George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

One of my earliest memories is of being taken in 1924 to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on the outskirts of London. Although the Wembley Exhibition presented, with a banality that was widely commented on even at the time,1 an imperial dream that was already melting away, a surprising number of people in England still believed that the British Empire was the world’s only hope of order and decency. With the Depression quite a few serious people briefly saw the Soviet model as the best way forward, and in the mid-1930s others gave more than lip service to Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.2

Dreams of world order come and go. After World War II there was a brief interlude when the United States led governments and peoples throughout the world in the belief that a new era of peace, disarmament, and the rule of law could emerge through working together in the United Nations. The cold war soon blighted that vision, and the world was frozen for forty years in the balance of nuclear terror. The end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union caught most people by surprise, and they were followed by a brief period of euphoria in which optimistic notions circulated, many of them inspired by the apparent success of the first Gulf War. Among them were President George H.W. Bush’s “new world order,” Madeleine Albright’s “assertive multilateralism,” and a short-lived but widespread belief that the UN had at last come into its own. The century ended in general disillusionment over the prevailing disorder and violence. The events of September 11, 2001, and the reaction of the administration of President George W. Bush have so far dominated the twenty-first century’s discussion of world order and have already inspired a large and growing literature.


The United States is by far the richest and most powerful country in history, so its policies and actions are naturally of worldwide concern. Its newly proclaimed unilateralist doctrine of preventive or preemptive war, with no tolerance for potential military rivals, would have seized the world’s attention even if Washington was not already acting on it. The occupation of Iraq, a vast increase in US military spending, Washington’s rejection of important international treaties, and its unconcealed contempt for international organizations and conventions have created uproar and foreboding in many parts of the world. Words like imperialism and hegemony, however inappropriate, have regained their old currency; worldwide demonstrations have been organized, and jihads have intensified. Whether the Bush doctrines are likely, in the long run, to become more, or less, dangerous both to the United States and to other nations is as yet unclear. Experience in Iraq and elsewhere may already be diluting some of the enthusiasm of the Bush administration’s ideologues and modifying US policy on Iraq and North Korea; but the image of a unilateralist superpower that is both defensive and aggressive remains an obsession in the world at large.

How relevant is it to speculate whether the United States will repeat the experience of former great empires—expand, get overextended, and collapse? The British Empire is as good a reference point for this question as any, ruling as it did less than one hundred years ago one quarter of the earth’s land surface and controlling the seas and oceans as well as the world economy. Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is a wonderfully readable book, a dazzling conflation of political, military, social, and economic history, enlivened with fascinating characters and anecdotes and splendid illustrations. (It was also a television series.) Ferguson’s historical trivia are a constant pleasure. David Livingstone sailed the 2,500 treacherous miles from Mombasa to Bombay in a small, flat-bottomed river steamer. The very shortsighted General Herbert Horatio Kitchener’s shooting dogs were called Bang, Miss, and Damn. Adolf Hitler’s favorite movie was Lives of the Bengal Lancers.

Ferguson’s intention, he writes, was “to write the history of globalization as it was promoted by Great Britain and her colonies.” His book underscores the dissimilarities between the British and American experience. The growth of the British Empire, however haphazard, was an unabashed exercise in economic exploitation, conquest, and colonization. In the age of Malthus colonies were also a useful overflow from their very small homeland for surplus Brits. Between 1600 and 1950 twenty million people emigrated from Britain and, in Ferguson’s words, “turned whole continents white.” Imperial Britain was a great exporter both of people and of capital. The United States, traditionally reluctant about ruling others, has been largely an importer both of immigrants and of capital. Is it possible to have an empire, in the old sense of the word, without colonization?

British confidence, not to say arrogance, grew as imperial expansion merged conveniently with a self-appointed mission to redeem the world. “We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race,” Cecil Rhodes proclaimed. According to Ferguson, Sir Edwin Montagu, a secretary of state for India who was skeptical about imperial policy, “commented drily he would like to hear some arguments against Britain’s annexing the whole world.” Nothing quite like that has been heard from George W. Bush’s Washington—at least not yet.


Military superiority and the ruthless use of overwhelming force are a hallmark of both histories. In 1898 at Omdurman, which Ferguson calls the apogee of the Victorian empire, the British, with the help of the Maxim gun, slaughtered or wounded some 45,000 of the Mahdi’s army of 52,000. Only forty-eight British died in “that mechanical scattering of death which the polite nations of the earth have brought to such monstrous perfection.” Winston Churchill’s words—he was an eyewitness—evoke vividly more recent exercises in military and technological overkill.

