Is There an American Empire? A Response to Michael Walzer
January 7, 2004        

"It's not at all clear," Michael Walzer writes in "Is There an American Empire?" (Fall 2003), "that market dominance and the extraction of profits require political domination." If anyone (say, Milton Friedman or the late Robert Nozick) had made this observation to Walzer as part of a general defense of contemporary American capitalism, I suspect Dissent's co-editor would have replied sharply, "Not at present, perhaps." He would then have forcefully reminded his interlocutor of the enormous and indispensable role of violence, intimidation, bribery, and other forms of state or state-sanctioned coercion in the expropriation of the national territory, the creation of a national market, the disenfranchisement of the former slave population, the partial defeat of worker self-organization, and the complete defeat of Populist and Socialist challenges to control of the state by business and financial elites. This pervasive, unremitting coercion, Walzer would have pointed out, largely succeeded in demoralizing, delegitimating, and depriving of financial and other resources most proponents of economic democracy or other un-American schemes in previous generations. As a result, the mass media, the public school system, and the major political parties are now profoundly inhospitable to oppositional ideas and programs, which naturally means that only a small minority ever espouse them, or even get to hear of them. Overt coercion or illegality is no longer necessary – though if a serious threat materialized to such fundamental elite prerogatives as capital strike, capital flight, or investor control of electoral politics, there is little reason to believe that the ruling class would deal with it any more fairly and pacifically than in the past. "If that's what you mean by the absence of political domination," Walzer would have thundered in conclusion, "I'll grant your point." Exit Friedman or Nozick, tail between his legs.

The central argument of "Is There an American Empire?" would seem to merit a similar, though perhaps more nuanced and less thunderous, rejoinder. "The market operates to allow richer states to acquire and use the resources of poorer states," Walzer writes, "not independently of politics but without reliance on political domination." This is misleading. Just as with national politics, the current – apparently settled and legitimate – structure of international economic relations rests on a long and successful history of suppressing opposition through state or state-sanctioned violence or the threat of it.
This is obvious in the case of Central America – though why does Walzer qualify his acknowledgment of that fact with "in an earlier age"? Sending in the Marines is not, after all, the only way to exercise political domination. Fear of the Marines – of US military intervention if reform passes narrow bounds – works equally well, as does fear of an illegal blockade that will cruelly reduce a small, poor country's standard of living still further. An imperial/hegemonic state, like a competent Mafia don, rules by fear and will rarely resort to actual violence. Training and equipping a native officer class that will, under American tutelage, regard movements for political reform as threats to national security and will therefore murder editors, reporters, lawyers, teachers, human rights activists, and union members, sometimes on quite a large scale, is another very effective form of political domination. Diplomatic support or direct bribes for governments that maintain a favorable investment climate – inducements never extended to governments merely because they are zealous in fostering literacy or public health or trade unions or civil rights – is still another. Creating a guerrilla organization to harass a government that evicts an American client regime, demonstrates at least verbal antipathy to economic “liberalization,” and actually shows some promise of improving the population's quality of life – this, too, concentrates the neighbors' minds wonderfully. The result of this very effective menu of interventions – by no means limited to “an earlier age” – has been to pulverize past opposition to American “market dominance” and severely disadvantage present and future opposition, rendering further American intervention unnecessary, at least for the time being. If this is what Walzer means by the absence of political domination, one may grant his point.

Central America is, we can all agree, a special case. Since US influence there has been virtually unopposed from outside the region, it offers a particularly clear illustration of what the US government will do when it can get away with just about anything. What it will do, evidently, is whatever it considers necessary to “acquire and use the resources of poorer states.”

Elsewhere, as Walzer notes, the US government cannot get away with just anything. The costs of intervention in countries larger, richer, more powerful, and more distant than those of Central America will often outweigh the benefits. In such cases, our government will simply do the best it can for its principals. It will continue to train and equip foreign military and security forces – as it has in Chile, Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and the former Soviet Central Asia, for example – preparing them to move against civilian politicians or groups who pose even a potential threat to the vital interests of American companies and/or financial institutions, or to join other American allies and clients in policing regions with vital resources. It will block access to American markets and international lending for governments that balk at allowing foreign control of their banking systems, public utilities, and key industries, or at welcoming dubious but profitable new technologies that may impoverish their agro-ecology and set a large fraction of their agricultural population adrift, or at signing on to intellectual-property or other “investor rights” agreements that will institutionalize the advantages of the richer countries. It will militarize space and spend a large fraction of national resources on capabilities (including an unprecedentedly far-flung and secret network of military bases) that have no conceivable relation to the defense of territorial integrity and independence – the original definition of “national security” – but serve only to intimidate the uncooperative.*

Does all this add up to an empire? Not to the Roman Empire. Not even to the British Empire. But if, as Walzer writes, “an imperial government gets what it wants from the governments it creates, or supports, or patronizes,” what should we call a government that usually gets what it wants from governments it supports, or patronizes, or intimidates, or simply has most vital interests in common with – provided, that is, a nation’s “vital interests” are correctly understood, i.e., not as the welfare of its population but rather as the goals of those elites that control the state?**
Actually, I don’t much care what we call it (though Walzer is right to scold some leftists for calling it anything they please, without regard for what their preferred term has meant in the past or might mean now to whomever they’re talking to). But I would very much like to know which of the above two definitions of “national interest” Michael Walzer thinks is more accurate, applied to American foreign policy today – or at any other time.


*For much more about this, see Chalmers Johnson’s just-published The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan Books).

**As Suzanne Nossel (Summer 2003) points out , though in different language, American global preeminence is declining, and other nations can be expected to assert themselves proportionately. The National Security Strategy document of September 2002 was a response to this development, serving notice that the United States will use military force not only, as in the past, to prevent other nations from withdrawing from the world market, but also to prevent any others from replacing the US as its overseer and chief beneficiary.