It only took the Washington Post a few decades, but by late last month it had finally caught on to a trend in conservative thought—that some people regard the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world today as an imperial one. "In recent years," the Post reported breathlessly, " a handful of conservative defense intellectuals have begun to argue that the United States is indeed acting in an imperialist fashion—and that it should embrace the role." (Empire or Not? A Quiet Debate Over U.S. Role, Washington Post, August 21, 2001)
The main such "conservative defense intellectual" is one Thomas Donnelly, a director of the Project for the New American Century, which espouses a foreign policy line that is—well—imperialist. Mr. Donnelly, according to the Post account, believes U.S. military commitments abroad today are so firm and so entrenched—about 20,000 troops in the Persian Gulf area alone, not to mention others in the Balkans and elsewhere—that the United States effectively has become a "great power" able to impose its will on other powers.
It's important that we think of ourselves as an empire, Mr. Donnelly argues, because "we'd better understand the full range of tasks we want our military to do, from the Balkans-like constabulary missions to the no-fly zones to maintaining enough big-war capacity" to deter a major adversary from emerging.
Some on the right agree and some don't, but even though it may be news to the Post, the idea that the United States is an empire is not at all new. In the 1940s, anti-communist strategist James Burnham argued that the United States should take over the international role of the fading British Empire as a bulwark against the Soviets and their allies. Whether Burnham would have supported a post-Cold War imperialism is another question, but lots of conservatives—at least neo-conservatives—have.
Then again, lots of conservatives—paleo-conservatives—haven't. Some, drawing on the isolationists of the 1930s, dislike and oppose virtually any foreign commitment. Others favor an international role and international power for the United States but oppose both the globalism that threatens to swallow national sovereignty and the imperialism that locks the nation into endless war.
But the discussion of an American empire among those who most often discuss it seems studiously to avoid dealing with the central issues that should be at the heart of the debate: Why should the United States be or become an empire, and what will being one mean for our internal character? In the age of the Cold War, when the free world was faced with concerted aggression and subversion from the Soviets and their allies, and the only power able to resist them was the United States, empire made a good deal of sense. Global commitments at least contained the Soviets (sometimes) and may ultimately have helped strangle their own empire in the 1980s.
But since the Soviet collapse, power has dropped into the American lap without much thought or effort. There is no apparent enemy today, and policies to prevent one from emerging won't work indefinitely. Some of the most powerful empires of the past could not have emerged without an enemy to resist—Rome against Carthage, Britain against France—and in the absence of an enemy, it's not clear what would keep the imperial engine humming or why anyone would want it to.
Conservatives who oppose an imperial role for America today tend to do so not only because of the commitments in blood and treasure that empire always costs but also because of the effects imperial expansion will have on American society. Mass immigration into the imperial homeland is one impact that empire always seems to have—in Rome 2,000 years ago, and in Europe and America today. So is the enlargement of the central government and the disciplining of the population for military involvement—everywhere and all the time.
It ought to be clear, at least to those Americans and those conservatives able to think beyond the brass bands and baubles that imperialism always brings, that empire also has its price. Sometimes, as when a country is faced with an implacable and mortal enemy, the price is worth paying or at least trying to avoid, but it's not a price any self-governing republic would want to pay or be able to pay without ceasing to be a republic.
The price of empire for ancient Rome was not only inundation by the slaves and foreigners it conquered but also the tyranny of the emperors themselves and the destruction they finally inflicted. If the United States really wants to be and remain the kind of empire that savants like Mr. Donnelly are gloating over, we need to think carefully about what prices we'll have to pay for it and whether they're really worth paying.
COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
September 10, 2001