What changed in the imperial views?

In his much interesting study headlined " the empire strikes out", Ivan Eland –” director of defence policy studies at the Cato Institute –” claims that since the emergence of America as the only superpower after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the “strategy of empire” is likely to encounter many of the same limitations that empires have encountered in the past. Based on the experiences of the past, ” the strategy of empire –” he states- is habitually self-defeating.” There are in his view, three factors that explain why that is so: ” (1) new great powers invariably rise, (2) those great powers logically counterbalance against the dominant power, and (3) the dominant power exhausts itself with ever-escalating attempts to maintain its primacy.”

Mr Eland’s concerns with the “imperialist revival” is likely shared by many observers who, in the aftermath of September 11, did not receive with happiness the pretension of Mr Bush to resolve security dilemmas through pre-emption. In effect, in a famous speech (June 2, 2002) President Bush noticeably said: ” America has, and intends to keep, its military strengths beyond challenge…We have to be ready for pre-emptive action, because if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long”…How can anybody prejudge of a situation before its accomplishment? If a suspected person is always innocent until evidence is made plain about his (her) guilt, how about entire nations?

Understandably, Eland refutes one by one the arguments of Empire advocates. Here are some examples of their views:

– For Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, the September 11 attacks were “the result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in our implementation.”

– For Sebastian Mallaby, Washington Post columnist, ” the logic of neo imperialism is too compelling …to resist. The chaos of the world is too threatening to ignore.” The USA should then take a page from the past and “impose their own institutions on disorderly ones”.

– For Robert Kaplan, the Atlantic Monthly correspondent, “our future leaders could do worse than be praised for their…ability to bring prosperity to distant parts of the world under America’s soft imperial influence…And Rome in particular, is a model for hegemonic power, using various means to encourage a modicum of order in a disorderly world”.

If the common ground for those different writers is a belief in security through empire, they advocate “good imperialism”: ” We don’t want to enslave other countries and loot their resources. We want to liberate oppressed peoples and extend to them the benefits of liberal institutions”, as claims Boot.

However, between those pretensions and the arguments of Ivan Eland concerning the self-defeating imperial behaviour, there is not necessarily a sound continuum. I mean that if Eland objected to the congruity of Empire advocacies, on the basis that “there is nothing new in enlightened imperialism”, and that history itself proves that the strategy of Empire is always counterproductive, according to the three factors’scenario we have mentioned above, this is in the present situation only a partial and very diminished argument.

I hold the basis of Eland’s argument as the key to the counter-argument. In effect, we notice that he started from the fact that the USA, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, is the only superpower. He noticed also that “America’s emergence as the only superpower is a change in the system (of international politics), not a change of the system”. And so far, the argument is sound.

Nevertheless, this aspect does not contain any weakness in America’s pretension to a world leadership. On the contrary, the projection of the past experiences in the present time is here definitely irrelevant. Because something new happened in the last century that changed completely the essence of the international relations. I mean the apparition and the rise of the nuclear power. This is a determining factor of the geo-strategic theatre, which was completely omitted in Eland’s –” anyway- brilliant analysis. Neither Rome, nor the British Empire held such a power in the past.

Thus, if we consider the three points he mentioned as accurate, we cannot avoid to make the following remarks:

1- Concerning the first factor: It is true that in the past, great powers invariably rise. But in the nuclear age, is it enough to build two or three atomic reactors (as happened in India and Pakistan), to be a great power? Anyway, we saw great powers –” like the Soviet Union- lose their impact and efficiency, while smaller states rose to hold a nuclear power without getting the rank of a great power.

2- Concerning the second factor: In order to counterbalance the dominant power, the pretender ought to be at least a match for its rival. In the last century, the ex-Soviet Union was pretending to be such a match for the USA. But since its collapse, there is no such thing as a counterbalance. Neither China nor the European Union is claiming to inherit the position of the ex-Soviet Union. True, we cannot judge how would be the future developments, although it is hard to see the EU behaving as an enemy of the USA rather than an ally. As to China, so far, it has been under such constraints that it bowed to the liberalism and accepted the market laws, at the price of almost losing its “soul”. In other words, it is well the West that contains China.

3- Concerning the third factor: This is possibly the only sound argument, which is as good in the nuclear age as it was in the past centuries. Maintaining a primacy no doubt requires a lot of resources and energy. It may also lead to exhaustion. Thus, we can imagine easily that the people of the USA reach such a state. Fed up with wars and escalations, they may weigh upon their executive to shift policy. It happened before (the Vietnam crisis for example). It may happen again.

All this naturally does not lead to the conclusion that any new-imperialist foreign policy would be flawless, as long as we are speaking of America in the nuclear age. I am not objecting to the conclusions drawn by Ivan Eland in his excellent study, for they deserve much more meditation than I can afford in a hasty comment. Yet, I am not agreeing with all of them. I say merely that his approach would have been much more convincing if he considered the nuclear factor, which no other empire has experienced in the past. For in the light of such a fact, the analysis would gain probably more relativism and more concordance with the policies of the 21-century. The fact that Great Britain and France –” that formed the main empires of the 19-20 centuries- both hold nuclear power without holding empires, or even pretending to counterbalance the USA, deserves also to be thought over.

Remains the crucial question: What about the peoples in those plans of hegemony and power? How can we in this time accommodate such plans with claims of democracy and Human rights?