Americans are genuinely shocked by the idea that they are an imperial power. : LUSENET : Unk's Troll-free Private Saloon : One Thread

Hello all! I found the following interesting and wanted to share. I wonder ... ARE we the 'awkward sole contenders for bringing about a new world'?

Universal nation

November 2001

Americans are genuinely shocked by the idea that they are an imperial power. When America sees its culture and its version of economics spreading around the globe-so-called "soft power"-it does not see other cultures giving way before it, but rather the rest of the world becoming more fully human.

Jedediah Purdy

The united states, it is said, has been violently inducted into membership of the rest of the world. Some commentators have noted with satisfaction that at last US decision-makers will appreciate the experience of-depending on their sympathies-Israelis, Belgraders, Nicaraguans or the residents of Baghdad. Kinder commentators reflected that terrorism is a fact of life in Britain, India, Turkey and elsewhere and that Americans would have had to lose the illusion of invulnerability sooner or later-if not so suddenly and horribly. But the response to the attacks was just as much a reminder that Americans are not alone in believing themselves special. Americans in countries wracked by violence much more severe than New York's, described outpourings of sympathy even from ordinarily chary hosts. The "World Trade Centre" was no hubristic misnomer. The building that burned and collapsed stood not just on an island along one edge of north America but in the homeland of the global imagination, representing power, boundless possibility and a curious kind of innocence.

Yet as the US leads the world's countries into a campaign against Islamist terrorism, the country still awaits a reckoning on its place in the world. This has nothing to do with the opportunistic score-settling that formed the most distasteful response to the attacks. The fact remains, however, that the new conflict takes place in a world deeply marked by new forms of US power and new resentments against them. The more a newly aggressive and focused US foreign policy disregards these in favour of cold war-vintage verities, the less likely it is to succeed.

For several years now, there have been worldwide rumblings about an alleged American empire. Frontline, an Indian weekly magazine, called a 1999 cover article on US foreign policy, "Ways of Imperialism." A South African journalist writes of living in "the outer provinces of the empire" and an Arab scholar refers matter-of-factly and without venom to Egypt's incorporation into "the American imperium." The French, with special insistence, lament that "we are being globalised by the Americans." These are not the voices of the far left, residues of the cold war, or the mouthpieces of governments nursing grudges. They express a perception that the US writ reaches everywhere-not to govern the world, but to set the terms on which the governance of the next century will take place. Here is what they have in mind. American economists supervise the policies of poor nations in debt to the IMF, and the US economy every year presses its ethic of entrepreneurship and creative destruction deeper into Europe, east Asia and India. US academics write constitutions for new governments in Africa and central Asia, and Americans from financier George Soros's Open Society Institute fund the creation of local civil society. English is the world's second language: 350m people are native speakers, but more than a billion have learned enough to strike a bargain or argue about a basketball game. American culture is the other global second language-a shared patois whose vocabulary includes Michael Jordan's face, the ragged beats of hip-hop music and Baywatch, the world's most popular television programme. Immigrants arrive in US airports having already lived much of their imaginary lives between New York and Los Angeles. What are we to call this, other than empire?

To the American ear, all of this sounds foreign. Empire means conquest, the apogee of old world wickedness. It is to Americans what Oriental despotism was to the European imagination in the 19th century-the cruelty of a degenerate civilisation. The Spanish conquest of South America, with its slaughters and wholesale enslavement, was empire. So was the carving up of Africa by the European powers and the British Raj in India. Those bloody, domineering episodes have nothing to do with us.

There is surely a question here. Those who think about America's special position in today's world have pressed into service the unsatisfactory term "soft power," meaning roughly that US influence does not follow American armies, but follows economic and cultural influence. Can soft power really be imperial power? It was so in Rome, the great empire of the west. The Roman empire ruled not by terror, but by extending the system of Roman law and, by degrees, the privilege and discipline of Roman citizenship across its vast tracts. What law did not accomplish, culture did: Roman fashions and especially the Latin language spread throughout the western empire. Roman citizens might have a local language and local loyalties, but they were also members, by law and culture, of a universal imperium. They shared in a commerce that knitted together all the Roman regions. The empire's authority began in the sword, but it settled in the mind, the tongue, and even the soul. This made it an ideal of order and power long after its government had disintegrated. Rome led with the sword only when necessary, where a primitive people such as the Britons or the Iberians could not be mollified by more subtle means. Rome's governors often preferred indirect rule through pliant local monarchies, alliances with formally independent cities and the Germanic tribes that retained much of their traditional internal governance.

Allowing others' energy to flow to one's own purposes is always more fruitful than putting up with sullen resistance. "It was," Montesquieu wrote in his history of Rome, "a slow way of conquering." Through new loyalties and gradual shifts in power, an ally "became a subject people without anyone being able to say when its subjection began." Anyone who has watched the IMF huddle with his country's leaders or seen the arrival of a new multiplex must have an inkling of Montesquieu's meaning. Soft power is not a new reality, but a new word for power's most efficient form. It is hardly surprising that empire should change its forms in 2,000 years. In a time when wealth comes from control of markets and ideas, sovereignty over territory is neither necessary nor sufficient for greatness. In a world of demanding citizens and discontented national populations, territory can be as much an impediment as a boon: witness Russia's ethnic conflicts and China's terrified dance with its poor regions and huge minority populations. Any sensible emperor would want what Rome achieved, without the landmass: an empire where all markets lead to Rome, but the roads can be closed on command.

