The Compulsive Empire

Worried about the aggressive and unilateral exercise of U.S. power around the world today? Fine -- just don't blame U.S. President George W. Bush, September 11, or some shadowy neoconservative cabal. Nations enjoying unrivaled global power have always defined their national interests in increasingly expansive terms. Resisting this historical mission creep is the greatest challenge the United States faces today.

The United States today controls a greater share of world power than any other country since the emergence of the nation-state system. Nevertheless, recent U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton still cultivated allies and strove to maintain large coalitions. They considered such strategies the best way for the United States to secure desired behavior from others, minimize costs to the nation, and most smoothly manage a complex and contentious world.

By contrast, the fundamental objective of the current Bush doctrine — which seeks to universalize U.S. values and defend preventively against new, nontraditional threats — is the establishment of U.S. hegemony, primacy, or empire. This stance was precipitated both by the election of George W. Bush (who brought to the presidency a more unilateral outlook) and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Indeed, Bush’s transformation after September 11 may parallel his earlier religious conversion: Just as coming to Christ gave meaning to his previously dissolute personal life, so the war on terrorism has become the defining characteristic of his foreign policy and his sacred mission. We can only speculate on what a President Al Gore would have done in the same situation; but while Gore probably would have invaded Afghanistan, he most likely would not have adopted anything like the Bush doctrine.

To some extent, then, the new assertiveness of U.S. hegemony is accidental, the product of a reaction of personalities and events. Yet deeper factors reveal that if this shift in policy was an accident, it was also an accident waiting to happen. The forceful and unilateral exercise of U.S. power is not simply the by-product of September 11, the Bush administration, or some shadowy neoconservative cabal — it is the logical outcome of the current unrivaled U.S. position in the international system.

Put simply, power is checked most effectively by counterbalancing power, and a state that is not subject to severe external pressures tends to feel few restraints at all. Spreading democracy and liberalism throughout the world has always been a U.S. goal, but having so much power makes this aim a more realistic one. It is not as if the Middle East has suddenly become more fertile ground for American ideals; it’s just that the United States now has the means to impose its will. The quick U.S. triumph in Afghanistan contributed to the expansion of Washington’s goals, and the easy military victory in Iraq will encourage an even broader agenda. The Bush administration is not worried its new doctrine of preventive war will set a precedent for other nations, because U.S. officials believe the dictates that apply to others do not bind the United States. That is not a double standard, they argue; it is realistic leadership.


Great power also instills new fears in the dominant state. A hegemon tends to acquire an enormous stake in world order. As power expands, so does a state’s definition of its own interests. Most countries are concerned mainly with what happens in their immediate neighborhoods; but for a hegemon, the world is its neighborhood, and it is not only hubris that leads lone superpowers to be concerned with anything that happens anywhere. However secure states are, they can never feel secure enough. If they are powerful, governments will have compelling reasons to act early and thus prevent others from harming them in the future. The historian John S. Galbraith identified the dynamic of the "turbulent frontier" that produced unintended colonial expansions. For instance, as European powers gained enclaves in Africa in the late 19th century, usually along a coast or river, they also gained unpacified boundaries that needed policing. That led to further expansion of influence and often of settlement, in turn producing new zones of threat and new areas requiring protection. This process encounters few natural limits.

Similarly, the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to the establishment of U.S. bases and security commitments in Central Asia — one of the last areas in the globe without them. It is not hard to imagine the United States being drawn further into regional politics, even to the point of deploying military force against terrorist or guerrilla movements that arise there, perhaps as a reaction to the hegemon’s presence. (The same dynamic could easily play out in Colombia.)

The Bush administration’s motives may not be selfish; rather, the combination of power, fear, and perceived opportunity lead it to seek to reshape global politics and various societies around the world. In the administration’s eyes, the world cannot stand still. Without strong U.S. intervention, the international environment will become more menacing to the United States and its values, but strong action can help increase global security and produce a better world.

Such reasoning helps elucidate recent international disagreements about U.S. policy toward Iraq. Most of the explanations for the French-led opposition centered either on France’s preoccupation with glory and its traditional disdain for the United States or on the peaceful European worldview induced by the continent’s success in overcoming historical rivalries and submitting to the rule of law. Or, in neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan’s terms, "Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus."

But are Europeans really so averse to force, so wedded to law? When facing terrorism, Germany and other European countries have not hesitated to employ unrestrained state power the likes of which U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft would envy, and their current treatment of minorities, especially Muslims, hardly seems liberal. The French disregarded legal rulings against their ban of British beef; they also continue to intervene in Africa and to join other European states in flouting international laws requiring them to allow the import of genetically modified foods. Most European nations also favored the war in Kosovo. Finally, had Europeans suffered a direct attack like that of September 11, it’s unlikely that they would have maintained their aversion to the use of force.

