The Imperial Republic: The United States and the World, 1945-1973
"Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy
The Logic of World Power: An Inquiry into the Origins, Currents, and Contradictions of World Politics
One of the ironies about America’s adventure in empire-building is that just about the time we came around to admitting that it existed, the empire began to fall apart. Even its sharpest critics now approach the subject with scholarly analysis rather than indignation; their discussion is beginning to take on the air of a post-mortem rather than of a trial. This is not because the will to dominate has vanished, but because the means to bring it about have diminished. Though the spirit remains willing, the flesh is growing weak.
It is no longer considered bad form, let alone “left-wing,” to discuss America’s imperial role. Thus when Raymond Aron refers to “the imperial republic” he is not making an accusation but merely describing a historical reality. Atlantic loyalist that he is, the distinguished French writer and professor sees nothing particularly shameful about the empire, finding it, like the cold war itself, rooted in the “dialectic of history.”
He does, however, cautiously suggest that is was both counterrevolutionary and exploitative. Within the Third World, “its major, if not its sole, objective seems to me to have been to prevent parties professing Marxism-Leninism or likely to open the way to Marxism- Leninism from coming to power.” Within Europe the empire levied a toll for its nuclear umbrella and its permanent garrison of GIs. “Is not the cost of foreign policy in foreign currency practically the same as the deficit in the US balance of international transactions?” Aron asks in a question meant to answer itself. Washington’s allies “lent it the amount in foreign currency it needed for policing the world.” When de Gaulle said as much a decade ago it was heresy; today it is the common wisdom. “The United States made use of its military pre- dominance to impose a monetary system and, in particular, privileges for the dollar, to which its partners, had they enjoyed full freedom of movement and had they been capable of defending themselves on their own, would never have consented.”
This is, of course, the point documented so superbly by David Calleo and Benjamin Rowland in their recent study, America and the World Political Economy.1 But it is well to be reminded of it by such a traditionalist as Aron. He accepts European dependency as a fact of life, given their postwar weakness and the dubious ambitions of Stalin, who “within the sphere he occupied paid not the slightest regard to the Western powers’ inevitable and legitimate reactions to the liquidation of their friends.” The cold war, he maintains, was rooted in the fact that Washington “could not complacently accept the Sovietization of Eastern Europe.”
This traditional explanation, however, is being increasingly challenged—and by many who could not remotely be labeled revisionists and who suggest that Stalin’s liquidations may have been aggravated rather than limited by US policy. In his elegant essay “Lessons” of the Past, Professor Ernest May points out that it was not at all clear in the early postwar period…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.