Americans are genuinely shocked by the idea that they are an imperial powerby Jedediah Purdy / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
The United States, it is said, has been violently inducted into membership of the rest of the world. Some commentators have noted with satisfaction that at last US decision-makers will appreciate the experience of-depending on their sympathies-Israelis, Belgraders, Nicaraguans or the residents of Baghdad. Kinder commentators reflected that terrorism is a fact of life in Britain, India, Turkey and elsewhere and that Americans would have had to lose the illusion of invulnerability sooner or later-if not so suddenly and horribly. But the response to the attacks was just as much a reminder that Americans are not alone in believing themselves special. Americans in countries wracked by violence much more severe than New York’s, described outpourings of sympathy even from ordinarily chary hosts. The “World Trade Centre” was no hubristic misnomer. The building that burned and collapsed stood not just on an island along one edge of north America but in the homeland of the global imagination, representing power, boundless possibility and a curious kind of innocence.
Yet as the US leads the world’s countries into a campaign against Islamist terrorism, the country still awaits a reckoning on its place in the world. This has nothing to do with the opportunistic score-settling that formed the most distasteful response to the attacks. The fact remains, however, that the new conflict takes place in a world deeply marked by new forms of US power and new resentments against them. The more a newly aggressive and focused US foreign policy disregards these in favour of cold war-vintage verities, the less likely it is to succeed.
For several years now, there have been worldwide rumblings about an alleged American empire. Frontline, an Indian weekly magazine, called a 1999 cover article on US foreign policy, “Ways of Imperialism.” A South African journalist writes of living in “the outer provinces of the empire” and an Arab scholar refers matter-of-factly and without veno…