|Struggling to get a handle on U.S. foreign
policy? For starters, try dusting off your Livy and boning up on the Second
Punic War. Or dip into a good history of 19th-century Britain, paying close
attention to those dazzling military campaigns in the Middle East - the
Battle of Omdurman, say, or the Second Afghan War.
Today, America is no mere superpower or hegemon but a full-blown empire in
the Roman and British sense. That, at any rate, is the consensus of some of
the most notable U.S. commentators and scholars.
"People are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire,'" said the
conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. "The fact is no country has been
as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the
history of the world since the Roman Empire."
Americans are used to being told - typically by resentful foreigners - that
they are imperialists. But lately some of the nation's own eminent thinkers
are embracing the idea. More astonishing, they are using the term with
approval. From the isolationist right to the imperialist-bashing left, a
growing number of experts are issuing stirring paeans to American empire.
The Weekly Standard kicked off the parade early last fall with "The Case for
American Empire," by The Wall Street Journal's editorial features editor,
Max Boot. Quoting the title of Patrick Buchanan's last book, "America: A
Republic, not an Empire," Boot said, "This analysis is exactly backward: the
Sept. 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and
ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more
assertive in their implementation."
Calling for the military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, Boot cited the
stabilizing effect of 19th-century British rule in the region. "Afghanistan
and other troubled lands today," he wrote, "cry out for the sort of
enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident
Englishmen in jodphurs and pith helmets."
Since then, the empire idea has caught on. In January, Charles Fairbanks, a
foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, told an audience at
Michigan State University that America was "an empire in formation." Last
month, a Yale University professor, Paul Kennedy - who 10 years ago was
predicting America's ruin from imperial overreach - went further.
"Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power," Kennedy wrote in
the Financial Times of London. "The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap,
Britain's army was much smaller than European armies and even the Royal Navy
was equal only to the next two navies - right now all the other navies in
the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy. Napoleon's
France and Philip II's Spain had powerful foes and were part of a multipolar
system. Charlemagne's empire was merely western European in its stretch. The
Roman Empire stretched further afield, but there was another great empire in
Persia and a larger one in China. There is no comparison."
The most extended statement from the empire camp to date is "Warrior
Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos" (Random House, 2001), a
recent book by the journalist Robert Kaplan.
Arguing that "times have changed less than we think," Kaplan suggests the
nation's leaders turn to ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers - as well as
Winston Churchill's 1899 account of the British conquest of the Sudan - for
helpful hints about how to navigate today's world. He devotes a chapter to
the Second Punic War ("Rome's victory in the Second Punic War, like
America's in World War II, made it a universal power") and one to the
cunning Emperor Tiberius. Granted, the emperor was something of a despot,
writes Kaplan. Still, he "combined diplomacy with the threat of force to
preserve a peace that was favorable to Rome."
If that sounds familiar, you've got the right idea. "Our future leaders
could do worse than be praised for their tenacity, their penetrating
intellects and their ability to bring prosperity to distant parts of the
world under America's soft imperial influence," Kaplan writes. "The more
successful our foreign policy, the more leverage America will have in the
world. Thus, the more likely that future historians will look back on
21st-century United States as an empire as well as a republic, however
different from that of Rome and every other empire throughout history."
Classicists may scoff at the idea that democratic America has much in common
with the tyrannical Rome of Augustus or Nero. But the empire camp points out
that however unlikely the comparison, America has often behaved like a
conquering empire. As Kennedy put it, "From the time the first settlers
arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an
imperial nation, a conquering nation."
America's imperial behavior continues today. "The United States has bases or
base rights in 40 countries," he said. "In the assault on Al Qaeda and the
Taliban, they moved warships from Britain, Japan, Germany, Southern Spain
Today, the empire scholars acknowledge that America tends to operate not
through brute force but through economic, cultural and political means. The
idea seems to be that it is easier to turn other people into Americans than
for Americans to make war on them.
"We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join," Boot said.
And that, empire enthusiasts say, is the reason to root for a Pax Americana.
In an anarchic world, with rogue states and terrorist cells, a globally
dominant United States offers the best hope for peace and stability, they
"There's a positive side to empire," Kaplan said. "It's in some ways the
most benign form of order."