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By Richard M. Ebeling - Future of Freedom Foundation
Fifty years ago, the classical liberal author and journalist Garet Garrett published a collection of essays called The People's Pottage (1953). In the midst of the Korean War, he tried to persuade the American people that the United States was on a new course that conflicted with the original conception of the nation. Its constitutional safeguards for the preservation of freedom were being threatened and undermined by the role the government was assuming around the world.
The specific danger was reflected in the title of one of the essays in the volume, The Rise of Empire. Garrett summarized what he considered the requisite signs of the emerging American Empire. First, the executive power of the government becomes increasingly dominant. The traditional institutional restraints and balances on the three branches of government are weakened, with more and more discretionary power and authority shifting to the office of the president. Congress plays an increasingly subservient role, with lawmaking and regulatory decision-making transferred to bureaus and departments under the executive's control.
Second, domestic-policy issues become increasingly subordinate to foreig-policy matters. Out of the ashes of the Second World War, Garrett argued, the United States had taken on the status and position of a global policeman responsible for the "the peace of the world." To fulfill this task, all other matters become of secondary importance. Threats and military actions around the globe place the American people more and more in harm's way. And in the middle of the inevitable crises that come with global military commitments, "sacrifices" of freedom at home are required to ensure "national survival" in the face of unending dangers on every continent where U.S. forces stand at the ready.
Third, Empire threatens to result in the ascendancy of the military mind over the civilian mind. Civil society places the dignity and privacy of the individual at the center of social affairs. Commerce and trade are the peaceful and voluntary means and methods by which people interact for mutual improvement of their lives. The military mind, on the other hand, imposes hierarchy and control over all those under the direction of the commander in chief. The successful pursuit of the "mission" always takes precedence over the individual and his life. And Empire, by necessity, places increasing importance on military prowess and presence at the expense of civilian life and its network of noncoercive, market relationships.
Fourth, Empire creates a system of satellite nations. As Garrett explained it, "From the point of view of Empire the one fact common to all satellites is that their security is deemed vital to the security of the Empire.... The Empire, in its superior strength, assumes responsibility for the security and the well being of the satellite nation, and the satellite nation undertakes to stand with its back to the Empire and face the common enemy."
Fifth, Empire brings with it both arrogance and fear among the imperial people. As the citizens of the nation that takes on the role of "master of the world," the people increasingly consider themselves all-powerful and superior to those over whom their government has assumed guardianship. More and more on the tongue of the citizens and their political spokesmen are references to "our" superior values, as well as "our" power and importance in all things in the world. Yet at the same time, Empire brings fear. Enemies and threats are now all around the people of the Empire, creating fears of attack and destruction from any corner of the world. Even the "friends" among other nations create suspicion and doubt about their loyalty and dependability in moments of crisis.
And, finally, Empire creates the illusion that a nation is a prisoner of history. The language of Empire contains such phases and ideas as "it is our time to maintain the peace of the world," or "it is our responsibility to save civilization and serve mankind." There emerges a sense and an attitude of inevitability, that "if not us, then who?" Empire becomes the burden we, the imperial people, not only must bear but from which we have no escape. "Destiny" has marked us for duty and greatness.
An empire in everything but name.
For most of the 50 years since Garrett outlined what he considered the characteristics of the emerging American Empire, most political and foreign policy analysts have denied that America was or was pursuing an empire. America was part of the world and as such could not walk away from the world's problems: after all, the outcomes of those problems affected the American people as well. Military alliances with multitudes of other nations, military bases around the globe, tens of billions of dollars spent on foreign and military aid to numerous governments on every continent, and two protracted and bloody wars on the Asian mainland, were not signs of empire. They were merely the burden created by an unbalanced world in the wake of the destruction of the Second World War.
With the end of the Cold War, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was believed and hoped that the era of America's military presence around the world could be, if not eliminated, at least significantly reduced. Instead, new burdens were now seen to require continuing U.S. political and military "leadership." The end of communism released national and ethnic conflicts in parts of Eastern Europe that 50 years of socialist dictatorships had only repressed. At the same time, "rogue states" and religious fanatics in those areas labeled "the third world" during the Cold War era seemed to threaten continuing political instability and mad acts of large-scale terrorism - especially after the events of September 11, 2001.
