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America's Imperial Instinct

8 April 2002

Ever since communism collapsed, the notion has been put about in Washington that the United States should exercise its unrivaled power as an empire.

This is held to be the way to bring stability to international society and solve the problems of terrorism, rogue nations, weapons of mass destruction, and so forth.

We are told by a writer in Washington at the Weekly Standard that troubled lands ''cry out for enlightened foreign administration.''

To some in Washington, empire seems a career opportunity. To the ordinary American, I suspect, it simply looks like trouble.

Military ''empire'' the United States already has. In the narrow military dimension, the United States dominates the world.

On the other hand, this is not readily translated into political power. The Bush administration has until now been unable to do anything about the war in the Middle East, despite the fact that the Middle East is where the United States identifies two of its most important national interests: a strategic interest in oil and political interest in the security of Israel.

The administration has failed to assure either interest, not because military resources are lacking, but because of the political obstacles to action, both external and domestic. It has let an unchecked Israeli-Palestinian war do immense damage to the overall American position in the Middle East and cause much harm elsewhere.

The ''imperial'' solution would have been to dictate terms of a political settlement and enforce them, with military power if necessary, against one side or the other - or, if necessary, against both sides.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region this week does not promise an imperial solution. It promises ultimately unsuccessful efforts to get another cease-fire and to start negotiations anew, on terms that will fail.

Afghanistan is slipping backward because of Washington's reluctance to assume an ''imperial'' role there, assuming that the foreign and domestic political costs would be too high.

Advocates of American empire are usually seduced by the notion that Washington's imperial authority would be accepted as positive, and that the empire would therefore be consensual.

This idea rests on the uninformed assumption that the United States is generally seen abroad as a benevolent or ''righteous'' nation, offering others readily recognized benefits of democracy, globalized trade and industry, and human rights - that, as Bush put it, they know out there ''how good we are.''

Powell should explain to the president, and to others in Washington who share that view, that even in allied Europe, disposed for more than 50 years to think well of the United States, Washington's exercise of power is now seen as a serious international problem.

American unilateralism, which mostly used to be a containable matter of congressional egos and petulance, has now been turned into a foreign policy by the Bush administration.

This undermines the fragile structure of international law and convention built up during the last three centuries, to which the United States has made important contributions.

International law, since the 17th century, has rested on two principles: national sovereignty and the legal equality of nations, both of which Washington ignores whenever convenient.

American political, economic, and cultural influence is not generally stabilizing. It uproots stable structures, for good or for ill. It means to do so. The Bush administration is a crusading government. The purpose of American economic policy and trade pressure is to destroy national regulation and make radical changes in how other economies function.

There seem to be many in the Bush administration who are convinced that military force used with sufficient ruthlessness can impose desirable political solutions. They think that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been doing a good job.

Brute force can solve political problems, but it usually creates others. A solution for Israel's problem would be to drive all of the Palestinians out of Gaza and the Palestinian territories into neighboring countries. One nonetheless doubts that is the road to lasting peace in the Middle East.

The statesman Edmund Burke once remarked that no greater calamity can befall a nation than to break with its past. The American past has been the rule of law, constitutional order, a free press, suspicion of power politics, avoidance of foreign entanglements, and even, hard as it may be to believe today, hostility to standing armies.

The country's one adventure into imperialism, in 1898, proved not very satisfactory, and 18 years after fighting a war to acquire the Philippines, Congress promised the islands independence.

The Cold War broke America from that past. For a long time, one could think that when the Cold War ended the United States would return to its better past. It hasn't happened.

The proposals for empire offered today are not intellectually serious, but they are significant. The American political class and bureaucracy have become addicted to international power. They want more. The question is whether the people will follow.

William Pfaff
Published in the Boston Globe © 2002 Globe Newspaper Company

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