Is There an American Empire?

by Michael Walzer


The war in Iraq has given new urgency to the debate about "American imperialism." In fact, there hasn't been anywhere near enough of a debate; the term is used routinely by critics of the war and routinely rejected by its supporters-though some of the supporters seem to believe if not in imperialism exactly, then certainly in empire. So, is Washington the new Rome? Is there an American Empire? Was Iraq an imperialist war? It seems to me that we need a better understanding of America's role in the world than this old terminology provides. Criticizing the uses of American power is now a central political task, so we had better recognize what is going on before our eyes.

Still, the easiest answer to my questions is, "Of course!" Hasn't the United States played the major role in constructing a global market? Don't we control its regulatory agencies-the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization? Aren't most countries around the world open to the profit-seeking of American corporations and entrepreneurs? But empire is a form of political domination, and it's not at all clear that market dominance and the extraction of profits require political domination. Perhaps they did in an earlier age-so the history of European empires and of the United States in Central America suggests. But the central claim of free marketeers today is that political domination isn't necessary, and this claim has been endorsed from the left by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their opaque but highly popular book Empire: "The guarantee that Empire offers to globalized capital does not involve a micropolitical and/or microadministrative management of populations. The apparatus of command has no access to the local spaces and the determinate temporal sequences of life where the administration functions; it does not manage to put its hands on the singularities and their activity." This is better understood in translation: "Empire" today does not mean anything like what we have always meant by empire. It occupies no lands; it has no center (not even in Washington); it doesn't depend on tightly controlled satellite governments; it is a postmodern entity.

Hardt and Negri's argument might be read as a (before the fact) response to people who claim that the Iraq War was a "war for oil." In reality, as the left has been saying for some time now, the control of natural resources does not require "access to local spaces" or the "microadministration" of territories and populations; it does not require colonies or satellites. The market operates to allow richer states to acquire and use the resources of poorer states-not independently of politics but without reliance on political domination. If it didn't do that, we would be much less critical of the market than we are.

Some contemporary Marxists argue that what we have today is "an informal imperialism of free trade (or an imperialism without colonies)." But this argument entails, as John Bellamy Foster makes clear in the May Monthly Review, a virtual identification of imperialism with capitalism: imperial power is simply "a manifestation of capitalist development in all its complexity . . ." Its political forms are only of "secondary" importance. That can't be right. If imperialism is nothing more than capitalism manifest and unfolded, if it has no independent and specifically political significance, then it isn't a useful term in political analysis. It can serve, of course, as a term of denunciation, but not of enlightenment. I shall assume that imperialism is a system of political rule-not necessarily direct rule, but rule in some strong sense: an imperial power gets what it wants from the governments it creates, or supports, or patronizes.

Is the United States politically dominant in this sense? We are militarily powerful, overwhelmingly so. The British navy at the height of the British Empire never came close to the firepower of the U.S. air force today; nor could it deliver that firepower as quickly or effectively around the world. It isn't clear, however, that firepower makes for imperial rule; even its more simple translation into regional alliances or local collaboration is problematic these days. Remember the old saying that you can do many things with a sword, but you can't sit on it. Modern military technology is no more comfortable. Despite the investment we have made in the most advanced weapons, the United States sometimes looks remarkably weak in the international arena, incapable of winning support for, let alone enforcing, our political policies-unless we go to war, which we can't do every time we are defied. This weakness was dramatically displayed in two events that took place just before the war with Iraq: first, the South Korean government refused to cooperate with U.S. policy toward North Korea; and then the Turkish government refused to open the way for an invasion of Iraq from its territory. Both of these were newly elected governments, chosen through the democratic procedures to which the United States is publicly committed, and we had no way to bend them to our will.

Equally noteworthy was the international opposition to the Iraq War. How can there be a global American Empire if it is also true, as we were rightly told in the left press, that the whole world was against us? It wasn't only the people in the streets who were against us, but most of the world's governments, including governments that are our clients and allies, provinces of our putative empire. If less than two years after 9/11, on the eve of a major war, we could not count on such states as Mexico and Chile-well, what kind of an empire is that? As I write today, the prospects of the United States imposing a regime of its choosing on Iraq don't look terribly good, and this after decisively winning an "imperialist" war!

"Empire" needs extensive qualification if it is to describe anything like what exists, or what is possible, in the world today. (Hence the appeal of terms such as Michael Ignatieff's "empire lite.") But perhaps there is a better way of thinking about contemporary global politics, drawing on the related idea of "hegemony." In common use today, "hegemonic" is simply a less vivid way of saying "imperialist," but it really points to something different: a looser form of rule, less authoritarian than empire is or was, more dependent on the agreement of others. Consider these words from Antonio Gramsci, the foremost theorist of hegemony-who wrote, however, in the context of domestic political struggles: "The fact of hegemony presupposes that one takes into account the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony will be exercised, and it also presupposes a certain equilibrium, that is to say that the hegemonic groups will make some sacrifices of a corporate nature."* Hegemony rests in part on force, but it rests also, even more so, on ideas and ideologies. If a ruling class has to rely on force alone, it has reached a point of crisis in its rule. If it is to avoid that crisis, it has to be prepared for compromise.

