Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The New York Review of Books: Hot, Cold & Imperial

Robert Skidelsky has important and interesting things to say about the American Empire:

The New York Review of Books: Hot, Cold & Imperial: By Robert Skidelsky

1945: The War That Never Ended
by Gregor Dallas
Yale University Press, 739 pp., $40.00

Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors
by Charles S. Maier
Harvard University Press, 373 pp., $27.95

The question of how the world should be run, and America's part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today's world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning?...

World War II, according to Gregor Dallas, never ended: it just stopped where the armies of East and West met, and almost immediately morphed into the cold war. This was because although the Soviet Union had achieved its war aim--an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans--America had not achieved its aim, which, it will come as no surprise, was to convert the whole of Europe to democracy and free enterprise. The cold war started when Truman realized that "democracy" did not mean quite the same to Stalin as it did to the Americans.

That, in a nutshell, is the main argument of Dallas's discursive but fascinating book.... Dallas dates the turning point of the war to July 1943, with the German failure to push back the Russian salient at Kursk and with the Allied landings in Sicily.... Dallas claims that even after the Germans invaded Russia, Stalin never abandoned the "fantastic perspectives" opened up by the Nazi–Soviet Pact. "In the spring and early summer of 1943, Stalin's representatives in Stockholm attempted to negotiate a revived Pact; it failed because Hitler insisted on holding on to the Ukraine." It was the Soviet victory at Kursk in July 1943, not at Stalingrad in December 1942 (which was followed by a successful German counterattack), that finally convinced him that Hitler had no more to offer. "As the Soviet armies rolled forward, Stalin could nourish the dream of imposing on Europe a novel kind of Nazi–Soviet Pact—-one minus the Nazis."

The strength of Dallas's hypothesis is that it helps explain the movement of Stalin's armies, and thus links the Nazi– Soviet Pact to the origins of the cold war. Stalin's postwar annexations, including Poland up to the "Curzon Line," closely followed the contours of the Nazi–Soviet Pact. His designs on the Balkans, and even on the Middle East (where Israel was originally conceived as a Soviet satellite), were foreshadowed in the November 1940 conversations between Molotov and Ribbentrop in Berlin. Stalin's ambitions were bound to break up the Grand Alliance. What Britain and France were not prepared to concede to Russia in 1939 as the price for an anti-Nazi pact, America and Britain were not prepared to concede as the price for continuing the Grand Alliance. The seeds of the cold war, in Dallas's view, were laid when Stalin insisted at Tehran in November 1943 that the terms of the Nazi–Soviet Pact still applied to Poland.

Dallas's thesis is not without its problems.... Was Stalin not just helping himself to the spoils of war that fell into his lap? For in fact Stalin got much more than Hitler offered. The cold war... got going seriously only in 1948 with the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.... [T]he "fantastic perspectives" that opened up to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1948 had less to do with the pact than with the power vacuum across Western and Central Europe. The claim that Stalin had a preference for Hitler also seems overdone, in view of his earlier efforts to negotiate an anti-German alliance with Britain and France....

Roosevelt was never concerned about who should liberate whom, because he dreamed of a post-territorial condominium with "Uncle Joe," exercised through multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN. This can be counted as the most spectacular misjudgment in American history, aided and abette by a network of Soviet spies in the Treasury and State Departments.... Roosevelt showed no interest in getting the British and American armies into Eastern Europe through Germany ahead of the Russians. This would have been quite feasible in the autumn of 1944, when Germany lay defenseless against Western assault. Nor did he back Churchill's plan of seizing Hungary and Austria by forcing the attack on the German lines in northern Italy. "A break through the Ljubljana Gap and a march into Austria," argued Harold Macmillan, Churchill's envoy in the Mediterranean, in his memoirs, "might have altered the whole political destinies of the Balkans and Eastern Europe."...

