What Hangs on the Question “Is The US an Empire?”

In the Harvard International Review blog, Stephen Wertheim comments on Alex Motyl’s answer to the question whether America is an empire. (Now if Dan Nexon would weigh in.)

Is America an empire? In the midst of much academic debate, political scientist Alexander J. Motyl asks a practical question: what does it matter?

“Imagine,” he writes, “that policy analysts and scholars stopped applying the label to the United States. Would it make any difference? I think not. The challenges facing the country—war in Iraq, nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, rising authoritarianism in Russia, growing military power in China, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, avian flu, climate change, and so forth—would be exactly the same, as would US policy options…Life would go on, and no one—except for scholars of empire—would notice the difference.”

Motyl is undeniably right that challenges and policy options would be exactly the same. What he misses is that policymakers might never think of them or take them seriously. Here are two recent examples from Motyl’s own list.

If policymakers thought of America as an empire, they might have thought it prudent to plan for postwar occupation of Iraq. “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building,” George W. Bush declared in the 2000 presidential debates. Evidently he believed his rhetoric. When deciding to invade Iraq, the Bush administration found little need to draw up long-term plans to rule and reconstruct the country. Nor did Democrats in Congress press the point. Nor is the US military equipped, in doctrine or manpower, to do large-scale nation-building. Why prepare for what America by nature “doesn’t do?”

If policymakers thought of America as an empire, they might have been quicker to grasp Islamist terrorism as a major threat before 9/11. Policymakers were focused on state actors. And rightly, if America is solely a nation-state capable of being threatened solely by nation-states. By contrast, stateless tribal fighters are the age-old enemies of empire. They sacked Rome until Rome fell. They raided China from the north, conquering the realm several times despite the Great Wall built to keep them out. Pirates harassed Britain at sea. A clear lesson of empire is to beware the barbarian on the frontier. But if there is no empire, there is no frontier and no barbarian to beware.