The burdens of empire.
January 4, 2003 12:24 PM   Subscribe

The Burden. In a lengthy piece in tomorrow's NYT magazine (reg. req.), historian Michael Ignatieff explores the costs and benefits of America's shift from republic to empire.
posted by xowie (16 comments total)
I reject the axiom of "America as Empire", on the grounds that the newly formed European Union is far more imperial; and at the same time, so structurally weak that it will fall far sooner than America.

(This goes to the heart of the argument that "as America is an empire, so America will fall like other empires", a pathetic end-around argument in wishful thinking by the "America-is-wrong-first" crowd, who invariably think that "Europe is better.")

So, do we cut to the chase: is Europe an empire?
posted by kablam at 1:17 PM on January 4, 2003

Kablam - wouldn't "European Empire" require 1) a power center, 2) the ability to militarily control rebellious provinces?

Furthermore, there are a number of nations clamouring to join this "empire" - therefore it is not deeply or insufferably coercive. Let me suggest that it would make just as much sense, under your logic, to call the territorial US an "empire", since it was formed as voluntary political association with the combined features of a democracy and a republic. (isn' this also true of the EU? - correct me if I am wrong on this. My knowledge of US history is far weaker than that of some Mefi'ers)

Here's one DEFINITION OF EMPIRE according to my "American Heritage Dictionary" - "1. a. a political unit, often comprising a number of territories or nations, ruled by a single supreme authority. b. The territory included in such a unit." (From the Latin verb imperare, to command) This definition actually omits one very important aspect of classical empires - hegemonic rule. The extension of imperial influence through the use of proxies was a classical, often indispensible tactic of empires even long before the Roman Empire - which relied heavily, especially in it's later years, of hegemonically controlled (or influenced) nations at it's periphery.

According to this definition, Europe is not currently an empire. Nor, to be strict, is the US - but it has, I would suggest, more elements of empire (including a number of far flung territorial possesions acquired in war).
posted by troutfishing at 1:56 PM on January 4, 2003

Quite so! But there lies the problem. Both the US and the EU fit into the deeply gray area of government in the modern world. Does the term "empire" even have any meaning anymore? For every "see, it's like the Romans" or "see, it's like the British", there are glaring exceptions.

And while the EU as a whole doesn't have far flung ambitions, several of its member states do (ex: France in the Ivory Coast right now, protecting the Cocoa markets.)

Oh, and as far as "power centers" go, there is a fascinating back and forth going on in Brussels over constitutional issues--amusingly similar to those of the early US. Here's a great new link, the EU Observer.

(Hmmm. I wonder about the Philidelphia-Brussels thing...)

So I'm still pretty much of the opinion that this "American Empire" stuff is an academically-driven red herring: "let us assume the world is flat. Is NASA a waste of money?"
posted by kablam at 2:37 PM on January 4, 2003

from the article:

All this is possible, but there is a larger challenge still. Unseating an Arab government in Iraq while leaving the Palestinians to face Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships is a virtual guarantee of unending Islamic wrath against the United States.

The War on Terror will undoubtedly result in more terror. So we burn a village to save it?

Another relevant piece from This American Life.
posted by four panels at 2:41 PM on January 4, 2003

Great article, xowie. Two other previously posted articles immediately come to mind: this excellent one by Fareed Zakaria (discussed here) and this provocative one by Jay Bookman (discussed here.)
posted by homunculus at 3:04 PM on January 4, 2003

...America's shift from republic to empire...

You know, just when you think something has been debunked to death, it pops up again.
posted by oissubke at 5:12 PM on January 4, 2003

"debunked"? How do you debunk something like that? You will only be able to tell in 50-60 years, because if America is an empire, it is a totally new kind of one that will take a long time to figure out.
posted by chaz at 8:12 PM on January 4, 2003

Kablam - fair enough. Maybe we need a new term, and "pseudo empire via economic and political leverage with occaisonal military force projection which may be for altruistic or selfish reasons depending on the surrounding circumstances"......this is a bit clumsy. "Empire" is perhaps a bit heavyhanded but...."empire lite"? Byu the way, have you read Bruce Sterling's piece in Wired 10.04, "Peace is War"?- "Driven by al Qaeda's atrocities, the US charged into the classic quagmire of Afghanistan, legendary death trap of military ambition. With the customary roll of thunder, out came the full routine of the modern American expeditionary force. First, a cautious, methodical, widely televised suppression of local air defenses. Then, once CNN became accustomed to the violence, some leisurely and terrible precision targeting throughout the theater, around the clock. In Serbia in 1999, US aircraft smashed stationary targets, like buildings and bridges. In Afghanistan, thanks to much faster satellite relays, they demolished rapidly moving tanks, fleeing Toyota trucks, and amazed guerrillas. It took only two weeks to chase Taliban and al Qaeda forces into Pakistan, Iran, and beyond.

