Deciphering American Empire: #1


“Augustus of Prima Porta” by unknown artist, circa 1st century. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

(Ecclesiastes 1:2 Holy Bible NRSV)

To imagine life after empire is to presume the current condition of imperialism, US imperialism.

American empire. What does it mean? Is it true or false? Is it a mark of pride or a sign of shame?

Let’s start from the assumption that the American citizenry is generally inclined to deny the fact of US imperialism or at least to resist the legitimacy of the label. It just doesn’t fit well with the nation’s self image. It sounds like a false indictment in mythic America.

Whereas the idea of imperialism suggests militarism and warfare as a way of life, mythic America promotes peace, not war. It fights defensive wars, not wars of aggression. It is an exceptional nation, a model of virtue, a country devoted to freedom and democratic ideals, a people with a special calling.

Thus, vanity of vanities, the myth of the reluctant belligerent belies allegations of US imperialism. That’s a problem of self-deception, observes Andrew Bacevich in American Empire (Harvard University Press, 2002), with serious implications for managing the challenge of empire. “The conceit that America is by its very nature innocent of imperial pretensions has become not only untenable but also counterproductive,” he observes (p. 243).

Bacevich is a retired Army Colonel and a US historian specializing in international relations, military history, and foreign policy—a veteran and a professor turned public scholar.

Bacevich draws on the earlier insights of historians Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams to decipher the myth of America as the reluctant superpower—i.e., the belief that “Americans assert themselves only under duress and then always for the noblest purposes.” This is “the master narrative explaining (and justifying) the nation’s exercise of global power” (p. 8). Indulging in the myth of American innocence sanitizes militarism and inhibits critical reflection on its purpose.

Openness, Bacevich maintains, is the code that conceals the reality of an American imperium, of a self-interested and “single-minded determination to extend and perpetuate American political, economic, and cultural hegemony—usually referred to as ‘leadership’—on a global scale” (pp. 3, 6). This is open-door empire, not old-fashioned empire. The dogma of openness implies political liberty, democracy, progress, prosperity, and security (pp. 25-26). It adapts “the logic of empire to suit the needs of democratic capitalism” (p. 31).

The dogma of openness that guides contemporary US foreign policy is a coded message freighted with historical meaning. It articulates a culturally coherent grand strategy, a “commitment to global openness-removing barriers that inhibit the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people. Its ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms” (p. 3).

Not surprisingly, the war on terror is a “war for the imperium,” which lends “further impetus to the militarization of American policy” (pp. 225, 232, 238). And the more the US pushes for a kind of openness that serves its interests primarily, at the expense of others, the more likely it is to encounter armed resistance. Already, “the nation’s defensive perimeter . . . encompasses the globe” (p. 241). A Pax Americana can only be maintained by force of arms, if at all.

That’s not just empire. That’s an unsustainable imperial project of mythic magnitude.


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