Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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America’s Late Imperial Dilemma

NEW YORK – US President Barack Obama is under attack – from so-called liberal hawks, more or less to the left of center, as well as from active interventionists on the right – for being a weak president, leading a war-weary (even world-weary) America in retreat.

Obama’s critics, whether on the left or the right, believe that the United States has a unique calling to impose its will on the world. The only difference is that the former justify their views with talk of democracy and human rights, while the latter do not need any such justification, because, after all, America is the greatest country on earth.

Either way, the premise that the US should lead forcefully rests on the idea that without a benevolent hegemonic power to police the world, chaos will ensue and more malevolent forces will take over. This opinion was expressed most clearly in a recent article by the conservative foreign-policy thinker Robert Kagan.

Kagan’s argument is that other countries cannot be relied upon to behave responsibly without strong US leadership. Like other hawks, he warns not only that dictators will behave badly if given the chance, which is certainly plausible, but also that democratic allies need to be kept in their place by a firm hegemonic hand.

In East Asia, for example, China must be “hemmed in” by strong US allies. But if Japan, America’s main ally in the region, were “much more powerful and much less dependent on the United States for its security,” it, too, should not be trusted.

Kagan may be right in thinking that a precipitous US retreat from East Asia could have dangerous consequences. But this argument has the familiar whiff of the late stages of empire. The European imperial powers of the twentieth century would periodically hold out the distant prospect of independence to their colonial subjects – but not yet, not before they were ready, not before their Western masters had educated them to take care of themselves responsibly. How long this education might take was anybody’s guess.

That is the paradox of imperialism. As long as the colonized are under the imperial cosh, they can never truly be ready, because the authority to run their own affairs, responsibly or not, was taken away from them.

Empires can impose order and stability for a long time; but imperialists – rather like many Americans today – become tired, and their subjects grow restless. The imperial order becomes brittle, and, as Kagan rightly notes, when the old order finally breaks down, mayhem often follows.

That happened in India in 1947, when the British left, Pakistan broke away, and roughly a million Hindus and Muslims died in mutual slaughter. But does this really mean that the British Raj should have lasted longer? If so, how much longer? It is just as plausible to argue that prolonged imperial rule could have made ethnic tensions worse. After all, those tensions were largely the result of colonial divide-and-rule policies.

So it is today, to some degree, with Pax Americana – a kind of imperial world order that was never a formal empire. Compared to most previous empires, it was relatively benign, though it is too easily forgotten how often the leader of the “Free World” subverted elected leaders and supported dictators, as in Chile, South Korea, El Salvador, Argentina, Indonesia, Guatemala, and so on.

The much-vaunted “liberal order” policed by the US was a product of World War II and the Cold War. Germany and Japan had to be kept down, the Communist powers had to be contained, and the old countries of Europe had to learn to live with one another under unifying pan-national institutions. All of this was made possible by American money and military might. As a result, the Free World, in Western Europe and East Asia, became a US dependency.

This cannot go on forever. Indeed, the arrangements are already fraying. But then comes the old imperial paradox. The longer others remain dependent on the US, the less capable they will be of taking care of their own affairs, including their security. And, like an authoritarian parent, the US itself, despite its admonitions to its allies to pull their weight, is often loath to let go of its increasingly unruly dependents.

When a new government came to power in Japan in 2009 and tried to break the postwar mold by initiating better relations with China and seeking to reduce its dependence on the US, the Obama administration sought to undermine this effort. The informal empire would not stand for that kind of insubordination.

In his recent foreign-policy speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, Obama barely mentioned East Asia. But if any region would benefit from the Obama doctrine, which promises to shift from military to more political approaches to regional problems, it is East Asia.

Still, Obama’s instincts are right. At least he has recognized the limits of America’s power to impose a global order by force. His success as a president rests less on the good things he has done (although he has done plenty) than on the stupid things he has avoided, like getting into more unnecessary wars.

This does not resolve the late imperial dilemma of how to reduce dependency on the hegemon without causing more tyranny and violence. But that painful and risky process will have to be launched eventually, and it will be better served by Obama’s brand of caution than by the tough talk of his critics.

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  1. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    Ian Buruma has written an excellent essay. What is discouraging about Robert Kagan is how much credibility he has in Washington D.C. with too many policy makers.

    We are in an era of limits. This would be a good time to shift from "dominance" which is what hegemony really means to promoting stability, which in the troubled areas of the world like the Middle East and South Asia means promoting a very multi-centered distribution of power across many states. In other worlds, balance-of-power politics rather than dominance.

