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Better than empire: Philip Bobbit

Glenn Reynolds points to a lengthy article in the Financial Times by one of the more interesting authors out there, Philip Bobbit. I had a great time reading the Shield of Achilles, and am looking forward to his new book. I also met him briefly at a debate in Hoxton, London, last Summer.

This article is well worth a read, and before it goes behind an FT firewall here it is:

It has long been fashionable to describe the American state as neo-imperialist; indeed this was a staple of leftwing criticism of US policies during the cold war. These criticisms usually reflected mercantilist economics (the wealth of one society depends on the poverty of another) married to a Marxist perspective (civil and military structures are driven primarily or even exclusively by economic motives). This had a certain logic to it: if the US was waging a global battle against communism, wasn’t it trying to determine by force the civil life of other, independent states – such as Chile, or Nicaragua or Cuba – and wasn’t that the very definition of empire? If the Soviet Union was, in President Reagan’s terms, an “evil empire”, perhaps it made sense to say that, whatever the proper epithet, America was an empire too – the “other empire”.

There is, of course, still some of this sort of thing around. American political critic Noam Chomsky is not getting any younger, but his progeny can still be found at rallies and on panels at conferences. The end of the cold war, for them, only simplified matters. The apex of power is empire. There were two superpowers, one the enemy (the US), one an embarrassment best not mentioned (the Soviet Union); now there is only one superpower. Superpower is as powerful as it gets. Ergo, we have an empire to contend with and, even worse, one that is unchecked.

But the changes in the world since 1990 have not, in fact, made it simpler. We now see descriptions of the American empire from both right and left, and the neo-colonialist tincture of these descriptions has largely vanished. On the left, the depictions are still meant to alarm and to rally; but so, too, on the right. And, more tellingly, there is a large neo-conservative group that makes these charges not to distress, but to inspire.

Examples fall roughly in two groups. The first focuses only on the external strategic dimension of imperial power and tends to identify sheer power with empire. On this view, when an American government doesn’t need the assistance of others to have its way, it will inevitably tend towards an imperial role. This group includes neo-conservatives who simply want the US to appreciate its new role and take advantage of it, as well as liberals who deplore the Bush administration’s disdain for the international institutions that replaced 19th century imperialism. Call this polyglot group the “Othellos”, for they are divided between heroic undertakings and embarrassed apprehension.

A second group, however, recognises the internal legal dimension of imperialism, the control of the civil life of the subject society. This group includes left critics who see the US use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq as a new deceptive version of imperialism’s mission civilisatrice, liberals who actually endorse such a role, and conservative writers who fear imperial overstretch. Call them “Prosperos”, some who would reform their Calibans and others who would just like to get back to Milan.

Othellos, though they include persons and movements that are often hostile to one another, are united by their attention to American power. Aggressive Othellos do not simply describe American policy as imperialistic; they strongly urge that the US forthrightly adopt an imperial paradigm as a way of maintaining US pre-eminence and quelling threats to peace worldwide. “Dust off your pith helmets” might be their slogan, recalling the glorious days of the 19th century British empire and suggesting that that global role be inherited by Washington. It is not territory so much as particular policies that they seek abroad: the renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, co-operation in the war on terrorism, the provision of sites for foreign military bases and peaceful external relations that renounce violence. These military objectives are accompanied by economic ones: open markets, sound fiscal and monetary policies and support for free trade.

The duties of establishing world order devolve on the US, in part, from the weakness of other states that might assist in these burdens and in part from America’s unique strength. The US accounts for 38 per cent of all military spending, as much as the next 11 countries combined; Nato and Japan, taken together, account for about 27 per cent. By 2006 the US defence budget will equal that of all the other countries in the world together. Last year, just the increase in US defence spending was almost as large as Britain’s entire defence budget and three-quarters that of China. And yet, as a percentage of US gross domestic product, defence spending is smaller today than it was a decade ago, and about half of its cold-war high.

