Actually, the existence of any such imperial ambitions is generally denied, even though the US has been an expansionist power almost since its inception. The inter-war years of "isolationism" are the great exception, not the natural way of things. At least not in Washington. Still, we are where we are. Two recent columns, by Thomas Friedman and David Frum respectively, are worth considering when one ponders the state and fate of the American Empire.
First, Friedman writes about the anti-American "Narrative" that dominates muslim opinion. This, he says, is most unfair since:
As Daniel Larison says, what this really means is that Friedman wants "Muslims to think like Pan-Islamists when it serves Washington’s purposes (i.e., when it is supposed to make Muslims favorably disposed to us), but Muslims must never think like Pan-Islamists when it doesn’t."“
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny— in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
In one sense it is charming that the Cousins retain such a faith in their own idealism; in another it's infuriating that they so often fail - Friedman being a regular exemplar of this - to appreciate that their idealism is a pretty cloak for America's self-interest. There would be less wrong with this if America's great idealism were applied more consistently. But since it isn't it's unwise to boast too much about it or to pretend that it's the only motivation for US foreign policy and that if only this were more perfectly understood all would be well.
To take but one obvious example: if US foreign policy is "largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims" or freeing them from tyranny, then why, the Muslim Street might reasonably ask, does the US support repressive dictatorships in Egypt and Libya and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere? American fears that something "worse" might replace these regimes (add Pakistan to the list) are not unreasonable but nor is it unreasonable for Muslims to look at US policy in its entireity and conclude that it's hypocritical, selective in its idealism and, fundamentally, a question of asserting American power.
To put it another way, listening to Friedman you might think the US only plays the role of Good Samaritan and (almost) never acts out of self-interest. Sometimes, as in the case of WW2, these roles overlap but here too the American "narrative" dramatically downplays all the many ways in which the United States benefited from the war. Ackowledging that doesn't cheapen the sacrifice of so many soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen, it merely puts it into some kind of proper context and allows us to take a disapassionate view of these things.
Meanwhile, David Frum makes a good point about Dubai's financial crisis:
Dubai’s banking sector could exist only because it was backed by an implicit security guarantee from the United States. The credibility of that guarantee was spectacularly enhanced by the first Gulf War of 1990-91, and not so coincidentally Dubai took off soon afterward.
As with Dubai, so with so many other emerging economic powers, from South Korea to Chile. Their wealth depends on security provided to them by the United States.
This is the Pax Americana in operation and it's true that the security guarantees given by the United States have been hugely beneficial for millions, perhaps even billions, of people around the world. We should be grateful for that. David, I think, disputes this idea of empire and takes the view that it strips the word of any significant meaning. But there are different types of empire and they maintain their interests in different ways. Argentina, for instance, was never a formal part of the British Empire but in the 19th century it was so dependent upon the London bond market that it was, to all intents and purposes, part of the Informal Empire.“
Far from indicating a “post-American world,” the skyscrapers of Dubai are symbols of that American world as much as the monuments of American cities. Arguably even more so: Every rich country has skyscrapers, but there is only one that can be counted on to defend the skyscrapers of others.
The end of the Cold War could have changed some of this. But rather than retreat, the US actually expanded. The world, famously, became uni-polar. In addition to its financial interests and leadership, the Cousins maintained their network of bases around the globe. The message was clear: the US is prepared to intervene in any country on earth. Just as importantly, it maintained the capability of so intervening.
But where there was once a balance of power there is now an imbalance of risk. The free-rider problem is real. Other countries, not merely in western europe, have relied upon US protection so heavily that they are now largely incapable of making large-scale interventions themselves. They need the Americans. One consequence of this is that when the Americans actually ask for help there is not much their allies can usefully offer. This strengthens the American view that the US is having to shoulder too much of the burden itself. There's something to this. But if that's the case then it's partly also because America's allies appreciate that the US will do what it must in order to safeguard its interests and so, even when our own self-interest might be aligned with theirs, the less risky option is to let them go ahead on their own since they're going to do it anyway. Without the Soviet Bear, Washington's ability to leverage support is actually more limited even as its own power has increased.
And some of this is the result of past US policy. For instance, the Cousins have been opposed to the development of any independent european defence capability. There are sound reasons for preferring everything to be organised through NATO but that insistence upon American leadership has also, conveniently, made everyone still more reliant upon the US. (This may also, of course, have prevented wars or disastrous military adventures that might have occurred if other countries' armies were beefier.)
First in war and first in peace is how Washington likes to think of itself and that's a useful reminder that American policy is founded upon the principles that the United States must remain the world's indispensable nation and that American hegemony must be preserved. On the whole, I'd rather have the Yanks play this role than anyone else and most of the time it's been for the best anyway.
The triumph of American-led capitalism, however tarnished it may look right now, has been a Good Thing too, but there's no point in pretending that the Washington Consensus wasn't also about power and self-interest as well as being a well-intentioned belief that US economic liberalism offered a better deal for the rest of the world as well as the United States.
As I say, on the whole American leadership has been good for the world but that doesn't mean the US is perfect by any means. David Frum is more realistic than Thomas Friedman and thank heaven for that. Alas, Friedman's belief that American flexes its muscles with Cincinnatian Reluctance is naive at best and pernicious at worst.