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Originally published in the Financial Times, January 2, 2003

American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy

Harvard University Press 2002, $29.95


Since September 11 2001 and the expansion of US military power that followed, Americans have begun to feel more comfortable with the idea of their country as an empire - something that previously most would have fervently denied. Talk of America as the "new Rome" is common on comment pages. At the same time, Americans have always been anxious to believe that theirs is a new kind of empire and uniquely beneficial.

In the words of Elihu Root, secretary of war, "the American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order and of peace and happiness". Root was speaking in 1899 but one could imagine his words in the mouth of George W. Bush. As a result of this belief in American exceptionalism and singular benignity, the US foreign policy and security establishment is not very good at drawing lessons from the experience of former empires.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a distinguished former US officer, addresses this deficiency with striking success. He debunks the notion that the US has been historically averse to using armed force to expand its power and spread its values - with that power and those values usually seen as identical.

But empires come in different forms and US power is exerted not by direct rule but by indirect influence backed up by military force when necessary. As Bacevich points out in a chapter entitled "Gunboats and Gurkhas", this follows one old imperial tradition. Like America today, most of the European empires of the past at least began by trying to run empires on the cheap.

This was especially true after the rise of mass democratic politics in 19th- century Europe, when it became politically impossible to send conscripts to die in far-off campaigns in places their families had never heard of. For Bacevich, America's cruise missiles and stealth bombers are the contemporary equivalent of 19th-century gunboats.

The other way of saving money and avoiding domestic protest is to use not your own troops but native auxiliaries such as the Gurkhas. As Bacevich points out, this is essentially the strategy the US followed in the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan, with the Croatian forces, the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army and Afghan Northern Alliance.

The question is whether the US can go on fighting wars in this way, or will have to employ its own troops in long-running wars of conquest and occupation; and, if the latter, whether the American people will tolerate it.

Beyond this lies a wider question: whether the US can go on exercising hegemony by indirect means, or will be inexorably drawn into the business of direct imperial rule. For up to now, one of the reasons there has been so little real opposition to US hegemony in most of the world is precisely that this hegemony is distant and indirect.

Crucially, the US has no actual territorial claims on any other country, though it may sometimes back secessionist movements. This is of great importance in deflecting mass hostility. Of course, radical Islamists detest even indirect US hegemony; but for the great majority of Arabs, the really infuriating thing about the US is its close identification with Israel, which is in direct occupation of Arab land and in a position of direct military rule over an Arab population.

At first sight, it looks probable that the US can go on running an indirect empire at small cost in casualties. In fact, thanks to the level of protection enjoyed by modern US soldiers, a staggering disproportion has developed between military casualties and those suffered by civilians in terrorist attacks. And while such attacks may in the long run sap the will of the American people to intervene elsewhere in the world, for a long time to come they seem more likely to whip them into demands for revenge.

Nonetheless, two things should be kept in mind. The first is that while contemporary US warfare may be cheap in American lives, it is certainly not cheap in American money. If the US economy were to suffer a really steep downturn, the Bush administration's present combination of massive tax cuts and massive military spending would be unsustainable.

The other problem is that indirect empires require client states and, as the British found in the 19th century, this relationship is difficult to sustain over time. The demands placed on the client regime by the imperial power may be so great that it collapses. The empire can then either withdraw completely or step in and rule the country directly. This is the US dilemma that is slowly germinating in Afghanistan - and is likely to burst into the open in the aftermath of a war with Iraq.

The reviewer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.