These figures reflect a related economic dominance. The US economy in 2000 was equal in size to that of the next four national economies – Japan, Germany, France and Britain – combined. Or to put it differently: the US economy was larger than the combined economies of all the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Thus America has the power to match the desires of the heroic Othello.

Against this, other Othellos – call them chagrined rather than aggressive – insist that all states, whatever their power, must be bound by the rule of law. For imperial Rome, international law was actually only the agreed-upon protocols between the Empire and Barbarians; the international law of which we are heirs today is not really the descendant of the Roman empire, despite our use of Latin phrases. Rather, it is the legacy of the modern state and the result of inter-state relations. It is this reversion to an imperial indifference to law that so grates on many critics of US policy. In a Roman mood, John Bolton, US under-secretary of state, wrote that, “There may be good and sufficient reasons to abide by the provisions of a treaty, and in most cases one would expect to do so because of the mutuality of benefits that treaties provide, but not because the US is ‘legally’ obligated to do so.” And he is a lawyer.

In contrast, Peter Jay, former British ambassador to the US, recently reminded us that in 1945 the world said to itself, “never again”, drew a line in the sand and embraced the overriding principle of non-aggression as the sovereign rule of a new world. In this world, might would no longer determine right and the law of the political and military jungle would be left in the past.

And it is certainly true that after the second world war, the US asserted its tremendous economic and military power – the former even greater, in relative terms, than today – in order to create a network of international institutions and laws. It led in creating the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, later, the various arms control treaties of the cold war including the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Indeed, many commentators say it was the creation of, and adherence to, international law that made US pre-eminence in the west acceptable to its partners. “It is the fabric of international law that the US has swathed itself in that has allowed it to escape the fate suffered by great empires of the past – being torn down by a group of middle powers. Faced with a hegemonic US that voluntarily constrains its actions, England, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and even China have been able to conclude that engaging the US is more productive than trying to topple it,” wrote Don Kraus, executive vice-president of Citizens for Global Solutions.

The advocates of relying on international law and international institutions have buttressed their arguments with facts about globalisation and the growing economic interdependence it brings with it. They point to the average daily turnover in foreign exchange markets being 100 times greater by the turn of the century than it was 30 years earlier and that total world exports increased nearly 18-fold during the same period. This meant that trade is more than double its share of total global economic output compared with 1970. As late as 1982, worldwide foreign direct investment amounted to less than $60bn. Two decades later it stood at more than $735bn. Since 1987 the number of cross-border mergers and acquisitions over $1bn has increased eight times and the value of these transactions more than 12.

And, just as American economic power has led to American military power, in the words of foreign policy analysts Ivo Daalder and Jim Lindsay, “economic globalisation has been accompanied in recent decades by military globalisation”. Since the end of the cold war, there has occurred a widespread “diffusion of military technology [such that] many states now have the capability to manufacture chemical, biological, nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as to build the ballistic and cruise missiles needed to deliver them”.

Despite these developments, the US in recent years has rejected a number of treaty attempts and institutions to enhance global security. These include the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty to Ban Landmines, the International Criminal Court, and a transparency protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. In addition, in the case of the ABM Treaty, it has occasioned the first instance of a unilateral withdrawal by a major power from a nuclear arms control treaty once it had been put in effect. (North Korea recently became the second by renouncing the NPT.)

To distressed Othellos (and others) these moves seem counterproductive. Only through the voluntary co-operation from other countries via legal rules and institutions can the US prevent and detect the proliferation of WMD, tackle such transnational problems as Aids and global warming, and manage international financial crises. Nevertheless, on this point all Othellos agree: it is the external power of the US, military and economic, that determines the existence and extent of empire. Some believe this must be exploited at the propitious unipolar moment we appear to enjoy; others think this power must be harnessed to international institutions, not least for the sake of the US itself.

