Shouldering Empire's Burden

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 25, 2004 | Go to article overview

Shouldering Empire's Burden


Byline: William Anthony Hay, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

According to the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn, "the United States have been the cra

dle of modern Anti-Imperialism, and at the same time the founding of a mighty empire." Those words, written two years after the end of World War II, capture tensions in American policy and public discourse that define the country's uneasy position in the 21st century.

America's role as guarantor of global stability raises the question of whether an empire can operate effectively under anti-imperial premises. Unmatched by peer competitors since the Cold War's end, the United States now faces a very different challenge from disorder along the periphery of the developed world.

Whereas in the 18th century Edward Gibbon could argue that distance and technology provided the West with a security unknown even to the Romans, globalization now projects distant conflicts and grievances into the heart of Europe and the United States.

The debate sparked by this new dynamic has revived interest in empire as a way to analyze the problem of international order and America's role in solving it.

Niall Ferguson's "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire" offers an important contribution to understanding the United States' role as a global power and the tensions that result from it. Building on earlier studies of international finance and World War I, Mr. Ferguson locates the war on terrorism, including the American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, within a broad historical framework.

Indeed, as both polemic and analysis, "Colossus" expands upon themes the author raised last year in a book about the British Empire and its lessons for global power. Britain led efforts to police the global commons in the 19th century, stamping out slavery and piracy while joining its European rivals and the United States to impose governmental control over private companies and autonomous tribes whose activities often generated violence.

The decline of the Pax Britannica in the mid-20th century brought a power vacuum that the United States filled as instability threatened American interests, but the Cold War masked the nature of this gradual transition to a Pax Americana.

Globalization, the catch phrase of the 1990s, provided a shorthand description of an American world order defined by the Washington consensus of free markets, rule of law, and representative government.

Mr. Ferguson notes the growing number of calls from writers such as Max Boot and Michael Ignatieff for nation-building as a means to address "failed states" and violations of human rights. The September 11 terrorist attacks made these questions more acute and brought an open debate on whether the United States is an empire.

The phenomenon of failed states and the conflicts they engendered during the 1990s revived interest in liberal imperialism, and the war on terrorism provided a rationale. Like Arnold Toynbee in the 1940s, Mr. Ferguson sees the United States as Britain's natural heir in exercising benevolent imperial rule, and he urges Americans to underwrite consciously the liberal empire necessary to sustain globalization.

Nonetheless, he poses a fundamental question: Can an empire operate effectively while denying the scale of its responsibilities and trying to avoid long-term commitments of time and money, as required by nation-building? An "empire in denial," the United States aims to shift or share burdens more than take up new ones and focuses on exit strategies rather than permanence.

History and public culture impose constraints on American power which advocates of empire must address to present an effective case.

Perhaps Mr. Ferguson's most valuable contribution lies in his efforts to define empire in a historically sophisticated manner. The word "empire" has been used carelessly as a way to describe the post-Cold War system ever since Michael Hardt and Toni Negri introduced it in their eponymous polemic published in 2000, more cited than read. …

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