[T]he United States is not merely dominant; it assumes imperial responsibilities and reaps the benefits that derive from them. It is imperial in the sense that it enforces its own idea of world order in America's interest. It presumes the right to lay down the rules of trade, commerce, security, and political legitimacy. It assumes the burdens of global maintenance in areas that derive from the Spanish, Ottoman, British, French, Russian, and Soviet empires. It rewards or punishes countries on the basis of their willingness to create open markets, support American military policies, and establish democratic governments. In Iraq, the United States has erased long-standing national laws that restrict foreign investment, showing little regard for international laws that restrict the powers of occupiers. Waging an offensive war to change the government and economic system of a sovereign country is obviously an imperial enterprise. Doing it to consolidate one's hegemonic position and change the political culture of a sprawling, explosive multinational region halfway around the globe requires imperial ambition of a very high order. - Gary Dorrien, Imperial Designs, p.224
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' - Ron Suskind, "Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush", New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004Debate and discussion over whether or not the United States is an Imperial power; the extent of its Imperial reach; the ability of the United States to impose its will in a variety of areas; these have been a staple of discussions on US foreign policy for decades. Even in the teeth of the past decade's wars, the matter of the American Imperium is a source of controversy. With the continued assertion of American military power in southwest Asia, the creation of an African Command and the introduction of American troops in to several countries in central Africa, and on-going military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Obama Administration continues, by and large, a series of military-based foreign policies begun under his predecessor.
When we talk about the fears of American decline, at least in areas related to foreign policy, very often the discussion centers around the ability of the United States to create conditions through a combination of economic, diplomatic, and military power that are in accord with our national interests. While all nation-states attempt to do this, only the United States currently has the ability to do so on a global scale. A decade of war, however, with diminishing popular support, as well as strained fiscal circumstances has created a situation in which the US, unrivaled globally as a military power, finds itself increasingly strained to exert a credible threat. This isn't through lack either of will or potential power; rather, a series of policy choices over previous decades, combined with an unwillingness on the part of policy-makers to present to the public the actual political, social, and monetary costs have all reached a breaking point for the expression and extension of US diplomatic and military power.
The differences between an American foreign policy rooted in democratic accountability and one rooted in the preferences of elites geared toward supporting corporate interests is best exemplified by the idea of what became known as the "Grand Area", the integration of western Europe and the United States in to an economic and political unit. Noam Chomsky explains:
One obvious documentary source is the series of memoranda of the War and Peace Studies Project o the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) during [World War II]. Participants included top government planners and a fair sample of the "foreign policy elite," with close links to government, major corporations, and private foundations. These memoranda deal with the "requirement[s] of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestioned power," foremost among them being "the rapid fulfillment of a program of complete re-armament" (1940). In the early years of the war it was assumed that part of the world might be controlled by Germany. Therefore, the major task was to develop "an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States within the non-German world," including plans "to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States and the Western Hemisphere." (the concern for the "prosperity of the Western Hemisphere" is adequately revealed by United States policies, say, in Central America and the Caribbean, before and since; this opposition to imperial prerogatives that constrain U.S. capital and access to resources is often adduced by scholarship as evidence that U.S. foreign policy is guided by "anti-imperialist" commitment.). These areas, which are to serve the prosperity of the United States, include the Western Hemisphere, the British Empire, and the Far East, described as a natural integrated economic unity in the geopolitical analysis of the planners. . . .
The U.S.-led non-German bloc was entitled the "Grand Area" in the CFR discussions. Actually, a U.S.-dominated Grand area was only a second-best alternative. It was explained in June 1941 that "the Grand Area is not regarded by the Group as more desirable than a world economy, nor as an entirely satisfactory substitute." The Grand Area was seen as a nucleus or model that could be extended, optimally, to a global economy. It was soon recognized that with the coming defeat of Nazi Germany, at least Western Europe could be integrated into the Grand Area. Participants in the CFR discussions recognized that "the British Empire as it existed in the past will never reappear and . . . the United States may have to take its place." One stated frankly that the United State "must cultivate a mental view towar world settlement after this war which will able us to impose our own terms, amounting perhaps to a a pax-Americana." Another argued that the concept of United States security interests bust be enlarged to incorporate areas "strategically necessary for world control." It is a pervasive theme that international trade and investment are closely related to the economic health of the United States, as is access to the resources of the Grand Area, which must be so organized as to guarantee the health and structure of the American economic, its internal structure unmodified. (Toward a New Cold War, pp. 96-97)While there continue to be disagreements as to the extent to which the positions expressed in these documents found expression in post-WWII American foreign policy, there is little doubt about two things:
1) As a practical matter, the first quarter-century after the end of the Second World War saw the United States replace the British Empire as the primary hegemon in a variety of places, including the Middle East, Greece and Turkey; it sought to uphold French imperialism in French Indo-China and Algeria, at one point completely funding French military efforts in southeast Asia; dictate, to a large degree, acceptable limits on domestic political activity in a variety of supposed sovereign states, from Central America through France and Italy, to China, Indonesia, and the former states of French Indo-China.
2) Even as the "facts on the ground", to quote Henry Kissinger, changed in ensuing years and decades, restricting both the freedom of action as well as the realistic application of American military and other power to support American economic interests, the US continued to act as if such constraints could be overcome through the application of some combination of economic, diplomatic, and limited military pressure.
It is often suggested Chomsky's sketch of an elitist, corporate-friendly foreign policy, constructed largely outside any constraints from public input or objection is a perfect case of "conspiracy-mongering." On the contrary, considering the wealth of documentation, it is, rather, nothing more or less than a description of the way large institutions, both public and private, seek to craft policies that are in interests of these institutions. The impetus to do so without popular input reached crisis levels during the later years of the American war in Vietnam, when popular protest and lack of support created what continues to be called "the Vietnam syndrome." Again, Chomsky:
By the early 1970's it was apparent that the quarter-century of American hegemony had come to an end, though the United States remained the world's most powerful state . . . .
The recognition of the limits of American power led to the acceptance of detente by Nixon and Kissinger. As always, this policy adjustment is conventionally described with reference to the superpower enemy but involved the other dimensions of foreign policy discussed earlier as well. With regard to the Third World, the Nixon Doctrine sought to enlist surrogate states to preserve stability and order regionally, notably Iran and Israel in the Middle East. . . . Detente as well was a move towards coordinated global management: China was to be incorporate within the Western system, in a sharp reversal of policy responding to Chinese initiatives, and the Soviet Union was to be a junior partner, more or less in accordance with Stalin's concept, a policy that is held to have failed on the grounds that the Soviet Union insisted upon equality.
The domestic dimension was also relevant to the move toward detente. Not only was the United States then limited in its capacity for intervention, but more seriously, the "Vietnam syndrome" and the "crisis of democracy" had eroded the base of domestic support for intervention. And the ritual invocation of the Soviet drive for world domination had temporarily lost its efficacy. The efforts of the following decade to overcome this problem . . . [include] the Human Rights Crusade, which is taken to have been a domestic success at least: "Thanks to Presidents Ford and Carter, the task of restoring our image of ourselves as good and decent people had been accomplished before the 1980 campaign," not an easy task, given the level of understanding of U.S. policy - which has little to do with "ourselves as good and decent people" except in the fantasies that perceive foreign policy as growing out aof a pluralist consensus - that had been attained by much of the general population by the early 1970's. (Ibid., pp. 29-30)The conflict between elite policy preference and popular domestic discord led to a decade and more in which the exertion of American military power abroad was highly constrained, although certainly not unknown. Each time the military acted, however, there was the general agreement that the engagements should be swift, cheap, and effective. The rapid retreat of the United States Marine Corps after a bombing at a barracks during the early-80's occupation of Lebanon is testimony to the ongoing unwillingness of elites to face popular anger. Thus it was that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld overruled his uniformed commanders on the size of the force for the Iraqi invasion; for the composition of the troops; for the logistics for supplying such an invasion; for applying the costs for such a massive military campaign to the annual Congressional budget system. Indeed, the refusal of any President since Franklin Roosevelt to apply to Congress for a declaration of war before deploying American troops abroad is testimony enough to the power the US public has; were elites not fearful of popular refusal to support military action, what else explains the refusal to follow the Constitution on this matter?
The wariness of elites to come clean to the American people on the potential and actual costs of military action; a refusal to have an open, frank discussion of the expansion of American military activity; the obvious strains upon military personnel and equipment; the economic, monetary, and fiscal strains our overextended military commitments place upon a country whose elected leaders continue to refuse to govern as a nation at war, even while they act as a nation at war: All these and more demonstrate the enormous distance between elite consensus, regardless of party, and popular discontent with the management and continuation of our current, on-going military engagements.
This doesn't mean the situation is hopeless. On the contrary, precisely because our continued pretensions to world dominance overtax our resources (unless, of course, there is a dramatic reversal of domestic policies to reflect that the US continues to be at war, such as wage-and-price controls, restrictions upon corporate and manufactures to ensure they prioritize military and support construction, or even the introduction if not of universal military service, then expanding the incentives for enlisting in the US military to create a larger pool of potential volunteers), we find ourselves in the odd position of popular discontent, expressed in any number of ways, forcing the hand of policy-makers despite their preferences. The on-going chariness American war-planners evince in offering realistic assessments of the costs of military action already demonstrates the enormous constraints under which policy makers labor; it may yet be possible to reign in even further American adventurism without, as current nonsensical discourse has it, reverting to isolationism.
With China and India and Brazil emerging as potential world powers; with the effective control of resources less and less within the political - not to say private economic - control of the United States, we may yet see ourselves with an opportunity to admit our Imperial failings, and, like our British cousins sixty years ago, surrender global governance while remaining an important, powerful actor within a broader framework that sees the US working in concert with the European Union, India, and other large, emerging states to constrain terrorist violence, expand markets for legitimate corporate activity, as well as create structures for the regulation both of transnational capital and investment and upholding broad support for a minimal set of worker's rights.
The future is the place where the United States will make good its promise. This future need not be one where the United States is the sole superpower; working cooperatively with other states toward achieving a whole series of goals in common interest from damage from global warming through the imposition of international law by ratifying the treaty for the International Criminal Court to creating a framework for managing global economic activity are surely things that many in the US would find as worthy of our efforts, productive for all, without the enormous waste and loss of our ongoing, largely unpopular wars. We should be clear that this alternative is one that does not diminish either the potential for political conflict, either here or abroad; rather it is one that offers opportunities to act in the larger world without any imperial designs as dictated by elites.