The claims of a deep trans-Atlantic cultural divide overlook the fundamental differences between the European and U.S. positions in the international system. U.S. hegemony has three long-term implications that were in high relief during the debate over U.S. action in Iraq. First, only the United States has the power to do anything about a problem like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein; Europe faces obvious incentives to free ride in such situations. Second, the large European states have every reason to be concerned about U.S. hegemony and seek to constrain it; they understandably fear a world in which their values and interests are served only at Washington’s sufferance. And third, the obsession of U.S. rivals with the role of the U.N. Security Council reflects less an abstract attachment to law and global governance than an appreciation of raw power. France especially, but also Russia and China (two countries that most certainly do not hail from Venus), would gain enormously by establishing the principle that large-scale force can be used only with the approval of the council, of which they are permanent members. Indeed, Security Council membership is one of the major resources at these countries’ disposal. If the council were not central, France’s influence would be reduced to its African protectorates.

Traditional power considerations also explain why many smaller European countries chose to support the United States on Iraq despite hostile public opinion. The dominance these nations fear most is not American but Franco-German. The United States is more powerful, but France and Germany are closer and more likely to overshadow them. Indeed, French and German resentment toward such nations is no more surprising than Washington’s dismissal of "Old Europe." The irony is that even while France and Germany bitterly decried U.S. efforts to hustle them into line, these two nations disparaged and bullied the East European states that sided with Bush — not exactly Venus-like behavior.

Ultimately, the war against Saddam made clear the links between preventive war and hegemony. Bush’s goals are extraordinarily ambitious, involving the remaking not only of international politics but also of recalcitrant societies, which is considered an end in itself as well as a means to U.S. security. The belief of Bush administration officials that Saddam’s regime posed an unacceptable menace to the United States only underscores their extremely expansive definition of those interests. The war is hard to understand if its only purpose was to disarm Saddam or to remove him from power — the danger was simply too remote to justify the effort. But if U.S. officials expect regime change in Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East, to discourage tyrants and energize reformers throughout the world, and to demonstrate the willingness of the United States to ensure a good dose of what the Bush administration considers world order, then the war is a logical part of a larger project. Those who find such fears and hopes excessive would likely agree with the view of British statesman Lord Salisbury, when he opposed intervening against Russia in its conflict with Turkey in 1877–78. "It has generally been acknowledged to be madness to go to war for an idea," he maintained, "but if anything is more unsatisfactory, it is to go to war against a nightmare."


The United States is the strongest country in the world, yet its power remains subject to two familiar limitations: First, it is harder to build than to destroy. Second, success inevitably depends on others, because even a hegemon needs some external cooperation to achieve its objectives. Of course, countries like Syria and Iran cannot ignore U.S. military capabilities. They may well decide to limit their weapons of mass destruction programs and curtail support for terrorism, as Bush expects. But the prospects for long-run compliance are less bright. Although a frontal assault on U.S. interests is unlikely, highly motivated adversaries will not give up the quest to advance their own perceived interests. The war in Iraq has increased the risks of seeking nuclear weapons, for example, but it also has increased the rewards of obtaining them. Whatever else these weapons can do, they can deter all-out invasion, thus rendering them attractive to any state that fears it might be in the Pentagon’s gun sights.

U.S. military strength matters less in relations with allies, and probably also with countries such as Russia, from whom the United States seeks support on a range of issues such as sharing highly sensitive information on terrorism, rebuilding failed states, and managing the international economy. The danger is not that Europe (or even "Old Europe") will counter the United States in the traditional balance-of-power sense, because such a dynamic is usually driven by fears that the dominant state will pose a military threat. Nevertheless, political resistance remains possible, and the fate of the U.S. design for world order lies in the hands of Washington’s allies more than its adversaries. Although the United States governs many of the incentives that allies and prospective supporters face, Washington cannot coerce cooperation along the full range of U.S. interests. Perhaps weaker states will decide they are better off by permitting and encouraging assertive U.S. hegemony, which would allow them to reap the benefits from world order while being spared most of the costs. They may also conclude that any challenge to the United States would fail or could incite a dangerous new rivalry.

But the behavior of current and potential U.S. allies will depend on their judgments about several questions: Can the U.S. domestic political system sustain the Bush doctrine in the long run? Will Washington accept allied influence and values? Will it pressure Israel as well as the Palestinians to reach a final peace settlement? More generally, will the United States seek to advance the broad interests of the diverse countries and peoples of the world, or will it exploit its power for its own narrow political, economic, and social interests? Bush’s worldview offers little place for other states — even democracies — beyond membership in a supporting cast. Conflating broad interests with narrow ones and believing one has a monopoly on wisdom is an obvious way for a hegemon to become widely regarded as a tyrant.

In his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush said the United States needed a "more humble foreign policy." But the objectives and conceptions of the Bush doctrine point to quite the opposite. Avoiding this imperial temptation will be the greatest challenge the United States faces.

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