The Rising Fall of the American Empire

Republican imperialism has left the US divided. Can a United Nations initiative save America from itself?

“America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof.”
—George W. Bush, second inaugural address, January 20, 2005

“For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
—Condoleezza Rice, American University in Cairo, Egypt, June 20, 2005

“I assured the Secretary-General that Canada will work energetically between now and September to build a global consensus on his report, to have it endorsed by leaders at the summit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations to be held in September in New York, and to put it into action.”
—Paul Martin, commenting on the release of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report, “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All,” March 21, 2005

This was the summer when global realities—mass murder in London and popular mobilization for Africa—intruded on Canadian introspection. It is scarcely believable that not so many weeks ago, we were all focused on the political drama in Ottawa. As Canadians looked inward, casting doubt that we could afford a robust foreign-aid budget when our at-home health care, educational, and anti-poverty needs are so great, our elephantine neighbour to the south was looking outward and inward at the same time. It still is, and has no choice, which is why these days it is easier being a Canadian than an American, save for the growing imperative of solving the time-honoured Canadian dilemma of what to do with the American appetite for oil, water, and for winning the war against terrorism.

During recent travels, I have found Americans divided in their views on this war, but not necessarily in the ways we might assume. In the blue states, I have encountered plenty of liberals who excoriate George W. Bush every chance they get. But they also express concern about potential terror attacks on their cities in a way that Canadians never would. And in the red states, while I find fewer people with nasty things to say about the president, many express serious doubts about the war in Iraq and where it will lead. A tour guide in Lafayette, Louisiana, joked with me about Parisian snobbery regarding the way French is spoken in Cajun country. “I tell them, ‘get over it, you’re not in Paris,’ ” she said. “Anyway, the Parisians are not coming so much right now because they’re mad at us about the war.” She sighed and then added, ” It’s the wrong war.”

In southern Louisiana, there are plenty of signs in windows and bumper stickers urging people to Support Our Troops. But the war feels like something to be endured, like bad weather, not something for which there is passionate support. I found the same elsewhere, and one sensed that the mantra according to President Bush—”[The Iraqi insurgents] continue to kill in the hope that they will break the resolve of the American people, but they will fail”—as delivered on July 4 at an Independence Day speech in West Virginia, is being accepted with weary resignation. Americans might well send letters of encouragement to the troops in Iraq or visit the family of a dead soldier down the street, but of late I’ve sensed something else happening. Almost always in my travels through the United States, I, an anti-war Canadian, have been warmly received, but today there is more to it than a friendly welcome. There is, I believe, a longing to take shelter in the society of others, to not be alone in a world of detractors, whether they be from Paris, Canada, or the Middle East.

The difference between Bush’s “proclamation” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s assessment of the United States’ failures in the Middle East and announcement of a “different course” is more one of degree than kind. Both hit Jeffersonian nerves, but neither answers the troubling question: does the world, or the Middle East, want the particular brand of liberty or democracy that the United States is proclaiming or supporting? In his second inaugural address, Bush hearkened back nearly four years, to the wellspring of 9/11. Five months later, with the war in Iraq ongoing, Rice, perhaps reflecting a more sober administration, took a longer view. Of course, it must be said that sixty years ago—i.e., after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II—a global political internationalism emerged in the form of the United Nations. The idea was that by gathering nation-states around the table and forcing compromises upon them, the UN would create stability in an insecure world and keep imperialism at bay.

In design and structure, the UN represented the birth of a new global conception of co-operation across borders, while reinforcing the notion that political borders are sacrosanct. After a half-century of symmetric wars—states lining up against states in a manner not dissimilar to medieval warfare—and the imperial usurpations before that, the formation of the UN seemed a workable compromise. It was a victor’s decree, no doubt, but both victor and vanquished were relieved that wars of aggression seemed, with all those delegates sitting around the table, less likely. Such actions stood against the tenets of an emerging international law.

So why is it, then, that a single nation, the United States, has taken it upon itself to be both the world’s supercop and freedom’s patron saint?