The British revolutionized global communications with steamships (cutting the average transatlantic voyage from six weeks to ten days), railroads, which, for example, helped to unify India, and later with the telegraph and the undersea cable (made possible by gutta-percha from Malaya). Having greatly profited in the eighteenth century from the slave trade, they led the movement for its abolition in the nineteenth. They enforced global free trade, built a worldwide logistical system, and became the world’s banker. (Between 1865 and 1914 there was more British capital in the United States than in Britain.) The empire established a global economic and legal system and provided an example of uncorrupt colonial government. Ferguson writes that in the end the cost of the twentieth-century empire to Britain vastly exceeded its benefits. (In 1921, the annual cost of running Iraq, £23 million, exceeded the health budget for the entire United Kingdom.) Of course movements for independence, and their supporters in the United Kingdom, strongly contributed to the dissolution, but the foundations of the empire had been economic, and in the end those foundations were eaten up by the expense of two world wars.

The United States has assumed a global burden—not just fighting terrorism and rogue states, but spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy, as well as being the world’s indispensable nation when peace and order are seriously challenged. Like the British Empire before it, Ferguson comments, the United States “unfailingly acts in the name of liberty, even when its own self-interest is manifestly uppermost.” But for all its size and wealth, the United States, in Ferguson’s view,

lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security. It is an empire, in short, that dare not speak its name…. Perhaps the reality is that the Americans have taken our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it.

This thoroughly British conclusion perhaps underestimates the basic fact that Americans don’t want to be Romans, let alone Britons, and in any case powerful new anti-imperial forces have emerged since Britannia ruled the waves. In American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Di-plomacy, Andrew J. Bacevich assails what he calls the myth of the reluctant superpower. There was, he maintains, always a common American vision of growth and expansion, rooted in calculations of political and economic self-interest. “Who can doubt,” he quotes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “that there is an American empire?—an ‘informal’ empire, not colonial in polity, but still richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread around the luckless planet.” Moreover there has always been a general belief in the United States that the American tradition, with its individual freedom, popular government, and market economics, is also the best design for all humanity. American leaders, as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, view themselves as the “tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.”

The primary national objective of economic growth at home and abroad implies continuous expansion, but not necessarily imperialism. The recent rejection of containment and deterrence along with the militarization of US foreign policy has resulted in a military expansionism which, with its desperate desire to get out of newly occupied areas as soon as possible, seems defensive in its rhetoric and very unlike the old imperialism. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s post-9/11 mention of the opportunity to “refashion the world,” which had a whiff of the old imperialism, now looks rather less practicable.

“The conceit,” Bacevich concludes, “that America is by its very nature innocent of imperial pretensions has become not only untenable but also counterproductive: it impedes efforts to gauge realistically the challenges facing the United States as a liberal democracy intent on presiding over a global order in which American values and American power enjoy pride of place.” Bacevich would like the US to act openly as a benevolent superpower and seems frustrated it does not do so.



Indeed the current policies of the United States provide plenty to think about without worrying whether they are imperialistic or not. The really important question is how the United States will use its power in the future, and how the world will react to it. In 1945 the United States, then incomparably the richest and most powerful country in the world, chose, with the admiring support of most other nations, to try to exercise its power and influence through a new international system that was largely its own creation. That experiment, the United Nations, was soon paralyzed by the cold war and has never regained the wholehearted American support that it enjoyed in its early years. Nearly sixty years later, the exceptionalist policy of the George W. Bush administration is the antithesis of the United States’ 1945 concept of how to use its overwhelming power.

It would be hard to imagine a better, or more readable, analysis of United States policy over the last fifty years than Clyde Prestowitz’s Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. His book is particularly valuable coming as it does from a traditional conservative with wide diplomatic and commercial experience. Prestowitz, who negotiated trade agreements in Reagan’s Commerce Department and now runs his own economic strategy institute in Washington, has a talent for making the most complex questions intelligible and fascinating, and he has a broad working knowledge of the issues as well as a deep understanding of the people he has talked to all over the world.