Prosperos also encompass individuals and parties that can scarcely stand the sight of one another. But this group looks less to American power than to the internal dynamics of the states subject to it. According to Prosperos, the essential quality of imperialism is that it exists when – and only when – one society controls the civil life of another. An empire may have extensive territory (such as Rome) or may not (Ethiopia); it may comprise a number of nations (the French empire) or it may not (the Khmer); it may be ruled by a single autocratic authority (Rome) or not (the British empire); it may use a variety of forms of administration (the Austrian empire) or it may not (the Ottoman empire); it may even have an emperor or empress (the Incas) or not (Athens). But whatever its form and scope, it must be able to use violence legitimately to enforce local laws regarding education, language, religion, and civil behaviour generally and to dictate these laws.

This is what historian Paul Schroeder has in mind when he writes that, “imperialism means simply and centrally the exercise of final authority and decision-making power by one government over another government… This is the relation- ship between America and Iraq that [the invasion of Iraq] intends and is designed to establish. We intend to use armed force against Iraq in order to acquire the power to decide who shall rule Iraq, and what kind of government it will have.

In this passage, Schroeder is writing in the magazine The American Conservative, but his words would not be out of place in the mouth of Michael Hardt, a prominent leftist, who wrote in anticipation of the war in Iraq: “These military adventures are one sign that the US is fast becoming an imperialist power along the old European model, but on a global scale. The ultimate hubris of the US political leaders is their belief that they can not only force regime change and name new leaders for various countries, but also actually shape the global environment – an audacious extension of the old imperialist ideology.”

Nor has it escaped the attention of historian Niall Ferguson, who wishes only that the US would accept the imperial role, that the British, on entering Baghdad in 1917, also proclaimed: “Our armies do not come into your lands and your cities as conquerors, but as liberators.” Consider, from Prospero’s point of view, Max Boot’s well-titled The Savage Wars of Peace. Like Kipling, from whom the title is taken, Boot urges the US to take up the “white man’s burden” and bring order to the third world. Boot writes that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” He observes that the “practice” of American imperialism means “imposing the rule of law, property rights, free speech and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be”.

Some Prosperos, like Schroeder, deplore American pretensions to reform other societies. When a Clinton administration official proposed in an interview that “the US must rebuild the Haitian economy and restructure its court system, its legislative system and its military system”, a columnist replied: “What colonialist, racist nonsense. Haiti belongs to the Haitians to run as they see fit.” Some critics have even suggested that the atrocities of September 11 were the result of American imperial interference with the domestic lives of Muslim societies abroad.

Other Prosperos fear imperial overstretch. In his book A Republic, Not an Empire, the conservative Pat Buchanan warns that the US “is today travelling the same path that was trod by the British empire – to the same fate”. And his views are shared by a fellow Prospero from the opposite end of the political spectrum, Gore Vidal, who argues that the American “imperial system” has “wrecked our society – $5 trillion in debt, no proper public education, no healthcare”.

So it seems that from whatever place the analyst starts – left or right, from Othello’s view of global power or Prospero’s focus on internal rule-making and its consequences – the world is witnessing the emergence of an American empire.

There is no denying that the US is immensely powerful and appears prepared to try to export democratic pluralism and a rights-based market. In this, both the Othellos and Prosperos are right. But the condition of empire is not merely the aggregate of power and ambition; it is their union. Viewing the world from either a strategic or a domestic point of view is not the same as seeing it whole. Empire is not simply a matter of the power to coerce and the desire to see one’s ideals and values shared; rather, it is the use of coercion to enforce one society’s values and ideals upon another. The French empire insisted that a particular language be used in colonial schools; the British insisted that particular trade preferences be granted to British industries; the Hapsburgs demanded religious adherence to Roman Catholicism; the Ottomans imposed a judicial system officered by appointments that originated in Istanbul. These demands were enforced by the use of state violence. This is not the case with the US.

But what about Iraq, the Othellos ask. Didn’t the US use its power to displace a sovereign regime, and then isn’t it attempting to replace that regime with one that mirrors, as best it can, American-style democracy?