Exactly how this works in the international arena, how close a hegemonic state is to a ruling class: all this still has to be worked out. I don't have a theory, only the beginning of an argument. Nor do I mean to suggest that America's current rulers accept the need for "sacrifices of a corporate nature," even when they actually make them (as they did with the Turks). George W. Bush's unilateralism is a bid for hegemony without compromise; perhaps he sees America playing an imperial-perhaps also a messianic-role in the world. But unilateralism is not, so to speak, the natural mode of American power; since World War II we have played a major role in shaping international organizations; we have negotiated alliances; and we have generally been willing to consult with our allies in responding to critical events, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and in dealing with dangerous political or environmental tendencies, such as nuclear proliferation and global warming. The wish to act alone is new. Perhaps it has something to do with 9/11 and the fear of future terrorist attacks. But fear is a better explanation of Bush's political strength among the American people than it is of the policies he is pursuing. Unilateralism predates 9/11; it is the product of arrogance and ideological zeal, perhaps also of a certain recklessness; it reflects a view of American power as inaccurate as that held by many of Bush's critics. In the contemporary world, imperial rule is an exercise in futility-but a dangerous exercise nonetheless.

It is futile for three reasons: first, Americans don't have the capacity or, I suspect, the stomach for imperialism. We are radically unready to pay the economic costs of empire-and empire is expensive: there are profits for corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton, but only burdens for American taxpayers, who won't be willing to bear them. Nor will American mothers and fathers be willing to bear the costs in blood. We don't have an imperial army, made up of "natives" and mercenaries. We have never created an imperial civil service; we don't even learn the languages or customs of the countries we mean to rule. The American failure to impose law and order across Afghanistan, the deals the Pentagon made with local warlords, our government's refusal to invest in state building outside of Kabul-all this points, not toward the stability of imperial rule but toward the characteristic looseness of hegemony and, in the Afghan case, not a particularly honorable version of this looseness: hegemony without responsibility.

Second, our public commitment to democracy makes imperial rule very hard to justify and equally hard to manage. Even when that commitment is obviously hypocritical (for many years we supported non-democratic governments in countries such as South Korea and Turkey), we do tend, over time, to encourage or enable or at least bear with democratic transformations. At the height of the cold war, indeed, we refused to bear with (more or less) democratically elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. And possibly we will refuse in the future, in countries such as Egypt, say, where it is radical Islamists, not "communists," who threaten to win elections. But it isn't easy for us to do that; it produces a kind of legitimacy crisis for American power-another feature of hegemonic but not imperial rule.

And third, under conditions of actual hegemony, many governments are capable of opposing the policies of the hegemonic power. And then the hegemon will, if it is wise, negotiate and compromise. In the world today, any imperialist project would encounter such strong opposition from both large and small states, and so strong a sense among people everywhere that this opposition was legitimate (see the article by Suzanne Nossel in the Summer 2003 Dissent) that the project is certain to fail.

When Rudyard Kipling called empire "the White Man's burden," he was stating, in the ideological idiom of his time, a simple fact: power brings responsibility with it. But the burdens of hegemony can't be borne alone; they have to be shared. A rationally governed hegemonic power doesn't act unilaterally to repel aggression or stop massacres or take on the (very difficult) work of nation building; it marshals coalitions. These will be coalitions of the willing, obviously, but the willingness has to be won by consultation, persuasion, and compromise. In recent years, our government has sought to avoid any serious version of these three necessary processes, as if its leaders want to manage the world all by themselves. That ambition is probably a better explanation of the Iraq War than any provided by the theory of imperialism. But America's leaders can't manage the world. In the aftermath of what has turned out to be a very incomplete victory in the war against Saddam, they obviously need help managing a single country. As I write, they are looking for help, but still without committing themselves to consultation, persuasion, and compromise. It is hard to gauge the learning curve of the Bush administration. But it will learn sooner or later that hegemony, unlike empire, rests on consent.

What kind of left politics follows from this understanding of American power? We need a long response to this question, and right now I have only a short one. In Britain, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leftists were "little Englanders," that is, they advocated independence for the colonies. The United States is already committed to independence-even Bush & Co. are against "microadministration"!-and also, rhetorically, at least, to democracy. One thing the left can do is to insist that this commitment be honored not only in words but also in performance, even when the performance compromises hegemonic power. Is the United States prepared, for example, to help create a government in Iraq capable of saying no to its American patron, the way the Turks did? (I don't mean that we have to work for a Shiite theocracy.) How many "interests and tendencies" contrary to its own is our government ready to acknowledge and accommodate for the sake of global stability? What sort of "equilibrium," with what other groups, is it willing to accept? V. I. Lenin once wrote that "the task of the intelligentsia is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary." He didn't mean it, but the idea is useful. The task of a democratic hegemon is to make its own role less central, the exercise of power more and more consensual.