Prestowitz is concerned with the growing alienation of the United States from the rest of the world, the reasons for it, and what can be done to remedy it. He puts America’s choice in simple, well-worn images—to be the bully on the block or the city on the hill. He feels that inconsistency, self-righteousness, and ignorance now play a far larger part than they should in the formulation and execution of United States policy and that Americans have become bad listeners. He comments in passing that the doctrine of military supremacy and preemptive attack outlined in President Bush’s June 2002 West Point speech and in the September 2002 document National Security Strategy of the United States strikes at the heart of three fundamental texts that should be guidelines for foreign policy: the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which set forth the principle of respect for national sovereignty and noninterference in the affairs of other states; the UN Charter, which bans the threat or the use of force except in self-defense or under a Security Council mandate; and the Nuremberg judgments, which treated pre- emptive attack as a war crime.

Prestowitz believes the future of the United States, and of other countries, is being needlessly jeopardized by US policy, or the lack of it. He believes that the United States should get its occupation of Iraq over with as quickly as possible and hand the problem over to the United Nations. The United Nations itself should be taken seriously by the United States, reformed and redesigned, with, for example, India and Brazil as permanent members of the Security Council. A revitalized UN, he writes, would make the United States more, not less, powerful.

On energy Prestowitz goes over well-trodden ground, pointing out that if the United States were as fuel-efficient as the European Union, it would have no need for Persian Gulf oil and could save $100 billion a year on the trade deficit and up to $60 billion a year on Gulf-related military deployment. Getting serious about energy conservation and alternative energy sources, he writes, is a major national priority and should be the mission of a new Manhattan Project.

Prestowitz believes that the story of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, of which he provides a masterly summary, is a “metaphor for American profligacy, unconcern, and arrogance.” He urges that the United States sign the revised Kyoto Protocol, which addresses most of the US objections to the original agreement. He regards the Bush administration’s negative policy on arms-related treaties and conventions—land mines, small arms, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty, the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, and the treaties on biological and chemical warfare—as a major and gratuitous cause of the alienation of other governments. For example, small arms, the “poor man’s weapons of mass destruction,” accounted for four million deaths in the 1990s alone, not to mention their being a major factor in violence and instability in numerous countries, most recently Liberia. Prestowitz describes how John Bolton, the US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, shocked a UN conference of governments concerned about the worldwide epidemic of small arms, informing the delegates that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution protected the individual’s right to keep and bear arms, and that the US would not support restraints either on the trade in small arms or on civilian possession of them.

Prestowitz recalls that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms, was able to withhold the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty from Senate consideration for more than two years. He comments that the ideological eccentricities and paralyzing institutional powers of such legislators are a peculiarity of the American system that often unnecessarily puts the United States at odds with the rest of the world by preventing expeditious and nonpartisan consideration of international agreements. He deplores Washington’s tendency to view world events through a single prism—formerly fear of communism, and now fear of terrorism. He suggests a serious public debate on who takes the country to war.

Prestowitz singles out two issues, Israel and Taiwan, as having a major distorting effect on US policy and on foreign perceptions of the United States. On both of these issues Washington has allowed

its view of reality to be distorted by intensely self-interested groups and by willfully averting its eyes from contrary evidence. Our system of government, with its separation of powers, facilitates capture of key positions by dedicated minorities that are sometimes heavily influenced by foreign elements whose interests are directly at odds with those of the United States…. Don’t even get me started on Cuba.

About the prospects for peace in the Middle East he is blunt in expressing a view that many governments would privately agree with:

Unless the lobbies and the Congress and the White House wake up, the prospect is for the United States to pour more billions of dollars into expansion of Israeli settlements. This policy will catalyze violence and lead to brutal reprisal that will bring more global disdain for the United States. And the peace all sides desperately want will only recede.

Prestowitz believes that cooperation between the United States and Europe, which together represent 60 percent of the global economy, is absolutely essential to the working of the global system. Europe’s GDP is $9 trillion to the United States’ $10 trillion, and the euro is emerging as a credible alternative currency. Present strains on this relationship, exacerbated by irresponsible comments from both sides, complicate collaboration on crises in the Middle East and elsewhere and assistance to the poorer countries.

The best thing for the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, in Prestowitz’s view, would be a re-turn to real conservatism. “The imperial project of the so-called neoconservatives,” he writes, “is not conservatism at all but radicalism, egotism, and adventurism articulated in the stirring rhetoric of traditional patriotism. Real conservatives have never been messianic or doctrinaire.” The current adventurism results, ironically, in sensationally big government and huge budgets. “This is neither conservatism nor liberalism but simple irresponsibility.”


