Is President Bush Destroying the American Empire? An Update on America's Inadvertent Empire

Date April 14, 2004
Speaker Robert DUJARRIC(Visiting Scholar, RIETI)
Moderator Andrei HAGIU(Fellow, RIETI)


Rather than a summary of my book America's Inadvertent Empire co-authored by William E. Odom, I will just make a few preliminary remarks about how we understand the workings of the American Empire and then ask the question whether the current administration is in fact the most anti-imperialist administration ever.

What we call the American Empire is what we consider to be a liberal empire. That is to say, the United States along with its allies has created an international system which is essentially based on the alliance structures in East Asia and in Europe, and which has provided for considerable peace and stability since 1945 in the regions most important to the world economy, ie Northeast Asia, Western Europe and North America.

It is an empire that is not a traditional colonial empire for two reasons. First, the U.S. does not directly own other territories with very small exception, namely, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, a few Pacific islands-and currently Iraq, which is a bigger exception. Second, our proposition is that it is a money-generating empire whereas in the European experience, the colonies were probably more of a cost center than a profit center. Controlling the law and order problems and opposition by the locals was probably more costly than the economic benefits that were derived. The best example in European history may be Portugal which in the 1970s was the last country to seriously decolonize in Africa. As a consequence, instead of being a European colonial power, Portugal was almost an African country in Europe in terms of its economic and political development.

This has not happened to the U.S. in the sense that the cost (American military presence in East Asia and Europe) is much lower than the benefits (maintenance of peace and stability by U.S. and allied forces). However, it is not because you have peace that you have prosperity. On the other hand, there is no example of a country that is not peaceful and that is rich. In order to have economic development and growth, you need peace at the domestic and international level. Domestically, without a police force you cannot have trade or commerce, like in Lebanon during the civil war. Similarly, without international peace, you are very unlikely to have international trade and investment.

In this sense, I would like to stress that liberalism, in the traditional 19th century sense of the word as a free market, rule of law system rather than the current American English meaning of center-left or left-wing, does not mean anarchy. There is always an element of regulation, regardless of how free the market is. First, it has the police to maintain law and order. Second, markets themselves are regulated through rules on how the banking system works and laws that make it possible to enforce contracts.

This liberal empire too is based on rules. It has created an international system of not only military alliances but also economic organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), that attempt to create some type of rules for investment and trade to flourish. These rules are not set unilaterally by the U.S., although it plays a very important role, but in partnership with other countries and international organizations.

Rather than from the perspective of economic research, our argument is that it is important to understand the military and political aspects of the world order because it is that superstructure that allows for economic interaction to take place and that impacts how efficient the economic system is.

What does the U.S. have to do to make this liberal empire function? Essentially, it has to do two things which are easy to define and much more difficult to implement. Firstly, the U.S. cannot act unilaterally and ignore its allies' interests. The difference between the relationship of the U.S. with its allies and that of a colonial power is that its allies are not colonies. Also, in the military and economic spheres the U.S. very much towers over all its partners as well as its enemies but it is not the only one. The U.S. essentially accounts for less than half of total gross domestic product (GDP) of the Empire, so it has to take into account what its partners' interests are.

On the other hand, trying to reach consensus on politics and military among 30 or 35 countries is not always possible. Therefore, sometimes the U.S. has, if not to act unilaterally, at least to put pressure on its partners. However, these situations have to be avoided and even when the U.S. engages in such policies, it always has to think about the general interests rather than about its own interest. The larger you are in an organization, the more dangerous it is if you think only about your very narrow interests. It is the same in business. To take an example from the political field, if the smallest members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) such as Iceland and Luxemburg, were not to think very broadly about the general interests of NATO, it would not be too detrimental, because they are very small and neither of them has armed forces of its own. If, however, the U.S. cares only about its own interests, there is imbalance and will lead not only to resentment but also an inefficient outcome. The balance between taking into account what everybody wants and giving them due say is something fairly easy to define, but much more difficult to implement.

The second aspect of what the U.S. has to do is to maintain a strong military. America has a lot of power - economic and in the influence of its universities, its science and technology - but what keeps a modicum of peace and stability in this empire is American military might combined with that of its allies.

The somewhat rhetorical question of whether President Bush is actually destroying the American Empire may seem strange, because surely, looking at the demonstrations against U.S. policy in Iraq, most people would accuse Bush of being an imperialist. The argument for raising this question has to do with the force structure of the U.S. military and how the U.S. implements international rules.

