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America as Empire

The founder of the State of the World Forum examines the way American power is shaping our geopolitical future
by Jim Garrison

People used to think of America as a global leader. Now a majority of the world thinks of America as a rogue power. Why? The answer to this question has to a large degree to do with what America has become. America has made the transition from republic to empire. It is no longer what it was. It was founded to be a beacon of light unto the nations, a democratic and egalitarian haven to which those seeking freedom could come. It has now become an unrivalled empire among the nations, exercising dominion over them. How it behaves and what it represents have fundamentally changed. It used to represent freedom. Now it represents power.

It was when I began to realize that my country had crossed the threshold from republic to empire that I began to study the history of empire. It was the only concept large and dynamic enough to explain what was going on, providing a larger framework, a more complex metaphor with which to understand America and the world. Republics imply single nations democratically governed, which was what America was founded to be. The very essence of empire is the control of one nation over other nations. While America remains a republic within its own borders, it has become an empire in relationship to the rest of the world.

The inordinate power of the United States disturbs people on the American left and excites people on the American right. Liberals are uncomfortable with the notion of an American empire because they are uneasy with the fact that America has so much power, especially military power. They would prefer that America simply be part of the community of nations, perhaps a first among equals but an equal nevertheless, and use its power to further human welfare. Conservatives, on the other hand, are jubilant that America is finally breaking out of multilateral strictures and is unilaterally asserting its imperial prerogatives abroad. For them, national self-interest, enforced by military supremacy, should be the guiding principle of U.S. policy.

The liberal notion that America confine its power within multilateral frameworks and the conservative desire to apply American power unilaterally for narrow self-interest are both inadequate. There is a deeper and more complex reality going on. Whatever qualms people may have about it, America has become an empire, and there is no turning back. As Heraclitus taught us, one can never enter the same river twice. The transition from republic to empire is irreversible, like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Once power is attained, it is not surrendered. It is only exercised. The central question before America, therefore, is what it should do with all the power it has. How should it assert its authority and for what end?

This means that America should acknowledge, even celebrate, its transition to empire and acquisition of global mastery. What began as a motley band of colonies 225 years ago is now not only the strongest nation in the world but the strongest nation in the history of the world. Americans should be justly proud of this achievement. It has been attained with enormous effort and at great cost.

The world, too, should modulate its antipathy against America with the consideration that America has become so powerful in part because it has been so benign. This might be a little hard to take if one has experienced the boot of American strength, but consider the three other national attempts at empire in the last century: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan. What if any of these empires had defeated the United States and established global hegemony? What would the world be like today if Nazi Germany and Japan had won the Second World War, or if the Soviets had won the Cold War? We should all breathe a sigh of relief that these eventualities never occurred and that a democratic nation committed to universal values triumphed and established global dominion.

Having prevailed in the competition against these other empires and having achieved what they were denied, Americans should be aware that there are now enormous responsibilities that must be undertaken both in relation to the United States itself and in relation to the world. The fate of empires can be long or short, noble or tragic, depending on how astutely leadership is exercised and decisions are made. The exercise of power is highly unstable, especially the near-absolute power that empire represents. It provides opportunity; it also corrupts. It demands wise action; it also seduces to the dark side.

There are thus all sorts of dangers inherent in the exercise of power. Internally, the transition from republic to empire is almost always made at the cost of freedom. Power and freedom are contradictory and do not coexist comfortably. Freedom requires the limitation of power. Power demands the surrender of freedom. This is something the ancient Athenians and Romans learned at great cost: democracy was the casualty of their empires. Americans must heed this ancient experience and painful truth. American freedoms are not eternally bestowed but must with each generation and circumstance be reevaluated and preserved. Freedom is lost far more easily than it is gained, especially when it is surrendered for the sake of more power.

Externally, empire incites insurrection. No nation wants to be ruled, especially those that have just been liberated, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Maintaining dominion is therefore a very tricky challenge, especially in a world of instantaneous communication and porous borders, in which information and people can move about virtually unimpeded, and small actions can have large and unexpected effects. This was the lesson of September 11. There are many enemies of empire and few friends. Americans must know this as they rule, especially in obscure places far from American shores.

To achieve greatness, an empire needs a transcendental vision that can unite all the disparate elements within it into an overarching purpose. It must aspire to a mission that the entire empire can join in building. It must be fundamentally constructive, not destructive.

Americans at their point of empire are called to articulate a vision for the world worthy of the power they now hold over the world. This vision must transcend self-interest and embrace the whole. In order to do this, America must remember that even though it now represents power, it has historically been a shining light to the international community, symbolizing freedom. Can the vision that built the American republic now guide America as it consolidates its empire?