As cheerleaders and detractors now agree, the United States has adopted this global role, and has become an empire, the greatest since Rome. Like all empires, it is compelled to act when threatened, its work is never complete, and it has fostered enemies and challengers. But as debate swirls about whether the American empire serves the broad interests of humanity, many in the United States are wondering if it is even sustainable. The two debates are intertwined, and all are watching, including Osama bin Laden, who is surely enjoying the cost in American lives and the cost to the US Treasury caused by the relentless insurgency in Iraq. He is no doubt also enjoying the disquiet in the heart of the republic. America’s new civil war is a battle not over the notion that freedom is a natural birthright desired by all, but over whether the United States should shoulder the costs of exporting this birthright.

At the height of the Cold War, when there was a visible enemy just as determined as the United States to export its own version of truth, US federal tax revenue fluctuated between 17 and 20 percent of the country’s gdp, and few Americans disputed the need to vanquish the Soviet Union by outspending it on military initiatives. But with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the so-called “end of history,” a sense of peace and security settled over the United States, leaving it with the relatively inexpensive job of selling democracy to the world’s “failed states.” Americans might have expected lower taxes, but it didn’t work out that way. During the Clinton presidency and the much-vaunted age of globalization, US taxes increased, reaching a high of 21 percent of gdp by the time George W. Bush took office.

When Bush entered the White House he took aim at profligate spending and overseas gambling. Having already indicated that he would be a stay-at-home president, Bush proposed a tax cut of $1.6 trillion (US) over the coming decade, which Congress approved, trimming it to $1.35 trillion, in May 2001. That tax cut has led to a sharp drop in federal tax revenue, from 21 percent to 16 percent of gdp. This might be considered the good-news side of the story. However, in 2000, there was a budget surplus of $236 billion, and the total debt stood at $5.6 trillion; by 2004 the surplus had morphed into a $333-billion deficit, and the debt had grown to an unmanageable $7.8 trillion. What happened?

The answer, according to an increasing number of Americans—60 percent now believe the Iraq war is an unwinnable misadventure—lies in defence spending and homeland security costs. Since the end of the Cold War, US defence spending has followed two distinct trends. Between 1991 and 2001, it remained relatively constant, fluctuating between $266 billion and $305 billion, and representing roughly 16 percent of overall federal spending by the end of the Clinton administration. Since 2001, spending on defence has risen by approximately $50 billion a year, and the total defence expenditures for 2005 might top $500 billion, or over 20 percent of overall federal spending.

The spreading of Jeffersonian ideals and values and the notion that the Constitution has universal applications have always been more liberal than conservative boasts. Lately, they have flipped over to the Republican side, but, as a consequence of overseas extravagance Bush’s empire is in serious disrepair at its very centre. In his travels, Bush is just as likely to meet foreign central bankers who have their grip on America’s fiscal lifeline as he is to meet celebrants of the cause of liberty. Japan and China own nearly $1 trillion in US government securities, and foreigners in general hold over $8 trillion in US financial assets. At the same time, having lost more than a third of its value against the euro since 2001, and with the Chinese yuan attracting new buyers, the US dollar is faltering, putting its position as the world’s reserve currency in peril.

Serious observers recognize that American current accounts and government deficits are not sustainable. And new clouds are forming on the horizon. The United States gained a reprieve of sorts with the failure of the European Union to consolidate around core principles, but if China and India’s growth continues to outpace all others, the time will come when their internal markets are robust enough to no longer be beholden to overseas buyers. At that point, if either of these two nations has imperial aspirations, the shrewdest step would be to foreclose on US debts and bankrupt their competitor.

The cracks in America’s imperial armour, however, are more of the moment. Despite Bush’s late-June address to the nation (from Fort Bragg, North Carolina), in which, vis-à-vis Iraq, he pledged to “stay in the fight until the fight is won,” the US Army was consistently missing its recruitment quotas. With nearly 1,800 American soldiers having come home in body bags, and Iraqi replacements unready in numbers, not even lucrative sign-up inducements seem to be helping America’s volunteer army. New millions have been spent on recruitment drives, but in heartland communities the idea of sacrificing your body for the slippery notion of selling democracy in the streets of Mosul and the deserts of the Middle East is simply not compelling enough. Increasingly at odds with itself and its core values, a distrustful America is now asking if the war on terrorism is responsible for everything from the drive to privatize social security to Bush’s questionable nomination of a unilateralist, John Bolton, as the US ambassador to the UN.

