Niall Ferguson: The "E" Word

Roundup: Historians' Take

In Slate (May 4, 2004):

From: Niall Ferguson
To: Robert Kagan
Subject: The "E" Word

Dear Robert,

I know from a debate we had last year that you don't much care for it, but—like it or not—the"e" word now permeates all serious discussion of American foreign policy. In his new book, Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, Council on Foreign Relations scholar Walter Russell Mead puts the question starkly:"Is this a world order in which all states have an equal stake, or is it an American empire that the United States imposes on others?" 

In the same vein, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis concedes in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience that one"time-tested solution" to the difficulties inherent in the project to democratize the world is"empire," which he defines—presumably for the benefit of American readers unfamiliar with the concept—as"a situation in which a single state shapes the behaviour of others, whether directly or indirectly, partially or completely, by means that can range from the outright use of force through intimidation, dependency, inducements, and even inspiration."

Well, that strikes me as a pretty accurate characterization of the role the United States plays in the world today. However, like President Bush in his press conference on Iraq last month, both of these eminent analysts of American foreign policy are at pains to point out that the United States is not an empire—or not any more, at any rate. Indeed, their extended essays can be read as fine examples of the condition of"imperial denial," which seems to grow more chronic among America's intellectual and political elites even as the character of American power grows more starkly imperial.

Consider how Gaddis distinguishes American power from traditional imperial power. American history, he insists, has been different, not just because of the country's distinctive geographical location, but also because of a distinctive strategic doctrine inspired by that geography. The lineal antecedent of the Bush administration's current policy is revealed here to be John Quincy Adams,"the most influential American grand strategist of the nineteenth century." (Although Americans are generally wary of the hereditary principle, they do like it to apply in the realm of foreign policy.)

According to Gaddis, Adams' strategy—partly inspired by one of the first nasty"surprises" in American history, the torching of the White House by the British in 1814—had three distinctive components. It allowed for pre-emption, on which basis South Florida and Texas were annexed; unilateralism, hence the Monroe Doctrine instead of an Anglo-American condominium in Latin America; and American hegemony, which came a lot later, but which Adams and his contemporaries fondly imagined. In favoring pre-emption, unilateralism, and American preponderance, Gaddis argues, the Bush administration is merely returning to"an old position."

This is all very interesting, but I am not sure what is so uniquely American about it, nor what distinguishes it from the aspirations of past empires. In a throwaway line, Gaddis tells us that, after the Filipino war of the early 1900s, Americans came to regard"the acquisition of an overseas empire as having been a mistake ... and the experiment was not repeated." Really? Fifteen pages earlier he enunciated the truism that"For the United States, safety comes from enlarging, rather than from contracting, its sphere of responsibilities. ... Expansion, we have assumed, is the path to security." Well, most empires in history have justified their expansion by pleading insecurity.

Mead's approach is rather different. He acknowledges that the United States has long aspired to achieve on a global scale what"ancient Egypt, China and Rome ... accomplished on a regional basis." Fine. But Americans aim even higher. They want"to do more than build another in the world's long succession of great empires." This leads Mead into a discussion of the different forms of power the United States has to offer—"sweet power,""sticky power"—a veritable dessert menu of power. But unless we are to believe that before the United States there was only one sort of power—the"hard" variety—it is not clear how this sets America apart from other empires.

These are two very readable books. I admire the verve of the writing, the range of the erudition. and the rigor of the analysis in both. But in my view neither really makes the case that the United States has in some sense evolved beyond empire into something new and different. They merely assert that it has....


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