Americans do not perceive this condition as empire, because they have always been inclined to believe that they are the world's universal nation. Unlike the French and certain 19th-century Germans, they do not possess a theory of why this should be so; they simply cannot imagine that it could be otherwise. Americans believe, somewhere below the level of articulation, that every human being is born an American, and that their upbringing in different cultures is an unfortunate but reversible accident.

This idea has a history, now mainly forgotten, that is as old as European settlement in north America. The first English settlers, members of radical Protestant sects, famously envisioned the new continent as "a city on a hill," shining the light of its inspiration on the world. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and a great muse of American democracy, wrote that in the new country men might at last feel universal law in their hearts, so that the code of lawbooks would become superfluous. For Jefferson, the movement of the law from outward codes to inward conviction repeated the transformation from the Old Testament's elaborate strictures to the New Testament's stress on conscience. Wherever one looked, Americans were anointing themselves the homeland of universal law.

The US also became the homeland of the distinctly modern form of liberty: free self-expression, whether of conscience or whim. The 18th and 19th centuries were full of pessimism about what the fall of aristocracy and the rise of mass culture would mean for human character. The heralds of the new society, such as Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville, accepted that greater equality would come at the price of cultural mediocrity and intellectual and spiritual sluggishness. In response, the American prophets of the 19th century announced that the end of aristocracy and other hierarchies freed men to look into their own souls and find there as much grace, dignity, and harmony as the courtly refinements of the old order had ever achieved. In the vision of Emerson and Whitman, the US would become the world's "first nation of men," the first people whose national life would be the unfolding of individuality.

The Americans took this idea from the European ideal of the romantic artist, the unconventional young man of passionate, sincere and incorrigible feeling. In the new world, however, the idea of self-expression found its home in the free market. The hero of American individuality was not the artist but the inventor, the pioneer and, above all, the entrepreneur. Americans look to the market for the finest uses of modern freedom. It is there that we find our heroes, our nobility and even our saints.

So, when Americans see their version of the market economy spreading through the world, they do not see other forms of life giving way, other civilisations being transformed. The advance of what Europeans are sometimes polite enough to call "the Anglo-Saxon model" of capitalism is to Americans just the progress of modern life. And when they learn that Baywatch is the most popular programme in Indonesia, it does not cross their minds that this might give a new inflection to that Islamic civilisation's idea of feminine beauty, erotic satisfaction, or the good life. Of course the world is adopting our market. Of course the world loves Baywatch. These are the natural human desires, that have been inhibited for so long by awkward European politics and the heavy weight of the black chador. At last the rest of the world is becoming fully human.

This American attitude-one might call it parochial universalism-has found further comfort in the discipline of economics. In its recently ascendant neo-classical form, economics forms the cornerstone of US market-individualism: nearly unlimited power of contract, a state that serves mainly to enforce private bargains and makes them axioms of the first universally valid science of human behaviour. In the US, economics has expanded its reign to become the most respectable vocabulary for discussions of public policy, legal reasoning and even intimate relations. Whatever their other merits, the IMF and the World Trade Organisation both reflect the global ascendance of the same version of economic logic. The American and American-trained economists who guide these institutions believe, in the foreground of their minds, that they are applying science, and in the background that they are bringing a retrograde world into full humanity. The suspicion that they are also helping to remake humanity in the image of one nation is buried very deeply indeed.

It is for all of these reasons that Americans tend to think of "globalisation" as a natural process that affects everyone in more or less the same way-like global warming, only with less human responsibility. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times writer who has become America's official explainer of globalisation, likes to compare the process to the dawn: there is no escaping it, objecting to it is futile unto madness, and it shines on the just and the unjust alike. The idea that other countries are "being globalised by the Americans" seems preposterous.

We must not forget that the rest of the world gives every sign of wanting American prosperity, American entertainment, American styles and the American language. Pretending that global change is some crude kind of hegemony, not really so different from conquest, would be intellectually criminal-especially after 11th September's stark reminder of the difference between metaphoric and actual violence. But, as the Romans understood, power over desire and loyalty can be the most important kind, and does deserve closer examination.

The US exercises two special kinds of power that have nothing to do with blood and conquest. The first might be called Microsoft power. The real reason Microsoft is ubiquitous is not that it forces its operating system on computer users, but that its very ubiquity creates enormous advantages for a new buyer who chooses it over a different system. If everyone else has one sort of stove and you choose another, you lose nothing. But if you choose a different operating system, you cannot trade files, transfer documents, or sit down at nearly any terminal confident that you can manipulate its programs. Microsoft is the vocabulary that gives people access to global flows of communication, information, and commerce. Choosing it is impeccably rational, but it also creates resentment: the chooser knows there are other ways of doing the same tasks, but they have been marginalised. Economists call the advantages of a big information system, "network effects." Microsoft power is the power of big networks to stay big because they create the language in which people access each other.

