Historians who examine the rise and fall of great powers frequently ask how a given power attained the status of empire. Some historians probe the essence of the imperialist urge — that is, they ask what awakened the aspirations that brought the great power to its preeminent status, since the growth of an empire has often been accompanied by an ideology of manifest destiny.
The most interesting issue being examined by historians, though, is the identification of the turning point at which the imperial power’s greatness began to decline. The ironic saying that the British Empire was born in a fit of absentmindedness was preceded by another — that the sun would never set on it. And yet set the sun did.
The American empire, successor to the British one, reached its present stature after defeating Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. The United States, which initially enjoyed a monopoly on nuclear weapons, established a new order based on a web of military alliances and economic institutions. However, it was immediately forced to contend with another victorious power, the Soviet Union, which instituted a different imperial order in its own sphere of influence. The collapse of the Soviet empire was not due to a frontal clash between the two powers; it was America’s indirect strategy of containment and deterrence that exhausted the Soviet Union.
America’s first test as the sole superpower came in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait — an invasion that threatened to undermine the new world order that former president Bush had announced. Within a few months, the United States had sent half-a-million soldiers to the Persian Gulf and expelled Iraq from Kuwait. When the current Bush administration took office, it displayed a distinct lack of desire to become involved in the Middle East — an attitude that disappeared abruptly after the shocking September 11 terrorist attacks. The effects of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has been compared to America’s reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Even if the United States is not driven by a sense of global manifest destiny, it is clearly driven by a sense of imperial responsibility that derives from the unprecedented power it has amassed. Like Rome, whose legions defended the pax romana throughout its empire, and like Britain, whose ships enforced the pax britannica and whose regiments imposed order throughout its empire, the United States is now required to send its aircraft carriers to the ends of the earth in order to maintain the pax americana.
Historian Stephen Rosen of Harvard University explained America’s imperial imperative as follows: “We are militarily dominant around the world. Our military spending exceeds that of the next six or seven powers combined…. Our goal is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order…. Imperial strategy focuses on preventing the emergence of powerful, hostile challengers to the empire.”
As far back as January 2002, President Bush mapped out the contours of the new front along which the threats to American order are located: Iran, Iraq and North Korea. In June 2002, the United States went up a level when the president declared for the first time that the United States was entitled to launch preemptive wars. In September 2002, his administration publicized its new national security strategy, which states that where threats stemming from the link between radicalism and technology are concerned, it is no longer possible to rely solely on containment and deterrence; the United States must sometimes preempt and take action before these threats materialize.
The current crisis in Iraq is the first test of this new strategy, and it involves a great risk of complications. Because of this, and because of the damage that such complications are liable to cause to America’s political and moral image, many view the challenge to Iraq as a dangerous gamble. That might be true, but then that is the lot of imperial responses to challenges.
If the United States achieves its goals in Iraq, it will buttress its status and stabilize the world order that exists under its aegis. If it stumbles, this will have serious ramifications for the region and America’s imperial status will be undermined. The war with Iraq does not just revolve around the threat it poses as a rogue state armed with nonconventional weapons; it is also a war over the position and role of the United States.
An imperial peace requires ongoing struggle. Empires decline when they no longer have the strength to cope with the challenges with which they are confronted. If that happens now, the present moment might become the turning point in the history of imperial America. In the balance lies the fate of the pax americana — and from a historical perspective, the United States has no real choice but to face up to the challenge. Unless Saddam Hussein capitulates at the last moment, the preventative war with Iraq will constitute, in essence, a war of no choice for the United States, and the gamble it entails — an imperial imperative.
Uzi Arad is director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and was a foreign policy adviser to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz, whose Web site is www.haaretzdaily.com.