling regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is in the subsequent task of "nation-building" that it has failed so far. For, by denying its imperial role, it has not paired military power with a complementary administrative structure required to run an empire. Its failure to establish order in post-Saddam Iraq demonstrates this shortcoming. Instead, based on the wholly false belief that its "habits of the heart" - democracy, equality, human rights - are universal values, it has sought to evangelize to create a world in its own image. Unlike past empires, like the early Arab and British empires which ultimately chose, in Queen Elizabeth's words, "not to make windows in men's soul," the United States has wrongly placed its faith in thrusting its moral beliefs down others throats to maintain the peace. This is likely to generate world disorder.

Given the US failure to recognize its identity, for good or ill, as an empire, its foreign policy debate seems surreal. This debate involves three basic positions: The first is based on the hope that the empire will just disappear, the second argues for handing over the empire to a multilateral committee at the United Nations, and the third is to remake the world in America's image. The first is unrealistic, amounting to "Stop the world - I want to get off." The second is infeasible, and the third is a dangerous path to disorder.

Instead, the goal for the American imperium should be to promote the economic liberties necessary for globalization through its Pax. The war on terror is part of this task. Islamic terrorists, despite their utopian millennialism, are best seen as pirates of yore. Though their currency is not material booty but universal salvation, the major targets are the world's complex market infrastructures. A counter to this threat must involve bringing their homelands into the globalization process, creating market economies based on economic and civil liberties. Demands to convert them into democracies may not achieve this end - hence, the outcomes of democratization in Algeria and Iran. The task of modernizing should not involve imposing the aforementioned Western "habits of the heart." For it is the fear that modernization will involve westernization, particularly in the domestic domain of family and sexual mores, which lies at the heart of the Islamist rage.

Despite the results of the recent election, it remains doubtful whether America will be willing to fulfill this imperial task. There are, however, two other imperial states which may eventually fill the void: China and India. After nearly two centuries of relative economic decline, they are at last rising from their slumber. On their present course, they may match US economic and possibly military prowess by the end of this century. If the United States is unwilling to shoulder the imperial burden of maintaining a global Pax, one of these emerging imperial giants may do so in the future.

Deepak Lal is James S. Coleman Professor of International Development Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. This article is based on his recent book, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (Palgrave Macmillan).

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization