An American Empire
Jude Wanniski
1995

The end of the Cold War in 1991 marked not only the end of the Soviet experiment in communism, but also the dawn of a unique epoch in the history of civilization. For the first time since all of humankind lived in the Garden of Eden, there is now only one nation alone on earth that clearly sits atop the global pyramid of power. Throughout the history of the world, there have always been several national experiments in political economy underway at the same time. Even at the peak of the Roman Empire's dominance of its portion of the civilized world, other empires thrived in Asia, Africa and in the western hemisphere. In a quest for an ideal, each was experiencing a variant form of governance, testing separate evolutions of social, cultural and economic organization. In the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, England was the dominant imperial power in its realm, on which the sun never set. Neither the United States nor Russia were under its sway, however. The U.S. was engaged in its own experiment in political economy, while czarist Russia was still attempting to make dynastic capitalism work.

These trial-and-error strivings for perfection continue today around the planet, but for the moment the United States alone dominates the entire world's experimentation in organization. Without exception, every nation-state looks up to the United States as the undisputed leader in history's long march. Each wishes to know what we have in mind. How shall we proceed to organize ourselves in this new American empire? What is the nature of the new world order that accompanies the first singular leader in all of history? How shall we go about determining the limitations on our powers and the extent of our responsibilities? The questions are different than any we have ever encountered, requiring that our people think about the world differently than we ever have before. There is no historic guidebook to help us at this frontier of boundless opportunity. All the rules have been written for a world of adversarial divisions. This means we must think through with extraordinary care the steps we take and the paths we choose. Major missteps can only mean we will lose this preeminence and find new power pyramids forming to challenge our leadership. To avoid that possible occurance, we might first do well to think through where we have been.

* * * * *

At the start of the 20th century, the newer democratic structures of the United Kingdom, France and the United States were still in competition with the dynastic forms that had prevailed throughout history, chiefly in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Russia, China and Japan. The First World War essentially ended dynastic rule as a serious competitor to democratic rule. The world was left with three major forms of democracy, according to its broadest definition a system that theoretically allows any citizen, including those of the lowest birth, to rise to political leadership of the nation. In other words, leadership emerging from the common pool. Prior to the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century, there were never sufficient resources to educate entire populations from birth in preparation for leadership. The masses permitted themselves to be taxed in order to finance the educations of an elite, who would be able to guide them through adversity. This pattern was broken with the French Revolution, coincident with popular rebellion against the use of the increased national wealth to finance a leisure class instead of relevant political leadership. As more national wealth was freed to educate a larger share of the population, the selection pool for political leadership was broadened. In the West, religious leadership was drawn from the common pool beginning with Moses, a man of ordinary birth who by a quirk of fate was educated by the dynastic elite to where he could liberate his people. With the birth of Christ, the masses demonstrated that a spiritual messiah could arise from among them without the help of a dynastic elite.

From the French Revolution through the 19th century, there was an acceleration of the process, by which the selection pool for leadership positions in all aspects of society was broadened. Ordinary people demonstrated a willingness to die in battle in order to preserve the gains of this expansion of democracy. At the armistice of WWI, the United States found itself atop one of the three power pyramids, representing the nations considered the capitalist democracies. The Soviet Union emerged as the leader of the socialist democracies. Germany emerged as the leader of the fascist democracies. The term democracy seems discordant when linked with socialism and fascism, because we equate democracy with-competitive elections in multi-party systems. Yet socialist and fascist democracies draw their leadership from the broad, common pool. The difference is that" their competitive elections occur in one-party systems, with individuals advancing up the ranks as they do in corporate democracies. Alas, except where mandatory retirement rules are observed, such corporate democrats who rise to the top tend to stay there until removed by death or force of arms. WWI was supposed to be the war that would end all wars, making the world safe for democracy. The assumption was that democracies would always find ways to settle their national differences with peaceful instruments. The Wilsonian concept of a League of Nations, which embodied that ideal, obviously assumed too much. Our own democracy almost did not survive the differences, north and south, on the slavery question.

The three power pyramids were unable to contain their differences and were driven to the use of force, first in World War II, in which the capitalist and socialist powers teamed to defeat the fascist. This left the two remaining power pyramids to compete. The coincident discovery of the atomic bomb in the United States led by emigres from the fascist states -changed the history of warfare, making it impossible for the two remaining power blocs to settle their differences through direct confrontation. In the Cold War, so named to distinguish this new form of global antagonism, lower levels of force were used in the battlefields of Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan as well as in lesser skirmishes in Africa and South America. The Cold War ended with the economic exhaustion of the socialist democracies. Gueorgui Markossov, political counselor of the Soviet Embassy in Washington as the Cold War came to an end, believes the single event that most discouraged his superiors in Moscow was their observation that even as the U.S. budget deficit rose during the Reagan arms buildup, taxes had been cut and interest rates were falling. "It seemed like magic," says Markossov, now an official with the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

With this triumph, the United States and its style of democratic capitalism now extends its reach, its example and its influence to every corner of the planet, without any apparent threat to its national security. Our ever-vigilant national security watchdogs continue to imagine potential military threats, but in each instance these appear to be relatively trivial residual problems of the Cold War. Having faced down a Soviet menace of 10,000 nuclear warheads, our military leaders are not really worried about a bomb being acquired by a North Korea or Iran or some other straggler from the Cold War chess games. The chief reason Americans admire General Colin Powell, I think, is that he understands these pipsqueak adversaries will not use weapons of mass destruction against us unless we try to annihilate them. It was this wisdom that led Powell to call off the "turkey shoot" in Iraq, refusing to heed the urgings of our most ferocious hawks that we mow down Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, capture Baghdad and destroy Saddam himself.

It was enough that we demonstrate a willingness to shed American blood to end Iraq's aggression against its neighbors, once it became clear that Iraq's neighbors themselves were prepared to shed the blood of their children to halt the aggression. If President George Bush had rejected General Powell's advice, we might well have achieved our objectives with small additional loss of American lives. The lesson would have been double-edged, however. Observing the awesome, unforgiving might of the United States, every little country in the world would have been forced to think about acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, with which to threaten an America bent on annihilation of their leaders and armed forces in similar circumstances. Just as we understood in the Cold War that our weakness could be provocative to an adventurous and expansive USSR, every nation-state would be alarmed by an American government that displayed carelessness in its use of force. If our own citizens reacted violently against our federal government, following Waco and Ruby Ridge, why should we expect foreigners to exercise restraint? A bullying Uncle Sam invites private militias at home and defensive secret weapons projects abroad.

The concept of empire throughout history has had at its core a central authority's protection of a diversity of people. Empires were always meant to embrace and harmonize myriad cultures, religions, ethnicities, languages. Smaller and weaker groupings of people willingly submit to a central authority if the advantages of membership outweigh the costs. The just application of a protective cloak is paramount in such relationships and remains so today. The Soviet Union, the "Evil Empire," as President Reagan termed it in 1982, began with an idyllic vision of harmony and diversity, in a communal dictatorship of the proletariat. Its decline and fall resulted from the central authority's ascending taxation of individual freedoms even as collective benefits steadily declined. On the other hand, since its unconditional surrender in August 1945, Japan has been relatively comfortable under the protective cloak of the American imperium. There are inevitable frictions having to do with commercial engagements and burden sharing. At times these seem to strain to the breaking point, especially as our government tests Tokyo's submissiveness. Invariably, though, the Japanese people to this point have been satisfied with the justice available in our imperium. It was our government that backed down earlier this year in our latest trade confrontation, when Tokyo refused to dictate our terms to their auto industry. In addition, their own democracy is transparent enough to persuade us that there is no hidden intent in Japan to develop weapons of mass destruction.

For the American Empire to succeed in producing a Pax Americana in the 21st century, we must first recognize that a posture appropriate in a world at war is inappropriate in a world at peace. In the past half century of Cold War, diplomacy was always an important adjunct to our military might. In reorganizing our thoughts for this unique epoch, it is military might that must play the ancillary role to that of creative diplomacy. Japan, for example, has less reason to bend to our will for military considerations. For that matter, so does the rest of the world. The considerations are now more subtle, having to do with the trust we can command in managing the peace. The face the United States presents to the entire world should be smiling, open, generous rather than glowering, dark, and threatening. (Father is in the background, ready to discipline if necessary; Mother is in the foreground, offering to teach.) House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is struggling to find his way in this direction, refers to himself as a "cheap hawk." Jack Kemp, another global optimist, says he is a "heavily armed dove." Yet neither has really broken from the Cold War perspective that has shaped their political careers. They are still quick to rattle sabers and the B-2 flying brontosaurus. This widespread perspective is not satisfied that U.S. spending on national defense is greater than the rest of the world combined. Old habits die hard.

Of the geopolitical intellectuals who have been pondering American foreign policy from this new, unipolar perspective, the most interesting is Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy, the quarterly of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In its spring 1995 issue, Maynes contributed "Rethinking Intervention," an important assessment of American power and how little of it we can make use of now that we are king of the hill. Where the Gulf War led to the surmise that we could use our unchallenged might to stamp out brush fires around the globe, the experience since has been the opposite:

As advanced countries have repeatedly learned, in a struggle between the technically sophisticated and unsophisticated, there is often a mismatch in political determination just as large as there is in technical capability. The West in general has a high capacity to kill but a low capacity to die. The equation is often reversed among the targets of the West's wrath. America learned about the differences between capacity and determination in Vietnam, the French learned in Algeria, and the Russians in Afghanistan. And that is the overlooked lesson of U.S. involvement in Somalia. The task the United States set for itself was not infeasible, but the Clinton administration grossly underestimated the price others were willing to pay to stop the U.S. Marines. CIA officials privately concede that the U.S. military may have killed between 7,000 and 10,000 Somalis during the engagement. America lost only 34 soldiers. Notwithstanding that extraordinary disparity, the decision was to withdraw.

In his 1978 book, Shattered Peace, the best single volume on the origins of the Cold War, Daniel Yergin recounted how little our possession of the atomic bomb counted as a diplomatic weight in our post-war negotiations with the Soviets, inasmuch as they knew we could not threaten its use over mere political disagreements. The wartime alliance between the U.S. and USSR unraveled, he demonstrates, according to this axiomatic observation:

In a system of independent states, all nations live rather dangerously. Therefore, the reduction of dangers becomes a nation's objective in international politics. A country will take actions and pursue policies that it considers defensive, but which appear ominous, if not threatening, to rivals. And so a dialectic of confrontation develops.

Yergin's book is most useful in understanding how easy it might be to promote a hostile relationship with China, which had been an ally in the last years of the Cold War with the USSR. If there is any single nation state that has the capacity to break loose from a Pax Americana and assemble a new hostile power pyramid, it is China. It is up to the United States to prevent that from happening, but neither U.S. political party has put forth the kind of creative diplomacy required. It will take an American foreign policy that the Chinese people can confidently see is one that truly wishes them well.

By that we should understand that there are optimists and pessimists in Beijing, as there are in every national capital including ours. If we cause China's optimists to be defeated in their internal debates with the pessimists who argue that Uncle Sam wishes them ill, we will have turned China into a perpetual adversary. Joseph W. Nye, Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration and soon to be director of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, earlier this year noted the debate between those who wish "constructive engagement" with China and those who propose "containment." He argued for the former: "If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have a policy of containment toward China now, you've written off the chance [that China won't become an enemy]." If Beijing believes the world's superpower is actively preparing for an adversarial relationship, it of course has no choice but to prepare for that eventuality itself. It is not sufficient for Washington to insist that China "behave itself' before we treat it with generosity of spirit. We are in the most powerful, secure position of any nation in the history of the world. If we cannot now be patient and understanding of those who were on the losing side of history's great experiment with communism, we never will be. On the central issue of Beijing's relationship with Taiwan, it seems obvious that it is only a matter of time before there is reunification, on terms acceptable to both. The United States should allow that process the widest possible latitude, intervening only when asked by one party to assist in a positive diplomacy with the other party.

