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.