Dallas emphasizes a point with which I am bound to agree since I have made the argument myself--that Roosevelt's persistent war aim was "the ejection of the British Empire as a Great Power." Churchill in his geopolitics and Keynes in his economic policy fought as hard as they could to maintain independence from the Americans, but the shrunken assets Britain controlled by the end of the war were inadequate for the job.

Was there an alternative? Dallas reminds us that De Gaulle proposed an Anglo-French alliance on November 12, 1944. "Should England and France agree to act together..." he told Churchill, "they will wield enough power to prevent anything being done which they themselves have not accepted or decided. Our two countries will follow us. America and Russia, hampered by their rivalry, will be unable to counter it." Others would join the Anglo-French camp because of their "instinctive fear of giants." Churchill refused. "It is better to persuade the stronger than to go against them." Dallas tends to ascribe Churchill's choice of America over Europe to his rootlessness (abetted by his American mother, and his free trade perspective), but who was the fantasist: Churchill with his hopes of encouraging the Americans into the paths of realism or De Gaulle with his dream of a bankrupt Europe as a third force?...

Dallas's parallel theme is the struggle that went on within Hitler's fortress— between collaborators and resisters, and between different groups of resisters. ... In all those parts of German-dominated Europe whose populations were not destined for slavery or liquidation, the Germans had allies and collaborators.... The different Resistance factions contended among themselves.... Often they seemed keener to eliminate their rivals than fight the occupier....

When, then, did World War II eventually end? It was only in the years after 1989 that the Nazi–Soviet Pact was finally liquidated. Post-Communist Russia has lost all the imperial gains it made under the pact: eastern Poland (now Belarus), the Baltic States, Bessarabia (now Moldova), plus their surrounding circle of Eastern European satellites have all become independent states. Even some of Stalin's original dominions, inherited from Imperial Russia, have gone—Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Russia's influence in the Middle East is virtually extinguished. NATO, said Solzhenitsyn in a recent interview with Moskovskiye Novosti, "is methodically developing its military deployment in Eastern Europe and on Russia's southern flank."[8] The United States is embarked on a revised version of FDR's mission to spread democracy and free markets around the world. It would take a rash person to say that frontiers in all these places are finally fixed, though it is far from clear where they will be fixed, or whether fixing them will make that much difference.


The US is the only belligerent discussed by Dallas without territorial ambitions. Germany, Italy, and Japan were trying to acquire empires, Russia to restore the Russian Empire, Britain to retain its empire. (China is barely mentioned.) America aspired to be a post-territorial "empire of liberty," not a territorial dominion imposed by force. The US was only compelled to establish "frontiers" in Europe and Asia in 1947 and 1949, something FDR had disdained, because of the collapse of his delusion of a US–Soviet condominium. In the postwar world, as Professor Charles Maier of Harvard University describes it in Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, the US had "far-flung, but real, frontiers." Woodrow Wilson and FDR had dreamed of American leadership not based on territory; rivalry with the Soviet Union forced the United States to construct a territorial and post-territorial domain simultaneously.

Maier's book has much to say about how this construction took place after 1945. In this sense it follows from where Dallas left off. The US compromise between traditional empire and a Kantian comity of democratic republics was to establish American "hegemony" over the "free world," backed by military commitments and military bases, and underpinned by nuclear weapons and Ford assembly-line technology. Maier distinguishes between the "empire of production" and the "empire of consumption." In the first phase, the American productive system was transferred to its allies through Marshall Aid and other aid packages; Phase II's "empire of consumption" was based on the dominance of the dollar, and culminated in the "twin deficits" of today—the budget deficit and the balance of payments deficit.

Maier contrasts the ways in which Britain and the United States financed their world domination. He shows how the adventurism of the Kennedy- Khrushchev period, which culminated in the Cuban missile crisis and in the Vietnam debacle, gave way to the Nixon-Kissinger-Brezhnev efforts to stabilize frontiers between the rival systems, and how this failed attempt to "adjourn...the cold war" was followed by a new "forward movement" by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and by the Carter doctrine of human rights. Of the Nixon-Kissinger design for imperial multipolarity—in which the American superpower would share the world with China and the USSR—he writes: "Not since Hitler had offered Molotov the domination of South and Central Asia in November 1940 was such a fundamental world political order presented as a grand bargain to international rivals."

