In a famous passage from his great polemic “Economic Consequences of the Peace,” John Maynard Keynes offered this vignette of affluent life in the summer of 1914:
“The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.
“He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.”
Only half a decade later, a grim new world of tariff barriers, monetary controls, investment restrictions, entry and exit visas, and armed frontiers had replaced KeynesÕ Edwardian idyll – seemingly forever.
Yet here we are at the beginning of a new century, and KeynesÕ world has been reborn. The billion-plus people of the developed countries are wrapped in a network of technologies and institutions that enable us to communicate ideas, invest capital, exchange goods, move money, obtain information, and travel with a speed and ease that would impress a duke or duchess of 1914. This freedom and mobility is undergirded by a global system of law, some of it formal (like the treaties and agreement that govern world trade), some of it strikingly informal (like the VISA and Mastercard merchant agreements that protect tourists from fraud and theft).
This liberal world order has triumphed over many enemies. Many enemies remain. Here in these pages though we may have to protect it from its friends.
For many years, enemies of this liberal world order have condemned it as “imperialistic.” And unfortunately, many of this world orderÕs friends – in some cases out of genuine misunderstanding, in others out of mischief – have in recent years accepted and adopted the insult as a term of pride.
Yes, they say, the liberal world order is an empire – and a good thing too!
And no doubt the meaning of the word “empire” can ingeniously be stretched and twisted in such ways as to make it approximately fit the circumstances of today. But such a stretching and twisting adds nothing to understanding. Indeed, it dangerously distorts our understanding. Worse, it incites the resentments and fears of those peoples and states who have not yet succeeded in joining the liberal world order, to their own loss and ultimately to ours as well.
People who want to describe the liberal world order as an “empire” can cite an all too-familiar list of facts: The dominant economic position and overwhelming military power of the United States; the pervasiveness of the English language and American popular culture; US military interventions in the Balkans, Africa, and now the Middle East – and so on; the American refusal to be accede to international agreements like Kyoto and the International Criminal Court.
But what really do these individual items mean?
A concrete example: The American war plan for Iraq envisioned an invasion of the north of the country from Turkey. This northern invasion was highly important to the political success of the operation, because it would have sited more of the fighting in the pro-Baathist center of Iraq and much less in the anti-Baathist south. In February 2003, however, the Turkish parliament voted against military cooperation with the United States.
Think of this for a minute. Imagine how a real empire – the Romans for example or the Soviets – would have responded to an ally who refused to do what the imperial power wanted. What did the United States do? It respected the wishes of its Turkish ally and hastily rewrote its war plan.
Empires are not defined by their cultural reach: If so, we would have to say that 18th century German belonged to the French empire.
They are not defined by wealth: If so, we would today speak of a Swiss or Kuwaiti empire.
They are not defined by military power: Spain in 1898 was very weak, but was still an empire; Japan today has one of the most capable militaries on earth, but nobody would call contemporary Japan “imperial.”
Empires are defined, rather, as polities in which one group – one nation, one state, one people, even one city – rules over others. Lenin once said that all of politics could be reduced to the short question, “Who, Whom?” Without accepting LeninÕs proposition in all cases, it certainly does apply to the politics of empire. In the Baltic region of 1650, the answer to the question, “Who?” was: Sweden. The answer to the question: “Whom?” would be: Finns, Estonians, Pomeranians, and so on.
But in the case of the putative American empire, who is the “whom”? Who are the subjects?
It is ironic to the point of absurdity that the United States is sometimes described as “imperial” because of its unwillingness to agree to this treaty or that, Kyoto or the International Criminal Court or the landmines treaty. In these cases, America is called on empire not because it rules others, but because it refuses to be ruled by others.
There is a grain of truth concealed inside the language of “empire.” We do not live in a world of equal states. Five states hold vetoes at the UN Security Council; the rest do not. The International Atomic Energy Authority recognizes the right of some states but not others to own nuclear weapons. States that fall into financial crisis are constrained to submit to the orders of the International Monetary Fund. Increasing numbers of Third World states are failing in ways that persuade other countries they must intervene, as Britain has done in Sierra Leone and France has done in the Ivory Coast. Even in Europe, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia live in strange semi-independence, under the supervision of international authorities.
Nor is it only poor and failed states that have accepted limits on their sovereignty. Many of the wealthy nations of Europe have subordinated vast elements of their national life – their currencies, their law, their migration policies, soon perhaps even their powers of taxation – to the European Union. Many people in those states have also come to believe that even the ultimate act of sovereignty, war, has to be legitimated by some multinational entity.
In such a world, AmericaÕs insistence on preserving its full sovereignty unimpaired seems to many to be anachronistic, aggressive, and arrogant.
But there is a difference between upholding your own sovereignty (as many European voters would wish their own governments to do) and abridging the sovereignty of others through intimidation or force (which is what empires do).
While America obviously holds a predominant place in the liberal world order (and shoulders at least equally disproportionate responsibilities), this liberal world order is managed by consent and by negotiation. Indeed, if anything it is the worldÕs smaller powers who draw the greatest relative benefits from the liberal world order maintained by American power.
