Imperial Roam

The United States squares off against the powerful temptations of empire.

Empire building has suddenly become fashionable again. As the United States confronts its geopolitical role in a post-9/11 world, academics in international relations have begun to speak aloud a proposition that once would have repulsed most republic-minded Americans. The U.S., they say, must step up and acknowledge the responsibility of empire.

No global power since the Greeks, Romans, and the British, this logic dictates, has wielded so profound a political, cultural, and economic reach as the U.S. does today. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been too dainty about its global role, too hesitant to assert its authority and dictate political and economic terms. This daintiness, the neo-imperialists say, was rewarded with the awful homecoming of September 11.

At the same time of this new appreciation of the efficiencies of empire, Western leaders were convening in something of a political rite of reconciliation in Monterrey, Mexico, where many acknowledged the utter failure of economic globalization to do much about relieving poverty and human deprivation in the world. President Bush was drawing welcome connections between a world full of the political weak and wanting and the potential for new outbreaks of violence in the future.

Most Western leaders agreed to significantly pump up what had been truly parsimonious development and relief budgets with the aim of opening a wider safety valve on international terror. And therein lies the dilemma: Does one buy the world’s dissatisfied off with bigger scrapings from the economic table, or is it preferable to discourage their envy at the end of an imperial gun barrel?

The empire builders already have their answer, following an ideological line that stretches back to Samuel Huntington, George Kennan, and Cain and Abel. For Americans to continue to have, somebody has got to restrain the have-nots.

But before we begin rolling out enough razor wire to contain the wretched of the Earth, let us pause a moment to consider other options. In a nation reeling from the losses of September 11, the pacifist approach to global problem-solving has not enjoyed a lot of attention. But is a long-term campaign of military force really the only way to get back the sense of security and confidence that we’ve lost?

The U.S. could not have a better example of the long-term ineffectiveness of brute force as an engine of Pax Americana than the experience of its surrogate, Israel. Emboldened by billions of dollars in annual U.S. aid, Israel stalks its lonely rampart at the edge of the Islamic world, a grumpy pointman in the “clash of civilizations.” As this issue goes to press, Israeli soldiers are powering U.S. made or paid-for armor through Christendom’s holiest places in a chaotic effort to round up Palestinian “militants.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his hawkish allies appear determined to militarily enforce a final settlement to the problem of Palestinian statehood——once they’ve cleared Palestinian leadership of anyone who might not find their vision of an Israeli-patrolled and -cantonized West Bank completely agreeable. Security is the overriding principle among these designers of Palestine’s future, but once the bloody reoccupation of the West Bank is concluded, it is unclear what lasting security will be achieved. Bludgeoning the Palestinian people into submission may gain a few middling years of a Pax Israeli, but it does not take a lot of money or high-tech hardware to organize another suicide bombing. Is this a worthy template for America’s empiremongers?

What the neo-imperialists leave out of their political simulations is the sad historical reality that the brief glories enjoyed by empires of the past have only been achieved after a great deal of violence and only maintained with an inordinate amount of bloodletting. We have already seen where the path of empire leads. Is our political imagination so puny that “empire” is the best we can come up with?

What the world needs now is not another nation compelled by the delusion of empire. What our economically and culturally integrated and interdependent planet needs is something yet unborn, a different vision of political and international relations that eschews power plays and dominance and embraces collaboration and peace, a vision perhaps inspired by that improbable pacifist who once walked the Earth not far from where today a resolute army rumbles past sullen, abandoned storefronts.

Kevin Clarke is managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.  “Reprinted by permission of U.S. Catholic magazine (http://www.uscatholic.org). U.S. Catholic is published by the Claretians. Call 1-800-328-6515 for subscription information.”


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