Bush's Desolate Imperium, Copyright © Bernard Chazelle, Princeton, December 2003


As Georgetown Professor John Ikenberry argues [9], the radical shift in American power from hegemonic to imperial requires that the "US break from the postwar norms and institutions of the international order and arrogate to itself the global role of setting standards." Unconstrained by international law, Bush's America is thereby entitled to play by the rules of its own making while challenging the right of others to do likewise. Which is fine by the neocons, because America is good and the rest of world, mostly, is not. In a case of paranoiac exceptionalism, the Bush administration has signaled its opposition to the Land Mine Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the International Criminal Court Treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Biological Warfare Treaty.

Rejection of all things multilateral is a cornerstone of the Bush doctrine. It is a grotesque magnification of the traditional Republican leeriness toward international obligations. Indifferent to the fact that the United Nations, imperfect though it may be, is the only forum where the world's poorest nations have a voice, Pat Buchanan (no Bushie he) fired the opening salvo:
"Should We Evict the UN?" It has treated America and New York City like doormats long enough. [10]
Though Buchanan may represent only a fringe isolationist brand of right-wing thinking, his paranoia has been loudly echoed by Bush doctrine devotees. Here are two typical rants heard on the eve of the war. One is by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist who studied paranoia and now practices it:
... in the Iraq crisis, the United Nations will sink once again into irrelevance. This time it will not recover. And the world will be better off for it. [11]
The other one is by Former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, far and away the most eloquent French-basher to own a summer house in France:
Thank God for the death of the UN. [12]
This uniquely American fondness for dissing the UN is quite extraordinary. It is the height of hypocrisy, for no country has had its interests served better by the UN than the United States. And the arrogance. Remember the American sneering over the rights of Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea to use their rotations on the Security Council to pass judgment about Iraq. (No such sneering when senators from the microscopic states of Rhode Island or Delaware threaten to block a piece of legislation on Capitol Hill.) As Dag Hammarskjold famously said,
The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell.
The United Nations is imperfect because it mirrors the world, with its mix of democracies and tyrannies. But it is the only forum where humanity speaks as a whole. Except for a few well-publicized disasters (Rwanda, Bosnia), the UN has been remarkably effective. With an annual peacekeeping budget that is inferior to those of the NYC Fire and Police departments, the UN has brought peace and democracy in recent years to East Timor, Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Mozambique [13]. It has helped the US in Afghanistan and Haiti. American detractors are quick to point to the Rwanda genocide, which the UN shamefully sat out. They invariably omit to mention who blocked the Security Council from getting involved: the United States.

There are many problems with America's new imperial aspiration, none more serious than its inherent unsustainability. A convergence of cultural, economic, military, diplomatic, and dependency factors will doom this ambition. In fact it will die a quick death. Briefly, here is why. First, there is the biological argument: Imperium is not in America's DNA. Why would a land of immigrants develop an "emigrating" vocation to occupy foreign lands? Expatriation is unlikely ever to become the ticket for career advancement it was in the days of the Raj. It takes a vivid imagination to picture legions of American educators, administrators, engineers, and businessmen willing to relocate to far-flung lands whose languages they don't speak, whose cultures they ignore, whose foods they detest, and whose anti-American sentiments they can only look forward to. Americans' idea of living with the enemy is to move to Paris.

Georgetown Professor Charles A. Kupchan has argued that the European Union, with an economy the size of America's, will be increasingly inclined to check its unbridled power [14]. The combined GDP of Northeast Asia already exceeds, and soon will eclipse, that of the United States. Both the US trade and budget deficits are astronomical. Annual foreign purchases of US assets exceed the budget of the Pentagon. (Picture this: all GIs on foreign payroll.) For all the talk of hyperpower, the US share of the world economy is roughly half of what it was in 1950. Bush's unilateralism is likely to catalyze the coalition of rival forces; precisely what it sought to prevent.

