Is the United States -- as so many have said, in celebration or dismay -- a planet-mastering empire or not? The question presses upon us as George W. Bush gets ready to descend upon New York for the Republican convention, as he once descended upon the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln under the banner declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq.
Just as the President's landing on the Lincoln invited an assessment of the Iraq war, so now his visit to New York invites assessment of the larger, global mission of the administration. (And, come to think of it, Manhattan Island, with its slim uptown and its broad-beamed downtown, is shaped rather like a gargantuan aircraft carrier.) The decision to hold the convention in New York City was apparently conceived as a triumphal return by the nation's savior to the scene of September 11. But the recent fortunes of the United States have been anything but triumphal. The President's policies have failed to check the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The entire "axis of evil," consisting, according to the President, of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, continues to defy his administration in one way or another. In Iraq, the Marines are now at war with the Shiite community the United States supposedly came to save. North Korea has allegedly become a nuclear power, and Iran seems to be heading that way. The traditional alliances of the United States have been shaken. After 9/11, editorialists asked, "Why do they hate us?" Whatever the reasons, "they" have multiplied to include most of the world.
In the face of so much failure, I wrote recently to my book editor and friend Tom Engelhardt, America's title to global empire seems at the very least in question. (This column does double duty as the third in an exchange of letters on the subject between me and Engelhardt at his superb website, tomdispatch.com, sponsored by the Nation Institute. The earlier letters can be read at the website under the August 2004 posts.) Engelhardt responded with an eloquent list of America's imperial assets, including, among other items, its 700-plus military bases, its supine Congress, its nearly half-trillion-dollar military establishment, its division of the Earth into five military commands, its ambition to dominate space and its militarized political parties.
So the answer to the question, "Is the United States a global imperial power?" must be an unequivocal yes. However, if the question is shifted very slightly, and we ask, "Is the United States a global empire?" the answer is less obvious. Bush's America plainly has global imperial ambition, but does it have the corresponding accomplishment?
Perhaps the question can be better addressed by dividing it into two parts: first, whether the United States has the wherewithal to play an imperial role, and, second, whether the world is ready to receive American imperial direction. Clearly, the world's will to resist is as notable as the U.S. will to impose itself. It's sometimes said that America is militarily strong but politically weak (and economically in a gray zone). Yet even the extent of U.S. military strength, often called unchallengeable, is open to question. The United States definitely has the largest heap of weaponry on the planet. But if, as the remarkable American failure to have its way with the "axis" countries suggests, that military punch cannot produce the desired results, then is it correct to speak so confidently of unlimited military "strength"?
Or is there, as I believe, something in the very fabric of today's world that tends to resist or elude or otherwise negate the operation of military force and, with it, imperial subjugation? Has "military strength" itself become weak? At the pinnacle of the global system, where the great powers face one another, conventional military superiority is stalemated by nuclear arms, already possessed by nine nations. The United States styles itself the sole superpower, but if push comes to shove can it defeat nuclear-armed China or Russia? The paralyzing, equalizing power conferred by nuclear arsenals goes unremarked on in our supposedly "unipolar" world (as if the influence of nuclear arms had simply disappeared with the end of the Cold War), because no acute conflict among the larger powers forces it on our attention. But as soon as a crisis arises, the fiction of unipolarity, even on the strictly military level, will become obvious. The confrontation with North Korea has already been instructive in this respect. That country's putative possession of just a few nuclear weapons (along with its considerable conventional forces) has probably been enough to deter the sole superpower from attacking it.
The other, equally great, barrier to imperial expansion, acting at the base of the global system, is the ferocious resistance mounted by local populations. In the twentieth century, the peoples of the earth insisted on taking charge of their own countries. Their rebellions were successful against all empires, from the British to the Soviet, every one of which has fallen.
In the face of nuclear stalemate at the apex of the global system and universal rebellion at the base, can any imperial project now succeed? What we may in fact be witnessing is not just a contest between an American empire and its particular colonial targets but a final showdown between the imperial idea and what I like to call an unconquerable world, meaning a world that has the will and the means to reject any imperial yoke.
Is the United States possibly an imperial power that does not quite possess an empire? Is the American "empire" a colossal leftover from a vanishing age?
Let us admit, however, that the sudden popularity of global imperial ambition in the United States is not due entirely to arrogance and lust for power, evident as these are. It is also a response, however perverse, to requirements of the time that even the antagonists of empire will acknowledge are inescapable. The Earth is fragile, and the Earth is becoming one -- economically, ecologically and digitally. A global politics to deal with both conditions is required, and the idea of empire, especially of global empire, offers the most familiar answer, historically speaking, to this need. That it is a desperately wrong answer is shown by the sweeping failure of the Bush policies. But defeating the Bush Administration will not be enough. The need for a truly global politics -- a need that, in part, called forth America's misbegotten empire -- must be met.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is most recently the author of The Unconquerable World (Metropolitan Books) and A Hole in the World, a collection of his "Letters from Ground Zero" columns for the Nation Magazine.
This article will appear in the September 13 issue of The Nation magazine. It continues an earlier exchange of letters with Tom Engelhardt. See also Engelhardt's response.
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]