  2. CommentedDerrick Baragwanath

    There are some very strong parallels between the United States in the 21st century and Britain in the 17th and 18th century. The 19th century was the British Century or Pax Britannica, where Britain's overwhelming economic predominance maintained a global peace from 1815 to 1914. The 20th century was the American Century and peace from 1945 to the present has been maintained by America's overwhelming economic dominance. In the 17th and 18th centuries Britain was not economically and militarily predominant but by cobbling together coalitions with like minded states they prevailed in all the big game plays. America can assume this role in the 21st century. In the 17th and 18th century Britain formed varying alliances with Spain, Russia, North Germany, Netherlands and Austria/Hungary, always with the aim to oppose the latest bully boy. In the 21st century America can lead in forming alliances with Europe, India, South East Asia and maybe even Russia. Just as Britain was able to maintain a sort of peace in the 17th and 18th century America will hopefully be able to do the same this century. By the 22nd century maybe the global community will have sufficiently matured that such coalitions will no longer be necessary.

      CommentedPaul A. Myers

      The British example is an excellent cautionary tale. To oversimplify, in 1945 Britain found itself with vast geographic scope and few economic resources. In 1956, the Suez Crisis really sent Britain home for good.

      Obama needs to configure American foreign policy, and its many commitments, to the best use of its limited resources.

      A great first step to economize upon would be Senator John McCain's salary!

  3. Commentedhari naidu

    Underlying the premise of Ian is the notion of American Exceptionalism - most arrogantly projected by GWB invasion and occupation of Iraq.
    Obama's DNA is unique in the sense he's not white or black; WH has never before been occupied by a non-WASP with such multi-kulti background and empathy. GOP finds him not only *abnormal*l but down right undesirable - reason why racism is raising such a huge dissonance in American politics - as changing demographics is disenfranchising the hitherto dominant Waspish-led nation.

    Me thinks this domestic demographic dynamics may ultimately give rise to American isolationism from global politics, including future armed conflicts.

    If so, notwithstanding the argument Ian is making about US *imperial dilemma*, (WTO) globalization is enforcing its own form of multi-polarization of international politics ; regionalization (FTAs); and rising trend toward social/religious conflicts.

    It's time for a new world order or what?

  4. CommentedAlasdair MacLean

    American can easily return to splendid isolationism. WW2 had really nothing to do with them for quite some time. They can easily adopt this position again and concentrate on production and trade. The difficulty is pressure. The pressure is to actually engage and be the world's policeman. The rest aren't up to it so they look to the USA for that role. The rest, from without, may be the other Arab states at the time of Kuwait or the Europeans if Russia did decide to invade Ukraine. Basically any crisis group that can't fix it themselves without the US muscle, will pressurise the US for assistance. Further, from within, there is substantial pressure, even though from left and right, as the article points out.
    I do feel the article misses the point of pressure on the US in certain circumstances and tends to focus on the idea that the US is a go it alone originator of everything. I think that is not accurate. Alliances abound and many phone calls are made. It is mutual self-interest really rather than American dominated.

  5. CommentedCoriolanus Castro

    Why not strengthen and democratize international instuttions? Wasn't the UN designed for precisely the functions that the US ended up assuming on its own?

  6. CommentedWilliam Wallace

    The only true concern is the how and when of turnover in global power structures. The Cold War was one by superior innovation in weaponry, backed by far superior financial resources. How long will these two sources of military leadership pertain for the US? Certainly not indefinitely.
    It will be increasingly difficult to restrain emerging powers on the basis of direct confrontation, especially in a world in which populations are fed a steady diet of populism and nationalism. The only long term hope lies in vastly strengthening international, multi-polar sources of strength, as well as superior degrees of innovation in science, precisely the exact two areas most opposed by the hard right in the US. Suicide by prolonged idiocy and ideological appeals to nonsense.

