By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The United States is an imperial power and has been for more than a century, ever since its invasion and occupation of the Philippines, which began in 1899. The Spanish-American War of 1898, which led to America's takeover of Spain's colony in the Philippines, culminated a process by which the United States came to dominate the Caribbean Basin. By dominating the Caribbean Basin, America came to dominate the Western Hemisphere. And as the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, America found itself with power to spare in order to affect the balance-of-power in the Eastern Hemisphere. Thus did America go on to pivotally determine world politics in the 20th century.
America's empire is without colonies, suitable for a post-modern information age in which capital is not necessarily tied up in permanent territorial holdings. But make no mistake, America's troops have been and still are in imperial-like situations the world over, from South Korea to Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific: grappling on the ground and on the blue waters with the need to maintain order over exotic swathes of the earth, like the Romans, Venetians, Portuguese, Dutch and British did before them. Furthermore, the very size and capability of America's military, from special operations forces to nuclear submarines, dwarfs those of most other major powers combined. To say that this isn't a military of imperial proportions is to deny reality.
Like empires of yore, the United States periodically sends its forces into harm's way in imperial-like interventions, seeking to oust this foreign tyrant or that for supposedly threatening the empire's interests. Of course, American officials, of whatever administration, always claim that they are acting in such a fashion for the sake of human rights and humanity, but that is similar to what the officials of previous empires usually said. Many empires have had strong philosophical organizing principles, in which they label their own values as universal ones. And often they are right. Rome, Venice and Great Britain were not only militarily dominant but were also the most enlightened powers of their ages — with Venice and Britain by the standards of their eras being truly liberal imperiums. And so, democracy at home and military imperialism abroad can go hand in hand.
Now these imperial-like military interventions have often been ill advised, but they happen nevertheless. They happen partly because there is an imperial class in the imperial capital of Washington, D.C., that agitates for them.
What is an imperial class, and what are its beliefs?
An imperial class is a large group of people who have a deeply evolved sense of imperial mission, and whose professional interests are connected to that mission succeeding. They number journalists and policy experts at think tanks who collectively define the debate among elites throughout the Boston-to-Washington media corridor; and by defining that debate determine the opinions that bombard any administration on the foreign policy front. This class is financially well off and generally educated at the best schools. It is the product of decades of prosperity going back to the post-World War II era. Whereas Washington in the mid-20th century had barely a handful of think tanks, the city is now packed with them. As for the media, it now constitutes a power center all its own that includes both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, both of whom have in the past supported using the American military to impose American values.
This is not a conspiracy; nor by any stretch is it illiberal. Indeed, a significant section of this imperial class can be defined as humanitarians, who believe America's proper role in the world is to prevent genocide and otherwise protect embattled ethnic or sectarian minorities. Imperialism, keep in mind, should be defined as a relatively weak form of sovereignty exercised by a great power. It is weak because the imperial power does not control far-flung regions to the degree that it controls its own homeland, and yet it can still affect outcomes and processes to a reasonable extent in various parts of the world. Thus, humanitarianism that seeks to affect outcomes overseas falls within the rubric of imperialism, whereas isolationism does not.
Of course, the best example of imperialism explained as humanitarianism is Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden," which to our contemporary ears sounds racist, but was in fact an idealistic work of literature, because it sought to convey the responsibility that richer and more-developed countries had to poorer and less-developed ones. Actually, Kipling wrote the poem to encourage what he saw as America's civilizing mission in the Philippines.
Because this imperial class will not go away, even as the electronic media brings increasing pressure to bear on the White House, the urge to intervene militarily in order set this or that situation to rights will go on, regardless of America's actual national interests. America's national interests, say, in the Middle East may decline over the years and decades, as the United States needs to import less and less oil from the Persian Gulf. Indeed, it is even within the range of possibility that the United States will be more-or-less self sufficient in energy within North America and its environs, helped by increasing amounts of oil from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. But even if this situation were to ensue on some foreseeable morrow, the idea that Washington will leave the semi-chaotic Middle East to its own devices is probably wrong.
Atrocities will occur, allied regimes will cry for help, and the imperial class will demand robust responses. Because the imperial class is an upshot of America's very democracy and prosperity, it will never go away. I am not implying that what the imperial class desires is necessarily wrong (indeed, it periodically may be right); I am implying that its influence on policy is permanent. It is permanent because prosperity breeds a class of global cosmopolitans, whose American branch is defined by harboring imperialist tendencies masked as humanitarianism. Energy independence will not change this situation; only an end to prosperity among the upper income brackets will do that.
The 1990s were instructive in this regard. America was at the time at peace, a unipolar power, with no other power around to obviously threaten it, basking in its victory in the Cold War. Energy markets were stable. There was, in short, no obvious national interest to intervene anywhere. But America did intervene with military force in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Whence was the pressure coming for such interventions? It came from the imperial class. One could easily argue that at least in some of these cases military intervention was the right thing to do. But my point is only that intervention happened. And it happened repeatedly, despite no overriding national interest. One might assume that the more secure the imperial power is, the less likely it is to intervene anywhere. But the 1990s showed that the opposite can also be true.
Therefore, I foresee periodic humanitarian interventions tempered by only two things: the memory of such interventions having gone awry, and the end to prosperity that, in turns, leads to a decline in military budgets and a drawdown of the number of elites in the northeast corridor. Memories always fade, and while America may be in for tough economic times, I doubt that they will be so tough as to lead to substantial cutbacks in media organs and think tanks.
So imperialism will live on. Its tempo is to be determined by individual presidents. And each of those presidents will need to bear in mind that realism without a measure of idealism is unrealistic, since America requires a dose of idealism in its foreign policy merely for the sake of its own identity. This, too, especially, will fuel interventionism.