The US military improves every time it does this. Its skill today boggles the mind. Satellites detect objects on the ground and relay their coordinates to commanders in hardened bunkers thousands of miles away, who radio the data to Green Berets and Delta Force soldiers carrying laser pointers in the field. The pointers point. The bombers bomb. The enemy evaporates.

The world's fourth-largest army: smashed. Battle-hardened Balkan fighters: smashed. The most feared and respected mountain bandits on earth: smashed. It's a new strategic reality.

The Pentagon's role in world affairs has gone through an epochal transformation: from the Fulda Gap to the Highway of Death, from Agent Orange to GPS, from arsenal of democracy to global cop. When you're a cop, sometimes you kick doors in. Most of the time you stay on patrol. Outer space is where a global cop patrols. America's eyes, ears, and nerves are up there, all day, every day, circling the blue yonder. Space vehicles are the ultimate asymmetrical asset. They can't be reached with a hijacked jet. They laugh at anthrax.....The alternative to destroying Washington is clear: world peace, Washington-style. No Machiavellian power player (and few ordinary citizens) would ever believe in such a thing, so peace will be sold as war: New Improved War. At the low end, there will be subversion, spying, detention camps, surveillance, terror, Jersey barriers, truck bombs, and purges. At the high end, quite possibly some nuclear explosions, plagues, and gas attacks. But no war as war is usually understood. No Sommes, Verduns, or Iwo Jimas, probably not even any Vietnams or Afghanistans. Just Space War IV, V, VI, until everyone gets it, the last stiff-necked mountain tribe, the last hermit kingdom.

Anybody who threatens the world with a nuke will be redefined as a war criminal and a suicidal pariah. The Special Forces will drop out of the sky to haul every rocket scientist into global military court. Then people wearing blue helmets will scour industries throughout the offending regime and remove anything that looks dangerous, from insecticide to poppy fields. These are the victory conditions of the dawning Pax Americana.

posted by troutfishing at 8:52 PM on January 4, 2003

Developing Culture
"This is a culture that is making great strides to improve itself technologically, socially, morally. Usually it is coming up from Barbarism [desc. not quoted here] or making a comeback from Decadence [quoted below]... Its governments favor those that offer representation of the peoples' interests--anyone can grow up to become a leader... It's people are agressive, have a good self image and a desire to make things better for themselves and their children. These people often place substantial emphasis on the moral concerns of technology development. This [was] the United States of America of the early 20th century and how its citizens still imagine themselves..."

Dynamic Culture
"This is a culture marked by rapid growth, development and expansion. New ideas and technolgies are being discovered and exploited. Technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, often progressing [erratically] within a generation or less. However, the fast growth also outpaces the ethical application of the new discoveries, leaving the culture wide open for future disasters. Governments are similar to Developing Culture, but access to real political power moves out of the grasp of common people. Class stratification increases as fewer and fewer people profit from new discoveries. it is a time of 'Humanistic' theology, imagining the people of the culture to be the apex of creation, the 'gods' of their universe. This is the U.S.A. in the latter decades of the 20th century..."

Decadent Culture
"These are cultures past the peak of their prime. Decay, particularly moral decay, has set in at all levels of society and the people have become pleasure-loving and jaded. [Technology] remains constant, and few significant gains are made. Governments are commonly those which function best with multiple layers of carefully partitioned authority and responsibility (like Bureaucracies, Corporations, and Democracies). The government becomes self-perpetuating and heedless of the people's needs. Although government support of the Poor is predominant, previously common civil liberties and government services begin to disappear. Inflation and unrestrained crime are often rampant..."

Paul Jaquays
Central Casting Heroes Now! published 1991.

Admittedly, Jaquays didn't invent this line of thinking. He probably had a bibliography a mile long when concocting the above. Jaquays goes on to explain that technological cultures tend to deteriorate further, leading to Stagnant, Retrogressive, and Degenerate societies. This often works in cycles. Degenerate cultures "live in the ruins of their former greatness, unable to understand, let alone duplicate the technological feats of their forebears..." This leads to variations of Primitive, Nomadic and more often Barbaric cultures that eventually rise to a Developing state, and the cycle continues anew.

