Friday, February 01, 2008

American Empire II: What Constitutes a 21st Century Empire?


The word "empire" usually conjures up an image of a vast military and bureaucratic machine which forces the world's peoples to do its bidding by force.
Rome, Imperial China, Great Britain in the 19th century . . . But the truly enduring empires of history actually operate on a much different principle: offer a stable trading system which enables participants to live better than they could in the previous regime, or in any alternative regime.

This is, in effect, what the West has offered China and Russia, and China in particular has opted in with spectacular results. By results, I don't mean creating Shanghai millionaires, I mean lifting hundreds of millions from extreme rural poverty to a much higher and more hopeful standard of living.

Does opting into the West's stable trading system offer a better life than either Maoist Communism or the Soviet alternative? Clearly, those systems failed their people and were effectively bankrupt dead-ends. (Yes, Natural Selection occurs in culture and economy, too.)

Foreign Affairs magazine (which I have long recommended to you) ran a brilliant exposition of this very mechanism: The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?


The rise of China will undoubtedly be one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century. The U.S.-Chinese power transition can be very different from those of the past because China faces an international order that is fundamentally different from those that past rising states confronted.

China does not just face the United States; it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations. The nuclear revolution, meanwhile, has made war among great powers unlikely -- eliminating the major tool that rising powers have used to overturn international systems defended by declining hegemonic states. Today's Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join.

This unusually durable and expansive order is itself the product of farsighted U.S. leadership. After World War II, the United States did not simply establish itself as the leading world power. It led in the creation of universal institutions that not only invited global membership but also brought democracies and market societies closer together. It built an order that facilitated the participation and integration of both established great powers and newly independent states.

(It is often forgotten that this postwar order was designed in large part to reintegrate the defeated Axis states and the beleaguered Allied states into a unified international system.) Today, China can gain full access to and thrive within this system. And if it does, China will rise, but the Western order -- if managed properly -- will live on.

Put another way: China is prospering by joining the Empire, not overthrowing it. If we view stable trading networks as the lifeblood of Empire, then we realise chaos, disorder and conflict are stable trading's--and thus Empire's--natural enemies. To the degree that China is wlling to support and maintain stable trading routes and systems, China is in this sense a partner in an Empire essentially established in the ruins of World War II by the U.S. and its exhausted Allies.

An enduring Empire is also based on ideas. While it may seem the "Big Idea" in Empire boils down to, "do what we say or we kill you," (and this certainly a compelling, if terribly coercive, notion), there has to be some intellectual structure which is compelling beyond force.

Great conquerers, after all, usually see their empires melt into the sands of time within their own lifetime. (Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, et. al.)

Turning yet again to Foreign Affairs, we find a review of a book which outlines the four big ideas which have enabled the American-Western Empire to shape the modern world: God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World

Here is the review: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: The Making of the Modern World


Walter Russell Mead laments at the beginning of God and Gold, "The study of British history and culture has about vanished from American schools today; as a result, many Americans are unaware of just how deep the connection between the two countries go."


Mead sets out to dispel that ignorance, but his deeper purpose is to expound a thesis: that the modern world is the creation of the United Kingdom and the United States.This, Mead writes, is "the biggest geopolitical story in modern times: the birth, rise, triumph, defense, and continuing growth of Anglo-American power despite continuing and always renewed opposition and conflict."

In his view, militarily, politically, economically, and culturally, their will has prevailed, first with the United Kingdom leading, then with the United States taking over. To describe the United Kingdom and the United States as Anglo-Saxon countries is to describe not their ethnic makeup but their culture -- to underline how it differs from that of the world at large and even from that of the rest of the West.

Mead sees Anglo-Saxon culture and its success across the globe as the product of four elements:

1. a slowly evolved liberal political system amenable to compromise, adjustment, and innovation;
2. a Protestant religious tradition that has become tolerant enough to accommodate different sects and accept the separation of church and state while retaining a strong sense of purpose;
3. a capitalist system preoccupied with material wealth not for its own sake but because of "a passion for growth, for achievement, for change";
4. a maritime strategy, initially borrowed from the Dutch, that has used both the freedom of action provided by detachment from the European mainland and ready access to the rest of the globe to manipulate the world's balance of power.

Each of these four elements has in itself been a powerful force for change. And each has supported and reinforced the others, constituting a virtuous circle whose impact has been dynamic and self-perpetuating.


It is popular to focus on the U.S. military's global presence and declare the burdens of Empire too great to sustain. While I understand the underlying motive for this view--a desire that the Empire would or should crumble--it is largely unsupported by facts.

The fact is the U.S. Military consumes a historically modest percentage of the U.S. GDP (roughly $500 billion from $14 trillion, with about $100 billion of that being spent directly on the Iraq war) and the U.S., despite a horrendously unpopular war, maintains a volunteer Armed Forces. (We are not yet recruiting Hessians to stamp out rebellions in the colonies.) The entire U.S. Armed Forces are about 1% of the adult population-- hardly an unbearable burden for a nation of over 300 million citizens.

(Note: If the U.S. slides into a Great Depression, the current Military budget will indeed become unsupportable.)

Most of the hundreds of bases dotted around the globe are modest in scope. Recall that Britain dominated India not with a vast army (their entire force numbered around 35,000) but by politically and economically controlling those who ruled the Indian states. This is not to say that Empire is a "good thing," but merely to note the burdens of Empire are not as great as is popularly stated.

The key to military domination is power projection. This is the Dutch Maritime Strategy, which remains the fundamental element of U.S. strategy: maintain a mobile sea-based force which can sail anywhere in the world in a matter of days.

In the 1600s, this meant large, well-armed sailing ships. Today, it means carrier task forces which can bring an entire air force (Navy and Marine aircraft) to bear virtually anywhere in the world. (Recall the planet is mostly ocean.) Large, costly concentrations of troops are only required for active warfare or regional stability (i.e. maintaining troops in South Korea, Japan and Germany).

I have often decried the lack of impact the Iraq War is having on the American populace at large, i.e. those who do not have family members or friends "In Theater," but I have to confess that it does not; the burdens of the war are falling almost exclusively on combatants and their loved ones. People don't like the war, but it has no impact on them unless they know someone who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

So what's my point here? Just to suggest that Empire is far more than military dominance, and it has always been more about "opting in" to a regime which offers better opportunities than any alternative regime. Has much of the world's populace truly opted in, or have they been coerced? Undoubtedly some of both. But the Grand Experiments in alternative systems-- Maoist China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, et. al.--have failed to attract anyone to "opt in." Instead, people "opted out" of those systems once given a chance.

When we speak of enduring Empire, we need to keep that choice in mind.

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