Talk of “empire” makes Americans distinctly uneasy. This is odd. In its westward course the young republic was not embarrassed to suck virgin land and indigenous peoples into the embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “empire for liberty.” Millions of American immigrants made and still make their first acquaintance with the US through New York, “the Empire State.” From Monroe to Bush, American presidents have not hesitated to pronounce doctrines whose extraterritorial implications define imperial authority and presume it: there is nothing self-effacing about that decidedly imperious bird on the Presidential Seal. And yet, though the rest of the world is under no illusion, in the United States today there is a sort of wishful denial. We don’t want an empire, we aren’t an empire—or else if we are an empire, then it is one of a kind.
This nervous uncertainty has given rise to an astonishing recent spate of books and essays. Some of these display a charming insouciance. America, write William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric, is an empire of a new type,
unipolar, based on ideology rather than territorial control, voluntary in membership, and economically advantageous to all countries within it.
Others—like the essays collected by Andrew Bacevich in The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire—are a curious amalgam of military hubris and cultural anxiety: they dutifully document both America’s truly awesome military reach and the widespread national uncertainty about what to do with it.
The United States is different from other countries. But as an imperial power it is actually quite conventional and even familiar. True, modern America eschews territorial acquisitions. But that is irrelevant. Like the British at the height of their imperial majesty, the US prefers to get its way by example, pressure, and influence. Lord Palmerston’s dictum—“trade without rule where possible, trade with rule where necessary”—has been applied by Washington with even greater success. Whereas the British were constrained (after some initial reluctance) to exercise formal—and costly—imperium over whole sub-continents, the US has hitherto perfected the art of controlling foreign countries and their resources without going to the expense of actually owning them or ruling their subjects.
Even the story that America tells about its overseas initiatives is hardly original. Like the Victorians, Americans readily suppose that what is demonstrably to our advantage—free trade, democracy—must therefore serve everyone’s interest. Like the French, we count ourselves blessed with laws and institutions whose incontrovertible superiority places a duty upon us to make them universally available. Europeans who cringe when George W. Bush describes America as “the greatest force for good in history”—or promises to export democracy to the Middle East because American values “are right and true for every person in every society”—would do well to recall France’s “civilizing mission,” or the White Man’s Burden.
They should recall, too, that empires are not all bad. They bring protection, especially to minorities. Joseph Roth correctly …