CHRONICLES ONLINE, Monday, May 22, 2000
THE EMPIRE FOR THE NEW MILLENIUM?
by Sir Alfred Sherman
The history of empires is somewhat older than that of civilization. They rise, flourish, decay and are overthrown. At their height they seem irresistible, in their decline they seem unsaveable. Some leave more behind than others. Greek, Latin and Arabic alphabets, vocabulary and language cover wide areas. Greek philosophy, Roman law and British jurisprudence are widespread, as is Islam, with its behavioral codes, architecture and way of life.
Imperial expansion seems to be an imperative driven by internal force, "manifest destiny" rather than, necessarily, economic or technological superiority. The original expansion of Islam and the Mongolian and Manchu empires reflected weaknesses on the side of civilization. The claim that Britain's empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness has much to support it, e.g., the "scramble for Africa," designed mainly to forestall other European powers.
World history is entering a new phase following the collapse of Soviet communism and the emergence of American hegemony, exercised through NATO with varying degrees of partnership and subordination of other players. The immediate victims are the Serbs on both sides of the Drina. The process commenced with the deliberate break-up of Yugoslavia, led by Germany and acquiesced in by the other European Union members and the United States (1991). It progressed with sanctions against Serbia for attempting to help the western Serbs (1992). In Bosnia America's early involvement sparked off civil war (the Zimmerman Visit to Izetbegovic, in the aftermath of the Lisbon Agreement), and it eventually matured into the bombing campaign of 1999 and the occupation of Kosovo.
On America's past form we can expect the U.S. and its allies-cum-clients to continue their economic war against Serbia while occupying Raљka ("Sanjak"), turning Montenegro into their fiefdom, and breaking up Vojvodina. Germany and Hungary may in the end be allowed to redraw the map of central-eastern Europe - to the detriment of the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Romanians and others.
In a curious way the nineteenth century is being replayed out before our eyes. The great powers are intervening at will and with impunity but now justifying themselves in the name of that new fig leaf, the will of the "international community." (The latter has become the modern equivalent of Rousseau's "general will," which means the will of the person talking.) The Congress of Berlin has even been mentioned, approvingly, without the consideration that it was a step on the way towards the catastrophe of 1914.
No respite is on the horizon. According to the U.S. Secretary of State,
We are privileged to live in a country that, through most of
this century, has chosen to lead. Today we are helping to
shape events in every region on every continent in every
corner of the world... We exercise this leadership not out
of sentiment but out of necessity. We must mobilize every
foreign policy tool, from the simplest art of persuasion to
the blunt instrument of force... we must work to sustain
our prosperity by creating an ever-expanding global
economy in which American genius and productivity
receive their due.
These words of Mrs. Albright's are a timeless recipe for unlimited global imperialism. So long as this mind-frame prevails, and so long as "Western" policies continue to raise the hope of a Greater-Bosnian Islamistan and a Greater Albania - that would include not only Kosovo but also western Macedonia, parts of northern Greece and southern Montenegro - no Balkan peace can be expected. The alternative is conflict and the search for allies. At present the U.S. and its German allies, on whom Washington bases its European policy, are in the ascendant. But experience suggests that no ascendancy can last forever, and that the time for preparation to adjust to change is before changes begin, not after.
The alternative to the new imperialism is to begin thinking about a Balkan Peninsula of peoples, as distinct from one of states (though they too have their rationale). Unless this is done, all present and future manipulation of frontiers, nations and histories will be useless and counterproductive. There are many wires that may yet be tripped: differing objectives of Washington and Berlin; the volatility of American public opinion, and its diminished but not yet completely eradicated ability to resist the globalist project; the capacity of India, Russia and China to form a rival bloc; the unexpected. But meanwhile the juggernaut rolls on.
Empires differ in their objectives. The Greek city-states founded colonies abroad of their own citizens, to expand their own being. The Romans did so as an empire; so did the Ottoman Turks, with the commitment to unversalize Islam. The British tried to expand Britain by creating colonies in North America and the Antipodes, but then let the colonies slip out of their grasp. (The British confused others, and themselves, by calling their colonies "dominions" and their dominions - i.e. alien lands dominated by British power - as "colonies," while calling their empire a "commonwealth.")
