Sometimes, when New York gets too hectic, the best way to clear the mind is

to go lie on the beach in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of weeks. Sometimes? More

like always. It certainly worked for Nick

Denton, who preceded his trip to Brazil with dozens of mini-postings about

Rio, Sao Paulo, and Parati, but who has returned to the blogosphere with a very

interesting thumbsucker about American empire and moral hazard.

It’s well worth reading in full, but here’s a brief excerpt:

I am, to all intents, a hawk. So why on earth does the prospect of an American

Empire bother me?

There is a deep flaw in the American imperial project: moral hazard. A guarantor,

whether an insurance company or a central bank, typically encourages perverse

behavior. Countries borrow too much, and their banks lend too freely, both

in the expectation of a bailout by the International Monetary Fund.

The US, by assuming the role of global guarantor, runs an analogous risk.

By guaranteeing the security of Israel, it ensures that no Israeli government

will make a territorial settlement with the Palestinians. By guaranteeing

the global order, unilaterally, the US encourages the caprice of a country

such as France. By supporting the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the US removes

the pressure for democratization. With an external power guaranteeing stability,

the people of Egypt and other puppet states can never take ownership of their

own predicament. As bankers sometimes say, the road to hell is paved with


The idea isn’t completely new: everybody has long understood that the reason

Europe punches so far below its weight, militaristically speaking, is that all

European countries know that if they were ever attacked, the US would come to

their defense. That’s created a European Union without a credible military of

its own, which couldn’t even deal with the Balkan crisis until Clinton stepped


Denton, it seems, thinks that the only answer is for the United States to send

its children out into the street to play with each other, free from adult supervision.

So what if the US removed that excuse for inaction, just let go, and allowed

history take its course? Let Vietnam go communist, Europe deal with Bosnia,

the theocracy hold back Iran until the old ayatollahs die out, let Mubarak

fall to the Islamists, and Victor (sic) Chavez take on Venezuela’s

capitalists and landowners.

No one should pretend that the immediate effects of laisser faire would be

any other than disastrous. The loss of another generation in Iran, the emigration

of the middle class from Egypt, further chaos in Venezuela. But at least these

countries would be taking control of their own destiny, free to make their

own revolutions, and fumble toward liberal democracy of their own accord.

No superpower to bail them out, no one to blame but themselves.

What Denton doesn’t examine is the implications for US national security. Some

of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration might have wanted to invade

Iraq for a long time, but it was the events of September 11 and the subsequent

War on Terror which allowed them to turn their dreams into reality. In the post-9/11

world, any state which hates the US can be a major threat, no matter how small

it is: look how Afghanistan, of all fourth-tier countries, was blamed (and bombed)

for sheltering and supporting Osama bin Laden.

So it’s hard to see how the US could or would stand idly by while watching

Islamic extremists take control in, say, Egypt. It’s even harder to imagine

the US leaving Israel to its own devices. Israel is an undeclared nuclear power

with a history of human rights violations smack in the middle of the Middle

East, yet no matter how many settlements it builds

in East Jerusalem, it knows that it will never be abandoned by Washington.

So Denton’s fantasy of a US hyperpower constraining itself to some kind of

neoisolationism will never come true, today’s announcement

of a withdrawal from Saudi Arabia notwithstanding. Indeed, the rest of the world,

as Denton makes clear, should be glad of that fact: living under a US security

umbrella has given millions of Europeans, at the very least, a much better standard

of living than they could otherwise have hoped for. It very well might also

have averted nasty Islamic theocracies in places like Egypt and Tunisia.

But at the same time, it’s clear that the US has neither the ability nor the

desire to administrate a new imperium. As Niall

Ferguson says in this week’s New York Times magazine,

If — as more and more commentators claim — America has embarked on a new

age of empire, it may turn out to be the most evanescent empire in all history.

Other empire builders have fantasized about ruling subject peoples for a thousand

years. This is shaping up to be history’s first thousand-day empire. Make

that a thousand hours.

Americans, says Ferguson, simply don’t have any desire to plonk themselves

in the middle of the Arabian desert and stay there for decades. It’s the CIA

problem writ large: just as the spooks would rather be in Virginia than in the

Hindu Kush, today’s generation of graduates is much more interested in corporate

America than it is in Middle Eastern politics. In 1999, says Ferguson, of Yale’s

47,689 undergraduates, just one was majoring in Near Eastern languages. And

of 134,798 Yale alumni, only 70 lived in Arab countries.