There were various reasons why different people wanted Saddam Hussein removed from power – the security of Israel, the betterment of the Iraqi population, hopes for de-nuclearising the region, a desire for unhampered Iraqi oil production without UN limitations. It is unlikely that any policy turns on a single motive. But it would be a grave misconception not to take seriously Washington’s asserted motive that it did not wish weapons of mass destruction to be in the hands of a “rogue state” – that is, a state that had demonstrated by a consistent pattern of conduct that it would not be restrained from using such weapons. It reflects a flawed conception of deterrence to hold that the overwhelming force of the US would have indefinitely deterred Saddam Hussein from further aggression. Once armed with nuclear weapons, it is Iraq that would have deterred the US from interfering in the Gulf, not the other way around. That this is widely misunderstood is reflected in the demand for evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as if Saddam Hussein were guilty of violating an international gun control law. In fact the deterrence of the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iraq would obviously have failed had the nuclear weapons been acquired – with all the consequences we now see in dealing with North Korea. It cannot be better to avoid action until we are certain that the situation we most fear has indeed come about.

Asking for intelligence that would catch Saddam Hussein once he had developed nuclear devices but before he had turned them into weapons and tested them is asking too much of the intelligence services. The Soviet Union, China, Israel and quite recently India all managed to take the world by surprise, despite intensive surveillance. And now North Korea, which had UN inspectors on the ground since 1994 and which had signed an international agreement foreswearing the development of nuclear weapons, has given us another example. More importantly, such a demand ignores the reality that Saddam Hussein could simply purchase the components of nuclear weapons, bypassing entirely the need to develop such weapons from an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle.

The invasion of Iraq was not a definitive act of imperialism because it was undertaken on grounds that are common to any constitutional order – the prevention of the arming of a highly dangerous adversary. But is this not the usual excuse for empire? Didn’t Salisbury complain that he would be asked to conquer the moon in order to protect the trade routes to India?

The decisive answer to this charge from Othellos and Prosperos lies in the union of the domestic and external relations of the state captured by the term “sovereignty”. True, the Anglo-American coalition has replaced the Iraqi regime and occupies its former territory but that regime had ceased to be sovereign, owing to its own actions against its neighbours and its people. True, also, that the coalition is attempting to institute “the rule of law, property rights, free speech and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be”, as Boot put it. But the whole point of such institutions is to allow Iraqis themselves to choose which rules they wish to be governed by. Sovereignty will be restored to an Iraqi government because it will come, as it only can come, from the Iraqi people. That is the key question: whose sovereignty, the Iraqi people’s or the nations of the coalition, will be manifested in Baghdad when Iraqi policy – on the price of oil, on relations with Iran, on bases for coalition forces – diverges from that of Britain and the US?

Action against Iraq, like previous actions in Kosovo, Haiti, Panama and Afghanistan, does represent a profound change in the dominant 20th century norms of international law. These precedents strengthen the emerging rule that regimes that repudiate the popular basis for their sovereignty – by overturning democratic institutions, by denying even the most basic human rights and practising mass terror against their own people, by preparing and launching unprovoked assaults against their neighbours – jeopardise the rights of sovereignty, including the inherent right to seek whatever weapons a regime may choose.

This notion that constitutional legitimacy is a requirement for sovereignty amounts, in the view of the Prosperos, to the forced adoption of democratic institutions and market economies by a subjugated society that distrusts them. This is a plausible charge, but it profoundly mistakes the nature of the democracy the US is trying to coax out of Iraqi society. That democracy is not one that takes orders from the US, but rather one that reflects the will of its people even when their leaders want to pursue policies that are quite at odds with American geopolitical and economic interests, as we are in the process of seeing. This is one of the benefits of the end of the cold war: that the US no longer needs to ally itself with compliant local leaders and prop them up, no matter what their relationship to their publics.

An insistence on democratic institutions and human rights is an insistence on pluralism, which is the very opposite of imperialism. It is true that pluralism is inconsistent with the relativism that underpinned the international law of the 20th century and its institutions that supplanted the imperialist order of the 19th century. But pluralism is also inconsistent with exceptionalism, the sine qua non of empire. Pluralism holds that some values are indeed preferred to others and that these preferred values are those that permit diverse cultural development – for all peoples, all classes, both sexes – in the context of non-aggressive relations. The political system of the west is preferred because it is a system that encourages all states, western or not, to develop their own cultures as they wish without fear of legitimate pre-emption because their states’ sovereignty is grounded in consent. In a society of states committed to pluralism there are preferred values, such as human rights (as opposed to the relativism of the 20th century nation-state system) but no preferred states (as opposed to the exceptionalism of the 19th century empires).

