Neocon Fantasies of Empire Crushed: the New Global Reality
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Debates rage about the implications of the multipolar shift. Some commentators have worried that, paralleling the rise of fascism in the interwar period, a global economic collapse could bring reactionary, xenophobic movements to power in many countries. And already in the Bush years, conservative defenders of empire, such as Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, spread fear about the prospects of unipolarity’s end. "If the United States retreats from global hegemony—its fragile self-image dented by minor setbacks on the imperial frontier—its critics at home and abroad must not pretend that they are ushering in a new era of multipolar harmony, or even a return to the good old balance of power," he wrote in Foreign Policy . "Unfortunately, the alternative to a single superpower is not a multilateral utopia, but the anarchic nightmare of a new Dark Age." The historian warned of "Waning empires. Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities. These are the Dark Age experiences that a world without a hyperpower might quickly find itself reliving."
Of course, those who most bemoan the loss of "hyperpower" are the same people who cheered the invasion of Iraq. And unfortunately, in its tenure as a global hegemon, the United States bolstered repressive and undemocratic governments at least as often as it thwarted them. Yet there is some amount of justified caveat here for multipolarists: imperial decline does not guarantee progress. Certainly, other rising powers will need to be subjected to the same level of public scrutiny and democratic criticism as past goliaths.
But while the rejection of both corporate and imperial models of globalization may not be sufficient for creating a more just global order, it is necessary. Today’s economic crisis, global in scope, will mean real pain for working people and for economically vulnerable communities throughout the world, those who will suffer most during a "Great Recession." But there is also hope in this time of crisis. The dual delegitimization of empire and of market fundamentalism has created more space for global alternatives than has existed since the end of the Cold War. Now is a moment ripe for the spread of political and economic visions emerging from below. And it is an opportunity for the United States to craft a vision of international relations more humble, more egalitarian, and more democratic than what has previously been pursued in freedom’s name.
The United States, whatever its troubles, is not going to disappear. Predictions of collapse from the left and right alike usually imagine imperial decline as a more fixed and predetermined process than it is. Economic weakness in the United States, even the displacement of the dollar on the world scene, will not mean that America will fade into irrelevance in one swift, dramatic gesture. The United States remains by far the world’s largest economy, and its military might will dwarf that of up-and-coming rivals for the foreseeable future. Even in a multipolar environment, the United States could hold a status as "first among equals" for decades to come.
More pressing, then, than determining whether the United States is an empire is the question of how Washington will manage the transition to a situation where its relative dominance has diminished. Because the contours of this decline are highly variable, the foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration remain very relevant.
One current danger is that President Obama, while rejecting the brash unilateralism of the Bush administration and pulling back the fist of U.S. hard power, will return to a softer form of imperial power. Under Bill Clinton, the United States used multilateral institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) as primary instruments of foreign policy. While staffed with economists in business suits rather than grunts in fatigues, these bodies exerted considerable control over foreign peoples.