In the context of the presidential debates going on in the US, the positions of the incumbent and the challenger on Iraq differ only in assigning blame for waging the war. Neither John Kerry nor George W. Bush are very clear on what to do with the mess that Iraq has become. While Papa Bush was able to defer the problem by keeping Iraq contained, his son having reopened Pandora’s box is now grappling desperately to contain the unleashed furies.
But if one aspect of the recoil from Iraq is the domestic preoccupation with assigning blame and looking forward to electing the next president, there is another, quieter discussion taking place between talking heads and in think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, where the tectonic shift in American foreign policy since 9/11 is most visible.
This is apparent to the public in the shape of such forbiddingly titled books as Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire and The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Not light reading. But what they do reveal is a deep preoccupation with defining and naming a process that the Bush administration had set in place even before 2001: the move away from post World War II consensus based on Euro-American alliances, cemented by supposedly multilateral institutions like the United Nations and guarded by NATO.
What has become very clear to those who follow these changes is that the United States is ready to acknowledge what has been apparent to the rest of us since 1989: that the US is the new imperial power in today's world. The run up to the Iraq war in 2003 was a transformative point in US foreign policy when it became clear that Europe was flexing its muscles, and willing to be seen as obstructive, and that the dictatorial but acquiescent regimes in the Middle East were no longer ready to shut up and take the money. This led the United States to a declarative moment: it was now King of the Jungle, Lord of all it surveys, Empire of the 21st century.
Justifications for this state of affairs are plentiful -- to avoid chaos and anarchy, to keep the world safe for commerce, to end tyranny and evil (a favourite Bushism), for human rights and so on. It is arguable whether strengthening multilateral organizations is a better way to achieve these goals rather than reinventing a political form that had its heyday in the 19th century, but that is not the point. For the debate is no longer about whether the world should have an empire, or whether the United States should have an empire but about what kind of empire should it have.
Recently the New York Times Book Review carried a survey of three major works in the field of political science/international relations policy which deal with just this debate.
Niall Ferguson is a economic history professor who has taught at Oxford and now teaches at New York University. His work has ranged from a history of the Rothschilds to the second world war. But the book that brought him attention in the United States was a history of the British empire which argued explicitly that the last and most powerful empire in the 19th and 20th centuries was above all a force for good and progress in the world. He repudiated postcolonial theorists who critique the age of European imperialism, arguing instead that a powerful empire is necessary to prevent fragmentation and chaos in the world. His new book Colossus: The Price for America's Empire, extrapolates from that to argue that America should finally own up to the fact and responsibility of having a (liberal) empire and learn from the British to run it well. Ferguson has since become a favorite author for intellectually respectable magazines who want to acknowledge the fact of imperial dominance.
On the left, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are authors of Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, in which they critique a broader kind of empire, one made of nations-states, corporations and institutions like the WTO. The Times reviewer, Francis Fukuyama -- he of the "end of history" thesis so beloved of Wolfowitz et al -- calls them "unreconstructedly Marxist." They make no apologies for the fact. They do, however, represent a real engagement by Marxist economists and historians to engage with a contemporary form of globalization. They see an end to its inequities only through a utopian project of radical democracy. Drawing on older models of communitarian participation, they offer the only critique of empire talk on the left.
Finally Michael Ignatieff, author of The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and a regular contributor for the New York Times on the Iraq war, argues for an "ethical" use of force. What the checks and balances for this ethical use would be or whether the right to exercise it would only accrue to the United States: all these questions are raised by the notion of a "liberal imperialism". Ignatieff was one of the liberal apologists for the Iraq war, who along with Thomas Friedman, had to twist his public way out of a mea culpa after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. But he remains an apologist for the "just war" theory of liberal democrats in the United States.
What is clear from the number of pundits in the public and policy arena who are trying to articulate a role for the United States as a benign empire is that they are useful at most as translators for something that is already a fact. Both on the Democratic and Republican side, there is no disagreement on the fact of empire, the debate is on the forms it will take to be palatable. Kerry calls for a multilateral effort, one in which Europe will rubberstamp American initiatives. Bush sees no need for approval in a time of absolute power. After September 2001, terrorism provided the alibi for its exercise, but it could be anything else: nuclear power, economic protectionism, oil.
For us in India the question is, can there be an ethical and effective response to it? Or will we sit back and let another Empire steamroller over us yet again? For this time Asia is the dark horse in the empire game. Both India and China are supposed to quietly focus on economic growth and trade, leaving the new Great Game to the US and Europe. But will they? Or will a combination of regional rivalry and economic expansionism make them restive?
In India's case, the prospect of a deeply unstable Pakistan pumped by American arms is not a happy one. And the United States will have to justify its policy towards Taiwan and North Korea in order to keep China happy. In both cases the shape of the future is one that foreign policy experts in Asia need to think about quite seriously.
Shailja Sharma is associate professor of English and International Studies at DePaul University, Chicago. She has edited a book on Cosmopolitanism in Asian-Americans and is working on a book on Citizenship and Immigration.