“The Empire is peace.”

—Napoleon III

If the publishing industry has played any part in the supposed recent economic revival, it can, perhaps, thank George W. Bush.  The President’s foreign policy has made it possible to sell thousands of books with the words empire or imperial in the title.  Indeed, it sometimes seems as if there are a dozen such books published each month.  It is hard to keep count.

Of all these books, the best might still be one of the first: Andrew J. Bacevich’s American Empire from 2002, which has just been reissued in paperback.  Bace-vich’s thesis is that U.S. foreign policy has had consistent goals throughout the past half-century, no matter which party was in power or what ideological fads gripped the country.  The overriding goal is the pursuit of “openness,” meaning something like the free movement of goods (above all), people, and (maybe) ideas across national borders—all to the benefit of American business and political interests, of course.  U.S. foreign policy, according to Bacevich, has been defined by domestic needs—chiefly, the need for markets.

For his analysis, Bacevich drew upon the work of left-wing but non-Marxist historians Charles Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) and William Appleman Williams.  Bacevich himself, however, is not a man of the left, and his conclusion to American Empire would come as cold comfort to Beard or Williams if either were alive to read it, since Bacevich argues that—however much he might dislike what the republic has become—it is much too late to turn back the clock.  Empire is here to stay.  Bacevich might just as well have quoted Pericles at the end of his book: “Your empire now is like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.”  Whatever the right or wrong of it, Americans must now accept their empire and learn to govern it well.

The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire, edited by Bacevich, picks up where American Empire leaves off.  The book is Bace-vich’s attempt to clear away the jargon of international-studies departments and the claptrap of political speech to present the educated layman with a frank and plainspoken account of the American imperium as seen by four distinct schools of thought.  Bacevich has had enough of archaic talk about “isolationism” and “realism,” and he proposes, instead, a more up-to-date taxonomy: The four camps he outlines in his introductory essay are those who embrace empire eagerly; those who do so more reluctantly; those who reject empire altogether; and those who cannot admit that empire even exists.  Bacevich is one of the reluctant imperialists.

Most of the contributors to The Imperial Tense are university professors or journalists.  Ideologically, they run the gamut of respectable opinion, from neoconservative to moderate liberal to far left.  Absent, for the most part, is anyone from the explicitly anti-imperial right, with the notable exception of James Kurth, who provides the collection’s last and best essay.  The lack of antiwar conservative contributors is curious.  Bacevich includes contributors from the World Socialist Web Site and from National Review Online, so why not Justin Raimondo or another Antiwar.com contributor?  Why not someone from a paleoconservative print magazine?  The usual excuse, that paleos are too marginal, will not work here.  If Bace-vich wants to present the most serious and plainspoken views on the American Empire, there is no shortage of suitable commentary on the unfashionable right.

The material that has made it into the book is of variable quality, some of it as good as American Empire itself, and some of it, sad to say, of value only as a kind of pathological case study.  The essays from Victor Davis Hanson and John Milbank especially stand out as examples of the latter.  Both men are undeniably insightful in their academic fields—Hanson as a classicist; Milbank as a theologian.  Hanson the wartime polemicist, however, demonstrates what a terrible thing it is to waste a mind, and his contribution here—the sole essay denying that America has become an empire of some kind—illuminates nothing.  Milbank is a greater loss: His piece is the only one that tries to provide, in part, a Christian interpretation of the American Empire in the age of terror.  At least Milbank is thought-provoking, though shrill.

Essays by David Rieff, Deepak Lal, and Charles Krauthammer make up the “eager imperialist” contingent.  For Rieff, a liberal, American power means putting a stop to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia (as long as it is not the Serbs who are getting killed).  Lal, an economist at UCLA, is a homo economicus conservative: For him, empire is a public-goods argument.  Just as government is needed to provide order within states, global government is necessary for international order.  This will lower transaction costs, facilitate “the free flow of goods, capital and people,” and keep the peace among states.  Lal seems not to notice that, in order to accomplish such peacekeeping, the imperial power has to resort to war.  The reader is left with the impression that war is not war so long as it is waged by the United States.  So much for plainspokenness.

Krauthammer makes the same argument in slightly different terms, claiming that American hegemony can and should be a force for the greater global good.  Conveniently, what is best for the world is also best for America, at least as Krauthammer sees it.  Unlike Lal, he is admirably candid, ending his piece with a play on Benjamin Franklin: “History has given you an empire, if you will keep it.”  Clearly, Krauthammer is enjoying himself.