And people used to say there was nothing important to learn from role playing games. Pshaw! LOL! People compare today's America to the rise and fall of the Roman Republic/Empire because we ARE repeating some of the same mistakes of our ancestors. However, they say this as if it's a bad thing. It's fate. It's nature. It's inherent and necessary for the growth of the human race. Plantlife, indeed ALL life on planet Earth, is nourished by the nutrients in the ground, often there due to the fallen past generations of life. The crude oil in the ground used to be dinosaurs. Humanity --LIFEKIND-- on this planet is a perpetual phoenix, dying and coming to life throughout history. The Roman Empire gave way to the Roman Catholic Church. The Byzantine Empire led to the mentally challenged Dark Ages which led to the cultural rebirth in the Renaissance.

This is not an 'argument' to be 'debunked,' gang. It's a natural fact of humanity, and how the universe itself functions. Death, sacrifice, rebirth, it's all an integral part of what makes us human. Most literature throughout history, from Homer's Illiad to a Michael Chricton novel, repeats these themes (a tip of the hat to Joseph Campbell). You can argue over the minutiae all you want: is Europe technically an empire? Is America more like Rome or less? There's comparisons and contrasts, sure, but the fact is we're just trapped in a cultural cycle.

Great time to be alive, huh?
posted by ZachsMind at 11:12 PM on January 4, 2003

ZachsMind - Unfortunately, our current cultural cycle is not like any in the past for several reasons - the most significant of which is the fact that human pressure (through Global Warming, global climate change, encroachment, deforestation, pollution, hunting, etc.) has been predicted by E.O.Wilson (called by some the world's greatest living scientist) and others to be causing the elimination of a significant percentage of the biodiversity on Earth. It is feared that humans will destroy up to 1/2 of the species currently living - about the same level of mass extinction as the five great mass extinction events which have punctuated the history of life on Earth.

Re: Paul Jacquays - The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (14th century, I think) sketched out a similar scheme, that of periodic cycles of urban growth, stagnation, decadance and collapse: and then the restoration of morality, brought by the purifying nomads sweeping out of the desert to topple - and cleanse - the urban decadance Many others have sketched out similar themes - Spengler and a whole roster of historians. Nonetheless, there are, sometimes, new things under the sun, and I suspect that our current age may be one such. Time will tell.
posted by troutfishing at 10:11 AM on January 5, 2003

zachsmind - the trouble with all of these rise and fall, expansion and death ideas is that they are all organic metaphors. Why should political communities work like yeast colonies? As organic creatures, we find these narratives compelling, but do they have any objective reality?
posted by ednopantz at 11:16 AM on January 5, 2003

It seems that only Americans are still debating whether or not their country/civilization is an empire. The rest of the world has already decided you are. Your enemies certainly have . . .
And as for the "Europe is more of an empire than we are" argument, forget about it. They're simply scrambling to become some sort of counterweight to American power. I don't think I am alone in thinking that they have a long way to go. Still, Ignatieff makes a good point about the value of allowing European input into America's decision-making process -- the EU is bound to get its act together eventually, and being kind and respectful now may pay dividends for America later.
After all, it may be useful to have such friends around for the inevitable 21st century showdown with China.
[Apologies for the tongue-in-cheek, wild west-esque analogy].
posted by pooligan at 11:21 AM on January 5, 2003

the EU is bound to get its act together eventually

Are you sure? Unified monetary policy hasn't worked out so well, so why would unifed foreign policy do any better?
posted by ednopantz at 12:07 PM on January 5, 2003

Americans aren't really debating it, pooligan - it's just an argument between the people who see it clearly already and those who don't like the semantic implications the word carries. In any case, debate does no good - it's already a fait accompli; it's just going to take some people longer than others to figure out Camelot is dead and Saruman the White has changed robes.
posted by Perigee at 12:05 PM on January 6, 2003

Michael Ignatieff = "Mephistopheles lite": what of the OTHER COURSE? (US support for international law until it become strong enough to supplant the 'global cop')
posted by troutfishing at 11:13 PM on January 7, 2003

The rest of the world has already decided you are.

And if the rest of the world decided to jump off a bridge, I'm sure we'd be expected to do it too...
posted by kindall at 11:58 PM on January 7, 2003

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