In his book Unfinished Empire: the Global Expansion of Britain (Bloomsbury, 2012), historian John Darwin tackles the complex beast that was the British Empire. Darwin’s book is one of those where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. But those parts—chapters that deal thematically with trade, exploration, rebellion, administration, religion, and security—offer valuable interpretations of the workings of an empire that continues to shape our world fifty years after its formal dissolution.
I was particularly struck by a passage in Darwin’s chapter on “Defending Empire,” subtitled “the Gouty Giant.” In describing the challenges that beset the British state, Darwin writes of the period following the Seven Years’ War: “From then on [British] thinking was forced to be global. It was not just the case that their restless expansion multiplied the list of their enemies…This global dimension contained a new threat. For it was now all too likely that a frontier war in South Asia or an American rebellion would suck British troops and divert British sea power just at the moment when they were needed elsewhere to foil the designs of their European foes, or repel an invasion at home.
“The price of empire on a global scale was not just the means to contain an endless succession of crises in different parts of the world, but also the resources to cope when a chain reaction occurred, when danger in one zone exposed weakness in others. From that point of view, the imperial triumph of 1763 was merely the prelude to a fifty-year lesson in what could go wrong” (304).
If this sounds familiar, it might be because the United States faces a similar conundrum. For the last hundred years, the United States has possessed and pursued some version of global empire. In the opening years of the twentieth century, that included a territorial empire in the Americas and the Pacific.
Today it takes the form of a chain of bases encircling the globe, representing careworn commitments whose logic looks increasingly creaky, new ones that we are only beginning to understand, and future points and provocations of crisis, some of which will be sparked by the very presence of the bases in question. This is an informal empire, but one that is no less real for its small territorial footprint.
Accompanying this infrastructure of empire, designed to allow the United States to launch interventions against offending autocrats, rogue democrats, and transnational terrorists, is an attitude that shapes not just how the public processes news and events, but how policymakers behave.
Like liberal Britons in the nineteenth century, many Americans possess a conviction that their country has both the right and the ability to re-shape the world in its own image or in whatever image is convenient for the immediate demands of our political economy, using whatever force might be necessary.
But as Darwin suggests, our violent, freewheeling, and arrogant engagement with the world in which we tolerate no rivals means that our leaders and strategists are unable to keep up with the latest crisis or threat. Policymakers are perhaps singularly blind to many of these threats because they are of their own making.
We not only lack what Darwin identified as the economic resources needed to manage our international commitments. We are sorely lacking in the resources of intellect and imagination needed to develop more productive and predictable, and less costly and violent relations with other nations and peoples.
Our inclination to see responses to climate change, national security, and post-industrial economics in zero-sum terms means that we have put little effort into either long-term thinking or developing international institutions and networks capable of tackling problems of ecology, terrorism, or human welfare and security. Each national security crisis—even the name helps to misdirect diagnoses and mangle policy responses—is treated either in a vacuum or with reference to existing military and security policy kits built for the Cold War or the disastrous post-9/11 interventions that continue to bedevil our political economy and global security.
This is sad because in political terms international policy is the arena which affords the executive the most freedom of movement and around which it might be easiest to develop an action-oriented consensus. But part of the problem is that there is already a very wide and deep consensus in Washington, D.C., among people from both political parties, about the nature of the U.S. role in the world and the place of armed force in that role.
Today, Democrats are gloating over Donald Trump’s ignorance of the world, and reassuring themselves that their party has ascended to a position of unchallenged preeminence when it comes to shaping U.S. foreign policy. But that just makes them a bigger party to a dysfunctional consensus, and keeps them—or the public at large—from asking their nominee serious questions about how to seriously address tremendous global challenges: climate change; international terrorism; rogue states who flaunt international law (ranging from the U.S. to North Korea); free trade and the still elusive freedom of movement; intense nationalism; and many others.
Critics mocked President Obama’s “less is more” approach to certain features of foreign policy. But reality is, no empire of any sort is capable of addressing global challenges of the sort that confront us today. Such empires are too driven by their own jingoism and paranoia. Global problem solving will have to involve the U.S. stepping back from demanding the right to define the terms of every discussion, and stepping up to embrace membership of a law-abiding international community.
It is in neither the public interest nor the global interest that our policy be driven by chants of “USA! USA!” at party conventions, and the constant reiterations of American exceptionalism that propel too many of our decisions.
I hope that moderators in some of the coming presidential debates will work to remind us that “international policy” is a realm that should occupy the minds of Americans, and that constantly defining challenges in terms of “national security” does no justice to our symbiotic relationship with the other states and people of the world. But I suspect we have a much longer and more worrying wait.