World views America as 'empire in denial'

by Robert Schmuhl

LONDON-During this year’s State of the Union address, President Bush vowed, “America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire.” That assertion echoes one he made at West Point in 2002 — “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish” — and reiterates a foreign policy theme he established as a White House candidate four years ago.p. Despite the president’s frequent rejection of imperial dreams, an American abroad quickly discovers this plank of the Bush Doctrine falling on deaf ears and that it (as the British say) beggars belief. Wherever one turns — whether spending time with the media, browsing in bookshops or conversing in a pub — the topic of what foreigners perceive as U.S. dominance seems to come up, putting a Yank on the defensive.p. The BBC World Service, for instance, is currently broadcasting (and energetically promoting) a six-part radio documentary, “Age of Empire.” The series looks back at the emergence of America as an international power, but focuses primarily on the nation’s current unrivaled position economically, politically, militarily and culturally. Why, the correspondent wonders, is the U.S. “both admired and reviled, often at one and the same time?”p. In conjunction with the World Economic Forum, which recently sponsored its annual conference at Davos, Switzerland, Newsweek International published a special edition about significant issues in 2004. The lead article by British historian Niall Ferguson likens America to the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in “Terminator 3” — stunningly powerful as mechanical creation but seriously challenged in humane comportment.p. Less metaphorically, Ferguson states: “The United States is now an empire in all but name — the first case in history of an empire in denial.”p. This issue of Newsweek International reports “more than a dozen new or upcoming books” probing the topic of “American Empire.” When you discover many of them assembled on one table in a London bookshop, it’s a sobering sight, drawing the president’s protestations to the contrary into doubt.p. Here’s a sampling of titles: The Sorrows of Empire, Incoherent Empire, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, Empire Lite, The Pre-Emptive Empire: A Guide to Bush’s Kingdom, The New Imperialis and The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.p. It’s fascinating to see this concern about empire and the U.S. role in the world brought together in a single place and to watch non-Americans browse (and in some cases buy) these titles. Is worry about the world’s lone superpower a motivation? Are the Brits, with their imperial days now history and memory, engaging in something akin to empire envy?p. What’s clear, however, is that foreigners view the world in ways different from what the president posits. In Empire Lite, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian without the U.S. prejudice frequently found in contemporary commentary by outside observers, argues that “Americans have had an empire since Teddy Roosevelt, yet persist in believing they do not.”p. Like Ferguson, Ignatieff identifies a native reluctance to entertain imperial ideas. Developing his theme about the United States, he notes: “It is an empire lite, hegemony without colonies. . . . It is an imperialism led by a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who have often thought of their country as the friend of anti-imperial struggles everywhere. It is an empire, in other words, without consciousness of itself as such.”p. Mystifyingly, Vice President Dick Cheney entered the are-we-or-aren’t-we debate about empire recently with the holiday greeting card he sent friends and supporters. The pleasantry selected to deliver seasonal wishes came from a remark made by Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”p. Yoking together divine providence and the prospect of empire in a Christmas card might seem an act of chutzpah, big time. More substantively, it undercuts the president’s persistent denials. An onlooker from afar wonders whether a good cop/bad cop routine is taking place on a global stage — and why.p. Whatever Bush and Cheney might truly think, people beyond the nation’s borders have made up their minds.p. In their eyes, they see an empire in fact (of daily commerce, cultural penetration, political involvement and military presence) despite an unwillingness by most U.S. citizens to consider or call it such. That awareness in itself is worth remembering — and understanding — as America finds its place in the 21st century world.p. Robert Schmuhl is professor of American Studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics&Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. He is teaching in London.

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