First, the Iraq war itself has been very strategically counterproductive. The reason is very simple. al-Qaida was the enemy and Saddam Hussein had absolutely no link to al-Qaida and therefore was not a threat to American interests. Now essentially, the U.S. is ruling over a very difficult situation, because it is fortunately operating under relatively ethical rules of engagement, meaning they cannot kill Iraqis at will even though there are a significant number who are plainly involved in violent action against the U.S. These types of quasi-colonial wars are always very difficult, very costly and very destructive for both the interests of the U.S. and the local population. The future for Iraq may be similar to the West Bank and Gaza.

Some people, perhaps rightfully, have argued that, as Bush often says, the majority of the Iraqis support the U.S. However, if that minority is armed in violent opposition and has the passive support of other portions of the population, you have an enormous problem.

Furthermore, what has been very destructive in this Iraq war has been the way the U.S. has treated its allies. The very aggressive and vindictive treatment of allies, such as Turkey and Germany, has alienated many and has been very counterproductive. At one point in Turkey, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz complained about the fact that the Turkish army was not using its influence to change the policies of the government. Such things throw doubt on what our actual goals are for democracy in the Middle East. On top of this, the allies that have supported the U.S. have gotten very little in exchange. The U.K. and Poland have learned the lesson that cooperating with the U.S. is unlikely to bring rewards. The only person who seems to have been rewarded was Spanish Prime Minister Aznar whose party lost the election very much because of its support of the U.S.

Then, there is the economic cost. For the first gulf war, because, firstly, it had some strategic logic, and, secondly, Bush invested a lot in diplomacy, he got other countries to pay for it. Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait itself paid so much that some military analysts have argued that the U.S. made money on the first gulf war. It is very difficult to estimate the costs of a military operation, but were we to stay until we win, we could very easily be looking at trillions of dollars.

The second danger, and it very much predates the arrival of the Republicans in 2001, is the way the force structure is conceived with permanent U.S. forces deployed in Europe and East Asia. The thinking right now in the Pentagon is to work in coalitions out together when a problem arises rather than alliances. Rather than have American soldiers permanently stationed, they will just have small bases and rotate forces when needed. The problem is that it does not work because a military coalition is not like Lego. For militaries to work together, they have to train together and know each other for years and decades. The way you do this is by having a strong military-to-military relationship. That means for the U.S. to have soldiers who stay somewhere for many years to get to know not only the other country's military but the country's culture. If you do not have that, you cannot run a coalition together. Also, if you look at the current military leadership, you are unlikely to find a general or admiral in a senior position in Washington who has not spent many years overseas. Without a permanent American presence overseas, in future, you will not have that many military leaders who will understand the world outside the U.S. That is very detrimental to U.S. interests.

A third issue is the U.S. attitude toward international rules, such as those of the WTO, the International Criminal Court, the U.N. and the Kyoto Protocol. Some of these treaties may be flawed, but the U.S. has an interest in sponsoring a rules-based international system. The attitude of the administration seems to be that any international agreement is evil, that anything that restrains U.S. sovereignty is a mortal threat to Americans. This is totally irrational because agreements that restrain sovereignty are not necessarily bad for you and also if there is one country that has very little to fear from such restraints, it is the U.S. The U.N. is an interesting situation, because the U.S. for many years did not even pay its dues but was still the most influential power.

The final aspect has been the limits on what may be called the open society since September 11th. For this again, the administration has to be blamed because it is in power, but many Democrats would have done it the same way. The attitude towards international educational exchange has become very negative. It is extremely difficult now for people to get visas to study in the U.S., which is detrimental to U.S. interests in two ways: first, having people study in the U.S. creates international linkages centered on the U.S.; second, it is a source of enormous strength for U.S. industry, especially technology and also business. By denying people the right to come to the U.S., it is essentially destroying its own interests.

The conclusion to what I am saying is that Bush is not the only one to blame. If you read John Kerry's recent op-ed in the Washington Post about Iraq, he was basically saying that we should stay and we can win. Other countries have not been very helpful either. Some of the opponents of the Iraq war have transformed it into a kind of anti-American crusade as Chirac and Villepin did in France. Others essentially did it for electoral purposes as Schroeder in Germany. The fact that NATO Europe has invested so little in its military power partly explains why European objections to the Iraq war were not taken seriously.

Is the U.S. Empire going to crumble? Maybe yes, maybe no. The argument for saying no is that there is no state or coalition of states that can challenge the U.S. The Iraq war in a way was interesting because although it was strategically irrational, and opposed by quite a few countries, you have not seen any anti-U.S. system being created.

The U.S. remains a very strong country. It probably will grow relatively stronger than other nations in terms of population. It can make strategic blunders and survive, but you should never be determinate. You should not believe that economics, demography and international relations theory tells you what will happen in the future. Incompetent leadership has a capacity to destroy even the strongest nation.

