Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There is a compelling start of a conversation, I see, between Daniel Larison and Noah Millman . Noah began in reaction to Andrew Bacevich’s latest introduction to a book . Bacevich, of course, takes the anti-imperial position of William Appleman Williams to be a clarion wake-up call for any American who doesn’t want to see America (soon) go the way of all empires. Noah dissents:

Assuming it can be achieved, isn’t the world better off with a global hegemon – particularly one that seeks little in the way of outright tribute – than with a war of all against all? As I say, none of these propositions is crazy. And no doubt Britain saw things similarly before us.

The first question is whether such dreams are even possible realities. But the second, harder one is: assuming they aren’t, or that, even if they are, they are not the reality one wants, once you have taken this road, is it even possible to change direction? If Kennan and Williams – and other radicals like Daniel Larison, who I rather think agrees with them about the nature of the American state in its current form – are not wrong, why did previous leaders who, Williams thinks, saw the light, at least through one eye, prove so incapable of steering the land carrack as they listed? And what should give us any confidence that a new captain would prove more capable in such an endeavor?

Daniel responds as follows:
In a less extreme way, Kennan’s patriotism and his common-sense recognition of what Montesqieu and Antifederalists knew over two centuries ago–that an extended republic cannot survive as a genuine republic–required him to question the status quo of a continental nation-state that had grown too large for the kind of self-government that had once been ours. This is not a “critique of America itself,” but a critique of a kind of polity, one that is actually far removed from much of the American experience. “America itself” is different from and more than its polity. The nature of America is not in its government, or at least not entirely or primarily in its government. Indeed, “America itself” contains the elements of many different Americas that found greater expression in a more genuinely federalist system, and which might once again find full expression in a more decentralized political order. It is natural that regimes would want to define loyalty to country as disloyalty, because loyalty to country threatens the regime’s monopoly on loyalty, but it is not required that we go along with it.

Which led me to return to the quote from Bacevich that started Noah off:
Empire, Williams observes . . . “turns a culture away from its own life as a society or community.” This is precisely correct. Today, in the midst of what the Bush administration has labeled the “Long War,” the United States finds itself once again “transforming the realities of expansion, conquest, and intervention into pious rhetoric about virtue, wealth and democracy.” The effect is to divert attention from the fundamental issues confronting American society.

I’m going to try to clear a lot of brush quickly in order to get to my bottom line on this business, which I take to be much different from either Daniel’s or Noah’s. The place to start is with the observation that we all seem too ready to stipulate that there is a profound and necessary connection between an assertive, ‘interventionist’ foreign policy and an assertive, interventionist domestic one. I am not even convinced that someone with an imperial attitude about their regime is destined to take an imperial attitude to international affairs; the logic of total, internal mastery just isn’t the same as the logic of expansionism and conquest, although of course we’ve seen these two go hand in hand. Our vision here has been harmed, I think, by the spectacular failures of empires that spring to mind: Napoleon’s, Hitler’s, the Soviet Union. Empire, in fact, can be extraordinarily durable (Rome, China), and durable in a way that would be absolutely impossible without a robust culture and overarching social identity. I would daresay that it is precisely incorrect to see empire as destructive to the reification of imperial society and culture. Probably the British Empire — a spectacularly successful empire — is as potent an example of this as we might want, resonant as it is with our own wildly popular identity as Americans. ‘Community life’ as communitarians and traditionalists care to understand it — as situated necessarily in small, local associations — surely will be rejected in an imperial society that revels in its splendid universalism, but it’s precisely this society that Bacevich seems to be conflating with its virtual cultural opposite. Though even this is slightly misleading: empires are so universalist that their one great social culture is shown to be great in its very power to supervene upon quite enduring local cultures, identities, and communities. (Think of the Gurkhas fighting in Belgium.) All in all, that graf from Bacevich — and granted, I haven’t read the whole piece — strikes me as simply incoherent, despite its surface appeal, which after all is an appeal to the idea that political rhetoric is often corrupt and expansionist policies driven by special interests are often packaged and sold in identitarian terms. There’s little reason to believe that this situation, which I think Daniel would agree is true generally, is greatly amplified in empires.

At the heart of the problem is our total confusion about what empire is. Noah helps us see that if hegemony is the problem then criticizing it as hegemony, and not empire, ought to be good enough. And paleo-ish conservatives are often willing to go into some detail about how and why life was pretty good, all things considered, under, say, the Austro-Hungarian empire. On the one hand, critics of America today reach for the word empire much in the way we reach for an anatomical curse word when someone cuts us off on the road; on the other, critics of empire often appear really to be criticizing certain types of empires, or empires suffering from more general political maladies, than to be criticizing empires as such. A great litmus test here would be to ask all these people what they think of Hobbes’ Leviathan. But questions like these do not dominate the public discourse.

In light of all this, I think Noah’s remarks are best read as a reminder that a foreign policy to be despised by critics of ‘American empire’ might emanate from a polity that is not very imperial from the perspective of domestic policy. It seems to me that critics of ‘American empire’ are likely to compare America’s domestic political health very unfavorably to the domestic political health of, say, Britain in 1900, to leave alone questions of life under the Austrian or Holy Roman or whichever Empire. And in some ways, they would be right! But in others, they would be wrong. And they would think this is so for different reasons. A civic-republican critic can find an empire with better practices of citizenship than ours. A civil-association critic can find an empire to be praised for maintaining a far more holistic and unified society than ours. The imperial line of argument simply cuts across too many competing realities. In short, to spin Daniel’s remarks, a republic can ‘extend’ itself out of existence quite well without becoming either a domestic or international empire, although of course it can cease to be a republic in the process of doing both. Then again, simply because the United States ceased to be a ‘real’ republic does not mean that it ever became an empire. Of course, the United States did become an empire, complete with colonies, and from the perspective of the supposedly far more corrupt and imperial era we are now living in, it actually turns out that America is less of an empire now than it was then, which is to say not really an empire at all.

Atop all this is the fact that things arguably began to turn around in Iraq at the moment when the U.S. actually began learning imperial practices and implementing them. Viewing empire as a logic of relational structures helps us see how that plays out — but the key point here is that by ‘going more imperial’ in Iraq it appears we helped create the conditions that were apt to make leaving Iraq all the more favorable.

I should add in closing that I’m far more concerned about the prospect of America turning into a kind of Rortyan-Hobbesian ‘domestic empire’ than I am America destroying itself in reckless expansionist projects around the globe. Not, of course, that I have any great enthusiasm for more recklessness, or even further expansionism.

UPDATE: Daniel responds . Fair enough, but I’m still quite hesitant to deem ‘imperial society’ as parasitic upon local cultures and communities as Daniel does. It slips a bit too far into an artificial gemeinschaft/gesellschaft sort of analysis, I think. Our best and brightest are hardly siphoned out of the heartland and concentrated in Washington, D.C. Most of what Lasch describes as the cult of upward mobility has to do with the economic quest for status. This is bad, but it sends the best of local communities all over the place. Even in a broad, metaphorical sense, our ‘imperial centers’ are very dispersed. I suppose from one angle this is proof that the imperium has lots of parasites, but from another angle it’s proof that we really do have a national culture that’s emerged more or less naturally from our more local ones. I really don’t think our regional cultures are in danger of being destroyed by this national culture anytime soon (though each type of culture may busily be banalizing itself — another issue entirely). And we’ve got to acknowledge that a national culture must not automatically be imperial.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles