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America has become not only the strongest nation in the world but the strongest nation in the history of the world. Americans need to understand both why this has happened and what their responsibilities are as the world's dominant power. In this timely and telling book, Jim Garrison, president of the San Francisco-based State of the World Forum, argues that the preoccupation with military expansion is a fatal mistake, citing both FDR and Harry Truman as models for combining military power with institution ...
America has become not only the strongest nation in the world but the strongest nation in the history of the world. Americans need to understand both why this has happened and what their responsibilities are as the world's dominant power. In this timely and telling book, Jim Garrison, president of the San Francisco-based State of the World Forum, argues that the preoccupation with military expansion is a fatal mistake, citing both FDR and Harry Truman as models for combining military power with institution building. Part of the book is devoted to the Roman empire as another important model, with cautionary lessons about incorporating fairness and respect for other cultures into the governing process. Rome's empire endured for 1,000 years; America's may end far sooner, says Garrison, unless it finds a way to balance might with right. This book provides a blueprint for that balance.
The United States has become what it was founded not to be. Established as a haven for those fleeing the abuse of power, it has attained and now wields nearly absolute power. It has become an empire. This is meant as a statement of fact, not a judgment of national character. It is a way of understanding America, not an indictment against American policy. Indeed, by opening up the possibility of viewing the United States as an empire, one opens up a far larger frame of reference to understand America's history, role in the world, and future responsibilities.
What Is an Empire? According to the Oxford Dictionary, an empire is "a group of countries ruled by a single supreme authority." The word itself comes from the old French word empire, meaning imperial rule. It is derived from the Latin term imperium, meaning to rule, to command. The historian Alexander Motyl defines empire as "a hierarchically organized political system with a hublike structure—a rimless wheel—within which a core elite and state dominate peripheral elites and societies by serving as intermediaries for their significant interactions and by channeling resource flows from the periphery to the core and back to the periphery." The historian Michael Doyle provides a more behavioristic definition: "Effective control, whether formal or informal, of a subordinated society by an imperial society."
Empires are thus relationships of influence and control by one state over a group of lesser states. This can take a variety of forms, ranging from territorial annexation and direct political rule to economic domination and diplomatic oversight. Empires are as old as history itself and characterize the earliest stages of human development. For reasons deeply buried in the human psyche and soul, human beings have always competed against one another, and the victors have invariably established dominion over the vanquished and exploited that relationship to their own benefit. Almost all peoples on earth have at some point expanded and conquered or contracted and been conquered—often many times over and in a variety of combinations.
Of all governing institutions, empires are the most complex and extensive. Empire stands at the apex of the social, economic, and political pyramid, integrating all the peoples, nations, and institutions within it into a unified order. An empire well run is the greatest accolade a nation can receive. An empire squandered is the most damning legacy it can leave behind.
From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the Fall of the Twin Towers Policy analyst Michael Ignatieff states in his article "American Empire" in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that the United States "is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires."
Surprisingly, the inordinate and unique power of the United States was not immediately recognized when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union disintegrated. While a few observers recognized that America had entered what columnist Charles Krauthammer called a unipolar moment, most commentators predicted that the demise of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War would lead to a return to the age-old balance of powers.
Such a view was completely understandable. The last fifteen hundred years of European history have been essentially multipolar. The major European powers incessantly competed against one another without any single power ever gaining undue advantage, whether during the medieval era of city-states or the modern era of nation-states. Even Britain at its prime during the nineteenth century was constrained by France, Russia, Spain, and Germany. During the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, which marked the apex of British imperial power, Britain had to fight seventy-two separate military campaigns to keep its rivals at bay and its colonial holdings intact. The very notion of realpolitik is predicated upon the assumption of a balance of power between major states.
That the United States broke out of this multipolar framework to attain unipolar global dominance is an extraordinary achievement in the annals of history, not attained by any power since Rome two thousand years ago. Because the world had gotten so used to thinking in multilateral and multipolar terms, it took some time for the novelty of the historical situation to sink in.
In his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published in 1988, Yale historian Paul Kennedy went so far as to predict the relative decline of the United States due to "imperial overstretch." Talk of American weakness dominated the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, with the ultimate victor, Bill Clinton, focusing on fixing the ailing American economy while his rival for the Democratic nomination, Paul Tsongas, repeatedly declared, "The Cold War is over and Japan won."
