I have spent the past two days troubled by an op-ed that ran Tuesday in the New York Times. The author, Kwasi Kwarteng – a British MP of Ghanan decent -- penned a provocative obituary of American "Empire" titled "Echoes of the Raj."
Framing his thoughts of America's supremacy-slide against the shadows of British imperialism, Kwarteng no doubt enjoys a unique perspective regarding the last gasps of "Great" Britain. After his graduation from Eton, and Cambridge (twice -- parting the second time with a DPhil. of History), Mr. Kwarteng has gone on to enjoy success in both political affairs and scholarly letters. In 2010, he was elected Conservative MP for Spelthorne in Surrey, while penning the eminently readable Ghosts of Empire, which reconsiders the travails of global dominion, and the nature of its glory.
With that said, his obvious enthusiasm to chime the death knells of American hegemony rings dully of Schadenfruede -- his observations seem rushed with a triumphant gratification at our supposed misfortune.
He opens with the following:
THE Arab Spring, the threat of Iran as an emerging nuclear power, the continuing violence in Syria and the American reluctance to get involved there have all signaled the weakness, if not the end, of America's role as a world policeman. President Obama himself said in a speech last year: "America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs."
I would hope that I'm not alone when I say: good. We cannot, should not, and will not use our military whenever and wherever repression occurs. The world is a cruel place -- "repression" occurs on a daily basis and it is not in the interest of American national security to pursue a policy of "Infinite War." Neither did the British at the high-water mark of the so-called Pax Britannica.
But Mr. Kwarteng glibly ignores reasons for our supposed reluctance to engage. Perhaps he missed the two aircraft carrier battle groups operating in waters near the Persian Gulf -- delivering a direct message to Iran about an open Strait of Hormuz? Or ignored reluctance to support a shadowy Syrian militancy staffed with rank and file fighters who earned their stripes killing American soldiers in Mosul, Fallujah, and Tikrit? That the Arab Spring happened on our watch, after we decided it was no longer realistic to prop up dubious partners in the Middle East and North Africa, and undoubtedly pulled strings to enjoin Mubarak's resignation? Perhaps he missed the part where we led the push for the UNSC R2P resolution that amounted to regime change in Libya, before leading a surface and air warfare campaign to that end?
Mr. Kwarteng continues, further along:
During the cold war, America saw itself as the leader of the "free world," a claim to moral leadership as bold as that of any empire in history. Its dominion relied on the force of alliance, direct assistance and social and economic example, rather than occupation. Only in the last 10 years has America intervened militarily to decide who rules in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This assumption of responsibility as a global policeman was nothing if not the act of an empire. Yet Americans were always reluctant to admit this.
Certainly, to an extent. Our moral suasion proved critical in the battle for hearts and minds against an evil, illiberal and atheistic Soviet Empire. However, armed with a doctorate of history, I would have expected to Mr. Kwarteng might recall some, if not all, of the 70 or more interventions the United States fought during, and after, the Cold War. Our history of military intervention -- christened "humanitarian" during the Clinton administration -- was not catalyzed by Bush v. Gore. Mr. Kwarteng might consider the circumstances surrounding Manuel Noriega, etc. to the contrary.
The financial crisis and mounting indebtedness have finally led to an end to American imperial behavior. It is unlikely, even if the economy recovers, that the country will enter campaigns with the buoyancy and naïveté of its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This is laughable. Our annual military expenditures exceed the combined defense budgets of China, South Korea, Russia, India, Germany, France and Great Britain. We maintain a constellation of military installation around the globe -- in strategically sensitive theaters and political backwaters -- that project the range and power of our interests. Last I checked, our military still compartmentalizes the length and width of the planet by expansive territorial commands, partitioned by hemisphere, patrolled by surface and subsurface forces at sea, and responsible for the maintenance of Asia, Africa the Middle East and South America. This is not to mention our long-range air power from places like Diego Garcia and the good ole CONUS…
Most interestingly, Mr. Kwarteng remarks:
America's position today reminds me of Britain's situation in 1945. Deep in debt and committed to building its National Health Service and other accouterments of the welfare state, Britain no longer could afford to run an empire
Moreover, Britain, which so proudly ruled the waves a generation ago, was tired; it lacked the willpower to pursue its imperial destiny. America's role as an imperialist is even more fragile, as it never had Britain's self-confident faith in its own imperial destiny. Americans have always been ambivalent about the role of global hegemon.
How right he is. Prevailing assumptions remain that there is a general, global understanding and acceptance that the world wants the United States to lead. Our abdication from power would not only disrupt the contemporary world order but refute a natural birthright of American statecraft.
However, we are ever uncomfortable with suggestions of empire. It makes me cringe to write the word in relation to America's power project -- let alone in response to a British descendant of Her Majesty's Gold Coast. As the eminent historian and neoconservative Donald Kagan famously remarked: "All comparisons between America's current place in the world and anything legitimately called an empire in the past reveal ignorance and confusion about any reasonable meaning of the concept of empire, especially the comparison with the Roman Empire." If not Rome, then what of Kwarteng's "Echoes of the Raj"?
We are taught from birth that ours is the destiny of a constitutional republic -- not the duty of American empire. Now, as the aims, costs and limitations of American military power are tested we must confront our obligations to the future.
The history of the British Empire suggests that any form of empire is misguided. First, empire is too expensive. The rise of China and the emerging world has meant that, even if America rebounds, its economy's relative size will be smaller. Surely it will not be as preponderant as it was in 1945 and 1989. This alone makes multilateral action more likely than solitary leadership.
Second, as the British discovered, maintaining an empire requires too many calculations and too much knowledge -- experience, even -- for any one power in today's world even to attempt it.
Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught America those lessons.
However vigorously one could argue the case for or against American Empire -- however uncomfortable the terms of that debate -- the fact that most Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, and provide space for our allies to slip from our collective coattails suggests that this will remain a question to struggle with in the future… but do not doubt for a minute that we will decide the terms.
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