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America As Empire

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In America as Empire, Jim Garrison urges us to face up to the complexities and responsibilities inherent in the indisputable fact that America is now the world's single preeminent power. "America", Garrison writes, "has become what it was founded not to be: established as a haven for those fleeing the abuse of power, it has attained and now wields near absolute power. It has become an empire."
Garrison traces the roots of the American empire to the very beginnings of the republic, in particular to the historic willingness of United States' to use military might in the defense of two consistent --- if sometimes contradictory --- foreign policy objectives: protection of American commercial interests and promotion of democracy.
How long can the American empire last? Garrison looks at American history within the context of the rise and fall of empires and argues that the U. S. can gain important insights into durability from the Romans. He details the interplay between military power, political institutions, and legal structures that enabled the Roman empire at it's apogee to last for longer than America has as a country.
But the real question is, what kind of empire can and should America be? As the sole superpower, America must lead in shaping a new global order, just as after World War II Roosevelt and Truman took the lead in shaping a new international order. That international order is now crumbling under the pressures of globalization, persistent poverty, terrorism and fundamentalism. Garrison outlines the kinds of cooperative global structures America must promote if its empire is to leave a lasting legacy of greatness. Garrison calls for Americans to consciously see themselves as a transitional empire, one whose task is not to dominate but to catalyze the next generation of global governance mechanisms that would make obsolete the need for empire. If this is done, America could be the final empire.

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1: America and the World

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THE UNITED STATES HAS BECOME what it was founded not to be. Established as a haven for those fleeing the abuse of power, it has attained and now wields nearly absolute power. It has become an empire. This is meant as a statement of fact, not a judgment of national character. It is a way of understanding America, not an indictment against American policy. Indeed, by opening up the possibility of viewing the United States as an empire, one opens up a far larger frame of reference to understand America’s history, role in the world, and future responsibilities.

WHAT IS AN EMPIRE? According to the Oxford Dictionary, an empire is “a group of countries ruled by a single supreme authority.” The word itself comes from the old French word empire, meaning imperial rule. It is derived from the Latin term imperium, meaning to rule, to command. The historian Alexander Motyl defines empire as “a hierarchically organized political system with a hublike structure—a rimless wheel—within which a core elite and state dominate peripheral elites and societies by serving as intermediaries for their significant interactions and by channeling resource flows from the periphery to the core and back to the periphery.”1 The historian Michael Doyle provides a more behavioristic definition: “Effective control, whether formal or informal, of a subordinated society by an imperial society.”2 12

 

2: A Mighty Fortress on Shifting Sands

ePub

AS THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY GETS UNDER WAY, the primacy of American power is one of the few undisputed truths of international affairs. The United States dominates the world militarily with 436 bases in North America and Europe, 186 in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, 14 in Latin America and the Caribbean, 7 in the Middle East, and 1 in South Asia, 647 altogether. It has bases or base rights in over forty countries around the world and a navy with an array of aircraft carrier task forces that dominate every ocean. The U.S. Air Force has a presence on six of the world’s continents.

The United States has developed an unrivaled mastery of high-technology weaponry that has radically redefined the meaning of modern warfare and includes a massive nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert, capable of destroying any enemy completely and the world several times over. It has the military capability of fighting on several fronts simultaneously and is building a national missile defense system to protect the American mainland from sneak missile attack. It almost certainly will weaponize space within the next decade, giving the United States essentially complete military control over global communications.

 

3: America’s Journey to Empire

ePub

RATHER THAN DEAL WITH THE CRISIS of the nation-state system or seriously take on any of the global challenges crippling human affairs, except for HIV AIDS, to which it has made a small gesture, the Bush administration is doing what empires universally have done at their moment of preeminence: further consolidate military control. This is a natural, indeed necessary, action for any empire to accomplish; otherwise, its dominion is not secure. Military might seeks to make durable what is inherently unstable. But under current circumstances, further consolidating military supremacy in an increasingly unsustainable international system might turn out to be more like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The Bush administration is building on the work of previous administrations to consolidate what the Pentagon calls full spectrum dominance. The cornerstone of this policy is “the ability of U.S. forces, operating either unilaterally or in combination with multinational and interagency partners, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military operations.” This implies that “U.S. forces are able to conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronized operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations, and with access and freedom to operate in all domains—space, sea, land, air, and information.”1 49

 

4: The Roots of American Preeminence

ePub

TAKING INTO ACCOUNT AMERICA’S COMMITMENT to light and ascent to power, the question must be asked: Why did the United States rise to empire and to world supremacy? Why did the United States, rather than Brazil or China or Russia, achieve this preeminence? What strands of the American past, when taken together, explain its extraordinary success as a nation and as an empire?

This is virtually an impossible question to answer in the present. Historians in the future will have to look back on the American empire as we do upon Britain, Athens, or Rome before any clarity will emerge. Even then, they will argue about America as they still do about the whys and wherefores of the rise and fall of other empires. People are constrained by history because they are contained within history. This constraint deepens the pathos of the experience but inhibits the capacity for perspective.

Nevertheless, there are three essential reasons for the American success, which explain something of its uniqueness among the nations and its inordinate aggregation of imperial power: its British heritage, its Athenian heritage, and its relentless application of military force.

 

5: Empire and Its Discontents

ePub

THE CHALLENGE TO AMERICAN LEADERSHIP today is that people around the world are increasingly experiencing America more as the enemy than as a friend, as Goliath rather than as David. Bewilderment about America, fear of America, even hatred of America are on the rise as people use American light to judge American power. In attaining so much power and in applying its power in such a highly militarized way, especially during the Cold War and since 9/11, it seems to many that the United States has betrayed its founding vision, as if in protecting the American dream at home, it has felt it necessary to deny its ideals abroad.93

AMERICA’S DARK HISTORY IN IRAQ The history of U.S. relations with Iraq provides an excellent case in point. Removing Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 was not the first time the United States engaged in regime change in Iraq. President Kennedy initiated the first one back in 1963.

In 1958, Iraqi leader Abdel Karim Kassem had overthrown a monarch friendly to the West, but he was tolerated by President Eisenhower because he provided a counterweight to Washington’s nemesis of that era—Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who was stirring the Arab world with visions of national revival and power. But Kassem became a problem for Washington in 1961 when he began to buy arms rivaling those of Israel, threatened Western oil interests, and talked openly of challenging American dominance in the region. Kennedy decided that Kassem needed to go. Interestingly, Kennedy received support from Britain and Israel but faced opposition from other allies, especially France and Germany.94

 

6: The Rise and Fall of Empires

ePub

IN LOOKING BACK AT THE IMPERIAL ACTIVITIES and attitudes of the ancient Greeks or Romans, Chinese or Muslims, we find the same imperial impulse that now grips America. There are the same issues of light and power, the same appetite to conquer land, populations, and resources, and the same ambitions, rivalries, virtues, and vices that make each empire both a replica of the same pattern and yet a drama all its own.

THE BEGINNINGS OF EMPIRE The earliest empires arose in what is called the Fertile Crescent, framed by the alluvial plains of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. These rivers are thousands of miles long, originating in what is now Turkey and running parallel to one another until they empty as one river into the Persian Gulf. These majestic rivers enabled both commerce and travel over long distances. Their annual flooding, particularly the Euphrates, provided rich agricultural land. It was along the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in Syria-Palestine, that the Neolithic revolution began some ten thousand years ago, and humankind began the process of domesticating plants and animals.109

 

7: The Roman Achievement

ePub

AS THE UNITED STATES EMBARKS on its pathway of supreme power, the crucial question before it is how long it will last before it falls. As a republic, there was nowhere to go but up. As an empire, there is nowhere to go but down. What steps can America take to ensure it remains strong, powerful, and respected by the world over which it now exercises dominion? Is exerting overwhelming military power sufficient, combined with economic exploitation, for America to maintain political control and guarantee wealth to its populace? Or is there some other ingredient that ensures the solidity and coherence of power?

To answer this fundamental question of solidity and coherence, it is illuminating to examine the empire that lasted the longest—Rome—and inquire as to its secrets. Rome’s durability was founded not simply on military might or economic gain but on something more fundamental and challenging. Its imperial coherence was ensured by good governance over the empire through institutions that were perceived by the governed as just and fair. This is what Rome achieved and why, of all the empires, it endured the longest and is remembered as the most magnificent.129

 

8: America at the Choice Point

ePub

IT IS AGAINST THE BACKGROUND of the history of empire and the greatness of Rome that it must be noted that the decisions being made by the Bush administration are almost all with specific reference to a very finite event: the trauma of September 11, 2001. Both the attack and the subsequent war on terrorism characterize the present American moment and predominant focus of the U.S. government. Historical legacies and global complexities are being viewed through the very narrow lens provided by a single experience.

Is there any way that this occasion can be a gateway to the larger issues? This is a difficult task because the wounds of September 11 continue to be quite raw, particularly in the American psyche. The initial American response, still with us, has been bewilderment and hurt that anyone would want to do such a thing to the United States. These notions were combined with the demand for vengeance. The U.S. government marched onto the world stage, overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan with international support, and then invaded Iraq without it. Few acknowledged that the nation was in the grip of a Jacksonian act of vengeance or that it might be affected by a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. 151

 

9: The Final Empire

ePub

TRANSITIONS ARE TIMES OF ACUTE STRESS, disjunction, and upheaval. Apocalyptic visions of the end of the world abound, and values shift like sand in the desert. The old is breaking down and the new is emerging, but the new has not reached sufficient strength to seem reliable or secure. People cling to fundamentalist beliefs, whether religious fundamentalism or market fundamentalism. Periods of transition are thus times of crisis and alienation. Opportunity and abundance can come from such times, but only if there is an invigorating vision of future possibility. Old beliefs and practices must be surrendered and new ways of living and relating embraced, but this requires a strength of spirit and fortitude of mind uncommon in ordinary times.

Leadership during periods of historical turbulence and change is supremely challenging. It must enable the people to abandon what they hold as secure, but which is actually insufficient, and embrace what seems insecure but is potentially sufficient. This can only be done through a vision of the future that instills hope in human possibility. It can only be accomplished with an illumination of light so intense that people surrender their fear of the darkness and are emboldened to take a leap of faith into a new age.

 

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