This is where the key distinction between the constitutional order the US is becoming and that of an empire lies: to motivate a legitimate, non-aggressive state to agree to the policies that the US seeks, the US must offer incentives. Incentives are the opposite of coercion. To miss this distinction – or to blur it with metaphors such as “empire by invitation” or “consensual empire” – is to blind one to the movement from nation state, with its reliance on law and regulation, which is to say coercion, to the market state, with its reliance on incentives.

In any case, an American empire is not viable. Powerful as it is, the US is also increasingly vulnerable. In the 21st century, a new imperialism would encounter national consciousnesses awakened, or in some ways created, by the nation states that succeeded the empires of the 19th century. In such a world, it is fanciful to think that an American empire would enjoy widespread co-operation and esteem. Not only would it guarantee growing opposition abroad, it is far from clear that it would have much support at home. I do not recall a public – or a Congress – clamouring for such allegedly imperial tasks as intervening to save Haitian democracy, or to protect the distribution of aid to famine-stricken Somalia, or halting the carnage in central Africa. There is only one country – Israel – where the US has committed itself as an imperial protector, and it is by no means clear precisely whose interests dominate the relationship.

Last, if empire were on the American agenda, it might occur to us that at least one other great regional political organisation also entertains such ambitions. Nothing is more calculated to bring forth a European empire as the prospect of an American one. A world with two empires, the multipolar world so beloved of many in Paris, is a recipe for great power conflict, the support of dubious allies in the developing world, skyrocketing defence budgets and neglect for health and the environment. We know this because we had a multipolar world for 50 years. Remember?

And yet we cannot continue with the international institutions of the nation state either. Their shortcomings are well known. Let me confine myself to the most recent incidents of UN action and those also of its contemporary institutions.

Leave aside the dilemma faced by the UN in restraining Saddam Hussein by imposing sanctions that destroyed the Iraqi middle class, led countless Iraqi children and elderly to malnourishment and early death, and managed only to further enrich Saddam Hussein. An equally dismal record emerged from the former state of Yugoslavia in the 1990s during which not only the UN, but also a contact group of great powers, the EU, and numerous other international institutions were unable to accomplish even the protection of cities that the Security Council had declared “safe areas”. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the Pakistani-Indian conflict and in the stand-off on the Korean peninsula the UN, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe are simply not players.

There are other examples: advocates of the status quo are most distressed about US rejection of the landmines treaty, the international criminal court and its withdrawal from the ABM agreement. Much criticism has been levelled at the Bush administration on these accounts. Yet I doubt that the US would have supported any of these agreements if Al Gore had been elected, because American participation in these regimes does not contribute to the strategic stability either of the US or the world generally. Indeed, they are especially pernicious because they would ensnare the US at a time when world order uniquely depends on American action, not because we are an empire but because of precisely the opposite: rather than controlling our allies, we have given their security guarantees without putting proconsuls in Seoul or Paris or Ankara, and these states have quite reasonably diverted resources that would otherwise have gone into defence. Take landmines: the proposed agreement is no doubt a wise and humane step towards ridding the globe of a thriving trade in mines that are strewn largely across the civilian fields and pastures where civil wars have been fought. But is it wise to apply this agreement to the 38th parallel that separates North from South Korea? That is virtually the only place where the US has deployed landmines – in a no-man’s land where a dangerous and unpredictable regime has put a million heavily armed troops within miles of the South Korean capital. There are 17,000 US troops on that border. They could not be protected from such a huge North Korean force without mines. Would it really be a step towards peace on the peninsula to remove this barrier?

