When I was writing my book, "The Unconquerable World" just before the Sept. 11 attacks, others were much readier than I to call American policies "imperial" and the United States an "empire." I hesitated; I hung back. After all, one theme of the book was that the age of empires was over. The newly expired twentieth century, I pointed out, was one huge boneyard of empires: the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Ottomans, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians. Imperial rulers had repeatedly been amazed to find themselves overmatched by the localized, intense, and finally unquenchable forces of national resistance movements. More startling still, the success of those movements invariably depended mainly on political, not military strength. In some cases, such as Gandhi's independence movement against the British in India, and the Polish rebellion against the Soviet empire, the struggles succeeded without using violence at all.
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 after Sept. 11. I gave up my reservations. Like the empires of old, the United States set out to rule foreign lands – directly, as in the case of Iraq (I won't even pause to rebut the risible claim that that country was recently handed "sovereignty") or indirectly, as in Afghanistan. I joined others in speaking of American empire. We were hardly alone. In fact, if there was one thing that everyone suddenly seemed to agree on, it was that the U.S. was an empire, and a global one at that. There were the right-wingers, like New York Times columnist David Brooks, celebrant of America's yuppie class, who called the United States the first "suburban empire," and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who wanted the U.S. to step up to "national greatness" and "benign" empire. (And which empire has not seen itself as benign?) There were the new realists, like the journalist Robert Kaplan, admirer of Henry Kissinger, who championed American "Supremacy by stealth," and supplied U.S. policy-makers with "Ten Rules for Managing the World." There were the liberal imperialists – or, as I think of them, the romantic militarists – like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East and elsewhere at the point of a gun. And then there was the left, which had long excoriated American imperialism and still did. Once, the left had stood alone in calling the U.S. imperial and was reviled for defaming the nation. Now it turned out to have been the herald of a new consensus. Yesterday's leftwing abuse became today's mainstream praise.
And surely there was no word in the extant vocabulary but imperial for the post-Sept. 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 Iraq unfolded, the note of the imperial trumpet grew uncertain. I also began to wonder again about my embrace of the language of empire. My old reservations started cropping up in new forms. For one thing, if, as so many mainstream commentators were saying, the United States was self-evidently an empire, when did this happen? Was it with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican-American war of the 1840s, the allied victory in the Second World War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that left only the "sole superpower" standing? Or was it perhaps at some undetermined moment in the giddy decade that followed? Did any of the new mainstream imperial apologists notice the development, or alert anyone else to what was happening? Was I looking the other way when the transformation was announced? I am unaware that any candidate ran on an imperial program, or that any voters voted for one. Or did empire simply sneak up on the country – a stealth empire indeed – as in the case of the British empire, once famously said to have been acquired in a fit of absence of mind? Can a people rule the world without noticing it?
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 Iraq invasion, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard wrote that the United States was an empire "in denial." He wanted the United States to wake up and face its imperial responsibilities: "enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest," "laying down the rules America wants," "carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century – Ottoman, British and Soviet." For "in the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones – Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two – that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past." This was reluctant, sorrowful imperialism. The British historian Niall Ferguson took the argument a step further, writing an entire book, Colossus, praising the fallen British empire and inviting the United States to step into its shoes.
These ideas seem to me to embody a grand misreading of events. Ignatieff and Ferguson appear to look at twentieth century history as a contest among empires that was won by the United States, opening the way for it to run the world. As I see it, however, the United States is likely to prove the last of the long series of imperial tenpins that have been knocked down not by other empires but by local independence struggles. Once it has become clear to everyone that the American imperial bid has failed, and with it the entire age-old imperial enterprise, we can return to the mountainous real work of our time, which is to put together what we have never had but now must create – an anti-imperial, democratic way of organizing the world.
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. North Korea, a member of the President's "Axis of Evil" has reportedly become a nuclear power, in defiance of the explicit threats made by the global hegemon. Iran, another Axis member, is heading down the same path. The long-awaited recovery of the American economy, like the empire it is supposed to support, is stalling. American forces are stretched to the breaking point around the world. World opinion on all continents has turned against the United States. But the centerpiece of the imperial endeavor is of course the war in Iraq, as Ignatieff recognized in his pre-war essay, in which he wrote that Iraq was "a defining moment in America's long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic."
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 Israel intelligence agencies was needed to grasp this lesson. It was writ large in the annals of twentieth century history, including the voluminous records of the United States' defeat in Vietnam. The lessons of Vietnam remain important not because the Vietnamese nation resembles the Iraqi nation but because Vietnam was America's very own, protracted, anguished experience of the almost universal story of imperial defeat at the hands of local peoples determined to run their own countries.
Like every other chapter in the long history of the fight against empire, the war in Iraq has had its peculiar features. When the United States arrived in Baghdad, there was no pre-existing popular resistance movement (or movements) in place – Saddam Hussein had seen to that – , as there had been when the American military arrived in force in Vietnam. Neither was there any apparatus of an imperial puppet government at hand like Ngo Dinh Diem's in Vietnam. Instead, there was a double political vacuum. The consequence was anarchy, immediately visible in the looting of the country in the days following the conquest. Now, that vacuum is being filled on one side. Movements of national resistance have arisen in both the Sunni north and the Shiite south. (The Kurdish population is friendly to the United States but not to the Iraq that the United States wants it to join.) On the American side, a former Baathist official and CIA asset, Iyad Allawi, does the bidding of the United States without benefit of popular support. The contest has assumed a form distressingly familiar from other anti-imperial movements. The local resistors are weak militarily but strong politically. The imperial masters are powerful militarily but nearly helpless politically. History teaches that in these contests, it is political power that prevails. The shameful and piteous slaughter throughout southern Iraq of Iraqi Shiites, the people the United States supposedly went to war to save, has the look of one of those victorious battles that loses the war.
But the full truth may be that the war in Iraq was lost before it was launched. The preemptive war was pre-lost. The problem was not the Bush Administration's incompetence, great as that has been, but the incurable incapacity of any foreign conqueror to win local hearts and minds, on which everything, in the last analysis, depends.
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 Washington thunders his instructions to the five continents but is often disregarded. America's military power is "super," but its use seems to hurt the user. Perhaps the American empire was pre-fallen. It seems not so much to rise or fall as, all at the same time, to expand and contract, to thunder and retreat.
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 Iraq, and they still have substantial reasons for doing so. But surely it would be as much a mistake to assume the triumph of an American imperial system while the issue is still in the balance as it was for the president to proclaim "mission accomplished" on the USS Abraham Lincoln shortly after American troops had taken Baghdad.
The new imperialists told us that the United States could run the world if only it snapped out of denial and got on with the job. The results are before our eyes. Is the United States then a globe-straddling empire? Not just yet – and maybe never.