Sign Up

Is America the New Roman Empire?

Is the idea of an “Imperial America” an inspiring vision or an outdated world view?

June 19, 2002

Is the idea of an "Imperial America" an inspiring vision or an outdated world view?

In recent months, leading analysts in the United States have begun making comparisons between the United States and the Roman empire. On the right, conservatives like Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal editorial page have openly called for “benign” American imperialism.

Meanwhile, on the center-left, some “humanitarian hawks” are as eager as many conservatives to use U.S. military force in wars to pre-empt threats and topple hostile regimes.

In the past, parallels between Imperial Rome and Imperial America were primarily drawn by leftists or right-wing isolationists.

They thought that U.S. power politics corrupted the world, the American republic — or both. What is new since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is the embrace of U.S. imperialism by many mainstream voices as something desirable and defensible.

In a speech at West Point on June 2, President Bush laid out a vision of a future in which the United States more or less monopolizes global military power — indefinitely. The President declared, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge — thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless — and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”

Tod Lindberg, a columnist for the conservative Washington Times, elaborates upon this assertion: “What Mr. Bush is saying here is that the United States will never allow a ‘peer competitor’ (in the international relations lingo) to arise. We will never again be in a position of ‘superpower rivalry,’ let alone a a cog in a multilateral balance of power.”

Lindberg, who approves of Mr. Bush’s grandiose vision, acknowledges that it “is sobering if not chilling in its implications.” Of course, this is particularly true for all of the other nations of the world, which, it seems, will be knocked down if they rise above the humble station to which Washington’s strategists have assigned them.

This “Bush Doctrine” is really the Wolfowitz Doctrine. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the former dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. and the brains behind Messrs. Bush and Rumsfeld, was the major influence on defense policy guidelines that the administration of the elder Bush drew up in 1992. But at least a decade ago, the Wolfowitzian grand strategy had the rather innocent name of “reassurance.”

Evidentally, by filling all power vacuums everywhere with U.S. military power, the United States would “reassure” potential “peer competitors” (Europe, Russia, China, Japan, India) that they did not need to build up their militaries — or pursue independent foreign policies. Under that same logic, the United States would look after their security interests, in their own regions — presumably so that they could specialize as purely commercial powers.

As President Bush said in his June 2 speech, other leading countries should be “limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace” — while leaving the world policing to the American empire.

As it stands, the Wolfowitzian imperialists — in the name of “reassurance” in 1992 and “empire” in 2002 — want to reduce all of the other major powers in the role to the status of West Germany and Japan during the Cold War. Like Japan and the former West Germany, today’s EU, Russia, China and India will be discouraged from arming, or rearming.

After all, that might make them “peer competitors” of the United States rather than protectorates. To the extent that America’s allies are permitted to have armed forces, they should defer to U.S. strategic leadership, as Britain — to a greater extent than other allies — has traditionally done.

If the gap between U.S. power and that of other major countries were as enormous as the gap between the U.S. and its neighbors in North America and the Caribbean, then the Bush Administration’s Imperial America strategy might make sense. But the United States lacks the economic, military and — most important — the political power to dominate the world, as an alternative to leading it.

Even at an impressive 20 percent of global GDP, the United States is still far less important today than it was in 1945, when it accounted for half of the industrial production in a war-devastated world.

The EU has a larger, though less dynamic, economy than the United States. And long-term growth in Asia and elsewhere will inevitably diminish America’s relative weight in the world economy.

The computer revolution of the late 20th century provided the United States with a temporary lead in technology. But that lead will erode over time, as rising powers master made-in-America technology.

This will happen in just the same way that Germany and the United States — industrializing in the late 19th century — caught up with Britain, the laboratory of the industrial revolution.

And while the U.S. population will still grow moderately for some time, that growth is chiefly the result of a politically-contested immigration policy. Even with the immigrant influx, the United States will shrink in relative terms from four percent to only two percent or one percent of a world population that may rise to 9 or 10 billion before stabilizing. One percent of humanity might be able to lead the other ninety-nine percent now and then. But it cannot rule them.

The United States may have the world’s most powerful military, but U.S. military power should not be exaggerated.

Yes, America spends more on the military than most other great powers combined. But it costs far more for the United States — an island nation — to project power across the oceans and skies than it does for Eurasian countries to transport their own forces within or near their own borders.

Russia, China and India may not be as strong as the United States — but they do not need to be. The United States would have a hard time fighting them on their own soil or in their own regions.

The greatest flaw of the Wolfowitzian imperialists is the way they treat diplomacy as an obstacle to U.S. power — rather than as a critical component. Without allies in Europe, the Middle East, Asia — and elsewhere — who provide bases and overflight rights, the United States would be a regional North American power which at most could bomb hostile countries from the air or sea.

An isolated America would be unable to launch ground invasions or sustained military occupations. Even in derelict regions like Afghanistan, the U.S. military can be used effectively only in joint efforts with America’s allies — some of which, like Britain, France and Russia (America’s newest ally) are still great powers, although not superpowers, in their own right.

The Bush-Wolfowitz blueprint for an Imperial America, then, is based on two grave fallacies: First, a gross exaggeration of America’s actual economic and military power. And second, a dangerous devaluation of diplomacy as an instrument of American statecraft. As Talleyrand said about Napoleon’s execution of the Duc D’Enghien : “It is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”