The same attitude should apply to the rest of the world. In the Cold War chess game of Great Powers, there were pawns on both sides that were either captured or sacrificed. These populations are now scattered helplessly around the world, still not quite sure what hit them. They include most of the countries of the developing world which tried to stay out of the crossfire, but also those nation-states that really had little choice but to choose sides for the sake of survival. This group includes North Korea, Libya, Iraq and Iran, Cuba and fractured Yugoslavia. The people of each wish to have the Cold War behind them too, as long as it does not require their abject humiliation. We should treat them all as we did the Japanese stragglers on the Pacific islands, who surrendered some years after the armistice, only when they saw it was honorable to do so. In this spirit, we should consider declaring a general amnesty, a clean slate, which would initially involve lifting all the economic embargoes we have in place. In this fresh start, we should count all nations most favored, as a mother does all of her children. It would be up to each to respond as they might. A supreme act of confidence and generosity of this kind could easily unlock parallel impulses in every community on earth.

With a clean slate, our global political leadership is immediately liberated from the complex task of settling old scores that are still tied to the Cold War alliances. Many of us suspect that the crisis in the former Yugoslav federation has more to do with settling old scores with the Russians, our adversaries in Afghanistan, and the Muslims, our allies in that Cold War battle, than with the Wilsonian concept of self-determination. Our indecisiveness whether to intervene is simply a reflection of this ambiguity among our political leaders. If the Serbs were truly the aggressors, the Bosnian Muslims would have little trouble rallying the world to their cause, in a repeat of the alliance assembled against Iraq in the Gulf War.

A central task of the members of this American Empire, which of course includes every nation on earth, is to sort out the rules of intervention in the new world order. It is nothing more than a matter of deciding questions of jurisdiction. We know within our own United States that it makes little sense to send the Marines into Manhattan to settle a family feud. The neighbors have first jurisdiction, then the precinct police, then the borough police, the state police, the national guard, and finally, when all else fails, the federal armed forces. If we had kept these jurisdictional lines clear, Waco and Ruby Ridge might not have happened. In the Gulf War, there was not support for U.S. intervention until Kuwait's neighbors particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt roused themselves and cited an Iraqi aggression that seemed sure to spread. Even then, President Bush carefully rounded up our allies in Europe, asked for congressional approval, and gave Saddam one last chance to withdraw before he pulled the trigger. The jurisdiction made sense and the local police made it clear they could not contain the outlaw aggressor. It thus seemed our national security was sufficiently at stake to warrant deployment of troops and treasure.

In writing of the "national security" concept as it emerged in WWII, Yergin observed that it is "not a given, not a fact, but a perception, a state of mind."

And what characterizes the concept of national security? It postulates the interrelatedness of so many different political, economic, and military factors that developments halfway around the globe are seen to have automatic and direct impact on America's core interests. Virtually every development in the world is perceived to be potentially crucial. An adverse turn of events anywhere endangers the United States. Problems in foreign relations are viewed as urgent and immediate threats. Thus, desirable foreign policy goals are translated into issues of national survival, and the range of threats becomes limitless. The doctrine is characterized by expansiveness, a tendency to push the subjective boundaries of security outward to more and more areas, to encompass more and more geography and more and more problems. It demands that the country assume a posture of military preparedness; the nation must be on permanent alert. There was a new emphasis on technology and armed force. Consequent institutional changes occurred. All of this leads to a paradox: the growth of American power did not lead to a greater sense of assuredness, but to an enlargement of the range of perceived threats that must urgently be confronted.

