America's Inadvertent Empireby William E. Odom
The United States finds itself at the center of a historically unparalleled empire, one that is wealth-generating and voluntary rather than imperialistic, say the authors of this compelling book. William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric examine America’s unprecedented power within the international arenas of politics, economics, demographics, education, science,
The United States finds itself at the center of a historically unparalleled empire, one that is wealth-generating and voluntary rather than imperialistic, say the authors of this compelling book. William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric examine America’s unprecedented power within the international arenas of politics, economics, demographics, education, science, and culture. They argue persuasively that the major threat to this unique empire is ineffective U.S. leadership, not a rising rival power center.
America cannot simply behave as an ordinary sovereign state, Odom and Dujarric contend. They describe the responsibilities that accompany staggering power advantages and explain that resorting to unilateralism makes sense only when it becomes necessary to overcome paralysis in multilateral organizations. The authors also offer insights into the importance of liberal international institutions as a source of power, why international cooperation pays, and why spreading democracy often inhibits the spread of constitutional order. If the United States uses its own power constructively, the authors conclude, the American empire will flourish for a long time.
The most important warning the authors offer is that, because of poor leadership (they point to examples in both the Clinton and Bush administrations), the United States could adopt bad policies that cause others to band together against its power. This claim seems a little inconsistent; surely a society as well ordered as the liberal one they describe would do a reasonably decent job of choosing national leaders. In any case, the authors leave themselves a realistic if inelegant escape hatch: Bush's unilateral, confrontational policies are dangerous and poorly conceived unless they turn out well.
“At a time when explications of American strengths are often dismissed as ethnocentric and ‘triumphalist,’ this provocative book needs and deserves to be taken very seriously, even—or especially—by those who disagree. It is a valuable contribution to the public dialogue.”—Robert Jervis, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University
“This book will be a significant intellectual marker in the ongoing debate about American national strategy in the post–Cold War era. Odom and Dujarric make a persuasive case that American primacy will last a long time.”—Stephen Peter Rosen, Olin Institute of Strategic Studies, Harvard University
“America’s Inadvertent Empire should help American decision makers to better understand the origin and growth of the assets they are privileged to manage and the tragedies for our country that could come from bad decisions based on inadequate comprehension.”—Senator Richard Lugar, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman
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America's Inadvertent Empire
By William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Sources of American Power
When one thinks of the sources of a state's power, land, natural resources, population, and favorable climate come to mind. These qualities are important indeed, but alone they do not explain why the United States is so powerful. Several other countries have large land areas, vast natural resources, large populations, and reasonably favorable climates but have failed to convert them into great power.
Why, then, has the United States been staggeringly more successful at converting these resources into unprecedented wealth and power? The answer is Liberal institutions. Many Americans instinctively know this, but very few understand precisely why it is true.
by institutions, we do not mean organizations. Institutions are patterns, rules, and practices most often manifest in organizations-political, social, and economic-but not limited to them. They also include ideologies, which are made up of beliefs-religious, moral, and cultural-that individuals use to explain and rationalize the world around them.
Two propositions are critical to understanding the sources and distinctive nature of American power. Both are at odds with authoritative wisdom today. Together, they support a third proposition about the durability of American hegemony.
First, countries without Liberal political systems are unlikely to generate them quickly, and most will fail in the effort. While transitions to democracy have come in impressive waves, transitions to regimes with Liberal institutions have been remarkably few. There is little reason, therefore, to expect that the number will increase very much over the next several decades.
Second, for a country to become economically powerful and remain so more than temporarily, it must have Liberal political and economic institutions. The few apparent exceptions-authoritarian oil-wealthy countries, for example-depend on steady interaction with wealthy Liberal states to provide important innovations and new technology necessary to sustain their modernization. Or they have been short-lived, like such totalitarian countries as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Cut off from the West, their modernity will become obsolete.
Third, in light of the first two propositions, the distribution of power in the world will not change markedly in the next several decades. The countries that are succeeding economically will continue to do so, while those countries with poor economic performance will continue to remain poor.
These assertions mean that China, Russia, India, or any other potentially large power simply cannot thrive without adopting Liberal institutions. That is, they will have to achieve constitutional breakthroughs and sustain them indefinitely. They may modernize, building considerable industrial power, but they cannot innovate effectively to sustain their modernization except by continuing to be closely linked with the United States and other Liberal countries. In other words, while Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis is highly compelling in some regards, it fails to convince us that non-Western civilizations can sustain their modernization and also clash with the West. They may indeed clash, but that will cost them lots of cash, while preventing them from remaining modern by borrowing.