One can understand the principle of U.S. involvement in Cuba, Guatemala, or Haiti, even if one does not necessarily approve of particular policies. America is of necessity involved in hemispheric affairs, and it has traditionally been involved in "North Atlantic," i.e., European, affairs, to the extent of two world wars and the Cold War. But what is the relevance of the Balkans and the Black Sea? And what is the point of creating and arming militantly Muslim polities in the Balkans which ineluctably gives Iran a foothold there and a route into Central and Western Europe for subversion and terror?
The U.S. has traditionally worked with some ugly despotisms, and is still doing so, viz. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Pakistan. But to intervene in favor of Islamic fundamentalism, to help expel Serbs from land they have inhabited as majorities for centuries, and to adopt the German-encouraged drive to reverse what is left of the Versailles provisions does not make sense.
The temptations of imperial arrogance are not new, even in the United States. They should not be forgotten just because America was, in some part, protected from this arrogance by the genuine weight and burden, more imposed than chosen, of defending the free world against Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The end of the Cold War has stripped off this protection. To present the United States as the world's policeman, judge, and jury may or may not play well in campaign rhetoric, but the idea is endlessly seductive for the Washington community of foreign policy professionals - often poorly educated, high on excitement, and low in statesmanlike patience. They fear that the world will happily pass them by unless America imposes herself, "rises to the challenge," and throws her weight about. Albright's heroes are Truman and Marshall. But where is her U.S.S.R.? The foreign policy community wants the feel-good factor, the winning-the-Cold-War glow, to go on and on. But to live for the adrenaline and glory of yesterday and yesteryear is to ride for a fall and to walk with hubris.
The power and prestige of America is in the hands of people who will not resist the temptation to invent new missions, lay down new embargoes, throw new bombs, and fabricate new courts. For the time being, they control the United Nations, the World Bank, most of the world's high-tech weapons, and the vast majority of the satellites that watch us from every quadrant of the skies. This is the opportunity they sense, and we must ask what ambitions they will declare next.
The United States did not plan its empire or global hegemony any more than the British did. In the 19th century it expanded westward relentlessly, killing Indians, expelling all European powers (British, French, Spanish) and taking land from Mexico in a stage-managed war; but that expansion was "national," not imperial.
But then, a century ago, McKinley acquired colonial possessions (and killed hundreds of thousand of civilians in the process, in the Philippines). In the ensuing half-century two world wars and Korea established America as a global power. Kennedy's disastrous foray into Indochina seemed to indicate the limits of the empire, but the lessons of that trauma appear to have been inexplicably unlearned within a generation. Kennedy's costly boast that he would fight communism the world over has long since been exceeded by Secretary of State Albright's promise to set the whole world to rights, by force where necessary, without reference to other states.
Instead of rediscovering the virtues of traditionally defined, enlightened self-interest in the aftermath of its hands down cold war victory, America's foreign policy elites are more intoxicated than ever by their own concoction of "benevolent global hegemony" and "indispensable power."
In the short term there is no countervailing force on the horizon. Moscow is showing the awareness of the dangers emanating from expanding American hegemony which it failed to show earlier in the decade. But there are limits to Russian power to intervene, set by economic and strategic factors, the legacies of seven decades of socialist dictatorship. It can do Chechnya, but it cannot return to Europe. For nearly a decade the U.S. and E.U. were given a free hand in Europe, including Romania and Bulgaria, dragooning them into their anti-Serbian war against those countries' public opinion, national interest, and economic considerations.
Cui bono? It was a German who remarked that you can do anything with bayonets but sit on them. What can the Americans do with their new empire? They cannot settle it, like earlier colonial powers. How far and how long can they dominate it, with their Muslim allies and satraps in the Balkans and elsewhere? How far ahead are America's policy makers looking, and what their eventual aims are, if any?
A 19th century British liberal's complaint that "the empire is a millstone round our neck" has continued relevance. It should be brought home to ordinary Americans, in order to turn them into allies.
At the time of this writing America is uniquely powerful. It will not always be so. In the course of time, Russia may gain its potential strength, and there is very little the United States can do about Chinese developments one way or the other. A law of history is that power tends to generate countervailing power. We do not know how this will come about. We can do little more than guard against arrogance and overextension and minimize the pointless sacrifices they usually entail. The opponents of globalism and interventionism should be proud to have taken part in this endeavor.
(Sir Alfred Sherman is a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher and chairman of The Lord Byron Foundation. He writes from London.)
Copyright 2000 The Rockford Institute - Center for International Affairs