This will never be the chosen task of the people currently in power in Washington. Even the minimal goal of a better equilibrium, a more compromised hegemony, a more effective defense of democratic government, can only be achieved through oppositionist politics. Opposition will have to come first from inside the United States: American liberals and leftists should be advocates of self-limitation, which would be the real meaning of signing on to (and then upholding) instruments such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, or the Kyoto accords, or the International Criminal Court-and also of accepting greater mutuality in world trade and opening our doors to third world imports. All these involve qualifications of hegemony, the acceptance of universal rules, equally applied, and hence they constitute "sacrifices of a corporate nature." As Gramsci suggests, however, these sacrifices don't eliminate hegemonic power; they modify it in ways useful to humanity, but at the same time they represent a form of intelligent maintenance. The Democratic Party should certainly be capable of that much (though its leaders seem, right now, barely capable of anything). But those of us who want more than this, who are worried about and opposed to the rule of a single hegemon, need external allies-first in the society of states and then in international civil society.

So consider again Gramsci's idea of an "equilibrium," whose international version might be an old-fashioned balance of power between the hegemonic state and some set of rival states. In the world today, however, given the actual imbalance of power, it makes more sense to imagine equilibrium in the form of a U.S.-European partnership. America needs a partner, or a number of partners, who can say yes and no, who can act together with us sometimes and independently at other times. But if such a partnership is to be established and sustained, European states must be prepared to take responsibility for the way things go in the world. They must take on some of the work that the hegemon does (for some of it, as I have already suggested, is necessary work). The more responsibility they accept, the more the hegemon must negotiate and compromise, the more the equilibrium will shift in the direction of equality. Had Europe-this seems to me an easy example-dealt forcefully and effectively with the crisis of the former Yugoslavia, without involving the United States, America would be significantly less hegemonic than it is in 2003.

Another kind of oppositionist politics might arise within international civil society. States are not the only actors in the world today. Multinational corporations, which play a major part in the global economy, are the central agencies of the decentered "Empire." They are an unlikely source of opposition to hegemonic power, though they might well set themselves against imperial recklessness. More important for my purposes here are the new and proliferating NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, which defend universal values or collective interests and play a still-to-be-defined part in global politics. Hardt and Negri deny the oppositionist potential of these organizations, citing the role that human rights NGOs played in Bosnia and Kosovo, where their "moral intervention [became] a frontline force of imperial intervention." But this seems radically wrong, given the moral necessity of the "imperial" intervention and the great difficulty of fitting it into any coherent theory of imperialism. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International can intervene not only at the margins of empire, but also at its center-as they did in the case of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Today, they can address themselves to human rights within the United States itself.

But because the global market is the primary ground of American hegemony, we have to imagine NGOs that work through or against regulatory agencies such as the WTO and aim to constrain the power of capital-in exactly the way domestic social democracy did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Seattle 1999 was the barest intimation of what that kind of political work might look like. We don't yet know whether international civil society will provide space and opportunity not only for human rights and environmentalist groups and other single issue organizations, but also for global movements with large redistributive ambitions. Here Hardt and Negri are more optimistic than I am, but this question-is a cross-border social democracy possible?-is surely the crucial question about the future of hegemonic power.

Meanwhile, though, when we look for a new equilibrium in the society of states or for new social movements in international civil society, we need to understand that we are not organizing a revolt of the imperial provinces. We need to construct a different kind of politics, adapted to the real power but also to the characteristic looseness of hegemonic rule. Writing in the Summer 2002 World Policy Journal, Martin Walker described this looseness under the rubric of "virtual empire." I don't much like the name, but his description is helpful. It fails, in fact, to anticipate the highhandedness of the Bush administration these last months, but it captures what I have called the "natural" mode of American hegemony. The virtual empire, he argues, maintains its preeminence "with more than a degree of courtesy for the rest of the international order." Allies are treated with the respect due to sovereign states. Former enemies (like Russia after 1989) are invited and helped to become new friends. The rulers of the virtual empire can be harsh in defending their interests but, at the same time, their policies are "open to argument and persuasion" from foreign states, and corporations, and interest groups of many different kinds. Virtual empire "is a new beast," Walker concludes, "the like of which the world has not seen before." Whatever we call the beast, we had better recognize its newness. The confident claim that we are in full intellectual control, that all we have to do is apply Lenin's theory of imperialism (which we all know by heart)-that is an invitation to political failure.

Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent.

See more articles at dissentmagazine.org

   2003 Foundation for Study of Independent Ideas, Inc contact