Then there is the International Criminal Court. The US has been a prime mover behind the human rights courts convened to try war crimes at Nuremberg and lately in The Hague. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, is being tried at US insistence. Why not try him before a permanent rather than ad hoc tribunal? Because the latter is authorised by the UN Security Council where the US has a veto. Why is that important? Are we trying to shield war crimes? Are we afraid that some new American adventure will be the subject of a prosecution? Of course we are. But not because it is US policy to commit war crimes; rather we don’t want the ambitions of a special prosecutor without accountability to any political body – recall Kenneth Starr? – to add to the substantial burdens of intervention, tipping the balance against intervention in marginal theatres. And, as long as the society of states depends upon American soldiers to protect human rights in Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Panama, Haiti and elsewhere, that community shouldn’t want this either.

As for the ABM treaty, it is noteworthy that Russia managed to accept the US lawfully exercising a provision written into the treaty that permits, with suitable notice, an opting out. This opting out of a treaty that had outlived its usefulness when the cold war ended will remove an impediment to the development of theatre anti-missile defences by the US, which in turn would mean greater regional protection for its allies – much as extended deterrence did in the cold war.

In the long run, this is the world’s greatest hope for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, just as extended deterrence provided the 20th century with its greatest non-proliferation successes in Germany and Japan.

It is not simply that current international law and the institutions it has created cannot assure international security, it is that they are a positive barrier to such security because they are used to hamstring the one state with the power and willingness to intervene on behalf of world order. The reason imperialist Othellos are drawn to hegemonical daydreaming is not that they actually want to take up imperial responsibilities for economic development and governance, nor because they relish sending American youths to hostile and unpacifiable provinces, but because they know that international institutions are currently incapable of maintaining, much less achieving, stable security environments. The reason the imperialist has faith in unilateralism is because he has no faith in multilateralism and, after Bosnia, Lebanon and Palestine, who can blame him?

Equally, there are many who think American pre-eminence is fundamentally incompatible with the well-being of the world, and the well-being of Americans. The reason multilateralist Othellos insist on the primacy of the rule of law, even when it restrains American policy, is not because they are hostile to American success, but because they know that such short-term success leads directly to long-term failure because it sacrifices the co-operation the US must have if it is to address effectively the security threats it faces in the 21st century. Take climate change, Aids, and terrorism: none can be successfully addressed imperially because none can be solved unilaterally.

What about Prospero’s voice? There are many who would like to see the birth of a “Liberal Imperialism”- a new form of the state that puts its energies into the reform of benighted societies. And there are many, too, who deplore such adventures into the internal life of other nations. George W. Bush has been, in his short time as the American leader, both of these. During his campaign and first nine months in office, the president shared the views of the reluctant Prosperos. He was four-square against “nation-building”, as he often reminded his audiences. In the pre-election debates with Gore, Bush replied to the question, “What is the role of the US in the world?” by saying: “I’m not sure the role of the US is to go around the world and say ‘this is the way it’s got to be…’ I just don’t think it’s the role of the US to walk into a country and say, ‘we do it this way, so should you’. I don’t think nation-building missions are worthwhile.”

And, once in office, the Bush administration walked away from the Middle East peace process, denounced the framework agreement with North Korea, cut funds for counter-terrorism, and let it be known that China posed the biggest long-range threat to American interests.

Three years later President Bush was announcing a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East”. He described Cuba, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe as “outposts of oppression in our world” and said the US “will stand with these oppressed peoples until the day of their freedom finally arrives”. But the most shocking news came to American allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which were addressed directly. “There are governments that still fear and repress independent thought and creativity and private enterprise [which are] essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture.”

Here is George W Bush, the authentic voice of the liberal imperialist, Prospero with an agenda: “Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military – so that governments respond to the will of the people and not the will of an elite. Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selectively applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions – for political parties and labour unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media. Successful societies guarantee religious liberty – the right to serve and honour God without fear of persecution. Successful societies privatise their economies and secure the rights of property. They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognise the rights of women. And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.”

This takes the doctrine of “democratic engagement” of the first Bush administration, and that of “democratic enlargement” of the Clinton administration, one step further. It might be called “democratic transformation”. Or, it might be called “liberal imperialism”. What is wrong with this noble idea?