Although there are some interesting ideas here, this is the less satisfactory part of Maier's book, since the history of the cold war is well-trodden ground. It shows signs of being hastily written, and is full of irritating small mistakes. It has not escaped the blight of the academic field called political economy—vague treatment of fundamental concepts, and of the linkages between economic and politics.

More thought-provoking is the first part of Maier's book, in which he inquire about the meaning of the word "empire" and to what extent the US position in th world resembles past empires like the Roman and British Empires. His method is t identify "recurring themes" in imperial history and ask how far the US experience fit them. The inquiry has become especially relevant, because an academic consensus i developing that by its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, its establishmen for the first time of military bases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and its threat o an attack on Iran, the United States has moved beyond the forms of "primacy, "hegemony," "leadership," or "ascendancy," by which its role has until recently bee described, and aspires to reach a new stage in which the term "empire" might apply The historian Niall Ferguson has called America an "empire in denial [9] ; Maier suggests it might be an empire in the making.

Maier wants to reserve the term "empire" for a "territorially extensive structure of rule," which subordinates "diverse ethnolinguistic groups" and reserves preponderant power to an executive authority and its elites. On this definition, the United States is not and never has been an empire, because it has not sought formal sovereignty over foreign territory. (Domestic expansion in North America doesn't qualify, in Maier's view, because the Native Americans were semi-nomads; the Philippines was an exception.) However, Maier finds it difficult to use the word consistently, talking about the US as an "empire of consumption." In the end, the best he can do is to say America has some characteristics of an empire and not others.

Take the way the United States exerts power. Subordinate rulers abroad defer to the United States. Washington, too, is an "imperial" capital, attracting academic and other elites who want to be near the center of power. However, unlike in the case of traditional empires, these arrangements are voluntary, resting on shared values, and were created by a common perception of an external threat by the Soviet Union: if this is empire, it is "empire by invitation."

Empires had emperors. The title emperor was connected to military rule. The emperor personifies rule, has an intimate relationship with military resources, possesses (or claims) a moral grandeur, and, unlike a monarch, is not necessarily a heredity dynast. In Maier's view, Rome remains the most convincing model for discussing the United States because foreign conquest changed it from a republic to an empire. It retained eviscerated republican institutions like the Senate, but power shifted to the emperor, and voting became plebiscitary. According to this view, the US is not yet an empire because its domestic politics haven't yet become Bonapartist. But perhaps it is on the way. There has been a slippage of power from the legislature to the executive, from open discussion to expert control, and from the politics of political parties to the politics of religious and other groups. According to the Bush doctrine of the "unitary executive," the president as commander in chief has supreme power and does not have to be accountable to Congress for its exercise.

America does not yet have emperors, though it is possible to think of its presidents as elected emperors, with dynastic elements. Since World War II, considerations of "national security" have increasingly subverted civilian institutions, even though the one genuine US proconsul, General Douglas MacArthur, was put in his place by President Truman. However, the official and popular ideology of the United States is anti-imperial, and for that reason alone America is unlikely to complete the classical transition from republic to empire.

