The empire that fell as it rose
The empire that fell as it rose
[Tom Engelhardt: Had anyone in Washington bothered to read Jonathan Schell's prophetic -- or perhaps I should just say, historically on the mark -- book The Unconquerable World, Iraq could not have happened and all the dreams of the neocons, hatched in the claustrophobic confines of right-wing think tanks and the corridors of power in Washington, would have evaporated into thin air. A reconsideration of several centuries of the imperial "war system," as it built up through a series of extreme moments of violence in the last century to a kind of global paralysis that nonetheless left the Earth and all its inhabitants in deadly peril, Unconquerable World also laid out unerringly the successful resistance to that system, both by force of arms (in the form of national liberation movements) and by aggressively nonviolent means. In the process, Jonathan uncovered a series of nonviolent pathways in history that seemed to lead into a possible future and so might someday beckon us further.
Because I edited the book, I had an advantage. I knew the moment we took
In the course of our work together, as he says below, we often discussed not just the imperial systems he was writing about, but the nature of the one we were living in. Here's our most recent exchange.]
You'll remember that just before the September 11 attacks, when I was writing and you were editing my book The Unconquerable World, you were much readier than I to call American policies "imperial" and the
The twentieth-century anti-imperial movement triumphed almost everywhere. No political creed, feudal or modern, was able to defeat it. Yet almost any political creed proved adequate for winning independence. Liberal democracy (the United States in 1776, Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s), communism (China, Vietnam, Cambodia), racism (the Boers of South Africa), militarism (many South American states), theocracy (Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in the 1980s), even monarchy (Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century) had all proved suitable for achieving self-determination. In these circumstances, it seemed almost unimaginable that the United States could really be aiming at that hoary old nightmare of the ages, the always-feared but never-realized ambition to win universal empire, otherwise known as "world domination" (as people used to say of the Soviet Union's goals in the Cold War years). In any case, didn't "imperialism" mean rule over other countries -- viceroys issuing orders from grandiose palaces, occupying armies, colonial administrations -- which were methods mostly avoided by the United States?
These differences regarding empire were quickly settled in your favor after September 11. I gave up my reservations. Like the empires of old, the
And surely there was no word in the extant vocabulary but imperial for the post-September 11 policies of the Bush administration -- for its unilateralism, its doctrines of preemptive war and regime change, its frankly avowed ambition to achieve global hegemony (although the administration itself continued to disavow the imperial label).
Yet the consensus was short-lived. As the debacle in
Such an account of American history involves a spectacular denial of agency -- and of democratic responsibility -- to voters and politicians alike. Moreover, an assumption that the imperial deed is already done deprives the public of decision-making power for the future. Why debate a decision already taken? American empire then acquires the tremendous weight of accomplished fact, and the only realistic question becomes not whether to run the world, but only how to do so. Before the
These ideas seem to me to embody a grand misreading of events. Ignatieff and
We're now almost three years into the out-of-the closet American imperial timetable, and I doubt even the most eager imperialists can argue that things are going well.
The war, launched in pursuit of a mirage (those missing weapons of mass destruction), is an unqualified disaster. But the most remarkable "intelligence failure" in Iraq was not to see weapons of mass destruction where there were none; it was to blind ourselves to the struggle of national resistance that history told us would have to follow American invasion and occupation. It was perfectly reasonable (though mistaken) to think that Saddam Hussein had revived his WMD programs. It was delusional to imagine that the people of a post-colonial country would happily accept a new occupation. No consultation with British or French or
Like every other chapter in the long history of the fight against empire, the war in
But the full truth may be that the war in
Don't the recent fortunes of the "empire" as a whole reveal a similar pattern of political weakness underlying military strength? "Rise and Fall" -- these are terms inseparably connected to the story of empires, and the question at any given moment has ordinarily been where an empire is on this curve. But the place on the rise-and-fall trajectory of today's American empire is not easy to calibrate. It seems to be rising and falling at the same time. It garrisons the globe, but accomplishes little. The emperor in
We should perhaps not be surprised by this merging of sequence. The handwriting announcing failure was not on the proverbial wall in the form of a prediction whose fulfillment had to be awaited, it was inscribed in every history book of the last hundred years. The verdict was delivered before the crime was committed.
I know the question is many-layered. Critics were calling economic globalization imperialism long before George Bush ever attempted regime change in
The new imperialists told us that the
[Jonathan Schell is a Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute. His recent book on three centuries of imperial violence and responses to it, The Unconquerable World, Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People, has just come out in paperback.]
