Volume 3, Number 69
21 March 2003

The American Empire

Dear Friends,

In the New York Times (1/5/03) Professor Michael Ignatieff of Harvard tells his readers that the United States is now the first power to oversee a world empire. "It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires."

The United States lays "down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest."

America's "... empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies and the white man's burden. 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 global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known."

Charles Krauthammer speculates (Time, 3/24/03) that "French opposition to the U.S. is not about Iraq but about who runs the world." Charles de Gaulle was equally concerned about American dominance. One of the purposes of the European Union was to form a counterweight to American power. Clearly, that is not succeeding.

Launched in 1997, a private group called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) set the goal for promoting American global leadership. Their values include the following: Capitalism and free trade have won the contest for the best economic system to promote prosperity and equitable distributions of income and wealth. Capitalism implies a rule of law, property rights, and enforceable contracts. The American culture best promotes human rights and racial and gender equality. For all these reasons, PNAC argues that it is quite proper that the United States should spread our own culture, our own rules, and our own justice. To do this, we need the most modern defenses so that no rogue nation can interfere with our goals. (To learn more, click on the link to their web site, above.)

I now face the most crucial dilemma of the many I have confronted in my life. I believe that with only a few exceptions, the "American system" is indeed the most virtuous in the world. Capitalism and free trade have brought the greatest prosperity and fairest distributions wherever they have been tried. Although our record on human rights has flaws, it is far more humane than that of any other country (say, Iraq, Israel, and others). It does not matter that I favor free trade and capitalism, while many Quakers do not. Empire is "where it's at" right now. The idea of empire trumps all our values, for world empire is the direct opposite of world democracy.

So, what can we do to promote human rights, free trade, capitalism, and racial and gender equality — those American values that we favor (or I do, anyway — you may prepare a different list) while opposing with all our hearts and minds the idea of American Empire?

First, we must respect the goals of the PNAC. We must attribute the best of motives to them, while forcefully saying they are mistaken. Second, we must bring forth the lessons of history, showing how other empires (Roman, British, French, Russian, etc.) all failed because democracy ran counter to the interests of the emperors. Third, we must show that those who have great power inevitably use the power falsely, in their own interests rather than those of the peoples they rule. Finally, we must insist that the idea of ruling over other people is morally wrong.

Then there are some things we must not do. An example of these is found in a speech by William Rivers Pitt, which has recently been making the rounds of Quaker email groups. Pitt declares that the purpose of PNAC is "a crusade to 'reform' the religion of Islam as it exists in both government and society within the Middle East." Citing three companies in which principals of PNAC had interests, he finds that all corporations would benefit from a war with Iraq. [[Not true. Corporate executives across the board say they are withholding investment (the engine for the economy and profits) until things settle down.]] Pitt calls the Bush administration "Fascist," or "the merger of state and corporate power."

None of the above is called for in the PNAC document. Instead, Pitt puts forth his own ideological interpretation, which exaggerates the sense of the document in order to anger the public, probably so they will oppose war with Iraq. He violates many rules of research, such as generalizing from small samples, and "post hoc ergo propter hoc."

What? post hoc ergo propter hoc? [after this, therefore because of this.] Our fifth and final child was named Larry. When some friends had their ninth child, wanting it to be the last, they named it Larry because "naming a child Larry causes him to be the last." Pitt assumed that because some of the principals of PNAC had certain investments, those investments were therefore the cause of their involvement in PNAC.

We must not assume that those proposing the empire will gain financially themselves, for if they have any power they are required to sell their stocks or put them in a blind trust. Furthermore, although a few firms, selectively perceived by Pitt because of prior relationships with the PNAC authors, may gain from a war economy, the rest of the economy is in severe peril. A serious inflation is in the offing (we haven't seen "anything" yet; it's about two years away). Even oil is uncertain. Iraqi wells have been deteriorating for years, and some specialists say it will take many more years to rebuild them.

So I agree with Chris Caldwell, who wrote: "While I found the PNAC position disagreeable, it is in the best interest of the liberal community to argue our own positions point by point in a well-reasoned fashion without resorting to distortion of the right-wing but hardly immoral positions of the opposing side."

Question: Should we exaggerate and distort the statements of other ideologies, so as to gain adherents for our own? For two reasons, No: We must seize the moral high ground by seeking the truth, wherever the search may lead us. The second is more practical. If we become known as exaggerators and distortion artists, we will ultimately be discredited, and then where will we be?

Let no one opine from this that I am soft on the American Empire. I question only the weapons with which we oppose it.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

Thanks for perhaps the best issue yet. The point you raise — that exaggerating and distorting opponents' positions is a self-defeating substitute for presenting valid alternatives — is one the Democratic Party urgently needs to address.

— Michael Jack, Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.)

I have been busy with family and trying to respond to the American war fever. I want to say that Friend Powelson speaks clearly in these times.

— Charlie Thomas, Cascabel Worship Group, Tucson (AZ).

[About Bush's purpose in going into this war,] I think you have it right and are exactly on target.

— Jim Booth, Red Cedar Meeting, Lansing (MI).

How about a letter that talks about where Quakers should send contributions that will really help the people suffering from the war? I would like my modest donations to serve people, not organizations that have grown beyond aid, sometimes as far as politics. I have even wondered if contributions are better sent to Mennonite organizations than to Quaker ones, although I am a thoroughly convinced Quaker of 30 years. Or, is a UN organization a more reasonable route? Our contributions will mean little in comparison with the needs, but giving sacrificially seems little enough for us to do — besides keeping pressure on the US to fulfill its stated intentions for helping to reconstruct Iraq.

— Sharon Hoover, Alfred Monthly Meeting (NY)

Suggestion: The International Rescue Commmittee. — Jack

Mainstream economics has been very politically conservative for a long time. From what I've seen, the more liberal theories seem to have been rejected entirely in the last 20 years. If I had another lifetime to study, I would like to explore the extent to which economic theory depends on values. To some extent it must — there is only social reality, not physical reality, behind it. Has anyone made explicit ALL of the assumptions behind current economic doctrines?

— Jim Caughran, Toronto (Ontario) Meeting.

To answer Jim's question: Economics has NO values and does not depend on them. Like physics, it merely tries to explain how the world functions. People have values. Just as they may use them to create guns or life-saving drugs, so also people may use the economic system to create wars or to fight poverty. — Jack


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting, Assistant Principal Editor.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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