Like the division of Othellos and Prosperos generally, “democratic transformation” separates strategy from law; by focusing on the internal life of disparate societies it neglects to establish whether their transformation is compatible with the strategic interests of the US or of their own peoples, as they see it. As such, it is a recipe for civil war in many countries, and for the systematic grinding down of the American military that, while it fights wars commendably, is at a loss in dealing with civilians directly.

Barry Posen, professor of political science at MIT, has listed several reasons to doubt the American ability to win these civil wars with an acceptable level of violence: local players generally have greater interests in the outcome than does the US and are therefore willing to suffer more; they often have plentiful supplies of males of fighting age, something the US all-volunteer force is short on; local fighters are familiar with the terrain, the language, and the roles of other local authorities whom they can assassinate, intimidate or co-opt; such forces know how the US military fights and they adapt accordingly; the weaponry necessary is much less expensive and more broadly available than the high-tech equipment needed to confront the US army on the battlefield and is, at the same time, being continually refined to become more lethal.

It may seem self-evident to President Bush that all people desire freedom and doubtless this is so; but it is not so clear that they desire democracy, free markets, civil rights for their adversaries, and civil liberties for adherents to other religions.

Democracy may come to Iraq and Afghanistan as a consequence of the vindication of US strategic interests – to prevent a regional nuclear power in the Gulf, and to eradicate terror camps devoted to American annihilation. But that, as I have argued, is not imperialism. Planting democracy for its own sake in the absence of a strategic reason – indeed by destabilising important allies – is imperialism, and, as in the last century, it is bound to come to grief. The imperialists will not endure its campaigns with their awful costs in young lives and national wealth; and the societies that are its intended beneficiaries will not react with the gratitude and admiration that might mitigate those costs. The empires of the 19th century did not simply lose heart in the 20th century: they were driven out of their dominions when they couldn’t stomach the coercion required to remain, and they abandoned the tasks of empire.

The charge that America has become an empire is based on two ideas – Othello’s claim that the overwhelming military and economic power of the US amounts, in effect, to an empire and Prospero’s claim that US control over the domestic and internal rules of other societies robs them of real sovereignty. Both claims are not only false, but they mask an appreciation of what is really happening in international relations.

In earlier essays, I have speculated that the nation state, whose legitimacy is based on its undertaking to improve the material well-being of its people through law, would be superseded by a market state, which claimed power on the basis that it would maximise the opportunities of societies and individuals. It would do so less through law and regulation and more through the use of market incentives and private action. This evolution has already begun.

Market states would adopt techniques such as replacing conscription with an all-volunteer force; deregulating not just industrial practices, but women’s reproduction; auctioning off the electronic spectrum; reducing welfare and unemployment benefits and replacing them with job training programmes aimed at re-entry into the labour market; and introducing vouchers into public school choice. Above all, the hallmark of the market state is the use of incentives to induce voluntary compliance, as opposed to the use of legal regulation to enforce compliance.

In international relations, I have imagined that the creation of “umbrella states” would reflect this general movement in the change of constitutional orders. An umbrella state is a free-trade and/or defence zone that allows for a common legal jurisdiction on some, but not all, constitutive issues. Societies too small to be viable as separate states can shelter within such umbrellas, retaining for themselves control over essentially cultural matters – education, language, religion, gender and sexual relations. Such umbrellas offer a constitutional mechanism for ameliorating one of the most significant shortcomings of the market state, its indifference to community and to culture. Under a multicultural umbrella, many subcultures can dwell, maximising the advantages of larger markets and revenue bases while retaining the ability to develop different legal regimes within each specific domain. These subcultures will not be states, at least as we have understood the term. Let us call them “provinces”. These may include provinces where feminists or fundamentalist Christians or ethnic Chinese congregate, all within a larger sheltering area of trade and defence.

