Richard Reeves

My Empire, 'Tis of Thee

LOS ANGELES -- The Imperial Presidency panel at last weekend's Los Angeles Times Book Fair never really came to a conclusion about whether the job now held by George W. Bush inherently gives a president, any president, the kind of unilateral power emperors once had before the appearance of such modifiers as elections, parliaments and the press.

"There is no imperial presidency in ordinary times," said Ben Barber of Rutgers University, the author of "Jihad vs. McWorld." "The office becomes imperial only in wartime."

There did, however, seem to be some consensus that war or no war, the United States has become an empire.

"The most powerful in the history of the world," I argued, "able to tell (or force) most every other country in the world how to run their elections and economies." Financially, militarily, politically and culturally, we've got it all.

Whatever your views of the reach of American powers (including aircraft carriers, the dollar and "Baywatch"), we are now sending troops all over the world, as the Romans once sent their legions all over Europe and North Africa. One of the ironies of the unofficially (or imperially) declared war on terrorism is that NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which basically oversaw the old Roman Empire for the past 55 years or so, is now just another unit of the American military machine, which is now busily moving into Latin America, Asia and the far Pacific.

That particular debate over the extent and kind of American imperialism also reached the pages of The Weekly Standard, the conservative voice of Washington. The Standard's take, in the headline over an article by Kimberly Kagan, who teaches history at U.S. Military Academy, read: "Hegemony, Not Empire: How the Pax Americana Differs From the Pax Romana."

"Some American thinkers," writes Kagan, "compare the United States admiringly to ancient Rome, forger and protector of the rule of law, peace and prosperity. Some of them say America is already such an empire, while others urge it to become one. But, in fact, the United States is not an empire at all, and the analogy to Rome is deceptive and misleading."

Kagan prefers to use the word "hegemony" -- from the Greek "hegemon," meaning leader -- arguing that the United States does not actually administer foreign entities or station troops permanently within foreign boundaries to guarantee peace and diminish any threat to our own interests.

"Hegemony is more complicated than empire," Kagan continues. "Rome's allies followed its policies without question for fear of being crushed. America's hegemonic role is much more difficult. The United States does not attack all its potential enemies. ... The pax Americana is the peace established by a leader of free peoples, not the control of an empire of subjects. We should embrace our hegemony in all of its complexity and difficulty, precisely because it rests on the principles of democracy and sovereignty rather than those of autocracy and subjugation. ... We must engage in military activities around the world to secure American interests, but we must also recognize the limits of American ambition and the unique position in world history that America now occupies."

Well, you pays your taxes and you makes your choice. Much of what Kagan writes seems to me a distinction without a difference. For instance, she says that the Romans imposed their language, values and architecture on conquered lands to enhance state control, but today foreigners choose English and blue jeans because they want to "emulate and participate in our extraordinary economic and political success."

Whichever side you take, this is the real argument of the day. How will we choose to use our power in this period in which it seems unmatched?

I remember that the first time I met George W. Bush, he had trouble remembering the names of people and organizations he had worked with as governor of Texas. He won over a slightly shaken crowd of supporters then by smiling and saying, "Well, you have to remember, I'm a big-picture guy."

Let's hope so. The big picture today is filling in the blanks and definitions of the American Empire.

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