Another recurring theme of empire is the psychological satisfactions it provides: heroism, glory, valor, honor, opportunity of service for elite groups, vicarious identification for the masses. It has been seen as an antidote to decadence.[10] Maier has little to say by way of moral evaluation of empire. He writes, that is, as a political scientist or sociologist, not as a political philosopher. He does not consider the role of ideas as influences on forms of rule. This results in a defective discussion of reasons for empire and of imperial collapse. Empires, as Thucydides realized long ago, arise from a belief in the right to rule, and collapse when that belief wanes. To be sure, there is a strong ideological element in the current US drive for empire, especially among neoconservatives in the academy and Washington think tanks. It is based on the belief that the West is best, and will only be secure if the Western way becomes the universal norm. Those who resist the embrace of the West are thought to be savages and must be persuaded, or forced, to recognize the error of their ways. This is classic European imperial-speak, and it is heard in Washington today. However, the doctrine of Western superiority has not yet crystalized into an overt imperial ideology. It lacks the nineteenth-century, as well as the Nazi, ingredient of racism, without which it is difficult to justify rule without consent, though the Soviets managed it for a time.

Maier discusses whether empires by definition exploit their subjects, concludin sensibly that all theories of exploitation make "unresolvable normative claims. Leaving these aside, Maier raises some factual questions which can in principle b resolved: Do the costs of empire outweigh the bene-fits to the imperial power? Ca these costs be reclaimed from imperial subjects through taxation? Which groups gai and lose through the imperial connection? Maier tends to support the liberal view tha empires, with all their military and other costs, are

net drain on the imperial power, but that political and business elites, and special interests, both in the imperial center and at the peripheries, may gain at the expense of those with lower incomes.

This seems to fit recent US experience (for example, in relation to Latin America), but is unlikely to sustain an imperial project in the absence of popular support. Maier perceptively notes the reluctance of liberals to admit the connection between markets and empire. In economics as well as in psychology, they tend to view the satisfactions and rewards of empire as residues of past conditions rather than as part of the workings of markets. Thus, Maier writes, today's market model of globalization hides the role of US multinationals in spreading "imperial employment patterns" through offshore production. To the extent that empires were always a contest for control of resources, the current American adventure in the oil-rich Middle East fits the traditional imperial logic.

The most interesting discussion in Maier's book concerns the role of borders and of violence in the imperial experience. Empires, like states (at least in the Western tradition), are defined by having fixed borders; but the fixing of borders by conquest, and the maintenance of borders thus fixed, is a source of recurring violence "on the frontier," which affects domestic politics. Imperial borders, Maier argues, are inherently contestable, since they do not rest on consent. So empires, unlike nations, are unstable structures. His main point, though, is that the attempt to "fix" borders marks a retreat from claims to universal sovereignty, a recognition that the imperial writ can be made to run only so far. The classic example is Augustus' decision to limit the Roman Empire at the Rhine following the loss of Varus' legions beyond it in 9 AD. "The utopia of the United States," writes Maier, "has been of a system of free worldwide transactions.... When the utopia is punctured, the logic of territory reasserts itself." Just as the consolidation of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe forced the US to limit its claims after World War II, so the emergence of terrorism has forced the US to shift from its post-territorial utopia to territorial defense in the post-Communist world.

Thus the fundamental contradiction at the heart of empires is that they promise peace but beget war. Their claim to be benevolent institutions is subverted by continuous conflict on frontiers and the revolt of subject peoples. Maier recalls England's butchery of the native Irish population in the sixteenth century. With their mania for classification, empires also hardened ethnicities, identifications, and divisions: what are called "ancient hatreds" usually turn out to be products of colonial policies.

Maier is agnostic on the most popular current defense of empire as an agent of globalization, whatever its historical validity. The argument is that globalization requires conditions of peace and security that only empires can bring about. But advocates of empire forget that the last age of globalization, which was also the age of imperialism, ended in World War I. The truth is that no imperial substitute for multilateral institutions and rules will be accepted in a globalizing world that is also becoming more pluralist. There is no alternative but to advance at the pace which the slowest Great Power finds acceptable.