Questions and Answers

Q: You mentioned briefly the notion of soft power, which you develop more in your book. Could you clarify what you mean by that?

A: Soft power indeed is a very flexible notion. It is something which was popularized by Joe Nye at Harvard who also served in the Clinton administration. There are several concepts but the way it is often used, which may not be relevant to American power, is the influence of American popular culture which provides a somewhat superficial link to the U.S.

What is more important is the influence of U.S. universities. Since the last 50 years, especially elite U.S. universities bring to their campuses people from all over the world, great in number and quality - those who most likely will be future rulers of their country. Their being trained in the U.S. does not mean they support U.S. policy but they become familiar with the U.S. and are capable of interacting with other people educated in the U.S., directly reinforcing American power and facilitating international trade, investment and negotiation. Also, there are those who stay in the U.S. and contribute to American economic growth, with Silicon Valley being a good example. Furthermore, even after they go back, they maintain lasting links to the U.S. For example, the microconductor industry in Taiwan was started by Taiwanese who studied in California.

This is a very important source of power even though it is difficult to quantify. What should never be forgotten about soft power is that you need hard power as well. If the U.S. were not the top military power in the world, it would not be able to run this Empire, but because it is, the fact that it has soft power enhances American strength.

Q: My impression of the term empire is one of imperialistic tendency, but as you have defined it, there is no negative connotation.

Despite talking about it not being good to be unilateral, that is what is going on currently with the Bush administration. They seem to be doing the opposite of what you are saying is logical and rational. How is that the case? Also, I was reading about how policy is shaped by the influential neoconservatives surrounding the president and that their thinking has permeated government. How likely is it that whatever government there is in the future it will go back to a notion of rule of law?

A: The difference from a traditional colonial empire is that with the exception immediately of Iraq, every country that is an ally of the United States is free to leave. What is more, many countries actually want to join the U.S. Empire with the most interesting case being Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Eastern and Central European countries are eager to join NATO.

Has thinking permeated beyond Bush? Yes, it goes beyond new conservatism. There are many countries that have a so-called victim mentality that creates irrational reactions. Usually, these are relatively small countries that have indeed been victims of history, such as Poland, but the effects are mitigated in smaller countries because they are weak. With 911, there was a victim mentality in this war against terrorism among many Americans - Democrats and Republicans alike. It turned into "we have to kill them all" although it was unclear who "them" was. In this way, for some people "policy became a continuation of war by other means," the reverse of what Clausewitz said, and there was very little strategic thinking and just a desire to strike back. In that sense, 911 had a strong, though irrational, psychological impact on the U.S.

Q: It has come to light that the Bush administration wanted war with Iraq even before 911 and I am certainly surprised that you did not mention the oil factor.

A: From the data, it seems obvious that some in the Bush administration wanted war with Iraq before 911, but 911 lowered the threshold of expected opposition. Without 911, Bush could not have convinced Congress and the public that war in Iraq was desirable.

The oil aspect is interesting because rationally it does not make sense. Who owns the oil is irrelevant to the U.S. Also, for countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia in which oil is the only resource for their economy, they have to sell it regardless of the buyer. I do not think that the oil industry was involved in it because the large oil companies can do business with everybody, everywhere, in every political and social situation.

There was a concern among some of the neoconservative thinkers that the U.S. needed to make Iraq into an ally to have one country on which it could rely in the Middle East, what with suspicions about Saudi Arabia and Iran. It was not about ownership of oil but a question of American influence over the Gulf area where most of the oil is located.

It may be too early to know exactly who wanted war and why. Its Trotskyite roots mean that neoconservatism is not an orthodox movement in the sense that there is only one line of thought. Many different ideas pervade and there is factional fighting. Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and Libby do not all think along the same lines. There were many reasons for them for the war. For some it was the Iran-Iraq-Saudi equation, a way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem or a concern about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), others believed it was spreading democracy or felt they had to finish off Saddam. It is difficult to know.

Q: Among the Democratic administration - Nye, Gore and others - soft power is coming through as a common idea. What do you think is the current administration's take on soft power and its effectiveness? Do they have a different version?

A: They very much believe in the power of ideology and spreading democracy, which is not unique to the present. However, I would argue that democracy is not the issue. When Americans talk about democracy, they really talk about freedom - voting, speech, religion, property rights, ownership of guns, etc - but freedom and democracy are very different. You can have a free society without democracy, such as Hong Kong. Conversely, you can have democracy without freedom. If 51% of the population votes to kill the other 49%, that is democracy - but that is not freedom. Historically, in countries that have successfully become liberal democracies, freedom came first, for instance, in postwar Japan and England. The idea of spreading democracy in countries like Iraq makes no sense because you have to first build the rule of law and personal freedom which might take centuries.