As is the case with all empires, those at the helm of the American empire must ask the crucial question: what imperial frontiers can be sustained at a cost that is not prohibitive? The Romans decided that most Scots and Germans were not worth the outlay in blood and treasure needed to control them. In the United States, mainstream political opinion remains committed to the continuance of the American empire, but the debate over strategy and tactics persists. Multilateralists are prepared to limit the extent of the empire, and understand the need to use soft as well as hard power to achieve their goals, to cajole as well as to conquer. Though under close scrutiny at the moment, the unilateralists now in power believe the stick is mightier than the carrot, and might dare again to thrust the empire into exorbitantly costly conflicts on the frontiers.

No empire can be sustained for long without a ruling class that is prepared to bear its burden. The Roman Empire ultimately collapsed because of an upperclass tax revolt. Similarly, when the French aristocrats refused to pay, their state faltered, and they went to the guillotine during the French Revolution. The British upper classes, on the other hand, were willing to pay the price and, after the happy ending at Waterloo in 1815, they enjoyed a century of low taxation and cheap empire. Do the American upper classes, with their pronounced taste for immediate gratification, have the stomach for a protracted struggle in the Middle East, to say nothing of a possible confrontation with China?

If the first great question concerns the durability of the American empire, the second concerns its utility. A great boast of the English and the Americans at the end of the twentieth century was that their victories over fascism and communism had rid the world of the vicious utopianisms that had been the most dangerous feature of the century. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and its eastern European empire left the United States in a quandary: what to do with its own global military footprint, justified for four decades as containing communism and protecting the free world? Frenzied investment followed the apparent triumph of liberal democracy—to some, the capitalist equivalent of the Marxist notion that under communism the state would eventually wither away—and the playing field became global in scope. But while US reformers looked forward to scaling down costly military installations, for others the victory over communism confirmed that “might is right” and that preparations had to be made for a “new American century.” Keeping military bases intact served the interests of multinational corporations (and kept their confidence up), but US imperial dominion still required an overarching concept. It came in the form of the indispensable-nation theory.

A favourite concept of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the theory echoes a singular conceit dating back to the American Revolution: the United States can intervene in the world while remaining a force for good. Since before 1776, Americans have pictured their society as a “city on a hill,” which must be preserved against outside contamination and from which Americans, armed with “self-evident” truths, must sally forth to save the rest of humanity. (Walter Russell Mead offers a frank description of American exceptionalism in his acclaimed history of US foreign policy, Special Providence: “The United States over its history has consistently summoned the will and the means to compel its enemies to yield to its demands. Attacks on civilian targets and the infliction of heavy casualties on enemy civilians have consistently played a vital part in American war strategies.”) The indispensable-nation theory was serviceable enough during the 1990s, before more robust ideas to justify American hegemony became necessary with the attacks on New York and Washington, in the new age of blood and iron.

And such ideas have appeared. Like an Imperial Starship, the Bush administration’s doctrine that the United States has the right to pre-emptive intervention anywhere against perceived threats now looms over the planet. While much ink has been spilled on Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and others favouring military solutions (and supposedly contemptuous of democracy), the Starship is equally surrounded and supported by a new liberal justification of American empire that plays the role in our world that Christian missionaries played in the days of the old imperialism. These missionary imperialists have performed a great service for the Bush administration, making its policies palatable to many who would not otherwise regard them as legitimate.

A luminary among those who support present and possibly future interventions by the United States and its allies is Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a potential successor to Paul Martin as Liberal party leader. In Empire Lite, Ignatieff writes, “It is at least ironic that liberal believers—someone like me, for example—can end up supporting the creation of a new humanitarian empire, a new form of colonial tutelage for the peoples of Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.” But before you are offended by the imperial label, he cautions, you should consider that “[i]t is an empire lite, hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risks of daily policing . . . . But that does not make it any less of an empire, that is, an attempt to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests.” In a similar vein, Ignatieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine in January 2003, “We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science…a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” Without an empire, proclaim today’s imperial enthusiasts, there can be no peace, stability, and economic development.

Without empire, there would be no power to intervene where states have failed, to deal with human catastrophes, and to make possible states where market economies, democracy, and the rule of law can take root. The alternative to empire is chaos, and some liberal imperialists appear to have conceded the Republican point that the UN has either had its day in the sun or is too cumbersome for a just-in-time world.

