Cover Story

Righteous empire: Imperialism, American-style

While “American imperialism” has been a catchphrase on the left for a long time, people on other parts of the political spectrum are only now beginning to accept the idea that we have entered the age of the American Empire. How well is America prepared to sustain an empire? Not very. Indeed, the deep hostility to government that is part of the American tradition makes the very idea of empire repugnant. If we don’t want a strong government at home, why would we want one strong enough to rule the world?

Interestingly enough, George Bush gave clear expression to this feeling during the 2000 electoral campaign. He consistently opposed what he called “nation-building” as an American responsibility and called for more “humility” in our relation to the rest of the world, striking an isolationist chord that has been perennial in our tradition. Many have noted how much 9/11 changed Bush’s views. But even after laying out in September 2002 the most explicit blueprint in history for American world domination in the document “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” Bush could tell a group of veterans that America has “no territorial ambitions. We don’t seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others.”

Such statements led Michael Ignatieff to comment (in a January 5 article in the New York Times Magazine


A historian once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in “a fit of absence of mind.” If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial. But Sept. 11 was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of American power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed.

In spite of the fact that with respect to the word “empire” Bush is apparently still in a state of denial, his National Security document is nothing if not a description of empire: America will strike any nation or any group that it deems dangerous, whenever and however it feels necessary, and regardless of provocation or lack thereof. America invites allies to join in these ventures but reserves the right to act with or without allies. No nation will be allowed to surpass or even equal American military power, and indeed other nations are advised to limit or destroy any “weapons of mass destruction” they may have, and that includes Russia, China and India. Only the U.S. will have large reserves of weapons of mass destruction, apparently because only we can be trusted to use them justly.

Although the document several times uses the time-honored phrase “balance of power,” it is very unclear what that phrase can mean in a situation where we have all the power and no one else has anything to balance it with.

So we have a paradox: because of our aversion to the idea of big government, our president can deny the idea that there is an American Empire at the very moment when we are asserting absolute military domination of the globe.

How can we understand this peculiarly American approach to empire? Part of the answer lies in understanding our dissenting Protestant tradition. The dissenting Protestants who founded America were suspicious of government. They thought people should do things for themselves through voluntary societies. They were also deeply moralistic. Opposed to the established churches, which happily included saints and sinners, they regarded their own churches as churches of the saved. They tended to see society and the world as split between the righteous and the unrighteous. In that tradition, the desire to triumph over evil can trump the aversion to power. If evil is loose in the world, it is up to us to put a stop to it.

Since 9/11 Bush’s rhetoric has been continuously punctuated by the words “evil” and “evildoer.” Perhaps the most extreme use of the term came in the service in the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, in which Bush declared that it is “our responsibility to history” to “rid the world of evil.”

Robert Jewett has long pointed out the American infatuation with superhero figures with mythic powers whose sole purpose is to rid the world of evil, though they never seem to succeed completely. The superhero is usually fighting against an evil genius bent on world domination who must be stopped. Enter Osama bin Laden. Early on Bush promised to “smoke him out and get him.” That hasn’t worked out, but there is always a waiting line of potential evil geniuses, and the next in line turned out to be Saddam Hussein. Yasir Arafat is also in line, as is Kim Jong Il. If there are evil people out there who want to destroy us—and we must admit that Osama bin Laden, at least, has explicitly promised that that is exactly what he wants to do—then any use of force to put a stop to them is justified.

Splitting the world into good and evil is a general human propensity; I don’t want to claim that the U.S. has a monopoly on this activity, only that we do it more than other Western nations. And even though I see dissenting Protestantism as one source of this tendency, as my reference to superheroes suggests, this tendency is now secularized and pervasive in our popular culture, disseminated by movies, television and video games. At a deeper level, our infatuation with technology plays into this idea: technology, particularly military technology, will give us the equivalent of the supernatural invincibility of superheroes.

In describing the moral shift after 9/11 Joan Didion in her article “Fixed Ideas” (New York Review of Books, January 16) quotes Steven Weber of the Institute of International Studies: