America as Empire: Global Leader Or Rogue Power?

Front Cover
Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2004 - History - 224 pages
In America as Empire, Jim Garrison urges us to face up to the complexities and responsibilities inherent in the indisputable fact that America is now the world's single preeminent power. "America", Garrison writes, "has become what it was founded not to be- established as a haven for those fleeing the abuse of power, it has attained and now wields near absolute power. It has become an empire."
Garrison traces the roots of the American empire to the very beginnings of the republic, in particular to the historic willingness of United States' to use military might in the defense of two consistent --- if sometimes contradictory --- foreign policy objectives- protection of American commercial interests and promotion of democracy.
How long can the American empire last? Garrison looks at American history within the context of the rise and fall of empires and argues that the U. S. can gain important insights into durability from the Romans. He details the interplay between military power, political institutions, and legal structures that enabled the Roman empire at it's apogee to last for longer than America has as a country.
But the real question is, what kind of empire can and should America be? As the sole superpower, America must lead in shaping a new global order, just as after World War II Roosevelt and Truman took the lead in shaping a new international order. That international order is now crumbling under the pressures of globalization, persistent poverty, terrorism and fundamentalism. Garrison outlines the kinds of cooperative global structures America must promote if its empire is to leave a lasting legacy of greatness. Garrison calls for Americans to consciously see themselves as a transitional empire, one whose task is not to dominate but to catalyze the next generation of global governance mechanisms that would make obsolete the need for empire. If this is done, America could be the final empire.

What people are saying - Write a review

We haven't found any reviews in the usual places.

Other editions - View all

About the author (2004)

From Republic to Empire

I WRITE THIS BOOK AS A TENTH-GENERATION AMERICAN. My people on my father''s side were Huguenots from southern France, an entrepreneurial Protestant group persecuted under King Louis XIV. In 1686 they fled to the New World, landing on the shores of North Carolina. They were among the earliest settlers of America, helping to shape colonial life through trading, farming, preaching, and writing. My forebears fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. They joined the westward expansion as pioneers, and my immediate family arrived in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. There, my father married my mother, a second-generation immigrant from Sicily.

My family''s history has been America''s history, for which I am grateful and proud. I deeply value the freedom to be uniquely myself without constraints imposed by government or class. America represents this freedom. It is this light that America shines on the world. I have lived this freedom, and in this sense, I am American to the very marrow of my bones.3

I also write this book as a citizen of the world. My parents were Baptist missionaries in China, where I was born in 1951. They then moved to Taiwan, where I grew up attending a missionary school, speaking Chinese as fluently as English. As a child, I traveled throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, coming to realize at an early age that the earth was indeed round and humanity rich with exotic diversity. I came back to the United States when I was fifteen and attended high school in San Jose, California, but then went abroad again for most of my university education, traveling through Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Russia. I have subsequently spent most of my professional life working and traveling internationally.4

It is out of the interaction between my American roots and my international activities that this book arose, especially as I became aware of the dynamic power of the United States in the world and the growing alienation of the world from the United States. When I was a child in Taiwan in the 1950s, being American elicited respect and emulation, even envy. Now, fifty years later, being American elicits resentment and suspicion, even hatred. People used to think of America as a global leader. Now a majority of the world thinks of America as a rogue power. Why?

The answer to this question has to a large degree to do with what America has become: America has made the transition from republic to empire. It is no longer what it was. It was founded to be a beacon of light unto the nations, a democratic and egalitarian haven to which those seeking freedom could come. It has become an unrivaled empire among the nations, exercising dominion over them. How it behaves and what it represents have fundamentally changed. It used to represent freedom; now it represents power.