There are, of course, more fundamental ideas about the way our planet might be run in the future. In The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell has “sought to trace, alongside the awful history of modern violence, a less-noticed, parallel history of nonviolent power.” Schell contends that, especially with the advent of nuclear weapons, violence is now dysfunctional as a political instrument. He traces the development of non-violent action from England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776 to Gandhi and Indian independence, Martin Luther King Jr., the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the increase in democracies worldwide from thirty in 1971 to one hundred and twenty-one in 2001. The emergence, he writes, of new and historically potent forms of nonviolent action is a new phenomenon. He asks whether nonviolent revolution can succeed. Obviously it can if the conditions are right, but this is not always so.

Schell outlines a nightmarish sequence of events:

If wars of self-determination and other kinds of local and regional mayhem multiply and run out of control; if the wealthy and powerful use globalization to systematize and exacerbate exploitation of the poor and powerless; if the poor and the powerless react with terrorism and other forms of violence; if the nuclear powers insist on holding on to and threatening to use their chosen weapons of mass destruction; if more nations then develop nuclear or biological or chemical arsenals in response and then threaten to use them; if these weapons one day fall, as seems likely, into the hands of terrorists; and if the United States continues to pursue an Augustan policy, then the stage will be set for catastrophe.

Schell is convinced that the days when nations could save themselves from force with force are over, and that only “structures of cooperation” offer real hope. Coexistence is a necessity.

For those who have tried to make the United Nations work over the years these are not exactly new ideas; nor does Schell make clear what alternative he is advocating. He rightly dismisses the feasibility of a global American empire, however altruistic. Nor is it time to think that a “global body politic” is possible. “There is a raw freedom in the plurality of states that the world should not surrender easily.” Schell proposes that

the starting point of a world politics based in cooperative power would be not a blueprint for an ideal system of law but the reality that has already emerged on the ground. It is a reality for which there is as yet no adequate name. The word, when it appears, will refer to the power of action without violence, whether in revolution, the civil state, or the international order…. The agenda of a program to build a cooperative world would be to choose and foster cooperative means at every level of political life.

I find it hard to imagine this familiar cloud of high-minded good intentions successfully overcoming the very hard and nasty realities Schell outlines in the passage I have quoted above. Nor does he suggest what catalyst would transform this old dream into a decisive force in the world.

Schell proposes four specific programs that decent and concerned people worldwide might embark on. He wants to turn the forces of peace, social justice, and defense of the environment—“a cooperative triad”—against “the coercive, imperial triad of war, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation.” The four programs are: a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; international intervention to contain or stop wars such as those in the Balkans aimed at “national self-determination”; enforcement of the prohibition of crimes against humanity; and a league of democratic states to support democracy and prevent the foreign policies of existing democracies from betraying democratic principles. The first of these objectives has been pursued by governments in the United Nations and by many nongovernmental organizations without much success for over fifty years, starting with the Baruch Plan in 1946. Considerable progress has been made on the second and third, but the obstacles in the form of national self-interest are great and very real, and any “cooperative world” effort would also have to find ways to overcome them.

The real question is why such obviously sensible objectives are so hard to attain. These are issues on which sovereign governments, especially the United States, call the shots, and all have special interests and concerns. As long as sovereign governments are in charge of human affairs, it is they who will have to be persuaded to change their ways and adopt a world politics based on “cooperative action” that will, above all, avoid annihilation and ensure survival. The United Nations was set up to achieve a similar objective nearly sixty years ago, and even the European Community is still very far from achieving joint political action. The conclusions of Schell’s serious and original book are too confused, and too lacking in practical ideas about how cooperation can become a decisive force in international affairs, to make much of a contribution to the solution of this most urgent of all problems.

Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is in a category all of its own. Prefaced by the last verse of the most searing of all war poems, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” it is a great war correspondent’s effort to describe, from his own experience in many wars, the world’s oldest enigma, the terrible, many-faced nature of war. In Central America, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf War, and the Balkans Hedges has seen firsthand, over and over again, the transforming nature of war, its enduring and seductive fascination, and its utterly degrading and brutalizing effects on those who take part in it:

In Bosnia the Serbs, desperately trying to deny the Muslim character of Bosnia, dynamited or plowed over libraries, museums, universities, historic monuments, and cemeteries, but most of all mosques. … The Serbs, standing in flattened mud fields, were able to deny that there were ever churches or mosques on the spot because they had been removed. The town of Zvornik in Serb-held Bosnia once had a dozen mosques. The 1991 census listed 60 percent of its residents as Muslim Slavs. By the end of the war the town was 100 percent Serb. Branko Grujicå«, the Serb-appointed mayor, informed us: “There never were any mosques in Zvornik.”

No doubt he did not believe it. He knew that there had been mosques in Zvornik. But his children and grandchildren would come to be taught the lie. Serb leaders would turn it into accepted historical fact.

A good war correspondent’s experience of war is very different from a soldier’s. The soldier is under orders as part of a rigid machine, and his view of war is usually limited to his own unit, its task, and its point of view. The war correspondent (if he is not “embedded”) is usually on his own, and can, if he is courageous and enterprising, see much that is hidden from view. Above all, if he is to portray the human catastrophe of modern war, he must be constantly in touch with its real victims, the civilian population. Unfortunately, Hedges writes on the first Gulf War, “the press wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort.” Hedges’s extremely moving book should be read by anyone fascinated by this least understood and most terrible of human follies, and especially by those who have any responsibility for conceiving, planning, or conducting future wars.


Both Washington’s present obsession with absolute military superiority and the world’s fear of American “imperialism” seem somewhat irrelevant to the undoubted global challenges and threats of the next fifty years. At present it is difficult to imagine what country is likely be a military threat to the United States; and our immediate preoccupation, modern terrorism, is not easily deterred—perhaps even stimulated—by absolute military superiority. Even a small and destitute nation like North Korea has nuclear and other capacities that could do catastrophic damage and therefore has to be treated with extreme caution. In Afghanistan and Iraq we are already seeing that overwhelming military power has serious limits. As for imperialism, current American policy is both noncolonial and largely defensive in origin, and, for all the criticism of the US, the world still relies on it to take the lead in dealing with the most serious emergencies. In other words, past imperial history is not a very good guide to the present.

Other major, and global, threats to future security and stability—poverty and economic imbalance, the dwindling of essential natural resources like fresh water, the accelerating degradation of the environment—at present command far less attention than the policies and actions of the world’s single superpower and the ferocity and ingenuity of its terrorist enemies. To take only one example, the projected increase in world population for the next fifty years, from six to nine billion, will occur almost exclusively in the poor, so-called developing nations, which are already having trouble supporting their present populations. The historian Paul Kennedy has written perceptively of the prospects for peace and stability in a world with much of its population below the poverty line and quite possibly starving. He points out that while United States expenditure on defense is incomparably higher than that of any other nation or group of nations, its expenditure on development aid, one tenth of one percent of US Gross National Income (GNI), is by far the lowest of any industrial country. (Denmark’s development aid budget is 1.6 percent of GNI.) At present, he comments, in the debate on impoverishment and despair the United States is “away on crusade.” In its pursuit of global peace and security, Kennedy writes, the Pentagon

has given little sign that it understands where the broader, turbulent, and surprising forces for international violence and break-down may lie…. How could the Greatest Power in History spend $400 billion a year in pursuit of global peace and security, and fail to have seen that at the beginning of the twenty-first century there existed threats to humankind’s future that were potentially far larger than Iraqi dictators or even al-Qaeda terrorists?3

The one-prism syndrome, which distorted so many important judgments during the cold war, is still very much with us. Whether the US seeks an empire or not, the challenge of leading the world through some very frightening problems, including terrorism and nuclear proliferation, is as pressing as it has ever been. It is obvious that the UN, which has little real power except for what governments are willing to do in its name, cannot do this on its own. The UN can provide the machinery for cooperation and the legitimacy for action, but the participation and leadership of important governments, and especially of the United States, is indispensable to success.

Recent events have shown that a unilateralist, exceptionalist superpower, whose actions and attitudes deprive it of the essential support and cooperation of other nations, cannot hope to lead. At this depressing time, we should not lose sight of the fact that, under a different concept of US leadership, international cooperation to prevent war and confront the great global issues on which our future depends is still entirely possible. It is indeed the best, perhaps the only, serious hope for the future.

This Issue

October 9, 2003