During the Cold War, for example, the United States for example certainly benefited from a policy of deterring Soviet aggression against the Nordic countries – but the Nordic countries benefited much more. Yet the United States paid much more to defend the Nordic countries than they paid to defend themselves. This is a very strange form of imperialism – indeed, some American isolationists have toted up the costs and benefits of the liberal world order and complained that it is AmericaÕs allies who are enjoying the perquisites of empire and that it is the United States that is the “colony of the world”!
Some, especially the radical anti-globalizers will concede that the democratic allies may not be subjects of empire, but that the poor oppressed peoples of the Third World are. The rich nations (the anti-globalizers say) are practicing economic imperialism by purchasing sneakers and sweaters from the poor and offering them nothing in return except capital investment, advanced technology, cheap food, and life-saving medicine.
But here too, it is a strange empire that offers its subjects a better deal than it takes for itself. From the point of view of the billion people in the developed world, the opening of Third World markets is a nice bonus; from the point of view of the people of the Third World, and especially of the poor, the expansion of international trade is literally a matter of life and death. Between 1993 and 2003, VietnamÕs gross domestic product tripled. That surge of economic growth has transformed the lives of the Vietnamese people. From the point of view of the world economy, however, the event is far less dramatic: The 80 million of Vietnam produce goods and services worth only a little more than those produced by the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Critics of America see rock music, CNN, the English language, and the curriculum of the Harvard Business School as emblems of empire as oppressive as the rituals of submission that the Mongols imposed on the peoples they conquered. But for better or for worse, American popular culture has spread because it appeals to something deep and real in the consciousness of ordinary people everywhere – including many ordinary people who deeply dislike American society and public policy.
As for the English language, it has spread as far as it has more because of British power than American power. More than a century ago, Otto von Bismarck quipped that the most important geostrategic fact of the 20th century would be that Britain and the United States spoke the same language. It may well be that the most important geostrategic fact of the 21st century will be that India and the United States do.
America has contributed most to the spread of English less by conquest than by trade and education. People worldwide learn English not to speak to imperial tax collectors or magistrates, but in hopes of getting a better job, of attending an American, or of participating in the American-created world of the Internet.
Indeed, one could plausibly contend that the use of English continues to grow precisely because the United States is not an imperial power. English has become a global lingua franca in very large part because it evokes the fewest memories of conquest and domination. Europeans know this well: It is impossible that an expanding European Union can long continue to treat Latvian, Romanian, and Portuguese as official languages. And yet Latvians, Romanians, and Portuguese people have powerful motives for refusing to concede privileged status to German or French. English is the language that offends the fewest number of people – which is why you hear it spoken more and more often in the halls of Brussels.
Those who describe the United States as an empire do so in order to excite and mobilize their listeners to do something they would not otherwise wish to do. Anti-Americans in Europe often use it hoping to persuade Europeans to concede greater authority to a centralized EU that might balance imperial America. Pro-Americans use this language in hope of enticing Americans into humanitarian missions for which (they fear) Americans would otherwise have little appetite.
But these ambitions should stand or fall on their own merits. If a centralized EU is unworkable or unpopular, it will not become more workable – or long remain more popular – if it is built on a foundation of anti-Americanism. Meanwhile AmericaÕs friends should have enough understanding of America to realize that the most effective way to summon Americans to do good in the world is to appeal to their generosity – not to a pride in domination that extremely few Americans feel or ever will feel.
British schoolboys once grew warm reading the inspiring words of Virgil:
“But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.”
Americans feel no such imperial destiny. To descend to a lower literary level, they think and feel like Ferris Bueller in the 1980s movie of the same name. Bueller, an American high school student, is complaining about a test he was supposed to take on the history of European socialism. “I mean really, whatÕs the point? IÕm not European, I donÕt plan on being European, so who gives a crap if they are socialist? They could be fascist anarchists – that still wouldnÕt change the fact that I donÕt have a car.”
Not all Americans are quite that preoccupied with material and personal pursuits. But many are – which is why America has been such a uniquely moderate and reasonable superpower. Americans do not want to dominate the world. They want to live in freedom on it, to do business with it, to travel in it, to be safe from attack from it. And after all, is that not what most people in most nations want?
The great achievement of the second half of the 20th century was the construction of institutions and rules that made it possible for individuals throughout the advanced world to realize those desires for freedom, prosperity, and security. This achievement was carried forward under American leadership, but it does not belong to America alone.
Since 1990, vast new areas of the earth have moved away from authoritarianism and autarchy in hopes of gaining the benefits of the liberal world order for themselves and their people. Some nations, especially in Eastern Europe, have made the transition remarkably easily. Elsewhere though it remains uncertain whether the struggle will succeed – and in many places, notably the Middle East and Africa, it has barely begun.
The great challenge of the next century will be to extend and strengthen and stabilize the liberal world order until it is global in the fullest sense. ThatÕs a project bigger than any one country can possibly hope to achieve by itself, even if that country is the United States. ItÕs a task that will require great wisdom, great generosity, and great courage. We contribute nothing to this task by affixing to it the inaccurate and defamatory label of “empire.”