Monday, October 18, 2010

Age of Empires (Part 1 of 2): Can the US afford its imperial reach?

Most assume "no" to be the be the immediate answer but that would fail to explore the complexities of the American situation: in 'what' form is the empire, and 'why' exactly is it not sustainable? This post explores the former question; the next post the latter.
What type of empire?
The question of the United States as an empire is a fact of life to those on the left, contentious to many less interested in state actors, and an epithet to some sympathetic to the concept of benign hegemony. This post will attempt to steer clear of the pejorative; it is not concerned with whether America's reach is a positive force or exploitative --the literature on that is expansive-- but if it will lead to ask the question of whether the US can wield the same level of power in the future. First, let us consider some contrasting views of America as empire.


On the one hand, Joseph Nye --a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense and currently professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government-- who has travelled the lecture and book promotion circuit for the past decade promoting the the merits of "soft power" as a postscript to his noted scholarship on Power and Interdependence would forcefully disagree with the 'America as empire' notion.

On the other hand, Scottish historian and fellow Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson, has unabashedly described America's imperialistic credentials within the pages of Foreign Policy:
"During the course of the 2oth century, the United States occupied Panama for 74 years, the Philippines for 48, Palau for 47, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands for 39, Haiti for 19, and the Dominican Republic for 8. The formal postwar occupations of West Germany and Japan continued for, respectively, 10 and 7 years..."
While I neither dislike Nye's erudition nor lean politically as does Ferguson and do not subscribe to his penchant for historical revisionism --he is a member of Stanford's Hoover Institution, the well funded right wing think tank and advocates the contestable view of Britain's empire as the pioneer of free trade, free capital movements and free labour-- it is arguably Ferguson's articulation of America's reach as an empire which makes sense when framed against its military capability: a nation with more than 800 --by conservative estimates-- military bases globally, the American empire is not and has not been in the mould of traditional imperialism.
You have doubtless read of the the archetypes of empires past --be it the British, the Bolsheviks, the Romans, or the Romanovs; Anatol Lieven, an analyst at the New America Foundation think tank, has likened America to an indirect empire that resembles the Dutch in the East Indies during the 17th-18th centuries.

Since taking the reigns from a wounded Britain after The Great War and fully supplanting it by the time it entered World War 2 as the dominant economic and military force, America has unquestionably been an unprecedented global influence in a bipolar Cold War world and unipolar End of History morphing into Clash of Civilizations world.
The US penchant for self-interest has over-ridden any principled political doctrine at the foreign policy level from its executive branch: think of Woodrow Wilson's putative multi-lateralism that supposedly brought into the fold nation states of all stripes contrasted with his unabashed Dixiecrat racism; consider Henry Kissinger's amoral realism which favoured American support of despotic acolytes in favour of democratically elected regimes which did not fit with US interests--to this day polemicists like Christopher Hitchens characterize Kissinger as a war criminal; or remind yourself of Bill Clinton's naive idealism that bumbled along in permitting the Rwandan genocide (as described in Samantha "Hillary is a monster" Power's A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide). Every American originated doctrine, from Monrow to Truman to Bush evokes (in some form) Jesus of Nazareth's Sermon on the Mount in positing the idea of American exceptionalism.

Paul Wilkinson, Professor of International Relations at St. Andrews, in describing the US importantly references the United States economic (in addition to its combat) might:
"It also has the largest inventory of nuclear weapons and the most advanced high-tech weaponry in the world. America's superpower status depends on this vital continuation of huge economic strength and incredibly high levels of military expenditure, only made possible by America's unique wealth. [Moreover...] the US has a unique capability for the rapid deployment of its forces deploying both airlift and sea lift assets with remarkable speed."


However, it is through Martijn Koninjs's work on institutions that we can consider how the tentacles of US power are also rooted in the structure of global finance; in the wake of 2008's Financial Crisis, the adage of "Too Big to Fail" spawned books and become part of the vernacular in policy circles. Yet "Too Big to Fail" fails to reflect that it is the interconnectedness of financial institutions and the network effects of negative feedbacks that have resulted in credit, the grease of global commerce, drying up, and the financial system coming to a halt. It is the nature of capital to bypass obstacles and pursue the highest return; and this is done through the financial engineering of American financial institutions hence the proposition of "Too Connected to Fail" remains the greater danger.

Indeed, size is important but understand that while China's state owned banks are now the world's largest, a failure of a Chinese financial institution at this time will have comparatively less effect on most developed nations (save for Australia) than a failure of a significantly smaller American investment bank --such is the nature of America's empire--because when America sneezes, the rest of the world truly does catch a cold.

Notwithstanding the meaningless rhetoric of 'less government' during the current US mid-term elections, it is important to consider the role that the American state played in the expansion of international financial markets and the reliance of American intermediaries as the primary conduit of global capital. The American financial system, has been a key factor in perpetuating American empire: financial statecraft has become an essential pillar of strength. It is wounded, and the fiscal situation makes America more vulnerable: it is down on the matt but is it out for the count?