Would such a state be an empire? Not if accession to it – and secession from it – were voluntary. It is far more likely that the US of the 21st century will look more like an umbrella market state than the imperial state nations of the 19th century. For one thing, our increasing ethnic diversity will make the intense nationalism that fuelled empires far less motivating while increasing the empathy our people feel with societies in the developing world from which our immigrants have come.

One reason I expect the US to follow such a pattern is that the states of Europe have already begun to show the way. The EU, which only a few years ago looked as though it was headed down the path to a super-nation state – a constitutional cul-de-sac – now appears to be moving in the direction of an umbrella state, in large part owing to the influence of Britain and the successful enlargement of EU membership. It is notable that the EU has been able to induce regimes with very oppressive human rights records to voluntarily change their laws and practices as a condition of admission to the single market – a classic market state manoeuvre.

So what of the US? “What word,” the journalist and author Michael Ignatieff asks, “describes this awesome thing that America is becoming?” With the legitimacy of the state changing from being based on the promise of ever-increasing material well-being to the maximisation of opportunity, the US can become the main entrepreneurial agent in creating “collective goods” for a society of such states. It is a participating partner where coalitions for intervention are concerned, an investor with respect to global health and a manager regarding environmental regimes. In the same way, the EU has created a market in state sovereignty. Japan and its neighbours may some day drop the free-rider, mercantile position they currently employ and take up similar roles.

In the past half-century, the US has undertaken to provide three types of collective goods that the world wants. It has underwritten the security of potential rivals – Japan-Korea, Germany and her neighbours – when they faced the Soviet challenge; it provided the legal framework for the society of nation states to universalise international law and human rights; it managed the superpower confrontation to keep the cold war cold.

What might such a policy look like in the 21st century? In market state terms, it means that the US could take the lead in reforming Nato, mobilising “coalitions of the willing” – including non-members drawn from the Partnership for Peace former Warsaw Pact states – that are able to project power beyond Europe. It could also take the lead in organising G8 activities beyond the mere conferencing of its members, providing aid to stricken countries, and mustering coalition-supported US forces to resist aggression and to halt campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

The US could also manage the world community’s efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of hostile powers – either by maintaining non-hostile relations with those powers (such as China) that have nuclear weapons, or by preventing hostile states (such as Iraq) from acquiring them, or by inducing friendly states (such as Japan and Germany) to rely on the US rather than set in motion regional competitions to acquire nuclear arms, or by bribing hostile states (such as North Korea) that have nuclear weapons programmes to give them up or through a combination of these tactics (as with Libya).

The US could provide warranties for the security of important regional states in relation to each other by offering an open bargain to help any state that is attacked – bearing in mind, of course, that American assistance can take the many forms as discussed above that are appropriate to a market state – and to mediate any significant dispute. It could develop a programme of lease-hire security insurance, licensing some forms of defence technology and emphasising the US role in providing intelligence, information and regional missile defence.

On the trade front, the US might resist the regionalisation of trade because it is a global power with global interests. No other power can speak for world trade co-operation with the legitimacy of the US so long as the latter pursues free trade convincingly and exercises leadership in pursuit of international financial stability. A non-exclusive free-trade zone between the US and the UK makes far better sense than an anti-competitive hemispheric fortress for either state.

On the environment, some practical proposals – perhaps to provide new nuclear technologies to the developing world – must be offered in place of the unrealistic standards of the Kyoto Agreement. And on social policy the US could finance the treatment and eradication of HIV/Aids in the developing world. This administration’s $12bn proposal for Africa is an excellent model to begin with.

A world without American leadership would be a world that is far more violent and far less free, and poorer than it would otherwise be. As long as the US provides precious collective goods – building coalitions and acting globally through regional co-operation, implementing anti-missile, anti-proliferation and pro-environmental regimes, organising humanitarian intervention and sharing information about terrorism – there will remain an important demand for US leadership. That demand will be volitional not coerced. That is the point. It will call upon an emerging market state, in a society of such states, not an empire.

Philip Bobbitt is the A.W. Walker Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. His forthcoming book is “The 21st Century War on Terrorism”. He has served in various senior posts in the US government during four administrations.

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