The so-called "language" of Microsoft is one thing; English is another. It is the world's second language because it is to the tongue what Microsoft is to the screen: the way people reach each other across distances of geography and civilisation. So also are the trade rules of the WTO-a set of common terms that open up the world's places to each other. The world is full of networks that people have every reason to join-but to which, in a real sense, they also have no alternative. These networks are American, in origin and in idiom. Such a regime can remain invisible to Americans, while its power is always and everywhere inescapable to the rest of the world.

If Microsoft power directs free choices in a way that still feels coercive, Baywatch power works more directly on the desires that well up beneath choice. American entertainment is everywhere and its culture industry has a century's history of understanding the lowest common denominator of entertainment for a mass audience. In 1999, 72 per cent of television drama exported worldwide came from the US. A teenager in Delhi can know the arc of the Nike swoosh and the curves of a Baywatch model-and in some sense, want them both. (A certain humility of analysis is in order here. We do not, after all, know quite how the Baywatch sensibility mingles with pre-existing ones. Nor do we know exactly how many people in the developing world watch American soaps, but the best guess is a lot.)

Still, where it reaches, Baywatch power invites a special kind of resentment. On the one hand, what you desire becomes a part of you. You move towards it of your own eager will. On the other hand, this desire is still manifestly foreign to much of the world. It is one's own and yet it is not. Such power shapes appetites and guides tongues. It directs the eye to its image of beauty and convictions to its idea of justice. You cannot easily drive out what you have invited in. You cannot escape what has become a part of you. If you resent it, your resentment becomes more insistent as it grows less effective.

It is an article of contemporary faith that empire is an altogether bad thing. In the last word, this may prove true, although it is worth remembering that other times have found it neither obvious nor likely. It is much more certain that there is no virtue in ignoring empire, when it in fact exists (as Robert Cooper pointed out in a different context in last month's Prospect, talking about the future of Europe).

On reflection, the staggering thing about American empire-if that term is the right one-may turn out to be its generosity. Other countries have sapped the resources of subject economies. The US submitted to partners, such as Taiwan and Japan, sometimes to the point of national embarrassment-recall the sale of New York's Rockefeller Centre to the Japanese. The US government also ties itself to the same mast as other countries in the WTO. One can debate the wisdom of neo-liberalism, and point to such glaring contradictions as America's vast and persistent agricultural subsidies, but the overall impression is that the US is trying to play fair.

The same is true in the cultural realm. From Spanish conversions at swordpoint to Macaulay's brown-skinned Englishmen, modern empires have put their stamps on subject populations. Not so Americans. Although it is obscured by the rhetorical silliness that surrounds it, a real openness and tolerance is one of the great achievements of American civilisation. Notionally at least, we welcome the world's variety and do not set out to remake it. The unhappy irony is that, in our faith that being American is humankind's natural condition, we have difficulty appreciating the intense attachment that people may feel to a very different nationality, language, or social order.

The US offers-no, the US is-one picture of the world's future. It is a tolerant, pleasurable world, where no tie or tradition constrains the individual too much and few convictions move a person to violence. The military mobilisation now under way is explicitly in defence of that future-a world with more comfort and less capacity to imagine the need for war. Some version of it is probably the fairest and finest world that modernity makes possible. But it is very different from the fractured and transitional world that billions of people inhabit. A people constitutionally unsuited to empire could prove either the best or the least suited to bringing this new world about. For the time being, they are the awkward sole contenders, and our only peaceful future.

-- Debra (, November 25, 2001


Article covers a LOT of territory. For me, the nut is... It's perfectly fine with me if other cultures ignore ours. It's also perfectly fine with me that people in those cultures find what we do and offer attractive. The rub comes not from us but others wanting to live like us but pretending not to. Wonder why? Maybe it's that living standard thing that their culture can't provide but it's just tooooooo emabarassing to admit. Naw. How crass. How unethereal and unresplendant a visage of what some would rather think IS most human.

-- Carlos (, November 25, 2001.

Or maybe it is just a little bit difficult for cultures that are thousands of years old to change as fast as our 200 years of "finding ourselves" without the bonds of aristocracy where people were stuck in the social level they were born in, with little or no possibility of improving "their place".

It is a little bit difficult to be brought up one way and to see images of baywatch and think that is what America and our freedoms are all about. A little more realistic packaging of America would help get rid of false assumptions.

-- Cherri (, November 25, 2001.

What is Baywatch?

-- (, November 27, 2001.

Come on, Lars! You haven't seen my show? Red bikini? Where have you been? ;)

On a humorous note about Baywatch, in the new movie Spy Games, as a deal is being brokered with Chinese officials, that's the show they are watching.

-- Pammy (, November 27, 2001.

I've never seen more than bits and pieces of the show. What IS Baywatch saying about us?

-- Debra (, November 27, 2001.

Baywatch conveys to the unenlightened how very important silicone breasts are to a female's self-esteem.

-- (, November 27, 2001.

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