In that sense, the Bush administration believes in soft power in that they think they can spread democracy very rapidly to countries like Iraq with no history of liberal democracy. How? They made an effort at one point hiring an advertising executive to sell America. However, they have given less thought and interest to such things as the core intellectual soft power.

Q: I have observed that the current Republican administration wants soft power but does not control the mediums of soft power which would be useful overseas, such as universities or Hollywood, which tend to lean toward the Democratic side.

Q: You presented two conflicting postures of the U.S. as a country - exceptionalism and universalism versus imperialism-which are part of the agenda, regardless of the administration's orientation. Do you think this exceptionalistic attitude would undermine or reinforce America's imperial status? Also, although I agree that there is no immediate institutionalized challenger in the international field, there is an invisible/intangible network challenging U.S. supreme governance, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose impact should not be underestimated.

A: American exceptionalism, best explained in Lipset's book, is both an obvious strength and a weakness. It has allowed the U.S. to undertake ambitious tasks, such as the Marshall Plan, that no other nation would have conceived of. Yet, it conflicts with the need to operate in an international system based on sovereign states because it implies a certain degree of unilateralism. It becomes the task of other countries to deal with this exceptionalistic streak of the U.S. and convert it for use for positive purposes.

I think those opposed to the Iraq war did not understand that. Such anti-U.S. groups have only destructive power and no constructive power because they have no economic nor military resources to create a new international world system. The task then becomes to defeat them, but you can never win in the fight. Like crime, they can only be brought under some degree of control where you can live with it. For me, terror (artillery) is a means to implement a certain policy but is not an enemy per se.

In dealing with such groups, you have to carefully consider who the enemy is and who potential allies, however unpleasant, are. For example, the U.S. during the Cold War formed a de facto alliance with China, despite Mao's Cultural Revolution. The fight against al-Qaida will also take a lot of international effort, but the advantage is that since they do not have territorial control or vast economic resources, they cannot inflict a lot of damage.

Q: While the Alliance was an institutionalized organization with opportunities to coordinate common interests, how would it be possible to adjust mutual interests should the U.S. continue to use the coalition of the willing as a means to solve global issues?

A: To some extent the coalition of the willing has always existed. Even in NATO during the Cold War, it was well understood that some countries would not contribute troops. What is important is to have worked with your partners for years before, so that when you start a war, you know how to work together. Integrating interests is always the challenge because you need to compromise and sacrifice time to reach an effective consensus. The rearmament of former West Germany was finally agreed upon after years of back and forth among the European defense community. The way the allies can ensure that their voices are taken seriously is to make substantial contributions. It is just like in business.

Q: Do you reject the notion that a small group like al-Qaida could, through access to a weapon of mass destruction, inflict a great deal of damage?

A: It depends how you define a great deal. The damage would be great but not lethal on the level of an attack by the Soviet Union or a victorious Nazi Germany. If al-Qaida exploded an atomic bomb in the U.S., it would kill millions of Americans but the U.S. would continue to exist because countries can sustain such losses. People overestimate the casualties of a nuclear attack, but it depends on the deployment location and design.

Q: What about destroying New York and Washington, the two centers of economic and political power?

A: It would be traumatic, but you have to recognize that not all economic activity centers on Manhattan. Most organizations have backup systems so that records would survive. I would be more afraid of reaction in the U.S., such as racially-instigated arrests.

Q: Could you briefly comment on the Japanese role in this Empire?

A: Japan's role is very important because it is one of the largest economies in the Empire, and also militarily it houses critical infrastructure for potential conflict and contributes to peacekeeping operations, thus increasing legitimacy. The U.S. presence in East Asia has made it easier for Japan to reestablish good relations with the rest of Asia, such as with Korea, and having good relations among the allies has a positive impact on the U.S. Empire. It is because Japan is a pillar of U.S. relations in Asia that the U.S. has managed to become an Empire stretching over the Atlantic as well as the Pacific.

Q: How do you view the situation of the Empire once China becomes much bigger?

A: There is a lot of talk about China and it becoming a democracy, but I do not think that China is on the path to becoming a great power. It is still not a state based on the rule of law in terms of property rights and a non-corrupt bureaucracy. It is undergoing transition but faces enormous social and political obstacles to its stability aggravated by the country's size. Furthermore, it faces a catastrophic demographic situation of growing old before becoming rich, compared to other industrialized nations. It will remain significant in the world economy and the manufacturing industry, but I do not think it will surpass Japan. The obstacles to building a country based on the rule of law are too great, so I think the equation in East Asia will not change greatly in 30 years.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.