In the Balkans, neither American jurisdiction nor its national security is at all obvious. The neighbors cannot even agree that Serbia committed aggression against Bosnia. Indeed, in 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker IH explicitly labeled the dispute a civil war, citing a parallel with our own, in which President Abraham Lincoln refused to recognize the right of the Confederate States to self-determination. Democracy will not work if ethnic or religious minorities can opt out of a democratic federation when it becomes inconvenient to stick around. The Wilsonian idea of self-determination is antithetical to that of Lincoln, which requires a family to debate an issue until it is worked out instead of splintering into smaller and smaller nation-states.

In an unpublished monograph written in 1992, Nationalism and the State, Reuven Brenner of McGill University in Montreal noted the trouble the Wilsonian idea has caused, having "found its way into the United Nation's 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law, with a predictable unsatisfactory distinction between the right of self-determination and the right of secession." According to Brenner, the idea originally took hold in the Wilson administration for two reasons. First, was the hope that "the new nation-states emerging from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire would counter-balance the German nation-state." Second, was the hope that "nationalism as an idea of linking people, establishing loyalty and achieving international recognition of political legitimacy, would prove to be a strong competitor to the communist doctrine. After all, the latter also sought to link people, demand their loyalty, and obtain political legitimacy but was based on the notion that allegiance to social classes should dominate those of ethnicity, religion, language, culture."

The internationally recognized principle may even have made things worse by raising expectations of any group which had any grievances, and who could now appeal in the name of "self-determination" to the new Great Powers (which, when it was in their interests, were happy to comply). Such expectations could only start conflicts or prevent them from being settled more quickly. Events leading to World War I showed how this happened in the past. [Bosnia] shows how this same process is happening before our eyes.

As much as the GOP congressional leadership would love to intervene in Bosnia, to reward the Muslims and punish the Serbs, it has been correct for President Bill Clinton to hesitate. To intervene without jurisdiction makes the United States the aggressor, "Americanizing" the war, as President Clinton, the British, the French and the Russians have understood. As in the dispute between China and Taiwan, a logical approach to the strife in the Balkans is to stand by until we are asked to intervene by one party or the other to offer our diplomatic skills.

In the July 31 National Review, former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offered a brief essay on "Why America Must Remain Number One." Her fears are of a vague Orwellian future if the United States does not remain the dominant power atop the global power pyramid, with the dark influences of a future "Europe" leading the way, "a fully fledged state with its own flag, anthem, army, parliament, government, currency, and eventually, one supposes, people. I am not alone in warning that this could stimulate both the United States and Japan to safeguard themselves by forming similar protectionist empires. The world might then drift toward an Orwellian future of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia three mercantilist world empires on increasingly hostile terms."

Well, yes, but the arguments play against contrived fears, rather than genuine opportunities. Implicit in Lady Thatcher's comments, after all, is a British desire to guide the United States in its new imperial role, from its long experience in that occupation. She would have us lead an Atlantic superbloc, remaining dominant over this brooding, restless "Europe," which means keeping our "legions" stationed there "for the foreseeable future." Thus, if we contain Europe with London's help, "America remains the dominant partner in a united West, [and] then the West can continue to be the dominant power in the world as a whole." The West will contain the East. Somehow, this kind of imperial style seems much more regal and condescending than what an American imperium should be contemplating.

At one time I thought it might take another century or so for the world's political leaders to work out questions of jurisdiction in this new Unipolar world. However, the masses of ordinary people seem to be doing it themselves, always pushing in the direction of orderly and logical spheres of influence and responsibility. The Great Powers used to work at balancing power, but the drive of ordinary people to improve upon civilization inevitably overwhelmed the dynastic leaders who played at these great games. The great opportunity in this new beginning of history rests with the ability of our country to do the balancing with wisdom and magnanimity, with democratic consultation rather than noble condescension. The United States, after all, is unique itself in the family of nations. It is the only nation that began as a state, one that brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal. The success of this experiment, which has drawn from a leadership pool that contains the children of every nation on earth, is now in a position to teach and guide the world at large. It is a benevolent American Empire that is now our responsibility, one that should hold back its threats of military might in order to influence by example.

* * * * *