Huntington is right that these states have little chance of Westernizing. They may have "democratic breakthroughs," but Westernizing requires "constitutional breakthroughs." Moreover, democracy without a durable constitutional order may well prevent achieving that order.
To make these claims compelling, we must first decouple two concepts that have been conflated in the American public mind-Liberalism and democracy. The two have always been in tension in the United States, and to good advantage, but the original idea of Liberalism has been transmuted, distorted, and pushed out of our public consciousness, leaving us unable to recognize the most important source of our power. Not only is a grasp of the original concept essential for understanding American power, but it also allows one to appreciate why a constitutional order is so difficult to establish and why democracy is as likely to obstruct a constitutional breakthrough as to facilitate it.
With that done, we must turn to the connection between political institutions and economic performance. Here again, category confusion makes it difficult for public discourse to avoid misleading conclusions. As we shall try to show, debating whether or not democracy promotes economic growth is asking the wrong question. Similarly, to argue that capitalist economies do not need powerful state institutions, as businessmen's political parties normally do, is to misunderstand what makes markets work effectively. The popular misconception that state direction of the economy can produce both sustained economic growth and great social equity has suffered setbacks with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the equally popular misconception that market economies do not require state rule enforcement still enjoys a following.
To make this economic case, we will elaborate what seems to be an emerging understanding of how political institutions affect economic performance. We must also explore why countries find it so difficult to change their institutions, even when they recognize that those institutions are keeping them poor and weak.
The resulting picture should make clear why the United States in particular and countries with Liberal institutions in general are far more successful than other countries in converting land, labor, and capital into economic, political, military, scientific, and cultural power. It also provides the concepts and ideas for the arguments in the rest of the book.
Liberalism Versus Democracy
When Americans speak of democracy, they normally mean liberal democracy. Democracy is not the first idea, or even the most basic one, in American institutions. Liberalism is. This is not the welfare transfer payments of the New Deal and the Great Society or Norman Thomas's version of socialism. It is the proposition that individuals have rights, which no state can justly abridge. Samuel Huntington has put it most succinctly: "The essence of Western culture is the Magna Carta." By signing this document in 1215, King John agreed to a list of rights for his nobles which he swore not to violate, establishing a precedent that would become central to English and American political thought. (It is seldom remembered, however, that King John sought and received the pope's approval for breaking his oath within a couple of months after signing the document. No English king thereafter agreed fully to such limits until the late seventeenth century.) In his history of European Liberalism, Guido de Ruggiero similarly traces its origins to the Middle Ages, "the period of the exclusive dominion of private rights. There are no such things as independent public rights" in a feudal regime. Liberalism also has religious roots. "Liberty is consciousness of one-self, of one's own infinite spiritual value; and the same recognition in the case of other people naturally follows from this immediate revelation." Such revelation requires the kind of "free examination" insisted on by Calvin and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation that made it "the source not only of religious liberty but of all modern liberalism," opening the door to rapid advances in science and technology. Thus the political relation between the state and the individual in Liberal countries in modern Europe is the reestablishment, albeit in different specificities, of the contractual nature of that relation in the feudal state: limits and rights, obligations and liberties, for both.
How does this European experience relate to the United States? The American pattern of highly diffused political power to state and local governments descends from feudal Europe, not modern Europe. The U.S. federal system began with a very weak center characteristic of feudal monarchies. It never went through the centralizing absolutism that characterized the Europe of Louis XIV in France and Frederick the Great in Prussia. The makers of the American Revolution did not seek the abolition of the ancien régime, as did those who made the French Revolution. They defended the institutions of the ancien régime in reaction to King George III's abuse of traditional English institutions.
Accordingly, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution did not set out to create a democracy. Most of them saw democracy as a danger to the very liberties they sought to ensure. Instead, they focused on how to limit the state, how to bind it so that it cannot abridge individual liberties. To do that, they had to take away the ruler's right to make a number of decisions, and that required them to find other ways to make these decisions. For example, who will be the ruler? And who will decide the laws by which he will rule? Establishing voting procedures for a limited set of citizens was the answer, as it was in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and as it is everywhere that truly Liberal regimes have been established. When power passes from "the one" to "the few," voting becomes imperative as a decision-making procedure. It becomes a democratic procedure when voting is by "the many." Only about one-half of U.S. male adults could vote before the Civil War, and universal suffrage came only in 1920. Although federal law gave voting rights to African-Americans after the Civil War, in practice such rights were uncertain to nonexistent in the South until the 1960s.
