To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, all the arguments attempting to prove that America’s “full-spectrum domination” of world power is just like every other empire, that current economic policies are really re-named colonial policies in which the rich ruthless exploit the poor, that the apparent reticence in the use of force actually hides equally brutal use of force, that capitalism is another form of slavery, that the relative lack of great crimes conceals the greatest of crimes – the fact that people must labor to convince others of these points demonstrates their lack of verisimilitude. It is because these contentions are not self-evidently true that we must be convinced of them.
It is not that I believe that America’s role in the world in inherently exceptional or inherently good. It is that, on balance, I tend to believe that America has pushed the world order in a positive direction. The end of Europe’s colonial empires was pushed by and managed by America at the end of World War II. It was America that restrained Europe’s colonial ambitions in Latin America until the 20th century. It was America that restrained the growing Soviet empire. It was America that pushed for an international order that judges regimes based on how they value the human rights of their citizens. It was America that pushed for the founding of an international deliberative body to maintain a world peace. Through all of this, America has often fallen short of the values it has pushed the rest of the world to accept – often for momentary tactical or strategic gains in whatever conflict was current. But it has progressively changed the world order to accept these values – and has found itself restrained by and sometimes bound by these values.
To some extent, America was merely at the forefront of pushing structural changes in the world order that were already occuring. After World War II, Europe could no longer afford to maintain their colonial empires, for example. In an age of nuclear weaponry, the nature of war changed. With the technology of destruction increasing and the nature of the state changing, victory in war became harder to achieve. With the increasing availability of worldwide communications, internal actions of states increasingly came under international scrutiny. In each of these areas, America was at the forefront of pushing these technological or even political changes.
Les Gelb in his most recent book asks what other empire would have restrained itself from invading Cuba as America did. He points to all the elaborate steps initiated to take down Castro – especially by the Kennedys – but asks what restrained America from acting – and still does, almost 50 years later. America had and has the power to take out this belligerent nation just 90 miles off its shore. But it has chosen to limit what options it was willing to use to accomplish this. The way in which Russia invaded Georgia last year only demonstrates the uniqueness of America’s response, even today.
In terms of judging America’s historical acts, I think it makes sense to consider something Henry David Thoreau wrote, that:
A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance.
The same is true of the men and women who lead nations.
Finally – it is my impression that among those who criticize American empire most stridently, they fault the United States for all of the faults in the global status quo of which America is the protector and credit it with none or few of the praiseworthy aspects. Thus America is blamed for the millions in poverty in capitalist nations – but not credited with the millions brought up from poverty by this same system. Thus America is blamed for the dictatorships it supports but rarely credited with the democracies.
America’s power in the world is significant – and it is the main force that maintains the status quo. But what is the better option? To become a revolutionary power? I’ve generally found it difficult to understand what those who denounce American empire propose as an alternative.
Responses are welcome.
[Image by Macsoundhine licensed under Creative Commons.]