Margaret Thatcher expressed the commonly held view that the world would evolve into three regional groups: one based on the dollar, one on the mark, one on the yen. Henry Kissinger solemnly predicted the emergence of a multipolar world. Asians, along with some American Asian enthusiasts such as James Fallows, spoke exuberantly of the rise of a "Pacific century."
The Clinton administration (1993 to 2001) was essentially a transitional period when the United States was emerging as what French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine called a "hyperpower," but was still essentially multilateralist and collaborative in its mentality and behavior. The title of Richard Haass's book, The Reluctant Sheriff, published in 1998, summarized in advance the legacy Clinton was to leave behind. Clinton's main focus was the integration of the global economy under American hegemony, but he seldom used the power America had at its disposal, seeking rather to work collegially with American allies on issues of common concern.
While believing that the United States was the "indispensable power," as then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was fond of putting it, Clinton exercised this indispensability with discretion. He initiated limited military actions against Iraq and the Sudan and led the European coalition in Kosovo, but by and large he remained committed to multilateralism and to upholding the international treaties negotiated by his predecessors. These included the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, signed by Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, to limit America's nuclear capabilities. Clinton also negotiated and signed the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming that would constrain the emission of hydrofluorocarbons into the atmosphere. All these treaties framed U.S. strategic interests in the context of collective security considerations.
In general, the 1990s were marked by a strong commitment to international law, working within the context of the U.N. system, and upholding preexistent treaty obligations. America was certainly the senior partner in all deliberations but the emphasis by Americans and the larger world community was on the importance of partnership as much as on American seniority.
Then came the events of September 11, 2001. The response by the new Bush administration dramatically altered the former equilibrium by heightening asymmetries already there but unobserved because unexercised. Right at the point it was emerging as the undisputed superpower, the United States was attacked unexpectedly and with devastating impact by nonstate actors virtually invisible to the American intelligence apparatus. In one of the strangest incidents of modern history, a nation that thought itself invulnerable was made, without warning, completely vulnerable. Its response was to strike back with an overwhelming application of military power in Afghanistan and Iraq, making it clear to friend and foe alike that there is one undisputed military power in the world: the United States of America.
Since September 11, the United States has emphasized national security concerns and preemptive military responses in a war on terrorism that President Bush declared the highest priority for American domestic and foreign policy. Multilateralism, where the coalition defines the mission, has been replaced by unilateralism, where the mission defines the coalition. Deterrence, where there is an assumed balance of power, has been superceded by preemptive strikes, where the United States hits first against potential adversaries.
The Invasion of Iraq The events of 9/11 reframed global affairs within the context of national security and the war on terrorism. The invasion of Iraq reframed global affairs yet again within the reality of overwhelming American military might. What is extraordinary is that the United States exercised its strength and global reach by seizing the most strategic area in the Middle East.
U.S. military forces now occupy the area along the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. This is where the Neolithic revolution and the domestication of plants and animals began ten thousand years ago. This is where the first human civilization at Sumer, in the environs of present-day Baghdad, developed six thousand years ago, and where the first empire under Sargon the Great, also around Baghdad, held sway five thousand years ago. This is where Abraham was born. It is where, closely to the west, Judaism and Christianity had their origins, with Islam originating just to the south. Zoroastrianism and Baha'i arose to the east. The Tigris-Euphrates river basin is the cradle of Arab civilization and the site of the early Muslim Abbassid dynasty. The armies of Alexander the Great marched here, as did the Roman legions and the hordes of Genghis Khan.
There is no place in the entire world more steeped in history, more complex in its politics, more charged in its religious fervor than the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. For the United States to take control of this region at America's moment of vulnerability and power is utterly profound. America reacted to a blow and demonstrated world dominion by seizing the most sacred and fought over soil in the history of the world.
What disturbed the world most about the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the manner in which it was done. There was none of the finesse with which President Bush, Sr., had mobilized an international coalition and utilized the resources and legitimacy of the United Nations during the earlier Iraqi operation, Desert Storm, in 1991. Instead, George W. Bush went into Iraq belligerently, threatening and then marginalizing the United Nations, invading essentially alone with the British, despite widespread international public opposition.