  7. CommentedJefford Hilder

    All things in time come to an end. The question on my mind here is does Obama legacy become the stewardship of the last gasps of empire/pax americana or is there something else to be gained. Has the developed world reached a point where by it can in fact let go of the need for hegemonic leadership.
    Is it possible for we in the developed world to let go. Are we secure enough in our own position. Can we share the load. Can we true lead by example and encouraging developing nations in a process of self determination rather than a desire the make them in our own image. After all hegemonic rule tries to homogenise rather than accept differences.
    Can US weariness be used to reinvigorate and re purpose institutions such as the UN into being more engaged and workable vehicles through which all contribute rather than just be the headmaster's office to which the naughty boys get sent for admonishing.
    In doing so though we all must learn to live with the process and outcomes of a self determined world. There will always continue to conflict. Questions;
    In try to impose a doctrine from outside do we make it worse?
    Can you "fix" a country or a culture from the outside?
    The US was essential given the reigns of world leadership by Britain who paid for WW 2 through defence of right and in doing so then in defence of empire giving up many of its military bases to the US along with all the gold in the Bank of England and some +60 plus years of further repayments under lend lease. After all under Teddy Roosevelt the US had always seen itself as a contender to the leadership role.
    Well they got it and they've had it for some time now so do we just wait for the next great brother leader to arise to ultimately replace the US. If so who?
    The only potential contenders look like being from the other side of the ideological fence.
    So should world leadership now continue under the doctrine of "Speak softly and carry a big stick" or can we now begin the process of power sharing and actually living with each other on slightly more equal if not equal terms in a less interventionist way.
    After all its not just the Far East or the Middle East that one should look to or be concerned about even Europe and the European Parliament are see a rising tide of nationalism even if a a simple protest against the enforcing of outside influence and a desire to homogenise.
    So is it really a question of more of the same or have we all grown up enough to make institutions like the UN really work or will such remain as useless as things like the Arab League where interests of the few and not the people are in fact protected.
    Do think for a minute that I am professing that we should all link hands around the global campfire and sing Kumaya my lord but rather "VIVA LA DIFFERENCE".

  8. CommentedPeter Anderson

    Hello Ian,
    I don't think it is correct or even safe in world terms to consider the US as 'late imperial'. An Asia which the US would be consigned to leave by such an interpretation of world history would be one in which the UN doesn't exist in any humanitarian role. This is the world which the English-speaking peoples fought for, and we have to stay the course. Any notion of an honourable retreat from a global role is folly for such a large power. President Obama's apparent 'weakness' could be interpreted as conserving energy, storing it up for a possible convulsion in the future. Perhaps the policy is 'Let the Asian nations spat, and they'll quickly realise that they all have much to lose from escalating into open conflict". If the regional bullies press their claims too lawlessly, then the US will make its presence felt.

  9. CommentedStephen Mack

    'Still, Obama’s instincts are right. At least he has recognized the limits of America’s power to impose a global order by force. His success as a president rests less on the good things he has done (although he has done plenty) than on the stupid things he has avoided, like getting into more unnecessary wars.'
    Should we view President Obama's enthusiastic support of the Ukrainian Coup and it's chief instigator Victoria Nuland (Mrs. Kagan) and the appointment of R2P zealot Ms. Samantha Power( Mrs. Sunstein) as in the 'good' or the 'stupid' column?
    Professor Buruma raises issues of vital importance, that deserve a wider audience, yet he is utterly capable of a more refined kind of argument, as a writer whose essays I've read in The New York Review of Books for many years!
    StephenKMackSD

  10. CommentedWilliam Pu

    Mr. Obama is first and foremost a politician so let's not make too much of him one way or the other. Does he have vision? Of course he does - for himself but not for the Nation and never mind the world.

  11. CommentedWilliam Pu

    People all too often take America's "leading" role for granted. Few ever ask why is America "strong". In order to know "how" is America to maintain "leadership" one must first ask why America was strong" in the first place. No?

  12. CommentedMarinus Huizer

    You use the past tense.Why? It is impossible to know what capacity the us has to meet challenges to its status aas benevolent hegemon. Maybe the US will adapt to developments in ways that look implausible at the moment. The underlying dynamics of the East Asia situation are probably the pest example of a source of such developments. The key problems are the indestructible yet dysfunctional Japanese constitution-cum-security treaty, multi-dimensional domestic political economy problems in Korea, with both the Koreas and Japan unable to develop a responsible relationship with each other, And finally of course the unpredictability of how the Chinese political system will change, in which direction and how fast. The best bet is to assume politicians will favour nationalism over deepening/introducing democratic institutions. The US must precipitate change whenever possible before the cost-benefit balance of her relationship with each of these three incompatible nations turns negative. The easiest would be to "cut loose" Japan, the hardest and most profitable to renunite the Koreas under Southern dominance, with the US guaranteeing Korean neutrality vs both China and Japan. Re China only reactive/adaptive policy seems feasible although important US domestic audiences would find that humiliating.

    But of course, US foreign policy is socially constructed as an extension of domestic conflict. And that is a critical flaw of imperial ambition.