At least America has the bayonets! Its military superiority is, indeed, overwhelming and likely to remain so for at least a generation. Its battlefield dominance over any potential enemy is something of which Queen Victoria could only have dreamed. With this comes the power to punish and conquer; and do little else. On the terrorist front, coordinated intelligence and police action have proven far more effective than brute force. Similarly, for all of America's vaunted military power, Osama is still on the lam (as of this writing) and in Afghanistan little more than Kabul is under control. Not to speak of Iraq, where the world's only superpower is proving unable to stabilize a nation of 25 million that has been crippled by twelve years of economic sanctions. As Talleyrand once observed to Napoleon: "You can do anything with a bayonet, Sire, except sit on it."

While military strength has been oversold, diplomacy has suffered from neglect. Actually, ineptitude might be a better word. Casting aspersions on the United Nations while bribing and threatening its weaker members backfired miserably and dashed American hopes for a resolution authorizing war. Insulting and intimidating recalcitrant friends and allies, a signature move from the Bush playbook, proved spectacularly counterproductive. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's exhortation, "Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia," served only the purpose of showing America's inability to do even just that. After Bush was spotted at the "irrelevant" UN in Fall 2003, hat in hand, it was the Europeans' turn to ponder whether to punish, ignore, or forgive America.

Bad habits die hard. Berating Turkey's democratic leaders for not listening more closely to their generals was a throwback to the Cold War, when a friendly government was defined as a military junta that took its orders from Washington. Over 95 percent of Turks opposed the war; and yet Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had the audacity to blame the Turkish military for not playing "the strong leadership role" that was expected of it (codeword for "putting a gun to the head of democratically elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan"). Mind you that Wolfowitz was then the loudest democracy promoter in neocon circles. Perhaps the decibels were needed to cover up the hum of insincerity.

America is the mightiest nation the world has ever known; vastly more powerful than Britain at the zenith of its empire. Is it really? If power is measured not in weaponry counts but, more usefully, in the ability to achieve one's objectives, America can only envy British power. Indeed, President Bush needs the cooperation of the world far more than Queen Victoria ever did. Fewer and fewer countries even bother to listen to US diktats any more. (If you are not convinced, read up on the pathetic results of the US campaign to cut off aid to states supporting the International Criminal Court.) This year's events proved that Turkey has learned to say no. With the end of the Cold War, France and Germany are terminally beyond US retaliatory reach—you can tell from the invectives: always a sure sign of weakness. In the war on terror, the US desperately needs the cooperation of such heavyweights as Pakistan, Indonesia, and India. As for China, it is simply too big to be bossed around. Add to this the interdependencies created by globalization, and the picture of a latter-day Gulliver tied down by Lilliputs begins to emerge. As the deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations, Dominique Moisi, puts it,
... nothing in the world can be done without the United States. And the multiplicity of actors means that there is very little the United States can achieve alone. [15]
The dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Joseph S. Nye Jr, is right on target when he identifies soft power, ie, "the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals," as a key component of any successful US foreign policy [16]. This echoes Kissinger's dictum that the test of history for the United States will be its ability to convert its power into international consensus.

Bush's foreign policy has been a high-octane mix of bellicosity and diplomatic ineptitude. It has also been remarkably "un-American." The United States has always been better at persuasion than coercion. Attraction for its ideas and values, not its military strength, has been the root of its success. Tolerance, generosity, freedom, courage, energy, and optimism are the vocabulary of America's greatness. Paranoia, selfishness, and fear are not.


[9] America's Imperial Ambition, by John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, 2002.

[10] Should We Evict the UN? by Patrick Buchanan, New York Post, December 27, 1997, page 15.

[11] Washington Post, January 31, 2003.

[12] The Guardian, March 21, 2003.

[13] Why America Still Needs the United Nations, by Shashi Tharoor, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2003

[14] The End of the American Era: US Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century, by Charles A. Kupchan, Knopf, October 29, 2002.

[15] The Real Crisis Over the Atlantic, by Dominique Moisi, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001.

[16] Propaganda Isn't the Way: Soft Power, by Joseph S. Nye Jr., The International Herald Tribune, January 10, 2003.