What Happened to the American Empire?

From time to time during the Bush administration there have been outbreaks of nostalgia for the days when lonely district commissioners ruled hundreds of square miles of British Africa, and a small number of civil servants and local magistrates managed the affairs of 350 million subcontinental Indians. The explanation is not hard to find: the memory of imperial order contrasts favorably with such recent events as genocide in Rwanda, continuous civil war in the Congo, and the horrors of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and after. The Roman imperium brought the P ax Romana to Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa; and at its height the British Empire controlled a quarter of the land area of the globe and a quarter of its inhabitants. The spectacle of global disorder excites a desire for global government. The target of these longings is inevitably the United States.

Setting aside the problem of how peaceful the Pax Britannica truly was, and how far the empire’s subjects—or the majority of the British themselves—benefited from its existence, this hankering after a world made safe by a benign imperialism raises a very large question. Could the United States replicate the Victorian British Empire and establish a Pax Americana? Five years into the horrors of the failed invasion of Iraq, with two million refugees having left the country, it is hardly a surprise that the almost unanimous answer is No.

That simple negative raises the possibility that some subtler version of a Pax Americana might emerge, that the United States can become the leading player in a pluralistic international system rather than a “hyperpower” or hegemon, whose persuasiveness extends only as far as its military reach. On that, opinions vary. Nobody denies that the United States is uniquely equipped to wreak physical destruction anywhere it wants. It currently maintains more than seven hundred bases on foreign soil, including in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Apart from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has about 200,000 troops stationed overseas, and since September 11, it has also created numerous bases in Iraq and across Central Asia, including in such brutal dictatorships as Uzbekistan. A Web site that tracks security issues has estimated that in 2008, the US defense budget will be $711 billion, or about 48 percent of overall world military spending. This would be close to twice as much as the budgets of Europe and China, the second- and third-biggest military spenders, combined.

Nobody thinks America’s ability to construct social, economic, or political institutions is remotely as impressive. This is the problem of “soft power,” the concept used by Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, to describe geopolitical influence that is exerted through the persuasive dissemination of culture, values, ideas, and economic aid rather than through direct projection of military or economic strength. The interesting question—although not to Robert Kagan, the foreign policy commentator, who sometimes seems to regard “soft power” as close to a contradiction in terms—is whether the United States can learn, or relearn, how…

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