Won over by the United States’ invasion of Iraq, such thinkers have been stirred to passion by the drive to remake the Middle East according to American values. What they find attractive about Bush is not his conservatism but his utopian liberalism. In Longitudes and Attitudes, prolific author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, “How the World of Order deals with the World of Disorder is the key question of the day.” And Friedman is clear that the forces of civilization, led by the United States, may have to strike at the sanctuaries of the barbarians to make the world safe.

The world is beset by the problems of failed states, Ignatieff equally asserts, citing as one principal cause the wreckage of the process of decolonization of earlier empires during the 1950s and 1960s. Faced with the barbarians, the imperial centre has no choice but to hit back, using force where necessary, not only to protect itself against attacks but also to occupy failed states so that they can be nurtured back to health. This process he calls nation-building. Thus, for Ignatieff, imperialism, for a time at least, is the essential handmaiden for the construction of nation-states in zones of barbarism.

“The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike,” Ignatieff wrote in his 2003 article, noting that critics “have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests.” Overlooking the point that it might just be these interests (oil, geo-strategic positioning, etc.) that are driving the agenda, Ignatieff ‘s work has the feel of the belle époque about it. His is a civilizing mission, and the addition of such thinkers to the ranks of those who supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has widened the political spectrum of those willing to endorse imperial wars, and, perhaps unwittingly, given credence to the religiosity of the new American mission. “America is the last nation left whose citizens don’t laugh out loud when their leader asks God to bless the country and further its mighty work of freedom,” he wrote in a June 2005 article, also in the New York Times Magazine. “It is the last country with a mission, a mandate and a dream, as old as its founders. All of this may be dangerous, even delusional, but it is also unavoidable. It is impossible to think of America without these properties of self-belief.”

There seems a paradox here. Following his own logic and historical analysis—which acknowledges both the wreckage left by earlier empires and that empires always produce resistance—it cannot be, for Ignatieff, that empire as such is necessary. If the goal is peace, security, and freedom, can’t this only be achieved through some form of political internationalism (albeit, like democracy itself, messy) where there is no direct imposition of values from one state to another? Given the existence of 725 official US military bases around the world and another 969 at home, it would appear that the American empire is not at all an “empire lite,” but rather one that relies on an overt and continuous demonstration of power both abroad and at home, and is now burdened by crippling debt and a populace unsure of its actions. Furthermore, if the United States is so essential to maintaining order in the world, is it not the world’s responsibility to ensure that it does not collapse? And for this level of co-operation, or two-way street, must not the United States invite the world in?

Just as the British Empire attenuated British democracy by sustaining aristocratic power long into the age of democracy, the American empire is threatening to American democracy. The appointment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who provided the legal foundations for Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, shows how empire strikes back at the vitals of America itself. The potent interests—military, corporate, political—that gain their sway as a consequence of empire can easily become the enemies of democracy at home, and, as many have argued, the flouting of international law through the use of pre-emptive strikes will eventually lead to circumventions of domestic law and authority. The struggle for democracy and the rule of law takes place not only in failed states but in the imperial states themselves.

Nonetheless, the acclaimed Scottish historian Niall Ferguson goes much further than Ignatieff in presenting the case for empires, insisting, for instance, that the British Empire, despite its warts, was a boon for humankind and that the American empire—currently outspending the rest of the world on defence—is needed to play that role in the twenty-first century. With brutal honesty, Ferguson writes in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, “What lessons can the United States draw from the British experience of empire? The obvious one is that the most successful economy in the world—as Britain was for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—can do a very great deal to impose its preferred values on less technologically advanced societies….No doubt it is true that, in theory, open international markets would have been preferable to imperialism; but in practice global free trade was not and is not naturally occurring. The British Empire enforced it.”

To make the world safe for American power, to safeguard the corporate and personal property of Americans, and to ensure access to strategic resources, the United States has undertaken hundreds of interventions abroad, involving full-scale wars, punitive military expeditions, illegal support for the pro-American side in civil wars, the training and funding of death squads, support for plots to overthrow democratic governments, and illicit interventions in democratic countries to sway the results of national elections. A short list of countries scarred by American operations includes: Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Grenada, the Philippines, Greece, Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Congo, Jamaica, Iraq, and, last but not least, Italy, with the intervention in its elections of 1948.

A final case made by the empire enthusiasts is that military power is necessary to bring humanitarian relief where it is most needed. Here Ignatieff impresses with his dissection of the problems of people in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and the military solutions to these problems. But his invitation for us to join him in backing the new imperialism places more weight on our enthusiasm for his liberalism than it can bear, and Ignatieff himself sees the essential problem when he writes, ” It is entirely unsurprising that America and Europe invest in these zones of danger for motives that include just as much callow self-interest as high humanitarian resolve.”

Across the world, as Ignatieff reminds us, we observe a plethora of catastrophes, and a great dilemma faces those who want to find ways for the international community to intervene in cases where states that theoretically exercise sovereignty in crisistorn regions cannot or will not act, or where indeed the state itself may be a major source of oppression. But must the world rely on empire to address humanitarian crises? As one of the principal authors of “The Responsibility to Protect,” a report commissioned and largely funded by the Canadian government and released in December 2001, Ignatieff appears to suggest that the answer is not necessarily affirmative.

If there is to be an alternative to empire it must, in some fashion, be based on political internationalism and a consensus model. And just as the American empire requires an overarching concept to justify its actions abroad, so too does the international political community, and, despite its flaws, the best hope remains with the United Nations. The body was founded on a vision that transcended the idea of state sovereignty on behalf of a more embracing conception of humanity. But the vision and the structure did not mesh, and the UN has long been hobbled by the unwillingness of dominant global actors to transfer effective power to it so as to make it more of a supranational authority and less of an intergovernmental organization. Armed with their vetoes, the five permanent members of the Security Council, have always been, and remain today, protective of their clout and resistant to reform.

While current UN reform proposals focus on expanding the Security Council to make it more operational and reflective of today’s global power centres, the central conundrum that bedevilled the UN in its infancy—providing peace and security, but doing so while guaranteeing the inviolability of national borders—remains unresolved. Security Council reform may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. The United States is often criticized for subverting the UN and for refusing to submit to any international regime or regulation that Washington sees as threatening its sovereignty, and it is now using the occasion of an ongoing war in Iraq—a war launched without UN Security Council approval—to go a step further: to insist that terrorism must be fought abroad to protect US citizens at home and, of course, to protect the inviolability of US borders. The explicit criticism of the UN by the United States and its allies is that its reluctance (and often refusal) to violate national borders within which terrorism is festering or crimes against humanity are being carried out, its lack of recognition that terrorism is an asymmetric global phenomenon that must be continuously fought and fought pre-emptively when necessary, and its lack of military muscle, all prevent it from acting as a legitimate supranational force imposing its will. In short, the UN talks while people die and the cancer of terrorism grows.

Again, as demonstrated by the United States prosecuting the Cold War largely outside the auspices of the UN, for the United States, this lack of will and ability to intervene has, from the beginning, beggared the international agency. Setting aside for a moment the criticism that it was and is the US domestic and geopolitical agenda that has driven its largely negative responses to the UN, there is now a new UN thrust that could satisfy the interests of first- and second-tier powers, including the United States. In September 2005, a UN summit of world leaders will debate the adoption of the “responsibility to protect” as a new basis for collective UN action against genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. While it is cast in terms of humanitarian crises and clearly infused with the ghost of the Rwanda genocide, the 2004 UN report up for debate, “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All,” articulates the responsibility to protect in broad terms. In short, as summarized by Foreign Affairs Canada, it “proposes that these new rules be grounded in a common and updated interpretation of sovereignty, away from the norm of sovereign impunity for states towards a norm of sovereign responsibility towards people.”

In a world where imperial rivalries remain, it is with humanitarian initiatives that the first real steps toward supranationalism are most likely to be taken. If the great powers can be convinced to pool sovereignty at all, it will be in the area of humanitarian aid, an arena that from their point of view is much like cleaning out the stables—necessary, but hardly glamorous. (It should not be forgotten that—present crisis notwithstanding—the European Union began with a decidedly unglamorous free trade deal in coal and steel. Pooling of sovereignty in one area, as the EU experience shows, can spill over into other areas over time.) But, as defined, the responsibility to protect has applications over and above the provision of humanitarian assistance. In accordance with international law, it would compel the United Nations to intervene when crimes against humanity are identified—that is, it would compel the UN to intervene when individual states are eschewing their own responsibility to protect their citizens.