History teaches that great empires are constructed, not simply by using military might but by building institutions that are perceived by the governed as just and fair. The common interest of the empire as a whole must supersede the national interest of the dominant state in order for the empire to endure. The great paradox of empire is that stewardship is far more powerful than force in maintaining imperial control.

Sixty years ago, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman achieved this level of greatness, as did Woodrow Wilson in the generation before. They defeated world fascism and contained communism by ensuring that the United States had the strongest military in the world. At the same time, they founded the United Nations, established the Bretton Woods institutions, implemented the Marshall Plan, and established NATO, thereby ushering in a new postcolonial international system. They blended American interests with the interests of the common good to create a new world order. American strength thus served political aspirations that were welcomed by the international community.

Six decades later, the forces of globalization have made the institutions built then anachronistic to the needs of an integrating world. The world is therefore in a new state of crisis, both in terms of the magnitude of the problems pressing down upon us and in terms of the inability of the prevailing national and international institutions to cope with these challenges.

The major difference between now and sixty years ago is that Roosevelt and Truman redesigned the international order within the context of an acute and undeniable crisis: a world at war. Today, we are in a crisis of similar magnitude, but the crisis is more like an accident in slow motion. The old Cold War system and the system of nation states are dysfunctional and no longer capable of coping with global problems ranging from global warming, deforestation, and water scarcity, to persistent poverty, dealing with failed states, and HIV/AIDS. All these crises are pressing down upon us and the prevailing system of international institutions is simply incapable of effective response. The planet is thus quite literally on a collision course with itself. Yet strangely, the totality of the danger is not yet apparent. World leaders thus do little more than talk about it. Most are simply in denial.

The opportunity in this situation is for America to ask itself anew what it can do about the needs of the global commons. How can America proactively lead the world out of the present crisis? How can it revitalize the international order and lead in the development of innovative ways to solve global problems? What global institutions need to be established to ensure that democracy and prosperity, along with American primacy, prevail in the twenty-first century?

What both Americans and the world must internalize is that no one is even remotely capable of leading this effort but the United States. The United Nations is weak and bureaucratically paralyzed. Other powers that could one day serve as regional sources of stability and order, such as the European Union, Russia, China, India, or Brazil, are themselves either unformed, unstable, or not sufficiently coherent. The myriad number of new international initiatives and institutions coming from the nongovernmental sector have high aspirations but remain fragile, underfunded, and only marginally effective.

This situation may be completely different in a few decades. But right now, it is only the United States that has the capacity, the traditions, the reach, and the will to lead at the global level. Until there is a sufficiently strong matrix of global institutions to ensure global stability and prosperity, there is literally no one else to lead the world but America. This means that the highest vision for the American empire is to serve the global need for effective global governance.

The greatest temptation at the moment of power is to be seduced by the dark side, or in arrogance, to dispense with “the vision thing,” as President George Bush, Sr., put it, and to use one's power not for the common good but for the sake of gaining even more power. The question before the United States is whether the magnitude of its power will eclipse the light by which it was founded, or whether it will use its power to serve greater light. Does it seek mastery to dominate or mastery to serve?

This is a crucially important distinction and question. If it uses its power to build democracy at a global level with the same genius with which it built democracy at the national level, the United States could leave a legacy so powerful that the world will become knitted into a singularity of democracy and freedom. The possibility for a successor empire could then be superseded by the demands of a single global system.

To achieve this task, America must consciously view itself as a transitional empire, one whose destiny at the moment of global power is to midwife a democratically governed global system. Its great challenge is not to dominate but to catalyze. It must see its historic task as that of using its great strength and democratic heritage to establish the integrating institutions and mechanisms necessary for the effective management of the emerging global system such that its own power is subsumed by the very edifice it helps to build.

Wilson established the League of Nations. Roosevelt and Truman established a new world order during and after World War II. It must now be done again. If it attains this level of greatness, America could be the final empire, for what it will have bequeathed to the world is a democratic and integrated global system in which empire will no longer have a place or perform a role.

This is the challenge before America: to manifest a destiny of both light and power at the level of global affairs. It is ultimately a challenge about how high it will cast its sights, about what kind of vision it will manifest as it leads in an integrating world fraught with crises. The deep question is whether Americans have the political and moral intention to rise to this occasion and whether the world will accept the leadership that America then provides.

Jim Garrison is president of the State of the World Forum, which he cofounded with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1995. Garrison has written six books on various aspects of philosophical theology and history, including Civilization and the Transformation of Power (2000). His most recent book, America as Empire, from which the above article is excerpted, came out in January 2004.


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This article is from
Our Morality Issue


February–April 2004