Tue, 24 Jun 2003

Immense American power built on collaboration

Martin Woollacott, Guardian News Service, London

Responding this week to a suggestion that it must be humiliating for the fate of his people to hang on U.S. intervention, the Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat said with a wry smile: "I think everybody realizes that the new Rome is with us." It is easy to see how Israelis and Palestinians might think in these terms as they consider their futures, since the support of the United States is so important to one, and the hope of fair-minded American arbitration so critical to the other.

But Erekat's remark also illustrates how ubiquitous the idea of empire now is, and how curiously acceptable it is becoming in a world which was supposed to have turned its back on this most unacceptable of political structures.

It is true that empire never left the critical vocabulary. Concepts of neo-imperialism and informal imperialism were elaborated to account for the persisting imbalance between former colonies and former imperial centers -- and, in particular, to explain the nature of American power. Long ago Arthur Schlesinger Jr, discussing what he called the American "quasi-empire", wrote: "Imperial adventures will find new forms in new eras, meet obstacles, succeed for a season, flounder in time and leave havoc as well as benefit in their trail."

But there is something different about the discussion of empire since the Afghan intervention and, even more, since the Iraq war.

The presumption is increasingly that we, meaning all the peoples of the world, are in an empire, stuck with it, like a ship's crew and passengers on a long journey. The questions raised often have a primarily practical air, as if to ask: How are we going to make this work for us, or serve our purposes, or how are we going to survive it?

American foreign policy analyst David Rieff can say in passing that he thinks George Bush is America's Octavius, and people at once understand the reference to a transition that both brought the Roman republic to an end and inaugurated a long-lived empire. Whether it is Niall Ferguson wondering whether the American empire is going to be as effective as the British, Michael Ignatieff examining whether empire can serve both moral and strategic purposes, or Eric Hobsbawm fearing the worst, there seems to be a more and more general imperial premise.

This is unfortunate, because empire ought not to be an easy word, whether used with approval or disapproval. Indeed, there is a sense in which the acceptance of empire is empire.

In his recent book Empire (published in UK, HarperCollins) Henry Kamen examines the extraordinary weakness of Castile, the frailest state ever to preside over a great empire, and concludes that the structure remained intact for such a long time because it served the purposes of so many societies, including some who were formally enemies of Spain.

In this case it was not so much that peoples collaborated with the empire but that collaboration was the empire. Historians of the British Empire have long stressed the same point.

Stronger though succeeding imperial states have been, and strong though the U.S. is today, collaboration is still of the essence. And collaboration is still the word, for it evokes the dubious dimension of imperial enterprises, of which it is not enough to say that they have sometimes, perhaps usually, been cooperative as well as coercive. The question is: Cooperation to what end?

This is the question which Michael Ignatieff explores in Empire Lite (UK, Vintage), a book of reportage and reflection on intervention and its after-effects in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. For Ignatieff, there is no step-change which distinguishes the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s clearly on the one hand from the first Iraq intervention, and on the other from the Afghan and Iraq wars which followed the Twin Towers attack.

The framework in which he sees all these interventions is imperial. This is because, whatever the relative importance of human rights in these interventions and in Iraq, the primary purpose is to "create order in border zones essential to the security of great powers".

It is imperial, in addition, because the initial instrument used is armed force, and because "while nominal power may return to the local capital -- Kabul, Sarajevo and Pristina -- real power will continue to be exercised from London, Washington and Paris".

But here there is surely a problem, for does a process in which power remains at the imperial center clearly contribute toward the "restitution of a global order of stable nation states" which Ignatieff deems to be the ultimate objective?

Empire, he says, has made its return because the world of free states has not come about, or has not sufficiently come about. Yet the number of failed or malign states is, as he says, relatively small. Is the new imperialism just a rescue and police operation for those states, or is it something more?

Is it even that, given the uneven record of nation building after recent interventions? Judgment on these failures touches, in a new form, on the question of the quality of empire which preoccupied Joseph Conrad, so often invoked in this debate.

He weighed the criminally slapdash empire of the Belgians and the backward empire of the Russians against the somewhat more serious British undertaking, and ruled with reservations in favor of the latter. But it is pretty dispiriting to reflect that almost a century after Conrad began to write about such things we are back at this same gate.

Ignatieff has a collegiate understanding of new empire, seeing it as a joint western and Japanese undertaking under American leadership, even though subject to serious internal strains. Others, like Prof. Christopher Coker (Empires in Conflict, UK, RUSI) of the London School of Economics, posit two conflicting empires, one American and one European, with different modes of expansion, different styles, and different understandings of risk.

In all these discussions, many of them enlightening about the nature of the world today, and generally informed by good intentions, there is nevertheless a sense of the slippery slope. The ideal to which ordinary people everywhere respond is the ideal of the world of free states. Is this new empire, which so many identify, a way of contributing to that ideal?

Through the 1990s, observers tracked transnational developments which included the growth of international non- governmental organizations, the deepening of regional groupings, the increasingly transnational operations of business, the accumulation of multilateral agreements on many issues, and the stumbling growth of humanitarian intervention -- all the strands which made up globalization in its good and its bad aspects.

Something, it was intuited, was in the process of being born, but empire was not to be the name of the baby. Nor should it be now. Some states are more powerful than others, and one is exceptionally powerful. Free states may occasionally use the methods of empire to restore other free states. But let us not call this empire, lest it become one.