The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability. America is an imperial power for a post-imperial age - but like the empires of old it faces over-extension and defeat if it does not share the burden. Even the powerful need friends and alliesby Michael Ignatieff / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
In a speech to cadets at West Point in June, President Bush declared, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” Speaking to veterans at the White House in November, he said: America has “no territorial ambitions. We don’t seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others.”
Ever since George Washington warned against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic’s permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but “empire” describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than 1m men and women at arms on four continents; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of the planet with its dreams and desires.
The historian JR Seeley once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in “a fit of absence of mind.” If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial. But 11th September was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of US power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box-cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed.
Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the US interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest. It also means carrying out imperial fu…