In the lexicon of euphemism, the word “superpower” was always useful because it did little more than recognize the obvious. The United States of America was a potentate in itself and on a global scale. It had only one rival, which was its obvious inferior, at least in point of prosperity and sophistication (as well as a couple of other things). So both were “empires,” in point of intervening in some countries whether those other countries liked it or not, and in arranging the governments of other countries to suit them. Still, only a few Trotskyists like my then-self were so rash as to describe the Cold War as, among other things, an inter-imperial rivalry.
The United States is not supposed, in its own self-image, to be an empire. (Nor is it supposed, in its own self-image, to have a class system—but there you go again.) It began life as a rebel colony and was in fact the first colony to depose British rule. When founders like Alexander Hamilton spoke of a coming American “empire,” they arguably employed the word in a classical and metaphorical sense, speaking of the future dominion over the rest of the continent. By that standard, Lewis and Clark were the originators of American “imperialism.” Anti-imperialists of the colonial era would not count as such today. That old radical Thomas Paine was forever at Jefferson’s elbow, urging that the United States become a superpower for democracy. He hoped that America would destroy the old European empires.
This perhaps shows that one should beware of what one wishes for because, starting in 1898, the United States did destroy or subvert all of the European empires. It took over Cuba and the Philippines from Spain (we still hold Puerto Rico as a “colony” in consequence) and after 1918 decided that if Europe was going to be quarrelsome and destabilizing, a large American navy ought to be built on the model of the British one. Franklin Roosevelt spent the years 1939 to 1945 steadily extracting British bases and colonies from Winston Churchill, from the Caribbean to West Africa, in exchange for wartime assistance. Within a few years of the end of World War II, the United States was the regnant or decisive power in what had been the Belgian Congo, the British Suez Canal Zone, and—most ominously of all—French Indochina. Dutch Indonesia and Portuguese Angola joined the list in due course. Meanwhile, under the ostensibly anti-imperial Monroe Doctrine, Washington considered the isthmus of Central America and everything due south of it to be its special province in any case.
In the course of all this—and the course of it involved some episodes of unforgettable arrogance and cruelty—some American officers and diplomats did achieve an almost proconsular status, which is why Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But in general, what was created was a system of proxy rule, by way of client states and dependent regimes. And few dared call it imperialism. Indeed, the most militant defenders of the policy greatly resented the term, which seemed to echo leftist propaganda.
But nowadays, if you consult the writings of the conservative and neoconservative penseurs, you will see that they are beginning to relish that very word. “Empire—Sure! Why not?” A good deal of this obviously comes from the sense of moral exaltation that followed Sept. 11. There’s nothing like the feeling of being in the right and of proclaiming firmness of purpose. And a revulsion from atrocity and nihilism seems to provide all the moral backup that is required. It was precisely this set of emotions that Rudyard Kipling set out not to celebrate, as some people imagine, but to oppose. He thought it was hubris, and he thought it would end in tears. Of course there is always some massacre somewhere or some hostage in vile captivity with which to arouse opinion. And of course it’s often true that the language of blunt force is the only intelligible one. But self-righteousness in history usually supplies its own punishment, and a nation forgets this at its own peril.
Unlike the Romans or the British, Americans are simultaneously the supposed guarantors of a system of international law and doctrine. It was on American initiative that every member nation of the United Nations was obliged to subscribe to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Innumerable treaties and instruments, descending and ramifying from this, are still binding legally and morally. Thus, for the moment, the word “unilateralism” is doing idiomatic duty for the word “imperialism,” as signifying a hyper-power or ultra-power that wants to be exempted from the rules because—well, because it wrote most of them.
However, the plain fact remains that when the rest of the world wants anything done in a hurry, it applies to American power. If the “Europeans” or the United Nations had been left with the task, the European provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo would now be howling wildernesses, Kuwait would be the 19th province of a Greater Iraq, and Afghanistan might still be under Taliban rule. In at least the first two of the above cases, it can’t even be argued that American imperialism was the problem in the first place. This makes many of the critics of this imposing new order sound like the whimpering, resentful Judean subversives in The Life of Brian, squabbling among themselves about “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
I fervently wish that as much energy was being expended on the coming Ethiopian famine or the coming Central Asian drought as on the pestilence of Saddam Hussein. But, if ever we can leave the Saddams and Milosevics and Kim Jong-ils behind and turn to greater questions, you can bet that the bulk of the airlifting and distribution and innovation and construction will be done by Americans, including the new nexus of human-rights and humanitarian NGOs who play rather the same role in this imperium that the missionaries did in the British one (though to far more creditable effect).
A condition of the new imperialism will be the specific promise that while troops will come, they will not stay too long. An associated promise is that the era of the client state is gone and that the aim is to enable local populations to govern themselves. This promise is sincere. A new standard is being proposed, and one to which our rulers can and must be held. In other words, if the United States will dare to declare out loud for empire, it had better be in its capacity as a Thomas Paine arsenal, or at the very least a Jeffersonian one. And we may also need a new word for it.