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Is There An Imperial Exit?

(this article by Prof. Norman Birnbaum ’46 was originally published in El Pais, 28 February 2010)

We know, thanks to biographers and historians (and novelists) how the United States constructed its modern empire. Now that its costs are so high, however, and the nation increasingly divided again on how to deal with the world, we Americans know neither how to keep it or withdraw from it.

After continental conquest and continuous warfare, our modern imperial epoch began in 1898, at Spain’s cost. US participation in the war of 1914-18 (like the war with Spain) provoked domestic opposition. German and Irish immigrants were instinctively dubious, agrarian populists and urban socialists were ideologically so. Still, war intensified the assimilation of the millions of Europeans who had arrived before and after the turn of the century. Wilson, the son of a Calvinist pastor, depicted the US as a new Israel—chosen to write history anew, and most Americans assented.

The US emerged from the First World War as global banker and manufacturer. The nation plunged into consumer capitalism, and Armstrong, Chaplin and Hemingway carried our culture nearly everywhere. The isolationists between the wars were not a coherent bloc. Some were motivated by ethnic resentment of the Anglo-Saxon elite, others by politial suspicion of the ruling class, others were ancestors of the later unilateralists. Unimpeded by much public attention, three very internationalist Secretaries of State from the older elite, Hughes, Kellog, Stimson, extended American power by enlisting finance and industry in the task. The military prepared assiduously for the next Great War. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 began his Presidency as a cautious internationalist.When he succeeded in bringing the nation into war in 1941, he drew upon the banks, law firms and universities to command the new warfare state. The public, remote from the conduct of foreign policy, agreed that war was necessary to defend the economic and social substance of the nation.

The national division of labor that made the Cold War possible was forged not after but before 1945. Ordinary citizens gave, above all, consent—but also taxes for military expenditure. Especially after the mutiny in the armed services in Vietnam, conscription was abandoned. Economic constraints ensured an adequate supply of recruits. The Cold War ended, but the first war on Iraq and the Balkan intervention were followed by Afghanistan and Iraq again. Iran may be next… Islamists, terrorists, rogue states, a resurgent Russia, and an obdurate China (not to mention the familiar Cuban Communists and new antagonists like Chavez) explain the enormous resources invested in our military. (Fifteen billion dollar aircraft carriers are being built despite the fact that our own frogmen climbed onto one and could have damaged if not sunk it.)

Particular wars are criticised by ordinary citizens, our imperial trajectory is not. The arms industry, the public and private bureaucracies of the foreign and military policy apparatus are a permanent imperial lobby. A spectrum of issue groups (from the Israel lobby to defenders of a militant Christianity) argue about priorities but agree on American global primacy.

“The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite that I was ever born to set it right.” Hamlet’s lament moves those who consider that we are not masters but prisoners of empire. We cannot afford it, our attempts to rectify the ills of the world evoke derision and hostility. Supposed threats succeed one another with unfailing regularity, as newer generations systematically repeat the errors of the older ones. The dominant politicians and publicists, and many voters, regard critical scrutiny of our world role as weakness.

In the absence of organized public protest (the era of Vietnam seems epochs ago) could the experience of the nineteen twenties and thirties provide a political model? Then, a largely indifferent public allowed the foreign policy elite of the first decades of the century considerable autonomy. Obama, before becoming President, clearly aligned himself with the critical party. In office, thus far, whatever innovative intentions he had have been blocked by the inertia of the apparatus— the manipulative malevolence of his opponents, and the resolute sabotage of many in his own party.

Imperial exit by stealth is impossible. Is a cautious and step by step withdrawal achievable? The President’s plan for sanctions on Iran may be a preliminary to war—but it may also constitute the calculated if unacknowledged construction of an impasse.

The elements for a sustained American effort to reverse course exist.
Plenty of retired diplomats, intellgence officials, and military officers say what their serving colleagues think: the present course is internally and externally unsustainable. The universities are not reduced to intellectual servitude. Even some of the Washington centers of research occasionally function as other than factories for the serial production of cliches. There is a certain amount of independent journalism. One of four members of the Congress can be depended upon. Before our empire crashes of its own weight, an intelligent project to lighten the burden may be tried.

Historical learning is difficult. The Europeans have learned, collectively and nationally, that post-imperial existence is quite bearable. Our history is different and we will take a different path. Unfortunately, defeats larger than Vietnam may be necessary before the public accepts a redefinition of our nation’s role in the world. The Republicans are preparing to retake the Presidency in 2012 with a program of total bellicosity, which could multiply our present disasters, but also increase the dangers to American democracy itself. What is certain is that the world does not at all correspond to the absurdly simplified image of it often voiced on much of American television—and cynically purveyed by those who know better. General Petraeus has just said that the new offensive in Afghanistan will take twelve to eighteen months—implicitly refuting the fiction of an Afghan population eager to be liberated by NATO.

That is a fiction which no longer animates the Netherlands government. The Netherlands Labor Party, insisting on withdrawal from Afghanistan, has shown the old world realism not always evident in the European Union. One hears, in Europe, demands that it assume a world historical task. What about a Netherlands like contribution to the education of the American elite and public alike?

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