Some time ago, a friend remarked that it is scarcely possible to have a sensible discussion of empire these days. What follows is not that discussion, though I hope it is sensible. It is a set of truisms and assertions, some so obvious that it is telling that they have become controversial. My aim is to sketch the contours of a sensible discussion to come.
1) Whether power is good or evil depends on its use. Power is often abused. But in itself, power is preferable to powerlessness. It is better to have the power of sight than to be blind, better to have the power to buy food than not, better to have a way of achieving your aims than to be frustrated by insurmountable obstacles. What is true for individuals is true for political communities: Governments need power to protect people, land, and resources from foreign threats, to ensure domestic order, to provide public goods for their citizens. Even those who appear to disagree with this claim do not: Advocates for the powerless want nothing more than to empower them.
2) Power is unevenly distributed. Some individuals are more powerful, productive, creative, and wealthy than others, and so are some nations. That is uncontrovertible, but the corollary is important: Whether unevenly distributed power is good or evil depends on its use. Unequal power is not unjust in itself, and in certain respects asymmetry is necessary for social and political life to exist at all. If parents had no more physical power or moral authority than infants, the survival of the human race would be doubtful. If conductors had no more power than musicians, we would have no concerts. If rulers had no more power than the ruled, we would have no concerted action.
3) Nations are interdependent. Whatever was true in the past, few people today are isolated enough to be free of the influence of others. And, given item number 2, the influence of one nation on another is asymmetrical. Strong nations will typically have more influence on weak nations than weak nations have on the strong, and powerful nations will have more effect on the “world system” than powerless ones. (“Typically” is important here, because weaker nations, or even non-nations like al-Qaeda, can have a disproportionate effect on the world.) Powerful nations can use their power wickedly, but it is not wicked for powerful nations to be powerful.
4) Abuses of power can be arrested only by an exertion of power. To rescue a victim, or to save a people from genocide, you have to exert power. Possession of power imposes an obligation to protect the weak. The power exerted in response to an abuse may not take the same form as the abuse itself. A persuasive orator can pacify a mob. Martyrs exercise a mystical power beyond the imaginations of their persecutors.
5) Empire or hegemony is not an undiluted evil. Hegemony is not inevitable, nor is empire. For most of the past two centuries, European nations achieved a rough balance of power. When they appear, empires can achieve certain goods, even for those who bristle under the yoke of empire. Rome’s subjects traveled Roman roads, and British colonies were integrated into a commercial network, inherited technologies, and learned new patterns of governance. Occupy Wall Street organizes its resentments against global capitalism with the technologies of global capitalism. Accepting benefits from an empire is a trade-off, cost as well as benefit. But then so is everything.
6) American hegemony is not an undiluted evil. In some respects, it is a good, and preferable to many of the conceivable alternatives. America is the linchpin of a global economic system that has improved the lives of millions. We are still a beacon of liberty, our military has effectively defeated evil regimes and delivered the weak, and we continue to be an asylum for the oppressed. The world reaps more favors from American hegemony than it wants to admit. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the neoconservatives are right.
7) Empires often act very badly. Assyrian massacres, Roman cruelty, King Leopold’s Congo, Nazi and Soviet and Chinese mass murder. The list of imperial crimes is too long to recount.
8) America has often acted very badly. Noam Chomsky is right too. Native Americans have many legitimate complaints against the U.S., as do Latin American countries.While we Americans congratulated ourselves for our Christian charity in civilizing the Philippines, other Americans were killing Filipinos or herding them into concentration camps. For decades, we have deliberately dropped bombs on civilians and slaughtered hundreds of thousands. Sometimes we are merely foolish or short-sighted, as when we propped up Saddam Hussein or spread Islamicist propaganda to inspire the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. And culture warriors should worry more about our export of domestic pathologies: If violent and sexually explicit entertainment, abortion, and an aggressive homosexual lobby threaten our culture, they aren’t good for the rest of the world either.
9) The benefits from empires do not excuse the behavior of empires. We cannot give ourselves a pass on international folly and injustice by congratulating ourselves on the good things we do.
10) Empires end, yet the world keeps going. Britain withdrew from its colonies, but Britain is still with us. The world did not end either, though this was partly because the U.S. took up Britain’s global role. Distributions of power are not static. Much as the current world system depends on the U.S., the future of the world does not ultimately depend on our ability to remain the world’s superpower, nor does our survival as a polity. We do not represent the end of history.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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