Wednesday, January 11, 2006

If Not Empire, Then What?

We held an interesting roundtable today at the magazine in conjuction with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. A high-powered, distinguished group of about 30 academics, analysts and policymakers were gathered around the table. Because Chatham House rules were in effect, I am not going to give a list of attendees or credit any particular thought or comment to any specific individual, but provide readers of The Washington Realistwith a sense of the questions raised.

Does the United States act as an "empire" in the international system? Certainly not in the traditional meaning of an empire as a collection of territories forcibly incorporated into a single political unit, but along the lines Ray Takeyh and I took the term "empire" to mean, drawing on the definition first given by Polybius, of an actor which compels other states and nations to follow its agenda? Is the U.S. a "benign liberal hegemon", for example?

This leads to three interrelated questions.

First, are failed and failing states as well as "rogue" states a threat to international peace and security? If yes, then:

Is a hegemon required to maintain global order? If yes, then:

Is the United States responsible for fixing failed states and slapping down rogue regimes?

Linked to these three questions is one that touches on American domestic politics: if the United States is a democratic republic where the bulk of the citizens do not wish to assume the burdens and responsibilities of empire, what are the alternatives?

Is there such as thing as "collegial empire" based on a concert of great powers? What are truly "global" interests (terrorism? environment? migration? global economy?) How many of these so-called "transnational problems" might just as well be solved by regional organizations?

Does neo-trusteeship really work? Is it feasible only for very small territories with small populations that can be saturated with aid and personnel? What about self-determination? Does this require us to let states fail?

Does the breakdown of the EU-3 process with Iran demonstrate the limits of "soft power" in compelling change, requiring there to be a credible military alternative? How relevant is the so-called "EU model" for encouraging democratic change and economic reform outside Europe, in Eurasia, the Greater Middle East and Africa?

Is the British empire really the norm for American liberal imperialism? Didn't the British practice a form of limited imperialism "on the cheap" rather than pursuing "full spectrum dominance"? Can Queen Victoria really be married to Woodrow Wilson to produce a viable form of liberal imperialism? Does liberal imperialism abroad promote "enlightened despotism" at home?

How relevant is the old Congress sytem to today's world, of having a dominant power as chairman of the board but sharing power with other key actors? Who should be part of this system? What about the democracy question, if two of those major powers are semi-democratic or non-democratic altogether? Does one work through the UN system or through some sort of community of industrial democracies to project power throughout the world? Is it better to create limited international organizations, even informal ones, to deal with specific security issues (the Proliferation Security Initiative, the anti-terror coalition)?

If the U.S. is indeed the global hegemon, should it be a micromanaging hegemon or the hegemon of last resort, intervening only when necessary? Should the U.S. be trying to "solve" the problems of the global "inner city" (the Arc of Instability) or working to contain spillover?

Can an empire promote the economic development necessary to allow democracy to take root in the greater Middle East?

These were some of the points raised and discussed.

What the great stumbling block appears to be: China. A Congress system might work if the overwhelming balance of power was shared between North America and Western Europe. But the rise of China means that global order can be established only in one of two ways: either a Euro-Atlantic condominium to promote liberal democracy over a more limited zone of hte world, or a global condominium which has a lower common denominator (rules-based non-tyrannical governments versus liberarl democracies as the norm) for determining the global system. It seems that around these two poles the pendulum swings.

What also isn't clear is whether China is prepared to become a superpower and to uphold the Bretton Woods/IMF global system as a rising power and whether the United States would be prepared to share more power with China in such a fashion.

An interesting discussion, also touching on a number of different pieces that have appeared in TNI (Kawaguchi, Choi, Bremmer on a Northeast Asia Regional Forum for integrating China into a larger economic and security system, in the current issue; Tucker/Hendrickson piece in the fall issue and the accompanying symposium in the current issue; the Jack Snyder piece on imperial temptations and other articles in the "Empire" issue of TNI several years back, and so on.)

Nikolas: Great blog and excellent summary. Hope to see you again. BTW, check out my own blog, Global Pardigms

Leon (Hadar)
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