Although George W. Bush won't own up to the fact, the United States today has become an imperial power, bent on forging a global Pax Americana. Pretending otherwise serves no purpose. Indeed, to persist in that pretense as we wade ever more deeply into such storied imperial arenas as Iraq and Afghanistan only invites disaster.
For many Americans, "empire" remains a dirty word, alien to our preferred self-image. The position that the United States should never have gotten into the empire business is an honorable one. But that viewpoint offers little guidance for policymakers now wrestling with the challenges posed by this nation's ever-expanding commitments and obligations. Thinking in imperial terms just might.
Hence the question: What insights flow from admitting that the United States -- whether it likes it or not -- is engaged in an imperial enterprise?
For starters, acknowledging the reality of empire moves us beyond an ancient but now counterproductive debate about the basis of America's relations with the world beyond its borders. Traditionally, that debate has pitted those bent on pursuing immediate and tangible American interests against those eager to export and promote American values.
By contrast, a sound imperial policy is not about "us" or "them," but about both. It aims to ensure that the empire endures, at a tolerable cost, while providing for the security and well-being of the American people. But achieving that objective requires, as a matter of enlightened self-interest, attending to the security and well-being of all others within the imperium. In short, an imperial perspective provides a check against the extremes of either beggar-thy- neighbor nationalism or democracy-uber-alles utopianism.
To admit to the existence of empire is also to see the dangers confronting the United States in a different light. An imperial perspective does not make existing threats like terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction less worrisome. But it does add new considerations that ought to shape our response to such threats. Among the most important: sensitivity to the danger of overextension leading to exhaustion and a wariness of high-handedness inciting a backlash abroad. Whether the effects of empire are indeed benign is ultimately for the empire's subjects to decide. Their response -- either accepting American dominion or resisting it -- will go far toward determining the costs that we must bear.
Then there is the need to gain and sustain popular support for the empire here at home. Whatever one identifies as the salient aspects of present-day American culture -- shop-till-you-drop materialism, self-absorption blended with an aversion to sacrifice or a stubborn provincialism informed by old-time religion and a basic suspicion of foreigners -- it's hard to make the case that we are a people especially well-suited to the job of empire. In a democracy, great projects -- and creating a Pax Americana surely qualifies as one -- require the informed consent of the people. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has shown considerable skill in pursuing its imperial agenda under the guise of a global "war on terror." But memories of 9/11 are waning. The time for straight talk about the administration's intentions has come.
Assuming that policymakers succeed in cajoling Americans into underwriting a global Pax, how might U.S. policy, particularly military policy, change as a result? A candid recognition of empire might point to the following:
* Reordering regional priorities, consistent with the principle of economy of force. For example, "Old Europe" -- the core of America's original postwar imperium -- is today reliably democratic and able to provide for its own security. As a result, the United States should reduce its commitments to the continent. Rather than expanding NATO, the United States should scrap the Atlantic alliance or facilitate its devolution into a distinctly (and no doubt militarily impotent) European entity. Assuming that the current troubles with Pyongyang eventually pass, the United States should also consider pulling its troops out of the Korean Peninsula.
These moves make sense not because "Come home, America" is the order of the day, but because more urgent priorities lie elsewhere. For the foreseeable future the chief challenges to the United States will come from the Islamic world, the broad arc of nations stretching from Africa across to Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Europe and South Korea can fend for themselves.
* Redirecting defense reform efforts. The argument, underway now for over a decade, has focused on whether Information Age technology and organizational principles or Industrial Age machines and institutions will define the American way of war in the 21st century. The argument should instead be about how to configure the nation's impressive but by no means limitless military resources to fulfill its expanding obligations.
An imperial military has three functions: to dominate (thereby deterring or intimidating); to punish (demonstrating the futility of opposition); and to police (maintaining order and a modicum of decency). In the emerging Pax Americana, the first function belongs primarily to the U.S. Air Force, especially as it presses into outer space. The second function is shared between the Air Force and the Navy, with an important place in certain contingencies for the Marine Corps and Special Operations forces. The third function belongs logically to the U.S. Army. But the Army has thus far refused to embrace this essentially constabulary role and resists the cultural, doctrinal and organizational changes that it demands.
Hence, embarking in Iraq on what is arguably our sixth episode of nation-building in a decade, the United States still does not have forces optimally tailored for the task. If paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division do indeed end up escorting little children to kindergarten in Baghdad, it's because the Army hasn't come up with a better solution.
* Creating new mechanisms for imperial planning and coordination. Notwithstanding the Bush administration's claim to have undertaken the biggest reorganization of the federal bureaucracy in 50 years, the apparatus available to govern the Pax Americana is essentially the same one created to wage the Cold War. Massive, implacable and turf-conscious, that apparatus is very good when called upon to do one thing at a time -- for example, containing the Soviet Union or overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But when it comes to anticipating change, handling multiple tasks simultaneously or coordinating across institutional boundaries, don't expect much.
Organizational perfection may be a chimera. But effective imperial management demands something better than the organization that Harry Truman cobbled together back in 1947. And, yes, better means smaller, but it means more than that. Just as the military has for the past half-century labored to enhance interservice cooperation, the executive branch today needs to improve interagency cooperation in Washington and in the field. One possible initiative in this regard is to transform existing regional military commands into regional political-military headquarters, staffed by a mix of soldiers and civilians and reporting directly to the White House. No doubt the empire will need proconsuls, but it will need them to take a perspective that looks beyond military concerns.
* Rebalancing existing institutions. The Department of Defense is by any measure the most influential and effective agency among those sharing responsibility for the imperial portfolio. The result is to imbue imperial strategy with an excessively martial cast. Delighted to own the biggest hammer on the planet, policymakers tend to treat every problem as if it were a nail.
But in imperial governance, force should be used as a last resort -- not least because even hammers wear out. Diplomacy, development, education, public information (that is, propaganda) -- all of these are necessarily integral to the effective management of empire. The underfunding of the State Department and other agencies in comparison with the largesse showered on the Pentagon, along with their comparative lack of clout, must be fixed.
* Developing an imperial civil service. Who will provide the smarts and the expertise to manage the empire? One solution, of course, is to pull savvy generals out of retirement and hope for the best. Another is to train and educate a cadre of specialists equipped with relevant skills. That approach implies the development of new doctrine and the creation of new educational institutions, perhaps converting one of the Pentagon's "war colleges" into a school that addresses issues of global governance.
No doubt other initiatives will also be in order. But these offer a starting point. Above all, it's time to fess up. The surest way to lose an empire is to pretend it's not there.