As you know, I'm less a theorist of empire than an anti-imperialist by gut and intuition. But when you have a country whose military, spying, and covert-action budgets combined easily top the half-trillion dollar mark; when both major political parties at their conventions feel the need to immerse themselves to their eyeballs in the blood-drenched flag and in glorious memories of past wars; when our country seems incapable of not fighting a war or launching a military "intervention" somewhere on our planet every few years; when the sun never sets on our 700-plus military bases and our intellectuals, incapable of explaining the existence of those bases in such numbers, fall silent on the subject; when our elected Congress, with the supposed power of the purse, finds itself incapable of saying no, even to the most outlandish budgetary requests of our unelected military; when our President decides to reorganize our basing structure and redeploy tens of thousands of troops globally over the coming decade so that we will be even better prepared to intervene in what is now called the "arc of instability," which more or less overlaps with the major oil-lands of our planet, and his opponent responds by launching a fierce attack on him before a military audience for removing some of our troops from the Korean peninsula after half a century; when, no matter which presidential candidate wins the November election, the Pentagon and our intelligence services are guaranteed to grow still larger and be even more lavishly funded; when our globe -- the whole shebang -- is divided into five commands (PACOM, CENTCOM, SOUTHCOM, EURCOM, and the newest NORTHCOM, for North America itself), and the generals who head these commands act like global viceroys to whom our civilian diplomats must bow, while they themselves report only to the Secretary of Defense and the President; when our best-funded, blue-sky environmental research takes place in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and involves hitching nature to weapons development; when our military planners consider our militarization of space a singular priority for the future control of the planet; when we already have superweapons in the planning stage for the half-century mark, but no significant planning in the works for dealing with global warming or energy dependence next year; when... but I know that you could add to this list as easily as I can... then, it seems to me, based on the if-it-quacks-and-waddles-it's-a-duck school of political philosophy, you're talking about an imperial presence -- a military empire -- of a very advanced and unbalanced sort, though I do agree with you that it is a distinctly unfinished, even ungainly, creature and one that, from the very imbalance of its overwhelming (and o'erweening) military muscle in relation to its political and economic muscle shows signs both of overdevelopment and collapse; or put another way, our empire, at least at the moment, quacks and waddles, but neither in unison, nor particularly well.
You know, Jonathan, it's important for us to remember that there was once quite another tradition in
Of course, these days the minute you begin to write such things, you're promptly dubbed an "isolationist," though I'm distinctly an internationalist who doesn't believe that the leaders of this Earth should be left alone to commit crimes against their own or other peoples, or that any people should be left alone and powerless to face the disasters of our world. I just also know, again in my guts, that today nothing in our world can be made anything but worse by sticking to the imperial path.
What remains to be seen, as you say, is where exactly we are on the rising-and-falling "curve" of empire, or have we indeed managed to turn it into a single synchronous event, as you suggest? The Bush administration, with its torn up international treaties, its strident insistence on the right to preventive war and U.S. global domination, its urge to institutionalize an offshore gulag (and the legal thinking that must accompany it), and of course its occupation of Iraq, has followed an extreme and thoroughly militarized version of an American imperial dream. As Chalmers Johnson has, to my mind, effectively explained in his book The Sorrows of Empire, from 1945 on, the
Part of our problem, I suspect, lies in conceiving of an empire-less world; or put another way, one legacy of all those empires you wrote about, even though each of them fell before the unconquerable world, the people's world, that you speak of so eloquently, is that our only script for hundreds of years was imperially dominated. That was no less true of the rebels and revolutionaries who put all their energies into opposing empire (and so, as with all things we oppose fiercely enough long enough, became in one way or another imperially fused). The United States, having in our own moment reached the pinnacle dreamed of by all past empire builders, a global imperium, but in a thoroughly half-assed and half-baked fashion (as you point out), seems to be proving that the very idea of empire is indeed bankrupt (and by the time we're done, we may be quite literally bankrupt too). Trying to deal with this situation, I think we're hobbled by having no other script. We don't quite know what to do without the idea of empire. We simply can't imagine a functional world that lacks the imperial element, or if you prefer (as we Americans liked to say before we got so briefly but thoroughly into the imperial spirit), a global policeman. A world without its sheriff still seems a fearsome prospect to us. You might say -- with a bow to the original Manchurian Candidate rather than its bankrupt modern cousin -- that we've been imperially brainwashed in certain ways. Whether we hate the global policeman or love him, all we can imagine is a kind of chaos without him, not the possibility of new kinds of order as yet unimagined (and perhaps still unimaginable), as yet, as you've said to me many times, "to be invented."
So we sit on a powder-keg planet inside a great military machine that garrisons the globe from
The question, for us, is whether we have those seventy-five years, but perhaps that's a topic to be saved for another exchange.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is a co-founder of the The American Empire Project and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture among other books.
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell
Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt
[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.]