Friday, September 07, 2007

What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate: The Same Old Empty Jargon of Legions and Gunboats?

I've been meaning to put up an entry reviewing Daniel Nexon and Thomas Wright's article, "What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate?" (PDF) , which appeared in the May 2007 volume of the American Political Science Review. Frankly, I took my time getting around to finishing the piece, and I've been mulling around a way to rebut the major points raised by the research.

First, I'd like to congratulate the authors, and especially Dan - who's an occasional commenter on this blog - for their outstanding academic achievement. Publishing in the APSR remains the top scholarly accomplishment in the discipline of political science (or at least it was back in the early 2000s, shortly after I landed my current academic post). By its publication in this flagship journal, the authors work has been deemed to represent the highest standards of exposition, craftsmanship, and rigor in the field, and their efforts no doubt further such important professionals goals as tenure and promotion. Great job!

That said, let me get right into their paper and my thoughts on its contents.

Nexon and Wright wade into the debate over American foreign policy and "the unipolar moment" by posing (essentially) this question: Can America's standing in global politics best be described as unipolor dominance of the balance-of-power system, hegemonic mastery of the international realm, or an imperial order?

The authors argue that unipolarity and hegemony as theoretical paradigms fail to capture substantial "imperial properties" that characterize America's relations to the other nation-state actors - large and small - in international life. The article employs an "ideal-typifying" approach that seeks to find generalized patterns of great power politics and hierarchy, using the American case as a key test for how well the "logics" of imperialism explain contemporary world political dynamics.

Here's a brief summary of their main theoretical thrust:

We argue that ideal-typical empires...differ from hegemonic and unipolar orders because they combine two features: rule through intermediaries and heterogeneous contracting between imperial cores and constituent political communities. These characteristics constitute ideal-typical empires as a form of political organization with particular network properties. Ideal-typical empires comprise a “rimless” hub-and-spoke system of authority, in which cores are connected to peripheries but peripheries themselves are disconnected – or segmented – from one another...When a particular set of relations takes on an imperial cast, a number of important changes occur in the basic dynamics of international politics...

The authors develop this conceptual line in elaborate fashion, and for the most part I find the discussion well-stated and logical (though I do see a couple of inconsistencies in reasoning, but more on that in a moment).

The problem with the article for me is not so much the argument and research (which displays a command of the literature on imperial orders and international hierarchy that is impressive, and that which is beyond what I myself can claim), but rather some not-so-subtle political orientations that seek - I would argue - to elicit greater acceptance for both popular and scholarly references to America as "empire," with all of the deligitimating connotations that accompany such labels.

The authors do note that:

Much of the current debate over American empire concerns normative issues. “Empire” remains a politically charged word, even though a number of advocates of assertive American foreign policy now embrace it...

I see the article as attempting to provide - as effectively and rigorously as possible - a high-brow academic impimatur on such conceptualizations, while at the same time shifting some of the paradigmatic debates in the narrow subfield on international security more toward this "imperial properties" project.

A main point I would raise off the bat is that no matter how elegantly the authors marshall the conceptual apparatus of core-periphery scholarship (based itself in the academic pedigree of neo-Marxist scholarship), the article fails what might be called the "anti-jargon test" of common sense applicability. In other words, it remains incredibly difficult - outside of the narrow set of scholars working on the problems of this research set - to convincingly posit that the United States indeed consitutes an empire.

Not only that, the authors suggest as an implication of their research - starting with an asserted robust applicability of their finding of America as empire - that the Unites States' current difficulties in peripheral conflicts (the Iraq war) herald an ultimate weakening of American power, a situation which further holds great potential for the collapse of America's current unipolar position of international leadership.

Well, note first that the notion of America-as-empire is mostly accepted in elite university faculty lounges and among the rabble of the American street espousing the most vile hard-left anti-Americanism. The great bulk of Americans recognize the United States as the world's unmistakable guarantor of economic and military security, and folks like this really don't cotton to the "imperial" label.

According to Victor Davis Hanson, in his essay, "A Funny Sort of Empire," unlike other great imperial powers of the past - like Rome or Britain - the U.S. has rejected the trappings of imperial grandeur. Here's Hanson example from the mid-20th century:

America went to war late and reluctantly in World Wars I and II, and never finished the job in either Korea or Vietnam. We were likely to sigh in relief when we were kicked out of the Philippines, and really have no desire to return. Should the Greeks tell us to leave Crete — promises, promises — we would be more likely to count the money saved than the influence lost. Take away all our troops from Germany and polls would show relief, not anger, among Americans. Isolationism, parochialism, and self-absorption are far stronger in the American character than desire for overseas adventurism. Our critics may slur us for "overreaching," but our elites in the military and government worry that they have to coax a reluctant populace, not constrain a blood-drunk rabble.

Read more from the Hanson piece to get a fully flavor on the ultimate folly of labeling American foreign policy as an imperialist project.

Other than that, Nexon and Wright's article evinces a couple of inconsistencies in reasoning the impugn the credibility of the research. For example, I was struck by the "strawman-ish" nature of this assertion:

Scholars operating through the lens of unipolarity and hegemony have tremendous difficulties assessing the implications of, for example, the rise of transnational movements opposed to American interests, changes in contractual relationships between the United States and other polities, and rising anti-Americanism throughout the globe.

I really doubt that's the case, or at least it's certainly not true in my own teaching and scholarship. Indeed, the rise of al Qaeda as a formidable terrorist network is facilitated by this said transnationalism, and to the extent that the U.S. has to fear the rise of a peer competitor such as China, we can thank the tremendous degree of increasingly complex international economic interdependence between the U.S., China, and the rest of the world.

Further, the authors' argument that American efforts to pursue "unite and rule" neo-imperial policies in Iraq have been unsuccesful can only be validated by looking at a particular timeframe of the war and the static disposition of military gains and setbacks.

Yet, as of the summer of 2007, most moderate observers in Congress agree that even the limited degree of military success in the new strategy of increased troops combined with more vigorous clear-and-hold tactics has positioned the United States to contemplate a substantial drawdown of America's position in Iraq early next year, without concomitant destablilizing developments in Iraqi politics and security.

I don't think my criticism here will have much effect of the "imperial logics" research project. I would say, though, that I doubt traditional scholarship of balance-of-power theory is in much danger of being supplanted by this research.

Nor do I think that the present argument will have a great deal of sway outside of academe. As Hanson puts it:

Critiques of the United States based on class, race, nationality, or taste have all failed to explicate, much less stop, the American cultural juggernaut. Forecasts of bankrupting defense expenditures and imperial overstretch are the stuff of the faculty lounge. Neither Freud nor Marx is of much help. And real knowledge of past empires that might allow judicious analogies is beyond the grasp of popular pundits.

Add that all up, and our exasperated critics are left with the same old empty jargon of legions and gunboats.

There is an American order in international politics, and that is an order of great power leadership in a realm of nation states that is bound by increasing multilayered patterns of complex interdependence. Empires have been relegated to the ash heap of history, as well they should. Perhaps, with all due respect, this line of research may meet a similar fate some day as well.

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