Atelier No.15, article 19

Thomas E. Ricks :
©Washington Post, August 22, 2001

                 U.S. Urged to Embrace an 'Imperialist' Role, Worldwide Dominance Ignites a Debate

                                   WASHINGTON People who label the United States "imperialist"
                                   usually mean it as an insult. But in recent years a handful of
                                   conservative defense intellectuals have begun to argue that the
                                   United States is indeed acting in an imperialist fashion - and that it
                                   should embrace the role.

                                   When the Cold War ended just over a decade ago, these thinkers
                                   note, the United States actually expanded its global military

                                   With the establishment over the last decade of a semi-permanent
                                   presence of about 20,000 troops in the Gulf area, they contend,
                                   the United States is now a major military power in almost every
                                   region of the world - the Middle East, Europe, East Asia and the
                                   Western Hemisphere.

                                   And even though the United States is unlikely to fight a major war
                                   anytime soon, they believe, it remains very active militarily around
                                   the globe, keeping the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, garrisoning
                                   37,000 troops in South Korea, patrolling the skies of Iraq and
                                   seeking to balance the rise of China.

                                   The leading advocate of this idea of enforcing a new "Pax
                                   Americana" is Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the
                                   Project for the New American Century, a Washington research
                                   institute that advocates a vigorous, expansionistic Reaganite
                                   foreign policy.

                                   In ways similar though not identical to the Roman and British
                                   empires, he argues, the United States is an empire of democracy
                                   or liberty - it is not conquering land or establishing colonies, but it
                                   has a dominating global presence militarily, economically and

                                   In some ways, the quiet debate over an imperial role goes to the
                                   basic question now facing makers of American foreign policy: Was
                                   the military activism of President Bill Clinton - from invading Haiti
                                   to keeping peace in Bosnia, missile attacks on Sudan and
                                   Afghanistan, and bombing Yugoslavia - unique to his
                                   administration, or was it characteristic of the post-Cold War era,
                                   and so likely to be the shape of things to come?

                                   The discussion of an American empire also helps illuminate the
                                   running battle for the last six months between Defense Secretary
                                   Donald Rumsfeld and his Joint Chiefs of Staff over how to change
                                   the U.S. military. The defense secretary wants to prepare the
                                   armed forces to deal with the threats of tomorrow and hints at
                                   cutting conventional forces to pay for new capabilities such as
                                   missile defense.

                                   But the Joint Chiefs respond that they are quite busy with today's

                                   Siding with the chiefs, Mr. Donnelly, a former journalist and
                                   congressional aide, argues that "policing the American perimeter in
                                   Europe, the Persian Gulf and East Asia will provide the main
                                   mission for the U.S. armed forces for decades to come."

                                   He contends that the Bush administration has tried to sidestep this
                                   reality and instead is trying to formulate a more modest policy in
                                   the tradition of the "realist" or balance-of-power views associated
                                   with the Nixon era secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and Brent
                                   Scowcroft, the national security adviser in several previous
                                   Republican administrations.

                                   The Kissinger course is mistaken, Mr. Donnelly says. He argues
                                   that the sooner the U.S. government recognizes that it is managing
                                   a new empire, the faster it can take steps to reshape its military,
                                   and its foreign policy, to fit that mission.

                                   Events of the last six months tend to support his argument: While
                                   President George W. Bush and his advisers talked during the
                                   presidential election campaign about withdrawing from
                                   peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, once in office they
                                   emphasized that they would not leave before European allies did,
                                   and they also faced the prospect of becoming more involved in
                                   another Balkan conflict, in Macedonia.

                                   If Americans thought more clearly and openly about the necessity
                                   of an imperial mission, Mr. Donnelly argues, "We'd better
                                   understand the full range of tasks we want our military to do, from
                                   the Balkans-like constabulary missions to the no-fly zones over
                                   Iraq‚ to maintaining enough big-war capacity" to hedge against the
                                   emergence of a major adversary.

                                   Mr. Donnelly has few open supporters, even among
                                   conservatives. But he said he believed that many people quietly
                                   agree with him.

