The Agenda

Neo-Imperial Dominance

Rather surprisingly, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has taken the fact that I believe that the U.S. ought to have made a more concerted effort to maintain a significant presence in Iraq, a subject we addressed back in October, to mean that I am “a neocon who wants more of a neo-imperial presence across the globe.” This strikes me as an impressively broad interpretation. 

To situate my views, it helps to know both that I was born and raised in the United States, a country that was established in one of the first modern colonial rebellions against imperial authority, and that my parents were born in South Asia, in a region that had a decidedly mixed experience of British rule and that was a hotbed of anti-imperialist thinking. (Indeed, it is far more plausible that I was influenced by Bengali anti-colonialism of various living relatives than that the president was influenced by the Kenyan anti-colonialism of his absent father.) The idea of self-determination is in my view a very important one, which is why I favor democratic governments over non-democratic governments, even under circumstances in which non-democratic governments are likely to be more favorably disposed towards U.S. interests. Reuel Gerecht has influenced my thinking in this regard, as have Yasheng Huang, who makes the case for a more inclusive and democratic government in China in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, and Bruce Gilley, author of the excellent but largely unheralded China’s Democratic Future.  

Some of the thinkers who are often identified as neoconservatives, including Gerecht, have argued that Americans should recognize that venomous and pervasive anti-Americanism is not reason enough to oppose democratization in the Middle East and North Africa. Like left-of-center thinkers like Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman, these neoconservatives are confident that a democratic political process is more likely to yield a regime that is more respectful of human rights and less belligerent over time. Berman writes:

Every surge of democratization over the last century — after World War I, after World War II, during the so called third wave in recent decades — has been followed by an undertow, accompanied by widespread questioning of the viability and even desirability of democratic governance in the areas in question. As soon as political progress stalls, a conservative reaction sets in as critics lament the turbulence of the new era and look back wistfully to the supposed stability and security of its authoritarian predecessor. One would have hoped that by now people would know better — that they would understand that this is what political development actually looks like, what it has always looked like, in the West just as much as in the Middle East, and that the only way ahead is to plunge forward rather than turn back.

The first error critics make is treating new democracies as blank slates, ignoring how much of their dynamics and fate are inherited rather than chosen. Turmoil, violence, and corruption are taken as evidence of the inherent dysfunctionality of democracy itself, or of the immaturity or irrationality of a particular population, rather than as a sign of the previous dictatorship’s pathologies. Because authoritarian regimes lack popular legitimacy, they often manipulate and deepen communal cleavages in order to divide potential opponents and generate support among favored groups. So when democratization occurs, the pent-up distrust and animosity often explode. And because authoritarian regimes rule by command rather than consensus, they suppress dissent and block the creation of political and social institutions that allow for the regular, peaceful articulation and organization of popular demands. So citizens in new democracies often express their grievances in a volatile and disorganized way, through a dizzying array of parties, extremist rhetoric and behavior, and street protests and even battles.

Other thinkers commonly identified as neoconservatives are more critical of this perspective, and believe that the U.S. was foolish to be supportive of anti-regime movements during the Arab Spring.

Given that people identified as neoconservatives disagree so much on so basic a question suggests that “neocon” isn’t a very useful category of analysis, at least not right now. These neoconservatives are, however, united by the conviction that the U.S. ought to play an active global role undergirded by a military that is capable of “walking and chewing gum at the same time,” i.e., of intervening effectively “across the globe.” The core thesis is behind this view is that, as William Wohlforth argued over a decade ago, a “unipolar” distribution of global military power has the potential to create a far more stable global order than a bipolar or a multipolar distribution of global military power, as it sharply reduces the incentives for great power conflict:

The raw power advantage of the United States means that an important source of conflict in previous systems is absent: hegemonic rivalry over leadership of the international system. No other major power is in a position to follow any policy that depends for its success on prevailing against the United States in a war or an extended rivalry. None is likely to take any step that might invite the focused enmity of the United States. At the same time, unipolarity minimizes security competition among the other great powers. As the system leader, the United States has the means and motive to maintain key security institutions in order to ease local security conflicts and limit expensive competition among the other major powers. For their part, the second-tier states face incentives to bandwagon with the unipolar power as long as the expected costs of balancing remain prohibitive.

As Wohlforth explains elsewhere, however, this kind of unipolarity does not entail anything approaching political dominance, and so it should hardly be surprising that the United States does not always get its way in international disputes. What is undeniable is that we are living in an era in which great power rivalries are restrained, and rarely if ever flare up into military confrontations. That is an extraordinary achievement that is, in my view, underappreciated.

Does this kind of unipolarity entail “neo-imperial dominance”? To suggest that it does is to efface the experience of people who lived under actual imperialism, which was, with rare exceptions, a brutal and dehumanizing system. A strong U.S. defense posture represents a global public good that all countries can take advantage of to flourish and grow. The U.S. is hardly a selfless actor, and in my view the U.S. does throw its weight around more than is appropriate in some domains, e.g., the global intellectual property regime. Yet it should go without saying that this does not constitute “neo-imperial dominance” if that term is to have any coherent meaning.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq can and ought to be legitimately criticized, and the same is true of the subsequent U.S. presence in Iraq. But as I have argued in the past, one can both believe that the U.S. should not have intervened as it did in Iraq in 2003 and that the U.S. has an obligation to help secure the Iraqi population and the broader region. Iraq is in a parlous state, and members of various Iraqi minority communities face serious persecution. Moreover, the weakness of the Iraqi state has arguably contributed to the bloodletting in neighboring Syria. There is no guarantee that a larger U.S. presence in the region would have forestalled this deterioration, but I don’t think that it is unreasonable to suggest that a more robust presence in Iraq might have contributed to a better outcome for Iraq and for the U.S., with the important proviso that this would have entailed many difficult trade-offs.


The Latest