"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Andrew Bacevich, "American Empire," Amy Chua, "World on Fire"

Nov 3, 2003

Teachers in the United States may be asking themselves these days how to explain to their students the sudden currency of the word empire as a description of their country. It's not a word Americans favor, though in the nineteenth century it was quite acceptable. Nineteenth-century America was the new Rome. Rome as republic, certainly, or was it Rome as Empire? Probably it was both. Francis Parkman, the American historian, simply assumed that the highest human calling was to participate in the building of empire. James Hill, the builder of a transcontinental railroad, was called the Empire Builder. George Washington sits enthroned in the Smithsonian dressed in a Roman toga. And here we are in New York, whose licence plates proclaim it the Empire State. Of course, the rhetoric of empire in the nineteenth century rode the crest of a wave of an almost childish enthusiasm for the United States as a fresh new adventure of the whole human race. “Here at last,” said Walt Whitman, “is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night.”1

But after the twentieth-century’s long history of disastrous imperial adventures, the word empire, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, has a more ominous tonality. Paul Kennedy’s 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,2was a warning shot across the bow of would-be American imperialists, but the warning seems not to have been heeded. It is not at all clear that the long history of imperial adventures is over. If most Americans do not like to think of the United States as an empire, we are not at all unwilling to think of ourselves as the vanguard of the human race, all of it.

In the context of this ambivalence, I have two books to recommend: American Empire by Andrew Bacevich3 and World on Fire by Amy Chua.4 Both books are clearly and forcefully argued, which makes for satisfying reading. Bacevich argues that America is an empire on the basis of the events of recent decades. His narrative argument is nicely complemented by Chua’s thoughtful evidence of the impossible task confronting an American imperium. The satisfying clarity of the argument in both cases leaves us wondering if, being an empire, we understand our limits, or whether there can ever be an empire which understands its limits.

American Empire

Andrew Bacevich is executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. He has a doctorate in history from Princeton and publishes largely in conservative journals. Significantly, he is a retired colonel of the army, former commander of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The germinal insight for his book came to him as he reflected on developments in the years after “the Soviet Union effectively called off the Cold War.” An initial impression that American diplomacy during those years was mere flailing about, eventually gave way to a realization that there was and is, in fact, a “coherent grand strategy,” an underlying purpose to American diplomacy:

That purpose is to preserve and, where both feasible and conducive to U.S. interests, to expand the American imperium. Central to this strategy is a commitment to global openness -- removing barriers that inhibit the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people. Its ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms.

The familiar rhetoric of partisan politics is, in the light of this common purpose, mere “political theater.” America’s global purpose is supported by a mythic conviction that America is a reluctant superpower that acts only under duress and for noble purposes.

When Bill Clinton in 1997 “chastised the Chinese government for being on the ‘wrong side of history,’” he explained later that it is America that defines “the right side of history.” -- shades of Walt Whitman. This American order was to do away with power politics, with war, with limit itself . And the key objective in the construction of that order would be “the removal of barriers to the movement of goods, capital, people, and ideas.” Openness was and is the guiding concept. Although it was expected that America’s military supremacy would make it unnecessary to go to war to pursue America’s objectives, that expectation proved, according to Bacevich, to be a mere “pipe dream,” and American diplomacy has become more and more a military diplomacy, a diplomacy of force.

The power of Bacevich’s argument is his narrative illustration of the basic insight. The dizzying succession of events that have filled the newspapers, the journals, the television news of our lives is marshaled here to illustrate and underline its truth: the basic purpose of America’s foreign policy is to break down barriers, to level the mountains and lift up the valleys, to open up the world to the advance of American economic and cultural hegemony. It is a convincing argument. America acts like an empire. America is an empire. [Editor's note: For further reading, see the transcriptof Bacevich's recent talk at the Carnegie Council.]

The World on Fire

Amy Chua is a Harvard-educated professor of law at Yale University. Her book is not primarily concerned with America. She begins with the story of the murder of her aunt by her aunt’s chauffeur. Her aunt was a member of the very rich Chinese minority in the Philippines. The murder was pretty much shrugged off, even by members of her own family, as “the way things are here.... Hundreds of Chinese in the Philippines are kidnapped every year, almost invariably by ethnic Filipinos.” Her aunt’s killer was never tried, and the case was quickly dropped.

The shock of this opening story is a shock that repeats itself continuously throughout the first part of The World on Fire. Continent by continent, she examines a world divided between economically dominant ethnic minorities whose wealth is truly obscene, and huge indigenous majorities whose lives are unimaginably awful. She doesn’t use statistics -- leaving them to her extensive footnotes. She keeps her stories concrete. And, most shocking of all to me, the stories are not news. We’ve read about them all before, in article after article about massacres carried out by enraged mobs, drunk on one or other form of raw democracy and responding to the self-serving oratory of demagogues. But the effect of having them all gathered together and told, one after the other, page after page, is startling. We are used to thinking of the world in terms of the developed West and the underdeveloped rest, that underdeveloped rest being a homogeneous mass of the poor. But Chua’s stories correct that view. In Asia, Africa, post-Communist Russia, and Latin America, over the homogeneous mass of the poor there rides an economically dominant ethnic minority.

Chua proceeds carefully, insisting that the problem of economically dominant ethnic minorities is not a problem everywhere, nor is it the only problem of the nations where it exists. But where the problem exists the ethnically dominant minorities are perfectly positioned to profit from economic globalization, so that the money from free trade flows almost exclusively into their pockets. One reaction to this situation is a movement to nationalize industries. Not Communist ideology, but popular resentment among abjectly poor majorities against market-dominant minorities is the force behind such movements. [Editor's note: For further reading, see our exclusive interview with Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who delivered the Carnegie Council's 2002 Morgenthau Lecture on "The Mystery of Capital."]

There is, argues Chua, an inherent tension between markets and democracy, a tension experienced early in the history of the economic development of the West and largely forgotten in the West. “Markets, it was thought, would produce enormous concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few, while democracy, by empowering the poor majority, would inevitably lead to convulsive acts of expropriation and confiscation.” The predictions did not come true because the tension has been reduced to the point that markets and democracy have been able to coexist. One of the reasons is redistribution: “all the Western nations today have enormous tax-and-transfer programs, dulling the harshest edges of class conflict.”

By contrast, the version of capitalism being promoted outside the West today is essentially laissez-faire and rarely includes any significant redistributive mechanisms. In other words, the United States is aggressively exporting a model of capitalism that the Western nations themselves abandoned a century ago.... It is critical to recognize that the formula of free market democracy currently being pressed on non-Western nations -- the simultaneous pursuit of laissez-faire capitalism and universal suffrage–is one that no Western nation ever adopted at any point in history.

Chua did not write her book in order to question the imperial stretch of American economic and military power. She wrote it to draw attention to the broad phenomenon of violence when impoverished majorities find a way to get back at the rich ethnic minorities that hold on to exclusive control of a nation’s economic opportunities. But in light of the American policy of promoting both free markets and democracy, her book sounds a strong precautionary note. The combination isn’t easy, and it isn’t likely. And if the policy is going to be pursued, then it seems more likely that it will end up being pursued with military force instead of diplomatic finesse. The American empire has a hard and dangerous road ahead.

1Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, in Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (The Library of America, 1982), p. 5.
2The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York, Random House, 1987).
3American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002). My quotes come from his preface (viii-ix), and from pages 3, 9, 32-33, 43 and 140.
4World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (New York: Doubleday, 2003). My quotes come from pages 2 and 191-193.

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