Victor Davis Hanson is the sole example from the America-is-not-an-empire school.  That Bacevich did not include any others of this perspective suggests his own prejudices against those who live with their heads in the sand (of Iraq, maybe?).  The anti-imperialist contingent, on the other hand, is well represented.  In addition to Milbank, David North of the World Socialist Web Site, Gabriel Ash of YellowTimes.org, and agrarian writer Wendell Berry all present unflinching condemnations of the American Empire.  Ash argues that the United States has been imperial since long before the election of George W. Bush, whose incompetence, Ash believes, may lead to hegemony’s self-destruction.  Ash, Berry, and Milbank find corporate capitalism behind America’s post-September 11 foreign policy, though none adopts a simplistically Marxist view.

David North is much more predictable than Ash and Berry in how he goes about making his case.  Global empire is both unjust in itself and serves as a distraction from the need for more government intervention in the domestic economy.  Even North recognizes, however, that the hidden hand of the market cannot work without a hidden fist.  North blames McDonald’s; he might more properly blame McDonnell-Douglas.

More moderate liberal contributors, such as Stanley Hoffman of Harvard University, simply ask the United States to pay more heed to international law and international institutions.  They speak with the voice of the establishment, and here the reader can find, in embryo, the foreign policy of a John Kerry administration.  What Hoffman, Charles S. Maier (another Harvard professor), and David Marquand (formerly of Oxford) all recommend is not altogether different from what Charles Krauthammer would like to see.  While Krauthammer and company believe in an American Empire unbridled by international institutions, the center-left wants an American Empire that works through international institutions.  Within the broad party of empire, this may be a major point of contention, but, to those outside of that big tent, it looks like what Freud, right for once, called “the narcissism of small differences.”

The most important and most interesting of the chapters are those contributed by the reluctant imperialists who offer the reader a bit of historical perspective.  German historian Peter Bender addresses the parallels (and divergences) between America and Rome and asks the most important question in the book: “Can the United States remain a republic if it rules an empire?”  It is not a question Bender answers, although the reader may certainly draw his own conclusions from the context provided by Roman history.  American journalist Martin Walker, on the other hand, argues that the American Empire is nothing like Rome’s or, for that matter, Britain’s.  Walker surely is right to caution against taking historical analogies too literally, but Bender, the better historian, is more persuasive—and incisive.

Bacevich likes the Rome metaphor enough to use it in the title of his own essay, “New Rome, New Jerusalem.”  Specifically, Bacevich’s contribution is about how the New Jerusalem has become the New Rome, as America’s congenital messianic impulses have taken form in foreign policy.  In the few pages he has here, Bacevich adds little to what he has said before in American Empire.  He repeats his complaint from the earlier book that America is becoming too decadent a civilization to shoulder her imperial burdens.  “Freedom has come to mean treating the market and market values as sacrosanct (the economic agenda of the Right) and celebrating individual autonomy (the cultural agenda of the Left).”

There is trouble to be found, too, in James Kurth’s “Who Will Do the Dirty Work?” which connects empire and immigration.  In short, European imperial powers that once ruled over Third World countries (before they were called the Third World) now find themselves swamped with immigrants from their former colonies.  Why has this happened?  In part, naturally enough, because former colonies were convenient sources for cheap labor.  “Colonial workers not only knew how to work; they also were more likely than non-colonial peoples to know the distinctive national language, codes, and rules of the citizens within the metropole.”  In Europe, this postimperial immigration is creating two nations within each of the erstwhile mother countries: a rich, white, post-Christian nation and a poor, nonwhite, Muslim one.  In America, however, mass immigration and imperialism already coexist, a phenomenon that Kurth predicts will transform the United States into an empire—with attendant ethnic and class-based stratifications—at home as well as abroad.  When the empire eventually collapses, the immigrants will remain, and the metropole will effectively have been colonized by the people it once ruled.

Too few of the other essays in The Imperial Tense raise such problems, which considerably lessens the value of what is still a very worthwhile book.  Too many of the contributors represent predictable, unexamined party lines.  It may be instructive to see how Charles Krauthammer couches his defense of imperialism; it is certainly entertaining to see how Deepak Lal does it.  What, however, would either of these men make of the problems raised by James Kurth, or even the rather less trenchant ones brought to the fore by Bacevich?  Most of the contributors to this volume simply assert themselves at cross-purposes to one another.  No matter how candid or accessible they may be, very few of the writers in this anthology have even begun to come to grips with reality outside of their own beliefs, fears, and fantasies.  This makes The Imperial Tense a rather more trivial exercise than American Empire.