So where is America headed? The idea that the US is an "empire of invitation" rather than conquest will be harder to sustain in the future in the absence of the Soviet threat. Clearly the United States is not in Iraq by invitation. Some line seems to have been crossed and, as in Vietnam, the US either will have to make its new frontier effective—which in Iraq it is manifestly not, with sectarian civil war raging almost unchecked—or get out. In any case, the notion of an "empire of invitation" was always partly a fiction: the United States was not "invited" into Germany and Japan in 1945; it conquered them, and they have been "garrisoned" by American troops ever since. One could say that since World War II both countries have been somewhere between being independent and being client states: and the same is true for the European Union as a whole, whose leaders and populations lack the will and cohesion to break out of their US-protected cage.

The main conclusion which emerges from Maier's study, though it does not seem to me that he spells it out explicitly, is that between the two poles of "empire" and "independence" there are a large number of intermediate positions which exhibit different mixtures of independence and subordination. It is the fiction that there are only two alternatives—a fiction which is the joint product of Wilsonian idealism and anti-colonialism—which causes most of the current confusion. Any exertion of power by the strong is called "imperialist" by its opponents, while the imperialist has to pretend that his actions are fully consistent with national independence.

Yet while this disguise may offend simple souls who crave sharp contrasts, it may also be a sign of progress. There is some evidence that forms of rule have been growing softer, more subtle, and more humane; being less transparent, they are harder to define. Despite the mass killings and other atrocities that still disfigure parts of the world, the systematic "imperial" brutality of Hitler or Stalin which Dallas documents is past history. They tortured and killed millions; now a relatively small number of violent deaths, of "human rights" abuses attributable to imperial efforts, arouses universal condemnation—partly, but not wholly, because of the difficulty of keeping violence off the airwaves.

The European Union is a new political contraption, and we Europeans have the same problem in identifying it as Maier has with the United States. Is it a federal state in the making? Is it a confederation plus? I suggest it is an experiment in a form of governing a group of countries for which we have not yet found a name. And the same, I suspect, is true of the position of the United States in the world. So, illuminating though it is, the attempt to fit the United States into historical patterns of empire is ultimately misguided. The United States is not in transition from hegemony to empire. The world is in transition to new forms of political organization, whose outlines can be dimly perceived, but whose frontiers cannot yet be fixed.


[1] The latest offering is Harold James's brilliant essay, The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire(Princeton University Press, 2006). James, whose translation from Cambridge, England, to Princeton, USA, may be viewed as an example of the imperial job market in action, quotes the bon mot once applied to the British Empire: "Britannia waives the rules in order to rule the waves."

[2] On this see Rodric Braithwaite's excellent Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (Knopf, 2006).

[3] This interpretation has been challenged by John Lukacs, in June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 23–24. Lukacs depicts Hitler as wavering in the autumn of 1940 between the attractions of a "peripheral" (German, Italian, French, Spanish) anti-British coalition which would include the Soviet Union and attacking the Soviet Union. It was Molotov's demand for military bases in Finland and Bulgaria when he came to Berlin in November 1940 which convinced Hitler to give the go-ahead to "Barbarossa."

[4] H. Macmillan, The Blast of War 1939– 1945 (Macmillan, 1967), pp. 510–511, quoted in Dallas, Among Empires, p. 442. For a different view, see Theodore Draper, "Eisenhower's War—II," The New York Review, October 9, 1986.

[5] In John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom 1937–1946 (Viking, 2001), pp. xiii–xv.

[6] Norman Davies, in Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2003), p. 272, agrees that "Soviet policy was ruthless, inhumane, and coldly calculating," but suggests that "their hesitations may have been inspired as much by disorientation as by deliberate policy."

[7] Quoted in Joachim Fest, Speer: The Final Verdict (Harcourt, 2002), p. 155.

[8] Quoted in William Pfaff, "Solzhenitsyn's Righteous Outrage," International Herald Tribune, May 4, 2006.

[9] Niall Ferguson, Colossus (Penguin, 2004), p. 6.

[10] This was one of the main themes of Leo Strauss, guru of the "neocons." See Edward Skidelsky, "No More Heroes," Prospect, March 2006, pp. 34–38.


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