March 15, 2004

American Empire

Two interesting articles about American Empire. The first, a review of recent books by Foreign Affairs (via Winds Of Change). It covers The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic by Chalmers Johnson, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire by Niall Ferguson, Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy by Benjamin R. Barber, Incoherent Empire by Michael Mann, and After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order by Emmanuel Todd.

No one disagrees that U.S. power is extraordinary. It is the character and logic of U.S. domination that is at issue in the debate over empire. The United States is not just a superpower pursuing its interest; it is a producer of world order. Over the decades -- with more support than resistance from other nations -- it has fashioned a distinctively open and rule-based international order. Its dynamic bundle of oversized capacities, interests, and ideals constitutes an "American project" with unprecedented global reach. For better or worse, other states must come to terms with or work around this protean order.

Scholars often characterize international relations as the interaction of sovereign states in an anarchic world. In the classic Westphalian world order, states hold a monopoly on the use of force in their own territory while order at the international level is maintained through the diffusion of power among states. Today's unipolar world turns the Westphalian image on its head. The United States possesses a near-monopoly on the use of force internationally; on the domestic level, meanwhile, the institutions and behaviors of states are increasingly open to global -- that is, American -- scrutiny. Since September 11, the Bush administration's assertion of "contingent sovereignty" and the right of preemption have made this transformation abundantly clear. The rise of unipolarity and the simultaneous unbundling of state sovereignty is a new and volatile brew.

But is the resulting political formation an empire? And if so, will the American empire suffer the fate of great empires of the past: ravaging the world with its ambitions and excesses until overextension, miscalculation, and mounting opposition hasten its collapse?

I watched Chalmers Johnson talk about his book on C-SPAN a week or so ago, thinking (from the title) that it would be interesting. Unfortunately, he came across as more the Chomskian blame-America-first type, making it hard to get past the conspiracy theories about the military-petroleum complex to anything worth examining more closely. He spent most of the time arguing that the size of our military "footprint", or number of overseas bases, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt our nefarious imperialist motives, for why else would you want so many bases. QED, empire. Not particularly compelling by itself. Foreign Affairs seemed equally unimpressed.

The second article is an essay by Phillip Bobbit in the Financial Times (I think that since I read this, they've put it behind their "members only" area. Porphyrogenitus hosts a mirror, though.)

Both are definitely worth a read.

Update: Porphyrogenitus has more comments on the Bobbit piece, here.

Posted by richard at March 15, 2004 05:33 PM