The Declaration of Independence, in underscoring "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," declared that citizens have political and economic freedoms-safety for one's life, the right to own property, and the right to pursue economic well-being through use of private property and one's labor. It says nothing about majority rule, and certainly nothing about democracy. Rather it asserts individual rights vis-à-vis the state.
The American founding fathers did not relegate democracy to a status below Liberalism only because they were concerned with limiting state power. Most of them were deeply distrustful of democracy, a disposition that the first decades of the new republic's political experience periodically vindicated. The founders established a restricted franchise to limit the potential mischief that illiberal majorities could make, but that is often forgotten today. Americans are keenly aware of their rights but associate them with democracy, not with Liberalism. Perhaps understandably, because "wherever one finds liberalism, ... it is almost invariably coupled with democracy. ... The converse proposition, however, has become less and less true." This fact inspired one observer, Fareed Zakaria, to make the point more strongly, warning of the spread of "illiberal democracy" in today's world.
Implicit here is an important proposition: while Liberal regimes inexorably become democratic, repeated and regular elections in illiberal democracies do not inexorably make them Liberal. In fact, it is difficult to find examples of their ever having done so. More than a decade of voting in Russia has not; nor have five decades of voting in India. A century and a half of voting in numerous regimes in South America has yet to produce a consistently Liberal polity there. The story is much the same outside of Europe and a few countries in northeast Asia. Belatedly this point is gaining some scholarly attention.
Private property clearly must enjoy first place among the individual liberties. This is true because private ownership of land and capital diffuses power. A number of countries in the world today-most former Soviet republics and many in Africa and South America, for example-guarantee the rights of free speech, free assembly, and due process in law in written constitutions, but their citizens cannot exercise them because they do not have the means to influence legislation and to curb state officials who obstruct their exercise of such rights. Citizens may freely vote for a parliament, but without the power that private property conveys, they can neither effectively influence the legislative process to ensure outcomes in line with their rights nor compel the executive authorities to act within the laws. Holding property, they may choose not to influence policy making, but without property they cannot choose to influence it. Where property rights are unstable or ownership is highly concentrated, other rights are in danger. As King John's barons knew in 1215, and as English parliaments remembered in the 1600s, if the king owns most of the property, tyranny is inevitable. The right to private property, therefore, is a precondition for other liberties.
Admittedly, private property begets great inequities in the distribution of wealth, but where property rights have been stable and wealth sufficiently diffused to prevent outright monopoly, other civil liberties have become a reality for increasing numbers of citizens. Where private ownership is not widespread and property rights are not ensured by the state, civil liberties have been more an aspiration than a reality, even in regimes with procedural democracy.
Proponents of the contemporary welfare liberalism may not agree. Socialists certainly will not, be they Marxist, national, utopian, Fabian, or some other type. Nothing in the experience of the Soviet Union or any other socialist regime offers evidence to support the view that state ownership of most of the economy can coexist with constitutionally governed politics. Likewise, nothing in the performance of socialist economies suggests that they improve the overall welfare of their societies, although they have achieved greater equality of income, normally at impoverished levels compared with effective market economies. Ironically, all of the socialist parties that have come to power in Europe have ruled over market economies with private-property, not socialist, economies. And where state ownership of large parts of the economy has been tried-in Britain after World War II, for example-the result has been declining performance.
This is not to dismiss the issues of social and economic inequities that characterize Liberal regimes. Charles Dickens provided an accurate picture of industrializing England, and many of the charges by American labor leaders against business practices have been well founded. The argument here is different. Liberties survived in England and the United States. Where the right of private property has not been ensured, liberty has never existed, as in Imperial Russia and China, or has perished, as in Nazi Germany and the communist states of Eastern Europe.
Excerpted from America's Inadvertent Empire by William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric Copyright © 2004 by William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (retired, U.S. Army) is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and professor (adjunct) at Yale University. Former director of the National Security Agency (19851988), he is also the author of The Collapse of the Soviet Military and Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America, both available in paperback from Yale University Press. Robert Dujarric is a Council on Foreign Relations Hitachi Fellow and a Senior Associate with the National Institute for Public Policy.
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