The present world situation is unprecedented.
The great global empires of the past--such as the Spanish
and notably the British--bear little comparison with what
we see today in the United States empire. A key novelty of
the US imperial project is that all other empires knew that
they were not the only ones, and none aimed at global domination.
None believed themselves invulnerable, even if they believed
themselves to be central to the world--as China did, or the
Roman empire. Regional domination was the maximum danger envisaged
until the end of the cold war. A global reach, which became
possible after 1492, should not be confused with global domination.
The British empire was the only one that really was global
in a sense that it operated across the entire planet. But
the differences are stark. The British empire at its peak
administered one quarter of the globe's surface. The US has
never actually practised colonialism, except briefly at the
beginning of the 20th century. It operated instead with dependent
and satellite states and developed a policy of armed intervention
The British empire had a British, not a universal, purpose,
although naturally its propagandists also found more altruistic
motives. So the abolition of the slave trade was used to justify
British naval power, as human rights today are often used
to justify US military power. On the other hand the US, like
revolutionary France and revolutionary Russia, is a great
power based on a universalist revolution--and therefore on
the belief that the rest of the world should follow its example,
or even that it should help liberate the rest of the world.
Few things are more dangerous than empires pursuing their
own interest in the belief that they are doing humanity a
The cold war turned the US into the hegemon of the western
world. However, this was as the head of an alliance. In a
way, Europe then recognised the logic of a US world empire,
whereas today the US government is reacting to the fact that
the US empire and its goals are no longer genuinely accepted.
In fact the present US policy is more unpopular than the policy
of any other US government has ever been, and probably than
that of any other great power has ever been.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as the only
superpower. The sudden emergence of a ruthless, antagonistic
flaunting of US power is hard to understand, all the more
so since it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies
nor the interests of the US economy. But patently a public
assertion of global supremacy by military force is what is
in the minds of the people at present dominating policymaking
Is it likely to be successful? The world is too complicated
for any single state to dominate it. And with the exception
of its superiority in hi-tech weaponry, the US is relying
on diminishing assets. Its economy forms a diminishing share
of the global economy, vulnerable in the short as well as
long term. The US empire is beyond competition on the military
side. That does not mean that it will be absolutely decisive,
just because it is decisive in localised wars.
Of course the Americans theoretically do not aim to occupy
the whole world. What they aim to do is to go to war, leave
friendly governments behind them and go home again. This will
not work. In military terms, the Iraq war was successful.
But it neglected the necessities of running the country, maintaining
it, as the British did in the classic colonial model of India.
The belief that the US does not need genuine allies among
other states or genuine popular support in the countries its
military can now conquer (but not effectively administer)
Iraq was a country that had been defeated by the Americans
and refused to lie down. It happened to have oil, but the
war was really an exercise in showing international power.
The emptiness of administration policy is clear from the way
the aims have been put forward in public relations terms.
Phrases like "axis of evil" or "the road map"
are not policy statements, but merely soundbites. Officials
such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz talk like Rambo in
public, as in private. All that counts is the overwhelming
power of the US. In real terms they mean that the US can invade
anybody small enough and where they can win quickly enough.
The consequences of this for the US are going to be very dangerous.
Domestically, the real danger for a country that aims at
world control is militarisation. Internationally, the danger
is the destabilising of the world. The Middle East is far
more unstable now than it was five years ago. US policy weakens
all the alternative arrangements, formal and informal, for
keeping order. In Europe it has wrecked NATO--not much of
a loss, but trying to turn it into a world military police
force for the US is a travesty. It has deliberately sabotaged
the EU, and also aims at ruining another of the great world
achievements since 1945: prosperous democratic social welfare
states. The crisis over the United Nations is less of a drama
than it appears since the UN has never been able to do more
than operate marginally because of its dependence on the security
council and the US veto.
How is the world to confront--contain--the US? Some people,
believing that they have not the power to confront the US,
prefer to join it. More dangerous are those who hate the ideology
behind the Pentagon, but support the US project on the grounds
that it will eliminate some local and regional injustices.
This may be called an imperialism of human rights. It has
been encouraged by the failure of Europe in the Balkans in
the 1990s. The division of opinion over the Iraq war showed
there to be a minority of influential intellectuals who were
prepared to back US intervention because they believed it
necessary to have a force for ordering the world's ills. There
is a genuine case to be made that there are governments so
bad that their disappearance will be a net gain for the world.
But this can never justify the danger of creating a world
power that is not interested in a world it does not understand,
but is capable of intervening decisively with armed force
whenever anybody does anything that Washington does not like.
How long the present superiority of the Americans lasts
is impossible to say. The only thing of which we can be absolutely
certain is that historically it will be a temporary phenomenon,
as all other empires have been. In the course of a lifetime
we have seen the end of all the colonial empires, the end
of the so-called thousand-year empire of the Germans, which
lasted a mere 12 years, the end of the Soviet Union's dream
of world revolution.
There are internal reasons, the most immediate being that
most Americans are not interested in running the world. What
they are interested in is what happens to them in the US.
The weakness of the US economy is such that at some stage
both the US government and electors will decide that it is
much more important to concentrate on the economy than to
carry on with foreign military adventures. Even by local business
standards Bush does not have an adequate economic policy for
the US. And Bush's existing international policy is not a
particularly rational one for US imperial interests--and certainly
not for the interests of US capitalism. Hence the divisions
of opinion within the US government.
The key questions now are: what will the Americans do next,
and how will other countries react? Will some countries, like
Britain, back anything the US plans? Their governments must
indicate that there are limits. The most positive contribution
has been made by the Turks, simply by saying there are things
they are not prepared to do, even though they know it would
pay. But the major preoccupation is that of--if not containing--educating
or re-educating the US. There was a time when the US empire
recognised limitations, or at least the desirability of behaving
as though it had limitations. This was largely because the
US was afraid of somebody else: the Soviet Union. In the absence
of this kind of fear, enlightened self-interest and education
have to take over