The Book Club

The Unipolar Predicament

Dear Niall,

I surrender! Empire it is. Someone get me my pith helmet. On to Omdurman! Or is it Fallujah? We will need new songs, though, and poetry. We Americans may be able to match the British Empire in power and reach, but can we match it in poetic expressions of joy in the rule and subjugation of others? 

Did not the painted kings of India greet
Our Queen and lay their scepters at her feet. …
Her pitying smile accepts their suppliant claim,
And adds four monarchs to the Christian name.Imperial Britain on the Sea looks down,
And smiling sees her Rebel Subjects frown. …

Now that, Sir, was an empire! We may have inherited the power, but we poor Americans, I fear, lack the British flair for imperial rule; we seem unable to display the requisite rhapsodic enthusiasm for our imperial primacy. I sense that may be your principal complaint with us. We will try to do better.

In the meantime, whether you call us an empire or a banana, the United States finds itself in a unique predicament. It is the predicament of unipolarity. Unipolarity is, of course, the product of America’s extraordinary success as a world power, a success that I would argue far exceeds that of the British Empire. For the history of the British Empire seems to me to have been marked as much by catastrophic strategic failure as by success. The problem was that Britannia ruled the waves, but it never mastered the continent of Europe. Indeed, its great and repeated failure, resulting in three catastrophic European wars over the course of a mere 150 years, lay in inadequate management of and intervention on the continent, thus allowing first Napoleon, then Wilhelm, and then Hitler to rise up and bring Britain to the edge of defeat and conquest. The United States, I dare suggest, has done a good deal better managing the existential threats of its history, defeating fascism in both Asia and Europe in the 1940s, then rather brilliantly boxing in the Soviet Union and defeating it without firing a shot. 

Could all this success be attributed, as John Gaddis has often suggested, to a form of international grand strategy that is, in fact, superior to “empire”? Might it not be precisely the hesitation to rule and subjugate that has been at the core of Americans’ success, the tendency rather to enlist cooperation and inspire others to follow American leadership? I would suggest, as Gaddis and many others have as well, that the great task facing the United States today is how to manage unipolarity in such a way as not to repel but to attract, at least to attract those who see benefits in what the United States has to offer. (And it does seem to me that declaring ourselves an official empire, as you seem to want, will not help in advancing this cause.)

What I most appreciate about Gaddis’ book is that he does not ignore the difficulty of reconciling hegemony with international cooperation. Many others in the present debate like to pretend that if the United States just elected a nicer president, the world would again be prepared to fall in line and follow us in our “war on terrorism.” I am more skeptical. Three years living in Europe taught me that Europeans don’t even like the phrase “war on terrorism.” They don’t agree that it is a war. The unipolar predicament includes among its challenges the fact that other hitherto dependent and friendly nations now view the United States as a threat to world order, not as its savior. This can only partly be blamed on Bush. 

So how to address the problem? I find neither Gaddis nor Meade provide any satisfactory answer. Gaddis writes about “making the world safe for federalism,” which is an interesting notion that has some currency among historians and international relations theorists these days. Jefferson’s “empire of liberty,” insofar as it had any meaning at all, was an attempt to reconcile expansion with liberty through the mechanism of federalism, of sovereigns operating under a sovereign set of rules. The European Union’s form of “imperialism,” as the British diplomat Robert Cooper has suggested in his book, The Breaking of Nations, is also a kind of federalist expansionism. But I must say I don’t know exactly how Gaddis would apply this concept in the present era to the United States. He does not mean, I think, a federalist system with the United Nations at the core but one with the United States at the core. But how would that work, exactly? 

If we can move past our semantic disagreement over “empire,” Niall, can we plumb these books for some solution to the “unipolar predicament”?

All best,