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Empire Has Shattered American Credibility

May 07, 2004

America's empire knows few limits, but, as David Hendrickson explained to attendees of the American Imperium conference in April, displays of U.S. power do not translate into international credibility.

Excerpted from David Hendrickson's comments to the American Imperium Conference, Swarthmore College, April 19, 2004

The text of my sermon is a passage from Alexander Hamilton, written in 1797, warning of the threat that France, under the influence of Jacobinism, posed to the society of states. France, he wrote, had "betrayed a spirit of universal domination; an opinion that she had a right to be the legislatrix of nations; that they are all bound to submit to her mandates, to take from her their moral, political, and religious creeds; that her plastic and regenerating hand is to mould them into whatever shape she thinks fit; and that her interest is to be the sole measure of the rights of the rest of the world." All this, of course, sounds very familiar today, parroting the intoxicating fusion of breathtaking utopianism and hard-nosed realpolitik that has infused the outlook of the Bush administration.

Though it is usual, and not inaccurate, to characterize the strategic doctrine of the Bush administration as a bid for empire, the old term of "universal empire" is a yet more apt depiction of its aspiration. Whereas empire signifies domination over other peoples, universal empire signifies domination over the state system as a whole. Although there have been a succession of bids for a universal empire by European monarchies and despots, the current situation of the United States represents the first time in history that a state has sought full spectrum dominance; today the United States has a panoply of power that is highly unusual. The British empire, to which U.S, empire is often compared, did not unite land and sea power, and Bismarck famously quipped that if the British army landed on the Prussian coast he would have it arrested by the local police.

American empire is thus more formidable than the British empire ever was, while being much more inept in the effective use of military power. Whereas the British were close students of the parsimonious exercise of power, the U.S. is wedded to overwhelming displays of force that, though tactically impressive, are often strategically counterproductive and indeed ruinous.

The most astonishing claim of the new imperialists is that the United States has the right or the duty to overthrow tyrannical regimes through force. It is even pretended that such a claim is coterminous with the foundation of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. In fact, however, the American founders and their followers believed that the right of national independence - the right of every people to determine its own form of government - was every bit as sacred and self-evident as the doctrine that all men are created equal. This principle of national independence, which was widely understood until the last two decades, has been ignored by recent administrations, though especially so by Bush.

While the current imperial program portrays itself as following in the old American tradition, it fundamentally misreads it. By undertaking a violent external revolution in Iraq, the United States is contravening fundamental principles on which our Republic was grounded.

The Iraq war has brought heavy costs - in expense, in lost lives and mangled limbs, in prestige and reputation. However, those who say that it was justifiable to depose a tyrant violently, through excessively costly in this instance, are in effect conceding the principle of democratic imperialism while reducing their critique to haggling about the price. A better ground, I believe, is the ancient and still widely accepted legal principle that locates the remedy for tyranny in internal revolution rather than external intervention. All the malign characteristics of the American war and occupation, especially the anarchy it let loose in Iraq, attest to the wisdom of the traditional rule locating the right of revolution in insiders rather than outsiders. Few revolutions in recent times - particularly the upheavals in Eastern Europe, South America, and East Asia - meant the destruction of civil order, such as was accomplished by the violent revolution brought about by the United States in Iraq. Even had authorization been squeezed from a reluctant Security Council (which, as it happened, did its duty and refused to endorse the Bush administration's actions), the U.S. overthrow of Saddam would still have violated the basic legal principle placing the right and responsibility for the internal institutions of a given state in the people of that country.

There is much evidence that the United States' imperial project is doomed to failure. Unipolarity, for all its vaunted blessings, also carries with it a certain debility. There is a strong tendency for such power to expand to the margins of its capability. What there is to use, gets used. Experience in Iraq shows that we know not how to wield our power well or effectively. Our hard-nosed tactics, by breeding more anti-U.S. sentiment, makes empire an ultimately self-defeating project. In promoting a myopic view of our military power--that our use of power gives us credibility--we fail to see that it generates more hatred than fear. What the expatriate columnist William Pfaff calls "the American narrative" of power pledged to peace is no longer believed in much of the world.

Favorable attitudes toward America dropped by 20 to 30 percentage points in foreign countries between 2001 and 2003, the general pattern showing almost no discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, national origin, or sexual orientation. In the estimation of the world, America has become a rogue nation. America's acts of war, which its own public opinion deemed brilliant, just, and noble, were seen elsewhere as clumsy, illegal, and reckless.

The United States needs to re-discover its previous commitment to international law. Law is usually seen as an impertinence, a restriction on the untrammeled pursuit of the national interest, but it is also more often a guide to prudent behavior. The classic rules -such as the prohibition against preventive war, or norms against torture - remain valid.

Such rules do not prevent states from pursuing their national interests, but only require that they do so within certain restraints, much as guard rails and speed limits keep you from plunging off a cliff when driving on a mountain road. We discover daily that the contempt for law displayed by the Bush administration is in fact the height of imprudence.


David C. Hendrickson is Professor of Political Science at Colorado College and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. He is the author of many scholarly works on international relations. His most recent book is Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003).

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