Empire, historically, has consisted of vast swathes of territory ultimately

controlled from a very small national base. The USA has an enormous national

base, and no need to grow by acquisition: taking over Iraq (GDP: roughly $50

billion), for instance, would not significantly affect America (GDP: $10 trillion,

give or take). It is this which should most reassure those worried about a new

Pax Americana: the fact that Americans really don’t care about ruling

the world. They’ll spend money and commit their forces when and where they like

in order to maintain military dominance and minimise any threats to their national

security. But you can’t administer a country like Iraq by remote control from

Washington: you need a lot of people on the ground for that kind of thing, and

no one’s sticking their hands up and volunteering for the job.

Only time will tell how much sovereignty Iraq will have in a year, in two,

in five, in ten. In a globalised world, no country is an island, and the best

that Iraq can hope for would be to be as autonomous as, say, Indonesia or Brazil.

The US, both bilaterally and through the World Bank and International Monetary

Fund, is going to have a large say in what goes on in Iraq – but I think

that in a few years, Iraq will be less under US control than Colombia, South

Korea, or even, for that matter, the UK.

Denton thinks that the US should withdraw from the Korean peninsula, and leave

the North Korea problem to that country’s neighbours. This might be unrealistic:

with or without a US physical presence there, the moral hazard argument will

still apply. And it also misses the point a bit: the problem with American empire

is not military bases in Korea or the Philippines, so much as it is US hypocrisy

with regard to international law.

The USA, as Global Hegemon and Ultimate Policeman, can do whatever it likes,

wherever it likes, while everybody else has to stick to America’s interpretation

of what international law says. That causes huge amounts of resentment, whether

US forces are in Saudi Arabia or not. America has unilaterally decided that

it, and it alone, is above the law, and can do things like invade Iraq if it

thinks they’re a good idea. (It goes without saying that if America thought

invading Iraq was not a good idea, then it would have unceremoniously

squished anyone else’s plans to do so.)

Better, I think, that the US listen to Timothy Garton Ash, also writing

in the New York Times magazine, and realise that "The new American hubris

combines an overestimation of the military dimension of power with an overestimation

of what the United States can do on its own." Rather than retreat to its

own borders, the US should try to be inclusive, and bring the rest of the world

on board with respect to its program. That would solve the moral hazard problem,

without jeopardising US national security.

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One Response to Empire

  1. David Knudson says:

    Interesting article.

    All nations act in their own best interest, the United States simply does it better than anyone else. For that, we are villified, glorified, and misunderstood by the rest of the world – and by ourselves as well.

    The current world order – with a single, overwhelming power (the United States) with no first or even second class competitors – is unprecedented in world history. Never has there been a state with as much relative power as the United States. The world – both the United States and everyone else – is still figuring out this new circumstance. While this new situation is not new at all – it has been true for more than a decade – it took 9-11 to really show the world – and the United States – that it was true. There were previews under Clinton – Kosovo and the Balkans showing a clear difference between the capabilities of the United States and everyone else – 9-11 brought it home.

    After 9-11, the enraged hyperpower (perhaps Osama bin Laden should have conducted a seance and consulted Chuichi Nagumo (the Japanese admiral in charge of the Pearl Harbor raid) about arousing sleeping giants) struck out directly at its percieved enemies – internation public opinion be damned. While pundits around the world confidently predicted the failure of any military operation against the Taliban (remember them?) in Afghanistan, the United States reacted. Two weeks sufficed for the destruction of that regime. The United States projected power thousands of miles, with virutally no logistical base, and no regional allies to speak of, against an experienced, fanatical enemy, and crushed them utterly.

    Iraq was the topping on all this. The US military, after telegraphing their coming strike for months, denied a northern front by Turkey, basing by Saudi Arabia, and support from Europe, struck along a single, well-known axis of attack with two divisions against an entrenched, prepared enemy – and conquered the country in three weeks. Now, the only natural resource the United States lacked (oil) is available.

    What does all this mean? The United States has no sustainable interest in Empire-building – no matter how much the Paul Wolfowitzs of the DoD may wish it. We have unimaginable power, and the will to use it. I believe that the national attitude of the United States can be summed up by Will Smith in the movie Independence Day. In that movie, Earth has been attacked by hostile aliens. The aliens destory several American cities, and the military responds. Will Smith is a Marine pilot who downs and captures an alien. As Smith is dragging the (unconcious) alien to a government base accross a hot desert, he grows frustrated, and remarks that he was supposed to have been at at bar-b-que. That’s the American attitude. We don’t want to mess with you, and have no desire to rule you.

    But God help you if you mess with us.

    Dave Knudson

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