How shall America respond and what shall be its continuing role on the world stage? After decades of denial that what American political and military power had created around the globe was, indeed, a form of empire, the word has now had a positive rebirth. The January 13, 2003, cover story of U.S. News & World Report was The New American Empire? The author summarized the policy tendencies that suggest that the United States is on the path of empire and is likely to continue down it.
Unilateralism in a unipolar world
An essential element in following this path is the concept of "unilateralism," the idea that America must and should act alone politically and militarily around the world whenever necessary, guided by its own notion of its duty to mankind. This theme has been articulated by the Pulitzer Prize winner and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, most recently in his article "The Unipolar Moment Revisited," in The National Interest (Winter 2002/03). He argues that since the end of the Soviet Union, America has held a unique place on the world stage. It is a vast colossus that produces almost one-third of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and spends more on military preparedness than the next 20 nations together. Its culture and language dominate world commerce, entertainment, science and technology, and lifestyles. No other nation comes anywhere near it -nor should any other nation be allowed to, in Krauthammer's view. It is now a "unipolar world" with only America the one great power. And America must dominate the world if order, stability, freedom, democracy, and justice are to be preserved and extended for mankind.
Krauthammer calls for political and military "unilateralism" on the part of the United States precisely so it will be hamstrung by neither alliance partners nor any of the international organizations of which it is a member. He says that America is not an imperial power desiring to rule other countries for natural resources, nor does it want to impose "a grand vision of a new world," and it has "no great desire to remake human nature." So what is it dominating the world for? Besides its own self-defense, American unilateralism has two goals: "extending the peace by advancing democracy and preserving the peace by acting as balancer of last resort.... America's unique global power allows it to be the balancer in every region." In the pursuit of these things, "America must be guided by its own independent judgment, both about its own interest and about the global interest." There must be no "handcuffing of American power."
He revels in the idea of this unipolar world over which he considers the United States the ruler. And he wants nothing to threaten its preservation. "The new unilateralism argues explicitly and unashamedly for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America's unrivaled dominance for the foreseeable future." And at the end of his article, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, he says to his readers, "History has given you an empire, if you will keep it."
Also making a case for an imperial role for the United States is Deepak Lal, professor of international development studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Lal has long been a leading opponent of central planning and regulation in developing countries and a strong advocate of free markets and competition. On October 30, 2002, he delivered a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., entitled In Defense of Empires. Lal argues that empires undeservedly have had a bad name in the 20th century. In his view, "The major argument in favor of empires is that, through their pax, they provide the most basic of public goods - order - in an anarchical international society of states."
Among the great tragedies resulting from the First World War, he believes, was the beginning of the end to the European, and especially British, empires around the world. In the 19th century they had created and maintained a system of international free trade, protected property rights, legally enforced contracts, and secured a global arena for investment and economic development. In their place arose political and economic nationalism that created the chaos of the 1920s and 1930s, which culminated in the Second World War. Now, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, the world is confronted with the same dangers that it faced in the period between the world wars: nationalist and ideological demagogues and religious fanatics. America, therefore, must accept the mantle of global empire for the good of the world and its own well-being. It must do for mankind in the 21st century what the European empires did in the 19th century.
Lal's only hesitation is that America may try to make the world over in its own image in the pursuit and maintenance of its empire. He says, "The so-called universal values being promoted by the West are no more than the culture-specific, proselytizing ethic of what remains at heart Western Christendom," including the "Western value" of liberty. But "many civilizations have placed social order above this value, and again it would be imperialistic for the West to ask [other cultures and religions] to change their ways." He fears that "if the West ties its moral crusade too closely to the emerging processes of globalization and modernization, there is the danger that there will be a backlash against the process of globalization." And this "potential cultural imperialism poses a greater danger to the acceptance of a new Pax America in developing countries, particularly Muslim countries" than any other basis for resisting America's political and military dominance around the world. But for discussing what America's purpose is in having and managing a global empire, Lal concludes that a good beginning "would be the acceptance in domestic politics that the U.S. is an imperial power."
History does not dictate an American empire
History does not dictate that America continue on its path to global empire, any more than history dictated the "inevitability" of class conflict leading to a socialist paradise or that history dictated the domination of the world by an Aryan "master race." If America follows this direction it will be because the political elite and the American public choose to do so. It will be a conscious decision, and not fate or destiny. The question, then, is, is this a course that is best for America and the world? And the answer, for any advocate of freedom, must be that it is not.