The book should not be ignored, however.  It would be worth reading, even owning, for the Kurth essay alone.  Even where it fails, the book is useful as an illustration of how shortsighted some of its contributors are.  It shows how the Bush administration could invade and occupy a country without having any clear plan ahead of time for administering the newly conquered province.  Maybe there is something to what J.R. Seeley once said: Empires really can be acquired in a fit of absence of mind.

Absence of mind, if not empire, is a central theme of John Newhouse’s Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order, which offers a countervailing argument to Bacevich’s American Empire.  For Newhouse, the remarkable thing about Bush’s foreign policy is its trailblazing ineptitude.  On balance, Bace-vich is probably closer to the truth, but Newhouse is valuable nonetheless for showing just how bad, even by the standards of the Clinton administration, Bush’s foreign policy really is.

Newhouse, himself an official in the Clinton administration, has had a long and fruitful career shuttling between government and journalism, with a stopover at a think tank or two along the way.  For many years, he wrote about foreign policy for the New Yorker.  He issues a thoroughgoing indictment of the manner in which President Bush has conducted America’s business abroad.  That Newhouse himself is an establishment liberal is of little importance, because any thinking American can find much with which to agree in his case against Bush.  So long as Newhouse keeps his account in the negative, he is in the right.

Newhouse devotes a chapter to each member of David Frum’s “Axis of Evil.”  In each case, the author shows that the President has failed to capitalize on the opportunities before him—that is, when he has not actually made things worse.  Often enough, in Newhouse’s account, a missed opportunity is the same thing as a situation made worse—as in the case of North Korea.

The Clinton administration, toward the end, was pursuing a risky strategy of diplomatic engagement with Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist state and, on Newhouse’s account, was inching toward an agreement on weapons inspections and nuclear nonproliferation.  This may well have been wrongheaded, but Newhouse at least provides an argument for how it could have worked.  Bush, on the other hand, has not had a very clearly defined policy toward North Korea, preoccupied as he has been with looking for weapons of mass destruction on the other side of the globe.  Kim Jong Il, in the meantime, has moved ahead with plans to produce highly enriched uranium that might be used in a nuclear-weapons program.  And, as Newhouse points out, the War in Iraq has given Kim all the more reason to want to acquire the kind of weapons that might deter the United States from attacking him.

Citing former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro, Newhouse argues that including Iran in the Axis of Evil has been counterproductive, emboldening her anti-American hardliners while undermining her moderates.  New-house is confident that, left to her own devices, Iran will liberalize.  More than 65 percent of the population is under age 30, he notes, and internet connectivity and the availability of satellite television are growing rapidly.  Such things do not augur well for the clerics, who have long since worn out their welcome with the people of Iran.  Moreover, says New-house, Iran is actually in a position to become a very useful ally of the United States, to help in combating the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan (there is no love lost between the Taliban and Iran), and, eventually, to provide a regional check on Pakistan, a more unstable, undemocratic country than Iran—and one that has nuclear weapons.  Iran, properly guided, can be a stabilizing force in the region.  President Bush, however, has preferred to treat Iran as an enemy.

His chapter on Iraq recapitulates what is by now a well-known tale of inflated threat and wise counsel ignored.  He has little original to add, but he still does some good by reminding the reader just how many establishment figures spoke out against the war on Iraq.  Brent Scowcroft wrote an editorial saying that “an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken.”  He was far from alone.  Retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni spoke out.  So did former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger and Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.  George W. Bush, however, only had ears for Richard Perle and others who insisted on immediate war.

Newhouse also has a chapter on the strain that Bush’s foreign policy has created between the United States and her allies, though his book opens and closes with broad treatments of the opportunities available to President Bush immediately after September 11 and those that are still present.  The opening chapter, indeed, is a much-needed reminder of just how much goodwill there was toward the United States in the days and weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center, and even following the war against the Taliban.  That goodwill has since evaporated, replaced by varying degrees of anti-Americanism from Europe to the Third World.  Newhouse seems to see some solipsism at work here: He notes at the end of his book that “The administration is trying to create reality, not deal with it.”  The joke will be on all of us if the President’s folly succeeds in turning Saddam Hussein’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction into somebody else’s real ones. 


[The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire, edited by Andrew J. Bacevich (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee) 272 pp., $16.95]

[Imperial America: The Bush Assault on the World Order, by John Newhouse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 196 pp., $23.00]