                                   "There's not all that many people who will talk about it openly," he
                                   said. "It's discomforting to a lot of Americans. So they use code
                                   phrases like 'America is the sole superpower.'"

                                   One of Mr. Donnelly's somewhat reluctant allies is Andrew
                                   Bacevich, a retired army colonel who is a professor of
                                   international relations at Boston University. Mr. Bacevich does not
                                   much like the idea of an imperial America. But like it or not, he
                                   says, it is what we have.

                                   "I would prefer a nonimperial America," Mr. Bacevich said in an
                                   e-mail interview. "Shorn of global responsibilities, a global military
                                   and our preposterous expectations of remaking the world in our
                                   image, we would, I think, have a much better chance of keeping
                                   faith with the intentions and hopes of the Founders."

                                   But Mr. Bacevich went on to dismiss that as wishful thinking.
                                   Rightly or wrongly, he said, maintaining American power globally
                                   already has become the unspoken basis of U.S. strategy.

                                   "In all of American public life there is hardly a single prominent
                                   figure who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining
                                   the world's sole military superpower until the end of time," he
                                   wrote in the current issue of the National Interest, a conservative
                                   foreign policy journal that has been the major venue of the imperial

                                   So, Mr. Bacevich concluded, "the practical question is not
                                   whether or not we will be a global hegemon - but what sort of
                                   hegemon we'll be."

                                   Until American policymakers candidly acknowledge that they are
                                   playing an imperial role on the world stage, Mr. Donnelly and Mr.
                                   Bacevich argue, U.S. strategy will be muddled, the American
                                   people frequently will be surprised by the resentment the United
                                   States meets overseas, and the military will not be given the
                                   resources necessary to carry out its missions - such as more
                                   troops trained for a "constabulary" role of peacekeeping and
                                   suppressing minor attacks, along the lines of the 19th century
                                   British military.

                                   But Mr. Donnelly and Mr. Bacevich split on the ultimate cost of
                                   taking an imperialist course. Like many critics of empire, such as
                                   the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who in 1999 wrote
                                   a book called "A Republic, Not an Empire,"Mr. Bacevich worries
                                   that imperialism abroad could carry a high cost at home.

                                   "Tom Donnelly sees all of that as really neat, exciting,
                                   return-of-the-Raj adventure," he said.

                                   "I see it as merely unavoidable, and suspect that we'll end up
                                   paying a higher cost, morally and materially, than we currently can

                                   Mr. Donnelly responds that such concerns lack historical basis. He
                                   notes that as America has grown more powerful over the last 150
                                   years, so too has it expanded domestic liberties, freeing its slaves
                                   and extending voting and other rights to women and minorities.

                                   For an idea with so few public adherents, there are a surprising
                                   number of critics of proposals for taking up the imperialist burden.

                                   In a 1999 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, for
                                   example, Samuel (Sandy) Berger, then President Clinton's national
                                   security adviser, argued that "we are the first global power in
                                   history that is not an imperial power."

                                   Many of the critics believe that embracing an imperial stance
                                   would backfire precisely because of the foreign reaction it would
                                   provoke, or maybe already is provoking.

                                   "People have got our number," said Chalmers Johnson, president
                                   of the Japan Policy Research Institute, an independent organization
                                   outside San Diego. He believes that the United States is pursuing
                                   an imperialist course, and that "coalitions are forming left and right
                                   around the world to thwart it." Mr. Johnson points to closer
                                   cooperation between Russia and China, to a united Europe that is
                                   becoming less of an ally and more of a competitor, and to the swift
                                   rise of the anti-globalization movement.

                                   Last year, Mr. Johnson published a book titled "Blowback: The
                                   Costs and Consequences of American Empire." It was, he said,
                                   "ignored" in the United States.

                                   To his critics, Mr. Donnelly responds that they are arguing with
                                   reality, not with him: "I think Americans have become used to
                                   running the world and would be very reluctant to give it up, if they
                                   realized there were a serious challenge to it."