Deepak Lal tries to minimize the cost of an American Empire by pointing out that in 2000 defense spending in the United States amounted only to a little over 3 percent of GDP. But even ignoring the increases in the defense budget that have been proposed by the Bush administration, that still comes out to about $300 billion. Over 10 years that would add up to $3 trillion: expressed differently, the American people will work and pay taxes that will equal almost one and a half years of the cost of government over the next decade just to maintain and man the American Empire. And this ignores the deaths of Americans and the destruction of their property during the coming years due to any wars or terrorist acts that result from resistance or retaliation by those opposed to the American Empire.
Lal also wistfully looks back to the British Empire of the 19th century and wants America to now serve as the global guardian of international order and commerce. But he confuses Empire with the prevailing ideology of that earlier time. In spite of having an empire, the British in particular were wedded to the political philosophy of classical liberalism. They managed their global empire as a free-trade zone, not because it was an empire but because the intellectuals and most people in Britain believed in the idea and ideal of personal liberty and economic laissez faire.
During these years of the 19th century, other European powers, especially the French, the Germans and the Belgians, ran their empires along far more exclusionary and protectionist lines meant to serve special-interest groups in the mother country. All of these empires were maintained and ruled with military force, with the French, Germans and Belgians in particular often extremely brutal and cruel in their domination of the subject groups in Africa and Asia. And even the British could be merciless in their use of force to maintain their empire against the wishes of their subject peoples.
The ideas of free trade and economic liberalism do not guide governments in the 21st century, including the government of the United States. Domestic economic interventionism, the welfare state, and political regulation of commerce and trade through international organizations are the guiding ideas of our time, as they have been for many decades. And the foreign-policy pronouncements and policy goals of the Bush administration suggest no change in direction. (See Freedom Daily, "A Regulated-Economy Agreement for the Americas" [July 2001] and "The Dangers and Costs of Pax America" [December 2002].) Abusive power, corruption, and special interest favoritism are inseparable from the interventionist-welfare state, whether it is practiced in domestic or foreign policy. Thus, there is little reason to think that America would be any more humane in its imperial role than the European empires of the past.
Unilateralism and the imperial presidency
Krauthammer's American unilateralism in a unipolar world is more than unilateral action by the U.S. government in other parts of the world. It means presidential unilateralism in making those decisions here at home. As Bob Woodward points out in his book Bush at War, when he asked the president whether he ever felt that he needed to explain anything as he planned a possible attack on Iraq, Bush replied, "Of course not. . . . I'm the commander " see, I don't need to explain " I don't need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." What remains of the traditional conception of limited, constitutional government with separation of powers and Congressional responsibility for declarations of war when the president of the United States believes that he owes no one any explanation for what he says or does when it comes to military conflict? With Empire inevitably comes the "imperial presidency."
Krauthammer may be the schizophrenic victim of his own rhetoric when he says that America has no desire to remake the rest of the world and in the next breath says that the task of America's empire is to spread Western-style democracy and values around the world. But this goal, as Lal correctly sees, threatens the conception of a benign American Empire that polices the peace and guarantees the order of the world while attempting to indoctrinate the people of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to accepting superior Western thinking and ideals. The issue is not whether the traditional Western ideas of liberty, property, rule of law, and limited government are good and right - any classical liberal considers that they are. The issue is whether they can be force-fed to people not willing to accept them on those terms. And it is hardly imaginable that the American people, flush with the hubris of imperial power and indoctrinated themselves by intellectuals and political leaders about the "destiny" and "historical mission" of America to save the world, will be willing to bear the financial and human burden of Empire if they do not think that the end product will be to make the rest of the world just like the "superior" U.S. of A.
This means that Empire will be a costly, frustrating, and burdensome affair. It will require the expenditure of many lives and vast fortunes. And it will undermine what remains of the free society and the market economy here in the United States. At the end of The Rise of Empire", Garrett said that the American people could have back their limited, constitutional republic if they were willing to fight for it. But people fight only when they know what they have lost and what they still have to lose.
Richard Ebeling is the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Michigan and serves as vice president of academic affairs at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va.
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