What then would be necessary for this notion to become operational, to be removed from high-sounding rhetoric, to become an on-the-ground reality? First, it must gain assent from the existing members of the UN Security Council. Second, in the words of Prime Minister Martin, the Security Council must “adopt use-of-force guidelines to ensure that the international community has both the capacity and the will to respond to large-scale protection crises, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.” That is, the template must be adopted and the capacity ensured.

The assumption here is that peacemaking is and will continue to be necessary, that the capacity for such peacemaking necessitates large budgets, and that the ability to act expeditiously is required. In short, for the UN to render empires unnecessary, it must be willing and able to engage early to stamp out terrorism, halt civil wars, and deliver maximum aid to poverty-stricken regions , to regions of the world where terrorists and other villains use the disquiet born of poverty to advance their aims. Without such an enhanced and emboldened UN, the world will get empire, and it is unlikely to ever be “empire lite.” If the world is satisfied with this default position, then so be it, but, reading the tea leaves, it might also be missing a glorious opportunity. My travels through America suggest a growing chasm between the people and the current administration, a worldweariness or weariness of the world, and a reluctance to continue shouldering the burden of empire. It is bankrupting the nation, and the people appear to be saying “enough is enough.”

Journalist Walter Lippmann once commented, “We are not the policeman of mankind. We are not able to run the world, and we shouldn’t pretend that we can. Let us tend to our own business, which is great enough as it is.” He said this in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the civil rights movement were competing with the Cold War for the attention of the American people. To look inward or outward? The tension endures.

There is both sanctity and shelter in the company of others, and Americans seem increasingly willing to accept degrees of foreign policy independence by nations wishing to stay a different course than endless war. At the same time, liberals and the left in Canada have failed to face up to the fact that foreign policy independence from the United States will cost Canada a great deal of treasure.

Of course, there is a pro-imperial faction in Canada pressing us to link up, even more than we have, economically, socially, and militarily with the United States. Led by Thomas d’Aquino, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, the goal, as always, is the continentalism being driven by business lobbies in all three nafta countries. But Mexico’s President Vincente Fox faces genuine pressure from across Latin America to stall any form of “deep integration” under nafta, and the Martin government is, officially at least, cleaving to the position that staying out of the Iraq war was the right decision, as is not participating directly in the Bush administration’s national missile-defence initiative. While the Liberals have mapped out no new global strategy, they have at least created the space in which one could operate.

“Canada is particularly pleased by the Secretary-General’s strong endorsement of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ and his call for leaders to embrace the emerging norm that state sovereignty entails not only rights but also responsibilities—particularly for the protection of civilian populations,” said Martin last March. But to live up to “The Responsibility to Protect” and to be actively engaged in it requires a greatly enhanced peacemaking military and, one would imagine, a foreign-aid budget pegged to at least the fabled 0.7 percent of gdp. It will be interesting to see, therefore, if the rhetoric is matched by a commitment of Canadian dollars.

One of the great Canadian talents has been that of leaving sinking imperial ships at the right moment, although, in truth, it has really been a matter more of luck than of talent. Canada’s departures from the French and British empires were admirably timed. Today, Asia is beckoning and Canada’s resources are being sought by a rising China, as well as by India and Japan. While Canada should avoid signing on to any new empire emerging from the east, it can use the rise of Asia to find more room to manoeuvre in its negotiations with the United States, as it once did when it sought advantage by balancing between a rising America and a stumbling Britain. For reasons, perhaps, of enlightened self-interest, Martin has promised action on “The Responsibility to Protect.” It may be that an enhanced and emboldened UN would provide the greatest protection to our beleaguered neighbour to the south, by relieving it of the burden of empire.

The idea that empire is part of the solution to the problems of our age is a chimera. The best of the Western tradition has always held that a universal state is inevitably tyrannical and that any major step in that direction can only place us on the road to endless war. It is tempting to believe that the world’s most pressing tribulations can be addressed, if only a superpower would step up and send its forces to Rwanda or Sudan when a catastrophe is in the making. But imperial powers act when it is in their interest to act. And the interests of empires and those of humanity do not often overlap. The search for solutions must lead elsewhere. The first step in that search is to have done with illusions, and one clear advantage of such an international regime is that it could render empires unnecessary.

James Laxer