Sunday, December 5, 2010

on empire

Hitler, Churchill, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt--towering figures that the world would never see the likes of again, men who relied on their own resolve, for better or worse, every one of them prepared to act alone, indifferent to approval--indifferent to wealth or love, all presiding over the destiny of mankind and reducing the world to rubble. Coming from a long line of Alexanders and Julius Caesars, Genghis Khans, Charlemagnes, and Napoleans, they carved up the world like a dainty dinner. Whether they parted their hair in the middle or wore a viking helmet, they would not be denied and were impossible to reckon with--rude barbarians stampeding across the earth and hammering out their own ideas of geography. -- Chronicles, Bob Dylan

The American people, to our great credit, have never been imperialists, and the public story fed on the empire was always a version of the satirical quip the ancients used on the Romans, "They conquered an empire defending themselves." But with the fall of the Soviet Union, certain segments of the American "intelligentsia" began to push for an American embrace of, and pride in, empire. This effort was particularly intense after 9/11, but it never moved very far. The Atlantic became a main promoter of imperial propaganda, and Robert Kaplan its hack propagandist in-chief. If you ever read Mr. Kaplan, you will find he's both deeply paranoid and very clever. Amazingly, he has traveled the world being scared witless at pretty much everything he finds. Combined with active tutorial from the great Sith lord himself, Darth Kissinger, Mr. Kaplan became our premier intellectual imperialist. Though he's never had much popular impact, in the great halls of government, far from any democratic interference where the decisions on America's global interests are made, Mr. Kaplan is tragically influential.

So, it's always distressing to see Mr. Kaplan's thinking pop-up, especially in a long op/ed in the Washington Post, where far too many will take it seriously. Mr. Kaplan's piece, as always, is first and foremost a lament for the great days of the Cold War, when one good empire confronted one bad empire. He writes,
Now the other pillar of the relative peace of the Cold War, the United States, is slipping, ...There will be no sudden breakdown on our part, as the United States, unlike the Soviet Union, is sturdily maintained by economic and political freedom. Rather, America's ability to bring a modicum of order to the world is simply fading in slow motion.
He adds,
Currency wars. Terrorist attacks. Military conflicts. Rogue regimes pursuing nuclear weapons. Collapsing states. And now, massive leaks of secret documents. What is the cause of such turbulence? The absence of empire.
Phew, there's so much wrong with this, it's hard to know where to start. As, I stated, Mr. Kaplan's view of the world comes from a very deep, call it an existential fear, those thus frightened are great advocates of order, desperately appealing for its existence even if it's not there. Yes, there was certain "order" to the Cold War world, but to call it orderly is simply crack-pot, just ask South-East Asia, Africa, or Central and great parts of South America. Mr. Kaplan is a great fantasist, but all great empires need their myth-makers.

However, Mr. Kaplan is correct. America's ability to impact the planet to its self-interest is indeed lessening. Most amazingly, it is America's actions of the last 20 years that have most accelerated "the anarchy" Mr. Kaplan most deeply fears. In Mr. Kaplan's eyes, the greatest promoters of our neo-global anarchy are the Chinese and Iranians. He writes,
While the Soviet Union and the United States were both missionary powers motivated by ideals - communism and liberal democracy - through which they might order the world, China has no such grand conception. It is driven abroad by the hunger for natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals and metals) that it requires to raise hundreds of millions of its citizens into the middle class.
and,
Yes, empires impose order, but that order is not necessarily benevolent, as Iran's budding imperial domain shows. U.S. threats against Iran lack credibility precisely because of our imperial fatigue resulting from Iraq and Afghanistan. Out of self-interest we will probably not involve ourselves in another war in the Middle East - even as that very self-interest could consign the region to a nuclear standoff.
To say these statements are incredulous gives them far too much credit. The statement on the Chinese and natural resources has absolutely zero credibility coming from the capital of nation that is 5% of the world's population and uses 25% of the world's resources. America's policy toward the Mid-East has for seventy years been shaped by one concern and one concern only, and sorry AIPAC, it's oil.

Better is Mr. Kaplan's dread of the American foreign policy establishment's greatest fear, the great Iranian threat. Bureaucracies have long memories. It's amusing to hear Mr. Kaplan talk of Iran's "imperial domain", not since Darius right? But in Mr. Kaplan's mind, Iranian imperial influence extends a foot passed their border in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey -- some empire.

Mr. Kaplan finally gets to the real point of his piece, building a bigger navy, for which he's become a prominent shill over the passed few years. He concludes,
Americans rightly lack an imperial mentality. But lessening our engagement with the world would have devastating consequences for humanity. The disruptions we witness today are but a taste of what is to come should our country flinch from its international responsibilities.
Again, most of the disruptions we're observing today are not from America's lessening our engagement with the world, they are in many instances the results of an over half-century Pax Americana. We need to understand one of history's great lessons, the weight of Rome's imperial conquests eventually crushed the republic. In the last fifty years, the US has shaped global events to a greater extent than any nation, led by great promoters of fear and paranoia like Mr. Kaplan. It has had at best mixed results abroad, but it has been completely detrimental domestically. The United States needs to lessen our engagement with the world and begin worrying about our problems at home, we can start by slashing the military budget and our oil use.

At a time, when for the first time in history, a great number of the people living have some notion we share a relatively small and limited planet, America can help lead a world ordered not on the dominant self-interests of one or two countries, but with an understanding of the mutual common interests of six billion souls.

1 comment: