Vol. 4 Num 218 Mon. January 05, 2004  

The coming of an American empire

For last couple of years a new term has been introduced to refer to the role of America in today's global affairs: empire. Even if it was not anything complimentary in the beginning the term has now begun to be music to the ears of the Americans. Already a large body of literature has proliferated to proclaim the new identity for the world's sole superpower and the average Americans are indeed savouring it. For all practical purposes such an empire has since been in place notwithstanding the accompanying anachronism. In fact, any realistic discussion of the US' foreign policy now cannot but begin with the recognition that most of the world sees the United States as a nascent imperial power inspite of the latter's views and preferences on the contrary. Some nations feel happy with the US' new identity, viewing it as benign liberal empire that can protect them from the ambitious local powers while some grudge it because it stands on the way of their goal. Still others accept it as a hard fact of life and acquiesce the US' new status.

It was inevitable. American empire, as it exists today, was the logical culmination of America's supreme position on four key dimensions that constitute power: as the world's sole superpower, albeit, a hyper power, the only high-tech military power and leader in the 'revolution of military affairs', the largest economic power -- a driving force behind globalisation and exemplar of 'soft power' and disseminator of popular culture throughout the world. There had been rise and fall of empires in the past and each one of them had its rival to contend with. But America is not only the world's sole superpower, it is also the sole empire -- something that never happened before in history -- a sole empire global in scope that seeks to reinvent the nations of the world in its own image. It is also for the first time that the world view prevalent in the national leadership perfectly fits in promoting such ambition.

America's unipolar moment confronted now by the world was long over due. Its rise to the supreme position on each of the dimensions mentioned was already under way by the 1980's but at that time the ascendancy, even if real, was obfuscated by formidable military challenge from the Soviet Union and a serious economic challenge from Japan. The collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 and the stagnation of Japanese economy since then in tandem with military and economic ascent of the US in the 1990s made the US' apex position in the global power structure all too clear. With the coming of the new millenium what we are witnessing now is the coming of a new empire as well.

So far, so good. However there appeared snags as the pragmatism waned in the US' imperial designs and the disintegration of Soviet Union removed the only credible external constraints on the US' international behaviour. The US' unchallenged military, economic and political superiority facilitated the view that it could do almost any thing it wanted to do in international arena. In this milieu a new utopian vision was born -- the notion that the US is both entitled and obliged to promote its values, particularly that of democracy wherever it can -- by force, if necessary. The idea was promoted by a grotesque alliance of aggressive Wilsonians and neo-conservatives whose apparent belief that the US cannot settle for anything less than worldwide revolution in diffusing their values. But strangely such ideas have more in common with the totalitarian philosophy of Trotsky than with the legacy of America's founding fathers or even the muscular but pragmatic idealism of Roosevelt.

The pursuit of moralistic project under self proclaimed righteousness has undermined not only American interest, but also the American values. The double standard and deception have become all too common. The American efforts in the name of humanitarian aid and nation building projects proved only banal and were all but white wash. Under the cover of restoring or introducing democracy, both defending Panama Canal or attacking Grenada were primarily to serve important American interests.

It is also condescending to claim that America has the right to impose democracy on other nations and cultures regardless of their circumstances and preferences. Treating democracy as a divine revelation -- and Washington as its prophet and global enforcer -- simply does not square with the historical record of this form of government, nor with the geo-political realities of the modern world. The principal problem is the mistaken belief that democracy is talisman for all the world's ills, including terrorism, and the US has a responsibility to promote democratic government wherever in the world it is lacking irrespective of whatever are the social and political costs involved. Or else few cares whether America has an empire as long as its course is guided by the law of history.

Brig ( retd) Hafiz is former DG of BIISS.