It was when I began to realize that my country had crossed the threshold from republic to empire that I began to study the history of empire--the only concept large and dynamic enough to explain what was going on. In many ways, this is the intent of the book, simply to provide a larger framework, a more complex metaphor with which to understand America and the world. Republic implies a single nation democratically governed, which is what America was founded to be. In contrast, the very essence of empire is one nation''s control over other nations. Although America remains a republic inside its own borders, it has become an empire in relationship with the rest of the world. In this sense, America is an imperial republic. 5

The inordinate power of the United States disturbs people on the American left and excites people on the American right. Liberals are uncomfortable with the notion of an American empire because they are uneasy with the fact that the United States has so much power, especially military power. They would prefer that the United States simply be part of the community of nations-- perhaps a first among equals but an equal nevertheless, using its power to further human welfare. Conservatives, on the other hand, are jubilant that America is finally breaking out of multilateral strictures and asserting its imperial prerogatives unilaterally around the world. For them, national self-interest, enforced by military supremacy, should be the guiding principle of U.S. policy. The liberal notion that the United States should confine its power within multilateral frameworks and the conservative desire to apply American power unilaterally for narrow self-interest are both inadequate. There is a deeper and more complex reality that needs to be noted.

Whatever qualms people may have about it, America has become an empire, and there is no turning back. As Heraclitus taught, one can never enter the same river twice. The transition from republic to empire is irreversible, like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Once power is attained, it is not surrendered. It is only exercised. The central question before America, therefore, is what it should do with all the power it has. How should it assert its authority and to what ends?

America should acknowledge--even celebrate--its transition to empire and the acquisition of global mastery. What began as a motley band of colonies 225 years ago is now not only the strongest nation in the world but the strongest nation in the history of the world. Americans should be justly proud of this achievement. It has been attained with enormous effort and at great cost.

The world, too, should modulate its antipathy toward America, realizing that America has become so powerful in part because it has been so benign. This might be a little hard to acknowledge for those who have felt the boot of American strength, but consider the three other major attempts at empire in the last century: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan. What would have happened if any of these empires had defeated the United States and established global hegemony? What would the world be like today if Nazi Germany and Japan had won the Second World War, or if the Soviets had won the Cold War? We should all breathe a sigh of relief that these eventualities never occurred and that a democratic nation committed to democratic values triumphed and established global dominion.6

But having prevailed in the competition against these other empires and having achieved what they were denied, Americans should be aware that there are now enormous responsibilities to shoulder, both in relation to the United States itself and in relation to the world. An empire''s reign can be long or short, its fate noble or tragic, depending on how astutely its leadership is exercised and its decisions are made. The exercise of power is highly unstable-- especially the near-absolute power that empires represent. It provides opportunity, but it also corrupts. It demands wise action, but it also seduces to the dark side.

There are thus all sorts of dangers inherent in the exercise of power. Internally, the transition from republic to empire is almost always made at the cost of freedom. Power and freedom are contradictory and do not coexist comfortably. Freedom requires the limitation of power; power demands the surrender of freedom. This is something the ancient Athenians and Romans learned at great cost: democracy was the casualty of their empires. Americans must heed this ancient experience and painful truth. American freedoms are not eternally bestowed, but must with each generation and circumstance be reevaluated and preserved. Freedom is lost far more easily than it is gained, especially when it is surrendered for the sake of greater power.

Externally, empires incite insurrection. No nation wants to be ruled, especially those that have just been liberated, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Maintaining dominion is therefore a very tricky challenge, particularly in a world of instantaneous communication and porous borders, in which information and people can move about virtually unimpeded and small actions can have large and unexpected effects. This was the lesson of September 11. Empires have many enemies and few friends. Americans must know this as they rule, especially in obscure places far from American shores.7

To achieve greatness, an empire needs a transcendental vision that can unite all its disparate elements within an overarching purpose. It must aspire to a mission that the entire empire can join together to achieve. It must be fundamentally constructive, not destructive.

This is the deeper purpose of this book: to challenge Americans at their point of empire to articulate a vision for the world that is worthy of the power they now wield over the world. This vision must transcend self-interest and embrace the whole. In order to achieve this, Americans must remember that even though their country now represents power, it has historically symbolized freedom. Can the vision that built the American republic now guide America the empire?

History teaches that great empires are constructed not simply through military might but by building institutions that are perceived by the governed as just and fair. The common interest of the empire as a whole must supercede the national interest of the dominant state in order for the empire to endure. The great paradox of empire is that stewardship is far more powerful than force in maintaining control.

Sixty years ago, President Roosevelt and President Truman achieved this level of greatness, as did President Woodrow Wilson the generation before them. They defeated world fascism and contained communism by ensuring that the United States had the strongest military in the world. But at the same time, they founded the United Na

Bibliographic information