How long before we look back on the American ‘imperial age’ as a hiccup, a fling with power never really actualized, stabilized, or formalized? Christian Brose at Foreign Policy ‘s Shadow Government points us to Andrew Schearer writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal :

[I]t’s clear that if the Obama administration does not show it is serious about maintaining the U.S. military presence in Asia, Australia may end up with no choice but to get serious about strengthening its military defenses, even beyond what is in the policy paper. “Smart power” has its place, but U.S. allies in Asia would feel more secure if America backed reassuring rhetoric with real military muscle.

In light of my earlier post conveying a certain imperio-skepticism , I think Christian’s comments are worth excerpting at length. Also, I agree with them.
But why is it a bad thing for our allies to strengthen their defenses? Absent some major surprise, the relative decline of U.S. power seems like a pretty sturdy long-term trend, and we shouldn’t do anything to catalyze it further than recent events may have already — say, by assuming that future conflicts will necessarly look like our present ones or that the old axiom of power abhorring vacuums won’t apply to new great powers. That said, I see the Australian white paper as a reason to be optimistic that America’s relative decline can be managed in a smart way that leaves us in a good strategic position. Westhawk puts his finger on one reason why:

If the Australian defense ministry can reach these conclusions, why shouldn’t the Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Indian, and Russian defense ministries also formulate these same planning assumptions? . . . . The greatest loser from such a chain reaction would be China. I’d go even further. The United States should  want the Indians, and the Japanese, and the South Koreans, and the Indonesians to reach the same conclusions. We should actively  encourage them to reach the same conclusions. And that goes for our NATO allies as well. (The Russians, not so much.) We should work to get more and more of America’s like-minded allies investing in the capabilities to shoulder a greater share of our collective defense. And to that end, the perception that the “unipolar moment” is passing can actually play in our favor, as will the fact that China’s “peaceful rise” remains an open question at best.


Part of my argument against the idea of American empire is a simple cultural one: there are limits even to hypocrisy, and a big powerful country whose people all deny it’s an empire are probably on to something, if not to be taken at face value. We do home imperium much better than we do imperium abroad. Our American cultural DNA is very much geared — despite its stubborn strands of states-rightsery and regionalism — toward ‘inland empire’, whether in a Manifest Destiny key or an ‘amber waves of grain’ key or even that of Walt Whitman’s ‘endless democratic vistas’. Yes, more than a few of us are cultural exporters and titans of commerce. But nearly all of us are road trippers.

Our great hegemony was an artifact of a quick succession of wars, and ever since its inception we’ve been preoccupied with shifting the burden onto allies and international institutions more than with consolidating and expanding it. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to tell from moment to moment whether a particular act or strategy is more characterized by shifting or consolidating. And yes, occasionally we (Bush, ahem) appeared more interested in burden expansion than burdern shifting. But even in the case of Iraq, we did actively seek international support, and the resolution intended to follow on 1441, whatever its merits, was torpedoed as much by preemptive French and Russian obduracy as it was by globe-straddling American jingoism.

I know I am a bit more intransigent on this point than some, but as a matter of interpretation I think we’re much better off reading Bush-era ‘imperialism’ as an anomaly that proved to be unsuccessful almost to the degree that it departed from our general pattern of working to set up legacy arrangements for the day that America would no longer have to run the world singlehanded. Some may balk at the idea that NATO was designed to back us out of hegemony instead of into it, but the failure of NATO to function well (if at all) outside of Europe strikes me as indicative of how inevitable a degree of European ‘ownership’ of the alliance there is and always has been. In light of all this, even when we have lapsed into quasi-imperialistic policy, speaking in terms of American empire seems to me to throw off far more heat than light, and ‘empire’ continues to function more effectively as a slur word than a term of analysis.

Articles by James Poulos

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