Sunday, December 5, 2010

American Empire?

On Friday Robert Kaplan wrote a fascinating article in the Washington Post that I've been meaning to comment on. It's called, "Where's the American empire when we need it?" My problem with this article is that I agree with some of Kaplan's specific observations, yet disagree with his main underlying assumptions. First, there is no American empire unless you distort the meaning of the word empire. A network of alliances based primarily on mutual interest is not the equivalent of a system based on conquered terroritories linked together and maintained by force.

During the Cold War, the world was divided between the Soviet and U.S. imperial systems. The Soviet imperium - heir to Kievan Rus, medieval Muscovy and the Romanov dynasty - covered Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and propped up regimes in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The American imperium - heir to maritime Venice and Great Britain - also propped up allies, particularly in Western Europe and East Asia. True to the garrison tradition of imperial Rome, Washington kept bases in West Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan, virtually surrounding the Soviet Union.
This is a terrible analogy that only makes sense if you look at the surface. Was the U.S. relationship to its western European allies similar to that of the Soviet Union toward Eastern Europe? I don't recall U.S. troops suppressing dissenting political movements in Britain, France or West Germany the way Soviet forces put down Czechoslovakia and Hungary. 

Kaplan is correct when he points out that the collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to much chaos, and that problems developed which might not have if Soviet control had still been in force. But should we long for a return to the days of the Soviet Union? Although Kaplan doesn't say we should, his argument seems to call for that question. He appears to conveniently ignore the many crises and threats of war that took place during the Cold War -- not to mention the ever present threat of World War 3 and nuclear war.

Then there is the whole matter of supposed American decline. This is another fundamental assumption that I strongly disagree with. The collapse of the Soviet Union increased American power. Like many people, Kaplan mistakes a lack of U.S. will to use its power with absolute decline. And one of his specific examples is severely flawed.

The U.S. Navy has gone from nearly 600 warships in the Reagan era to fewer than 300 today, while the navies of China and India grow apace. Such trends will accelerate with the defense cuts that are surely coming in order to rescue America from its fiscal crisis. The United States still dominates the seas and the air and will do so for years ahead, but the distance between it and other nations is narrowing.
The reason the U.S. fleet has shrunk from the days of Reagan is precisely because we no longer face the threat of the huge Soviet navy. U.S. naval supremacy, with less ships, is now greater than it ever was during the Cold War.

But the headlines of our era are written in a specific context - that of one deceased empire that used to be the world's preeminent land power and of another, the world's preeminent sea power, that finds itself less able to affect events than ever before, even as it is less sure than ever of the cause toward which it struggles.
Is the U.S. really less able to affect events than before? I think that's a false assertion.
there is simply no doubt that the post-imperial order we inhabit allows for greater disruptions than the Cold War ever permitted.
Really? I don't think so. Again, Kaplan seems to have forgotten world history and become fixated on present events. The Korean War, Vietnam, Cambodia, multiple wars in the Middle East, the Cuban missile crisis, interventions in Latin America, the Algerian war, India-Pakistan wars, numerous conflicts in Africa, etc, etc. All of these things took place during the time when Kaplan seems to think the U.S. and the Soviet Union kept a lid on things.

I could continue to go through Kaplan's article point by point, as there are also points of agreement. But overall, I think he is operating based on a couple of major false assumptions which undermine his argument that the U.S. needs to maintain its leading role as world policeman. Here's his conclusion. 

Americans rightly lack an imperial mentality. But lessening our engagement with the world would have devastating consequences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste of what is to come should our country flinch from its international responsibilities.
The other problem with this argument, aside from the bad assumptions I already pointed out, is that American interventionism itself is also a source of "disruptions." It is always possible that in an attempt to maintain order, the U.S. can instead create greater problems. Many make that argument with regard to our actions in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Kaplan is always a good read, and the article is certainly provocative. But ultimately it rests on a bad foundation.


  1. Another way of distinguishing between an empire and an alliance is to follow the money. The Delian League, which started as an alliance of free Greek city-states against the Persian Empire, required all the members to contribute money. At first the League treasury was on Delos. Later, it was moved to Athens. By contrast, NATO (for instance) involves loads of U.S. money flowing out to various European allies, in the form of basing fees and salaries of service members, who spend on the local economy.

  2. Good point. There are all sorts of examples that undermine the view of the U.S. as an empire.