The argument about America’s world role has been dormant, but by no means moribund, for the past thirty years. By the time World War II occurred, the United States was clearly a satisfied empire in the 19th century territorial sense. So how does one explain its remarkable overseas military expansion during and after that war, historians asked. A European scholar called it “empire by invitation,” while American academics favored the notion of an evil capitalist imperium. By the 1970s, the debate had shifted into the realm of international relations theory, and the question became: is the United States a benevolent hegemon, guaranteeing international security and economic stability for the entire world; or does it use multilateral institutions to uphold an inherently unjust world economic order from which it draws inordinate gains?
By 1990 the historians were back on top, propounding the view that American empire was over: the nation had been exhausted by “imperial overstretch.” There followed a spectacular resurgence, even celebration, of America’s global cultural, economic, and military leadership. During the 1990s, the pro-hegemony crowd confidently spoke of the United States as the only “indispensable nation.”
Then came the attacks of September 11th, arousing Americans to a slow-burning fury that shows few signs of abating. The Bush administration’s “preventive war” strategy – and its attempt to put that strategy into practice in Iraq – has reawakened debate about the nature of America’s role. Now the argument is between those who see the “war on terror” as a genuine contest between all civilized states and a group of barbarian thugs, and those Gallic-inspired skeptics whose faintly pejorative hyper-puissance conjures up a runaway Gulliver begging restraint by multilateral strings.
With the debate turning full circle so many times within an average lifetime, we can perhaps be forgiven our feelings of vertigo. Nevertheless I welcome the Carnegie Council’s call for fresh consideration of America’s role in the world. Whether or not we call it an empire, it is important for our age to decide: is U.S. policy essentially benign, deserving of support by people and nations of goodwill, or is it in the best interests of the rest of the world to block American policies, substituting others?
Cathal Nolan is the executive director of Boston University’s International History Institute and an associate professor in its history and political science departments. He is the author of the four-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations.