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The Neo-Imperialists

Will today’s leading U.S. thinkers be known in the future as the ‘Most Grandiose Generation’?

July 25, 2003

Will today's leading U.S. thinkers be known in the future as the 'Most Grandiose Generation'?

Why? Because in a world fraught with troubles on many fronts — from AIDS to the environment, and developing debt to civil wars — these folks have but one singular concern on their collective mind: The eradication of whatever seems to challenge the power of the United States of America, even to the slightest extent.

Despite the appealing pseudo-clarity of this goal, it actually offers little useful guidance for the future of the United States — or the world.

The old generation of U.S. foreign policy wonks — the Kissingers, Brzezinskis and Scowcrofts — is about to retire. And the race is on to take their spots. That may be one of the reasons why so many bright minds in Washington and around the United States are focusing their energy on U.S. geopolitics.

Among those who at present seek to take over the mantle of leading global strategic thinker for the United States are, among others, Bob Kagan, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, Walter Russell Mead, Robert Kaplan and Michael Ledeen.

What unites these bright minds, by and large, is a strong desire to portray America as the top country in the world. No doubt, the United States is a powerful, opportunity-rich and intriguing country that offers people the perspective to live up to their full potential.

And yet, the obsession of so many of the younger foreign policy analysts in the United States and its potential does not capture much — if any — of that proud reality.

Instead, they are primarily interested in raw power, preferably in the military domain — and to the sad exclusion of other vital issues.

They reduce other nations to the spiteful status of hapless supplicants and willing self-subjugators. Even worse, they measure a nation's importance on the global stage by reducing everything to the size of its defense budget — or at best its geo-strategic location.

Why, one must wonder, are these hard-nosed neo-imperialists so prominent — even to the point of being over-represented in the media?

One reason is that when the public debate turns to war and other security-related issues, conservative hawks have facts and figures — whereas more liberals or centrist commentators tend to sputter only about morality and diplomacy.

Put bluntly, most liberal and left-wing writers do not like to study military subjects — or even think about them.

As a result, there aren't many liberal pundits versed in military issues — at least not many who are prominent enough to write opinion pieces and columns in leading newspapers or go on cable TV.

Another reason may be that the neo-imperialists offer fairly simple solutions — and a seemingly comprehensive world-view — at a time when the sheer complexities of global politics are bound to overwhelm even the most astute observers.

Often, the neo-imperialists' prescription can be boiled down to a contention that a mix of U.S. special forces and Tomahawk cruise missiles will suffice to protect U.S. interests in almost any crisis.

That sounds certainly more appealing than the often complex — if more realistic — suggestions from centrist and liberal commentators.

What also helps create the impression of a neo-imperial sweep in the United States is that newspapers, magazines, television and radio seem so ready to reverse much of their space to the chosen few conservative pundits — as if it were a patriotic duty.

Either way, newspaper readers in the U.S. wonder why they essentially get to read the same newspaper column all over again, day after day — and under a dozen authors' bylines.

Even if just a handful of men dominate today's foreign policy debate, that does not necessarily mean they represent all foreign policy thinkers of their own generation — and certainly not the best.

If anything, their names have come to dominate foreign policy circles largely because of an accident of history.

They were in the right place at the right time when terrorists stuck the United States, and a government was in place that often sees the military as the first — rather than a last — resort.

Truth be told, there is another group of analysts in Washington who, unfortunately, do not get the same attention. Those are all the folks who have dedicated their lives to studying issues such as poverty and the environment.

They are very much out of fashion with the current government in Washington — as well as with the editors of many of the country's most prominent magazines and newspapers. That is why the current picture seems so positively oppressive.

As any strategist should appreciate, "empire maintenance" is an important concern from a U.S. perspective. But it needs to be applied in a smart fashion. And that would mean including issues of power-sharing and wealth-sharing — in order to ensure that the United States is viewed as a benign power, not a militarist one.

But the current set of analysts, hell-bent on maximizing American power — rather than preserving it, is probably going to trigger a diminution of America's status in the world.

In the end, the danger is that the world will find itself wasting a vital part of yet another decade with the latest U.S. intellectual folly.

That is precisely what was the case with the narrow-minded embrace of neo-liberalism and the Washington Consensus in the 1990s. The problem with that concept was not that it was all wrong, but that it was applied in a fashion that was too doctrinaire and U.S.-centric.

The neo-imperialists of the early 21st century are in similarly severe danger of acting in too dogmatic a fashion. Working ardently to secure continued U.S. prosperity and global influence is one thing.

Striving for total global dominance — as Condoleezza Rice and her acolytes propose it — is pure folly. Washington's elites would do the world a big favor if they grasped — and digested — this crucial distinction.