“Empire” comes from the Latin imperium, derived from the verb imperare, which means to command. Thus an emperor, the man who governs by command rather than consensus or consultation.
From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the invasion of Iraq, America was in command, not absolutely and not everywhere, but in many places and too a large degree. Difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, and the rise of China as an economic and military power suggest that we’re less omnipotent today. Yet we remain the singular country at the center of the evolving global economy, as well as the world’s sole military superpower.
As David Rieff recently observed, a certain kind of commitment to American exceptionalism underwrites our imperial power. It’s a view that transcends political parties. Liberals, he writes, tend to oppose “U.S. military interventions abroad, including in Afghanistan,” while conservatives “believe in the centrality of military power in advancing American interests. But where they are of one mind is on the necessity of America’s continued hegemony in the world.” Empire seems encoded into our national DNA.
Coming from conservative quarters, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru argued, in a recent essay in the National Review, that America “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” These qualities, they continue, give us “a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when necessary.”
From the left, Anne Marie Slaughter, the current head of policy planning at the State Department, once wrote that America has a special role in the world. We are, she said, as much an idea—a vision of democratic life—as a particular country, and, as she puts it, “it is an idea that ultimately belongs to all the world’s peoples.”
The implication seems clear. If America is not an empire, it should be, not perhaps by administering the known world in the fashion of Rome, or having a large number of colonies, as did the British, but certainly by setting the political agenda for everyone else.
All this makes me uneasy, which is probably why I’ve disliked talk of an American empire in the past. I want to live in a place, not an idea, among a community of people, not an ideology, for the sake of a history, not a manifesto.
I’m also troubled by the implications of a global mission. I have nightmares about the gradual takeover of Washington by global corporate interests, other nations, and NGOs, all of whom see that lobbying the U.S. government provides the most efficient way to influence global affairs. Lobbyists multiply. Foreign interests find ways to funnel cash into our political process. Slowly (or maybe not so slowly) we shift from our already (and always) inadequate democracy toward even more corrupted forms of governance by influence peddling.
Our imperial role also puts our national institutions at risk. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other universities now train a multi-cultural elite to manage and administer the ad hoc global system that has emerged since the end of the Cold War. Thus Princeton’s modified motto is no longer “In the nation’s service,” as coined by Woodrow Wilson, but “In the nation’s service and the service of all nations.” All things considered, it’s not a surprising change, nor unique. As the Romans discovered when their republic came to an end, empire works against a circumscribed, self-governing national life.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because of all the news about Wikileaks, the website that recently began publishing a vast trove of American diplomatic cables. The head of the rogue operation, the Australian Julian Assange, likes to talk about the intrinsic value of transparency, but he has been clear about his real goal. In this and the earlier disclosure of American battlefield intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Assange hopes to strike a blow against the American empire.
My patriotic impulses, which are quite deep and potent, tell me that Assange should be hanged. But then I step back. I have dark forebodings about our imperial ambitions and deep misgivings about the inclination to think of America as the world’s idea. (God forbid that the world should live in accord with any idea!) I believe that America is indeed exceptional and profoundly worthy of patriotic loyalty, but I’m opposed to views that see American global dominance—whether by way of hard power or soft power—as our national destiny.
In fact, the very idea of national destiny strikes me as wrong-headed. Yes, God oversees the affairs of men, guiding the course of history in accordance with his Providence. However, as Abraham Lincoln recognized during the Civil War—a conflict about the very meaning of the crucial American idea of freedom—it is impossible to assign divine favor to one side or the other. He was a far better theologian than those who formulated the slogan of Manifest Destiny.
Nonetheless, I’m against Assange and other would-be radicals who see empire and think evil, for they are also in the grip of a false view. American global predominance is evil compared to what? As compared to increased global conflict? As compared to a corrupt and inept United Nations? As compared to the cold, amoral, calculating self-interest of an ascendant China? Assange talks a great deal about the virtue of transparency. But this entirely abstract and formal idea has no capacity to restrain the perennial human impulse toward violence, chaos, and destruction.
In other words, I’m in favor of defending the American empire, such as it is, because I’m an Establishmentarian. While not inclined to romanticize current arrangements, which are undoubtedly unjust and cruel and riddled with human sinfulness, I very much oppose revolutionary attitudes that make the terrible error, all too common among progressives, of imagining that nothing could be worse than the status quo.
I take comfort in knowing that St. Augustine adopted the same view. He wrote the definitive book against our worldly fantasies of empire: City of God. Yet he worked to support the survival of the Roman Empire. Throughout most of his adult life, the Roman Empire was crumbling, attacked by Germanic tribes from the north. At one point he went to see some Roman generals in the field. They had come to see the futility of the imperial dreams of the city of man—Augustine’s own arguments taken to their logical conclusions—and they wished to retire to their villas to purify their souls. Augustine urged them to stay in the field. One does not abandon ordinary men and women to the forces of chaos, which are real and pitiless.
Our predominance is likely to endure, and perhaps even increase. (I’m an American optimist who thinks our society has remarkable capacities for renewal.) This puts us in a unique position of global responsibility, one that we should not abandon. We must stay in the field in order to defend the global order (no doubt a very imperfect one) that we have done so much to create.
This responsibility puts us in a perilous position. Our notions of American exceptionalism have tempted us (and continue to tempt us) toward imperial fantasies that may be our undoing. I hope we resist these fantasies. It seems to me absurd to imagine that America is the idea that belongs to all the world’s people. And it strikes me as silly to think that we’re freer, more individualistic, and more democratic than any other nation. After all, we largely invented the highly conformist mentality of mass consumer culture.
In any event, the ultimate destiny of America should be manifest to any who take the long view. We will eventually go the way of all earthly kingdoms—destroyed by the consuming self-love that drags fallen humanity down into the dust.
But as St. Augustine recognized, our moral responsibilities do not stretch out into the long view. They concern the here and now. The present, American-led global order secures a relative peace, one threatened by the Wikileaks attacks, which are motivated by anarchistic and antinomian fantasies, ones all too common among Western progressives. There are present day Vandals abroad, forces of discord, disorder, and destruction that Assange and others eager for the fall the American empire underestimate. We cannot allow them to triumph.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
David Rieff’s The Wikileaks Strike at the Heart of American Exceptionalism can be found here, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s essayAn Exceptional Debate can be found here, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s essay The Idea That Is America can be found here.