The vindictive and highly militarized response by President Bush to 9/11 provided the world with an experience of America that was aggressive, ruthless, cynical, and dogmatic. In his book Special Providence, policy analyst Walter Russell Mead calls this the "Jacksonian" tradition of American history, named after President Andrew Jackson, whose administration was characterized by fighting the Indians and taming the West during the 1830s. It was a time when the world was cast in black and white and the aim was to defeat the enemy without mercy, giving no quarter. The Jacksonian tradition is one of "us against them," and is infused by patriotic fervor, a culture of honor, and military pride.
Mead also notes other traditions: the "Hamiltonian," named after Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. secretary of the treasury, representing the American interest in developing commerce and trade; the "Jeffersonian," named after President Thomas Jefferson, deeply concerned with protecting democracy and human rights; and the "Wilsonian," named after President Woodrow Wilson, heralding world-changing political ideals. All of these traditions conjoin to produce the totality of the American political expression, in terms of both its domestic and its foreign policy.
Prior to 9/11, the United States was in a classic Hamiltonian phase. President Clinton focused his entire administration on the economy: balancing the budget, eliminating the deficit, forging free trade agreements, and presiding over robust economic growth. The U.S. economy was better tended during his watch than perhaps at any time in modern American history, even considering the collapse of the high-technology economy and the stock market at the end of his administration in 2000. Americans were generally positive about the world, optimistic about the future and content with the multilateral framework of international relations in which America operated.
In the aftermath of 9/11, America experienced a fundamental reversal of emotions and perceptions. Almost overnight, the Jacksoninan impulse gripped the president, and under his leadership, the American public. What had been a world-centric orientation was radically replaced by nation-centric tribalism. Multilateralism was replaced by unilateralism, global diplomacy by military force, and congeniality with confrontation.
While the starkness of this transformation startled the world, it was actually a very natural response. Under the impact of a trauma, psychologists have long observed that people and groups can experience a radical reversal of values. After major disasters such as earthquakes, floods, civil unrest, or wars, for instance, there is generally a heightened commitment to the community as well as excesses of looting. Normally law-abiding citizens are capable of extraordinary acts of sacrifice and heroism as well as egregious acts of lawlessness. There is something about experiencing trauma, especially among large numbers of people, which activates our altruistic as well as our aggressive impulses.
Both heroism and widespread looting took place in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It also occurred in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake south of San Francisco in 1989, and in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994. It is also a pattern found in antiquity, and was chronicled by the historian Thucydides in Athens after a major outbreak of plague during the fourth century B.C.
If one considers the magnitude of the trauma inflicted on the American psyche by the attack of 9/11, coupled with the fact that it was in its essence a military attack against the United States, it is both normal and predictable that the initial response was to come together with a heightened sense of community as well as to respond with belligerence. There were acts of heroism by the police and firefighters at the World Trade Center. There was also some looting. Patriotic fervor soared across America and the nation came together in mutual support and solidarity not seen since the Second World War. This communal feeling coalesced around healing the nation, rebuilding New York, and getting back at the perpetrators. An overwhelming number of Americans felt the need to come together as a nation and to strike back. President Bush molded this emotion with his declaration of a war against terrorism.
The United States then proceeded to break out of the norms of international law and procedures and conduct its own retribution. President Bush often referred to himself as a sheriff heading up a posse. At some level, it felt good for Americans to brush the United Nations aside and go into the Arab world and "kick ass."
In this sense, Saddam Hussein was the occasion, not the reason for the invasion of Iraq. This point was noted by Thomas Friedman in his column in the New York Times. He observed that the attack of September 11 was the "real reason" the United States invaded. As Friedman put it, removing the Taliban from Afghanistan was not enough. America needed to go out into the Arab world and clobber somebody else, and Saddam was it. "Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was right in the heart of that world." All other reasons were of secondary importance, including the issue of weapons of mass destruction and the alleged link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
Excerpted from AMERICA AS EMPIRE by Jim Garrison Copyright © 2004 by Jim Garrison. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 1, 2007
Posted April 13, 2004
Garrison covers a lot of history about empires and gives an important view of the real US history of invading other countries not so much to help them but to protect or further US business interests. The current situation of the US being the world's leading military and economic power gives us an opportunity to be the last and best Empire, by opening doors to work with as many other countries as possible to face andsolve global problems. This of course faults the Bush policies, but he is only a glaring example of the selfish and ultimately doomed policies that have too often been at work. Yet there is room for hope as we learn from times like the Marshall Plan and find ways to work with all nations for a world that need not destroy the whole game in order to make a point.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.