  13. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    LoL!!! Some official commentators finally started calling things with their real name. US is an empire (albeit not in the traditional sense as the author righty points out) and as such it has one goal and one goal only to maximize its benefits at the expense of others (in a finite world one’s gain is another one's loss, plain and simple).

  14. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Buruma, is America facing a "late imperial dilemma" or it is seeing the end of "Pax Americana"?
    It's true that Obama has been widely criticised lately for "being a weak president, leading a war-weary (even world-weary) America in retreat". His critics, both "on the left or the right, are interventionists. They believe that the US "has a unique calling to impose its will on the world".
    The left are political idealists and support the doctrine of R2P - responsibility to protect. They "justify their views with talk of democracy and human rights". The right are hawks and they "do not need any such justification, because, after all, America is the greatest country on earth". But after two costly wars, the American public definitely doesn't share these views.
    Robert Kagan has in his recent article in New Republic "Superpowers don't get to retire", tried to tell the international community that America, albeit a "tired country still owes the world" its global leadership. Kagan's paternalism, saying "other countries cannot be relied upon to behave responsibly without strong US leadership, is condescending.
    Mr. Buruma agrees with Kagan that the US might face "dangerous consequences" with a "precipitous retreat from East Asia". He points out the dilemma European imperialists had faced in granting their colonies independence. Indeed their "divide-and-rule policies" have come back to haunt us in recent years, particularily as a result of the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the Sykes-Picot agreeent that divided the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman empire.
    Imperialism had seen its demise since World War II. Has Pax Americana outlived it? In the post-war era, the US has used its military and economic supremacy to promote a world order, marked by stability and the rule of law. It has kept peace and spread prosperity. But the US increasingly lacks the will and the power as well as resources to play this role. America's influence may be questioned, due to the rise of other countries, that defy America's hegemony, but it is still the most influential power in the world today.
    The "Obama doctrine" stands out, because he has realised "the limits of America’s power to impose a global order by force" and tried to lead "from behind", like a crisis manager. History will judge his legacy based "less on the good things he has done (although he has done plenty) than on the stupid things he has avoided, like getting into more unnecessary wars".

  15. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I agree with the writer that President Obama will be vindicated.
    Whether consciously or unconsciously, he seems to understand that in a global world being a "leader", "policeman" or an imperialist force is not only not helpful, but is outright harmful.

    In a globally interconnected and inter-dependent system a completely new negotiating and decision making structure has to arise, one that allows truly mutual and complementing decision making and action operate.

    Even the "peace brokering" the US has been doing without applying force is acting like a chain around the ankles of the parties in negotiations, enforcing an American interest and point of view into matters that should be discussed and decided in the circle of the directly interested and involved parties, with only positive "external" support of the rest of the world.

    This global, integral human network is unprecedented in our history thus we have no previous experience for it.
    We all have to learn together, we all have to adapt to this new evolutionary state, but even this learning phase is only possible in a mutually complementing, equal way without "more important", "preeminent" nations forcing themselves into leading positions.

  16. CommentedWalter Gingery

    "All of this was make possible by American money and military might."

    One wonders if a big part of the re-evaluation of US foreign policy has its source in the spreading sense among Americans that the US economy and political system have been perverted for the benefit of a very narrow slice of the pie: the 0.1%. Why make sacrifices for a corrupt elite which cares nothing for the rest of the nation, much less for the world and its environment?

  17. Commentedhari naidu

    You avoided discussing Robert Kagan's role in Iraq Invasion decision-making by GWB. Why? Recall he was the guy who pushed and rationalized the invasion, and later supported Gen. David Petraeus strategy to prolong the War.

    Obama is under attack for a very simple historical reason - because he's trying to make a dramatic paradigm shift in US Military Strategic Thinking - what the German's called after WWII - NO MORE WARS!

    I've a feeling irrespective of which side of contemporary historical developments we choice to recognize as relevant or not, Obama's ideas are not going beyond 2016! His tenure will end his tempering with military strategic warfare by Pentagon and Beltway Think-Tanks including Kagan.

    However if Abe (Japan) is successful in provoking maritime conflict with China, chances are Obama's legacy will not be pretty should he, in fact, rebalance to Asia.

  18. CommentedAriel Tejera

    Great article - however, both the Obama camp and the interventionists are, and should be, equally interested in the continuance of American preeminence, though by different means.
    I think that their real problem is the their diminishing leadership in world affairs, and the difficulty they face finding adversaries that can be identified and cost-effectively destroyed by military means.

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