Imperial America: a sceptic’s view

Published in the Daily Times on January 10, 2004

As Europe evolves into a more autonomous entity, which it is bound to in the years to come, like China and possibly Russia, there would be enough restraints against American unilateralism or imperialism. Similarly all this talk about reforming and democratising Arab societies is a non-starter

Does history really repeat itself? Yes, but only up to a point. History teaches us lessons from the past that we apply to grasp the present and anticipate the future. But the study of the past, which is really what history is all about, helps us only if we focus not just on what is similar but also on what is different between now and then. And very often the language hinders rather than facilitates our ability to discriminate. Take the case of the word ‘imperialism’.

Yes, there are certain similarities in the historical phenomenon of imperialism and the current combative and expansionist mood of America, but what is different is equally important. The imperialist powers of the past dominated a cluster of weak, economically inferior, technologically backward, internally divided and half-sovereign territories which could be easily imposed upon. There was very little resistance to the imposed rule.

Indeed in many cases the population merely saw indigenous rule replaced by a foreign power or dynasty with little effect on their day-to-day lives. The concepts of nationalism, sovereign equality of states, self-determination, human rights and democracy had either not evolved or not become universalised to cause any tensions between the rulers and the ruled. The conflicts that dominated international relations were between rival imperialist powers. The world has come a long way since then.

When we see hints of ‘imperialism’ in the US foreign policy today, we have the temptation to run away with this word from the past. We go to great lengths to study what the phenomenon meant in the past and invest all its ancient attributes to whatever America is doing now. And that is a misjudgement.

The world has been changing rapidly and in ways hard to anticipate and even imagine. A super power tempted by the opportunity of the post-cold war monopoly of power has been limbering up for some time to use force more freely to guarantee unchallenged assertion of its will on what is being seen as a menacing and disorderly new world. This had put to severe test not only the international system but American idealism as well. It started with Bush Senior and then continued with Clinton, and sometimes led to good, whatever the real motives. The American intervention in the war in the Balkans is one example.

And then came September 11, 2001. Political issues apart, one has to truly understand and appreciate the enormous fear and anger that arose in the US in the wake of this tragedy. The Americans genuinely feel that they are unsafe and vulnerable and there has been a massive, almost imperial, US retaliation.

The belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding, what has this ‘imperialism’ done so far? For a good answer I refer readers to the January/February 2004 issue of the Foreign Affairs that has an article by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell entitled ‘Partnership and Principle’. He has tried to explain, elaborate and defend the Bush foreign policy. While it may not be a perfect defence, specially of the Iraq war, it is a very persuasive explanation of some of the Bush foreign policy tenets that have aroused particular anxiety abroad, specially the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Almost apologetically Powell has claimed that the centrality of this doctrine in the Bush administration’s foreign policy has been exaggerated. Much of the article focuses on arguing how in the post-cold war world dangerous new challenges have arisen that were not susceptible to traditional diplomacy.

Looking at specific instances, the fact is that Afghanistan, long caught up in a bloody civil war and hosting the biggest nest of global terrorism, was not only a threat to the US but also to Pakistan, and indeed the world. Were we in Pakistan not outraged and alarmed by the way Taliban had threatened to destabilise our own society with religious extremism? Talbanised Afghanistan had been inviting international concern for some time. It was an intervention waiting to happen. It came half-heartedly during the Clinton years. But after September 11 it could have been ignored only at great peril. So there was a massive intervention, fully endorsed by the UN, applauded by the international community and facilitated by Pakistan. Call it American imperialism or whatever.

Of course Iraq was a case of bad intervention. The Administration lied to the American people. Senator Kennedy has called the war a big fraud? You only have to listen to the debates of Democratic candidates for this year’s presidential race to see how it has divided the nation. It has also outraged America’s European allies. Why did Bush go ahead with the war?

Essentially, because it was a vendetta for the Bush family. And secondly the president thought he could use this as an example to put fear in the hearts of what the US calls ‘rogue states’ to deter them from threatening US interests, a major foreign policy concern of Washington for some years now, pre-dating the Bush administration. This may not be the whole story but a good part of it. From Washington’s perspective the results have been instant, as obvious from the policy shifts in Iran, Libya and, possibly, North Korea.

Still questions remain about whether the 155 billion dollars spent so far on the Iraq war are worth the results or not. There are no clear answers to such questions. Only history will tell. But one thing seems certain, that such adventures cannot be repeated so easily. Look at the stiff resistance put up by America’s European allies and the global wave of anti-Americanism. And as Europe evolves into a more autonomous entity, which it is bound to in the years to come, like China and possibly Russia, there would be enough restraints against American unilateralism or imperialism.

Similarly all this talk about reforming and democratising Arab societies is a non-starter. Where is America going to find the money for such an adventurist foreign policy, in this time of rising deficit and tax cuts? And to carry it out in the teeth of opposition both in the target countries and among its allies. So the Iraq example may well continue to stand alone for some time to come in this so-called age of American imperialism.

The writer is a former Ambassador