The recent controversy over the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis amid Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria represents an interesting reshuffling of the rhetorical deck among thinkers, commentators and practitioners of US foreign policy. While debates and perspectives on key questions of US activity overseas have not been subject to the same fault lines as questions of domestic policy, the upheaval over the Syria questions has seen the usual strange bedfellows become even kinkier with each other. Key cheerleaders of the disastrous Iraq War policy of 2003 like David Frum and Max Boot are becoming frequent fonts of wisdom on MSNBC, a cable channel that arose to prominence by being a vicious critic of almost all things George W. Bush (though in truth it was for the war in Iraq before it was against it). Conversely, liberal antagonists like Glenn Greenwald (who is best known for reporting on the Snowden leaks in 2013) are finding themselves welcome on Fox News to discuss, among other things, the moral dubiousness and strategic miscalculation of traditional US foreign policy. The excessively solemn Richard Haass—himself a part of the regular rotation on MSNBC—recently expanded some of this debate about the future of Syria to include the US presence in Afghanistan. In a tweet he posted based on a longer article, he wrote:
Neither winning the war nor negotiating a lasting peace is a real option in Afghanistan. Just leaving, though, as we are about to do in Syria, would be a mistake. What we need is an open-ended, affordable strategy for not losing.
Examined more closely, what Haass is arguing for is a kind of American Empire. And given the context of in which Haass is making this argument—the debate on whether it is a good idea for the US to leave Syria—one can observe that almost all the arguments about the importance of the US to maintain its military and political presence in the Middle East and Central Asia are making a similar set of claims about the virtue of permanent (aka “open-ended”) American power deployed overseas. Yet questions of whether the US is an empire get significant pushback, often from the same pundits and commentators who are arguing the most vociferously for the largest and most extended deployments of US might. In the immediate wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of Defense had this to say when asked if the US was building an empire in the Middle East:
”We don’t seek empires…We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”
But the question remains a valid one, even if interest in asking it no longer of interest to prominent scholars or diplomats.
This question of whether the US is an empire will be the focus of the next few posts. It admittedly seems a bizarre question to ask given that much of the conventional wisdom on the status of the United States focuses on the pathetic position of the world’s most powerful state. There is indeed no denying the US government is in a state of disarray at the moment, contributing to the US economy experiencing substantial turbulence and uncertainty and doing nothing to alleviate the broader human malaise that typifies the daily lives of millions of individuals in the country. Yet putting all this aside, the US has perhaps never been more powerful in terms of the size of its military and the amount of territory this military can exercise control over (even if it doesn’t formally rule it). Debates about the role of the US in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq merely occupy the center ring of American military activity around the world. What gets lost as these debates rage are the overlooked areas where American power is being utilized and entrenched—places like Mali and Niger in Africa, Poland and the Baltic Republics in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. It is true that states like Russia and China have gained status and prominence in the last decade, but much of this gain has been from abysmal starting points. Half a century ago, China was still largely inhabited by peasants practicing subsistence agriculture even if it had successfully assembled a simple nuclear weapon. Twenty years ago, Russia was in a state of economic disrepair so profound it provided the space for a strongman like Putin to scheme his way to the top of Russian politics. China’s military has become more powerful, but its navy, to take one example, still trails the US in terms of the number of aircraft carriers it can deploy by double digits. And for all the consternation about the role of Russia in the 2016 US election, part of this strategy (assuming the worst about the level of influence Putin has over Trump) is a subtle admission that Russia cannot confront the US in the same manner it could during the Cold War, when American fighters would daily intercept Russian bombers probing the outskirts of US airspace and Russian missile submarines floated silently off the US shoreline.
So how does one talk about an American Empire in this context? Looking at the shape of debates about US foreign policy, two questions can be asked that allow one to separate the various arguments and analyses into four categories. The first is a normative question: Is the dominant power exercised by the United States necessary to establish a stable world order? The second question is an ontological one: Does this dominant power that is exercised by the United States constitute an empire? Based on the answers to these questions, one can organize most of the arguments on American foreign policy into four categories:
- Dominant American power is necessary for stable world order and does constitute an empire
- Dominant American power is necessary for a stable world order, but does NOT constitute and empire
- Dominant American power is NOT necessary for a stable world order, but the US is an empire nevertheless
- Dominant American power is NOT necessary for a stable world order, and the US is not an empire.
It should be noted at the outset that these are broad categories designed to ensnare as many of the arguments and literature on the topic as possible. Subtle differences exist within the different categories shown here that the framework will not incorporate. For now, however, the stage has been set in subsequent posts to examine the question of American Empire in more depth.