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Can We Call It an Empire Yet?

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Once upon a time people who favored an aggressive global military policy for the United States avoided the word “empire.” They instinctively sensed the anti-American ring to it, so they found euphemisms and dismissed charges of U.S. imperialism as delusions from the fevered imaginations of unpatriotic agitators.

Now that has begun to change. First the new imperialists approached the issue gingerly. A few years ago neoconservative leader William Kristol, writing in a foreign policy journal, urged the United States to become the world’s “benevolent hegemon.” “Hegemon” is a back-formation from the word “hegemony,” which means the dominant influence exercised by one state over others. Recently, Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, writing in Kristol’s Weekly Standard, complained, “The problem, in short, has not been excessive American assertiveness but rather insufficient assertiveness.” He called for empire without using the word.

And now the word “empire” is embraced with unalloyed relish. In a Christian Science Monitor op-ed of April 26, titled “In Praise of American Empire,” neoconservative author Dinesh D’Souza writes, “America has become an empire, a fact that Americans are reluctant to admit and that critics of the United States regard with great alarm.” In contrast, D’Souza is eager to admit that the United States is an empire and regards it with great joy. But he strives to distinguish it from other empires. How so? Other empires acted in their self-interest. The United States is different in that respect, right? Well, no: “Here we can hardly deny the critics’ allegation that the U.S. acts to promote its self-interest.”

Nevertheless, the American empire is different from the British and Roman empires. Because ours respects freedom? Not exactly. D’Souza concedes that the American governments has supported many dictators: Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, the shah of Iran. And today it supports such autocratic regimes as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. But that was necessary during the Cold War and it is necessary now:

“These outcomes highlight a foreign-policy staple, the principle of the lesser evil. This means that one should not pursue a thing that seems good if it is likely to result in something worse. A second implication is that one is usually justified in allying with a bad guy to oppose a regime that is worse. A classic example was the American alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Thus, many US actions that support tin-pot dictators become defensible.”

Tell that to their victims. Much evil may be countenanced when you play this game. It seems to have escaped D’Souza’s notice that siding with dictators to counter the Soviets served to give anti-communism (and by implication, capitalism) a bad name and very likely prolonged the Soviet Union. What was a poor peasant to conclude on seeing the United States prop up brutal autocrats and their secret police while socialists were promising (falsely) justice and prosperity?

Despite all the homage to democracy, D’Souza unabashedly opposes popular sovereignty in the Middle East, where the people might elect the wrong politicians. As he puts it, “The alternative to [Egypt’s] Mr. Mubarak and the Saudi royal family appears to be Islamic fundamentalists of the bin Laden stripe. Faced with the choice between ‘uncompromising medievals’ and ‘corrupt moderns,’ America must side with the corrupt.” The Saudi royal family is modern? I guess the Kuwaiti autocracy is, too.

It is this sort of thinking that permits people like D’Souza to casually call for a “regime change” in Iraq, Libya, Iran, and North Korea — as though it were up to the U.S. government to select governments for those countries. And then such big thinkers wonder “why they hate us.” Whoops — they don’t wonder; they say it’s because we are free and prosperous.
Power versus culture

Perhaps worst of all is D’Souza’s equivocation about the notion of American “power.” He writes: “US domination is not sustained primarily by force. True, America has bases in the Middle East and Far East, and it can intervene militarily just about anywhere in the world. But the real power of America extends far beyond its military capabilities.” He then goes on to note that everywhere you can find signs of American culture, from movie theme music to baseball caps.

This is sophistry. He uses the word “domination” in an intentionally ambiguous way. Before one can determine whether U.S. domination is sustained by force, one must know what is being talked about. Obviously, U.S. military domination is being sustained by force. It is force. Likewise U.S. political power. Such power rests partly on the U.S. government’s ability to give foreign governments the things (money, weapons) they want. Before the United States can give, it must first confiscate wealth — by force — from the American people. Hence, U.S. domination does rest on force, domestic and foreign. Like a stage magician, however, D’Souza misdirects our attention. He talks about the dominance of American culture — a different form of dominance indeed.

The attractiveness of American culture to people around the world has nothing to do with empire. The world’s fascination with things American is not an example of “US domination.” It is the result of free trade. The influence of American culture and business would be just as strong, if not stronger, were the U.S. government not meddling everywhere and making enemies. We should not let D’Souza trick us into thinking that the benevolence of American private-sector activities worldwide owes something to the heavy-handed imperial policies of the U.S. government.

At a time when libertarians are trying arduously to help people understand that global capitalism and U.S. state hegemony are two separate and unrelated matters, D’Souza is working to persuade the world they’re one and the same. Of course, he is under no obligation to lend us libertarians a hand.
Freedom versus empire

But it is difficult to see how one can claim to favor individual freedom and capitalism while egging on the empire. At least back to Adam Smith, liberals (in the original sense) understood that unlimited power abroad was inconsistent with limited power at home. The line is never crisply drawn between domestic and foreign policy. They come down to one thing: state power. And the wielders of it cannot be counted on to exercise much care in not crossing the line. The great liberal anti-imperialists of the 19th century — Frédéric Bastiat, Richard Cobden, and John Bright — understood.

Maintaining a global presence doesn’t come cheap, even with client states and proxy forces. One wonders how we Americans are ever to enjoy the fiscal tranquility of liberalism, if government is authorized to traipse around the globe keeping the peace and disciplining rogue states. (Now that’s what the Freudians would call projection.) And how are we to reap the blessings of capitalism if the government insists on siphoning off technology and capital for new military equipment?

In addition to the domestic economic consequences of empire, we now can see other forms in which we pay the price. We now know that the enemies we make can’t be counted on to sit home and rail against the United States. Some may get out and actually do something. They may kill innocents. In large numbers. That, in turn, serves to rationalize the accumulation of even more power. Government failure is rewarded. The budgets of intelligence agencies that broke their pledge to protect us are inflated. New and scary law-enforcement powers are legislated. Habeas corpus is weakened. Citizens are treated like subjects, searched without probable cause. A national ID is on the agenda.

All because the world, it is suggested, couldn’t get by without its only superpower’s taking it upon itself to keep an eye on things and to keep the peace — as long as it’s the right kind of peace.

The American people, who today may be content with the benevolent hegemon on the loose, as usual failed to read the fine print.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.