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[Editor's Note: The following essay by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Professor of Philosophy and of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was published in Ethics & International Affairs 17(2): 49-62. I thank Prof. Mehta for submitting it to the Political Theory Daily Review.  I would also like to take this opportunity to remind visitors that they are welcome to submit articles or essays to be considered for linking or providing space on our site.]

Empire and Moral Identity
Pratap Bhanu Mehta*

For many critics, simply to call any political arrangement an "empire" is, at the present political conjuncture, to condemn it.1 But on what grounds? Both defenders and critics of empire often focus on the effects of empire on the subject peoples, or on the stability of the international system. Will benevolent imperial tutelage bring tangible benefits such as liberty, democracy, and security to the subject peoples? Will it make the international system more stable and less liable to be held hostage by a few insolent powers or small groups? These questions regarding the external effects of empire are legitimate and constitute the terrain over which the recent debate over the so-called American Empire has been carried out.

But there is an older tradition of thought that is sharply critical of empire that focuses less on its external effects than on the ways in which the building and maintenance of empire can transform the imperial power itself. This tradition focuses in particular on the ways in which empire shapes the moral identity of the imperial power. According to this tradition, empire will predictably transform the moral identity of the imperial nation, implicating it in acts of power that are antithetical to its constitutive values. Its political constitution, for example, is often transformed by changes in the internal balance of power between different branches of government and different sections of society. Executives can strengthen themselves at the expense of legislatures by appealing to "military necessity" to reallocate resources internally, and the effects of empire on the domestic economy can be far-reaching. Moreover, these critics insist, imperial nations can become captive to the project of building and maintaining empire itself. Empires, in whatever circumstances they may arise, and whatever justifications may be offered for them, increasingly come to define national ambitions, purposes, and priorities. An empire is a constitutional usurpation in every sense of the term. This essay examines the ways in which empire can transform the moral identity of the imperial nation. It argues that these transformations profoundly affect the imperial nation's standing in the world: they often diminish the prestige and authority of the nation and its ability to mobilize support based on the power of its own example.


During a recent broadcast, a radio announcer on one of Delhi's FM programs that caters to a teenage middle class, which probably aspires to be more American than anyone else in the world, was aghast that, because of allegedly derogatory remarks the Dixie Chicks had made about George W. Bush, American radio stations were boycotting the group. After reporting this news, the announcer added, "thank god we are not in America." Even for an unabashed admirer of America, this thought seemed oddly revealing and suggestive of the profound changes that America has undergone since September 11,2001. These changes have eroded America's status as the icon of a free society.

The power of the American example, its preeminent standing as a nation of liberty, had often provided a cloak for many of its vices and crimes. Its status allowed people to imagine an America that was greater than the venialities that were sometimes displayed in its foreign policy. But internal developments within America are having a far-reaching impact on perceptions of American identity, and the American example is less often invoked as a model of liberty and more often as an exemplar of might. The rule of law, basic rights, and procedural proprieties were compromised by the prisoners held captive in Guantánamo Bay; the USA Patriot Act appears to actively discourage open and free political criticism; and many immigrants feel under the pall of suspicion. These policies have threatened the luster of American liberty. As always, the effect of these policies is probably exaggerated, and one can argue that these measures were forced upon America by the barbarous gutting of the World Trade Center. But while there is a measure of truth in this claim, it is unlikely that a society geared up for permanent war in the name of its own defense will continue to ensure the liberties it was so justly renowned for.

Although many have commented on these threats to civil liberties in America, few have connected them to recent discourse about the so-called American Empire. Yet in the debate over the legitimacy of the "American Empire" in the outside world, the corrosive impact of the Bush administration's recent foreign policy on America itself is foremost in people's minds. It is a tribute to the power of the American example that many outside America still think of America in the same terms that Americans often think of themselves: as a quintessential innocent nation that is often reluctantly drawn into conflict. Many are therefore inclined to think of empire as, in some senses, un-American, a betrayal of its identity and fundamental values. However dubious one may think the historical link between America and innocence is-a product, perhaps, of politically convenient mythmaking-that self-conception seemed at least to give America grounds to resist its own imperial temptations. And while America has sometimes been accused of hypocrisy, there is a sense in which such accusations have paid unwitting tribute, since they imply that it stands for certain ideals even if it sometimes fails to live up to them. These ideals are the resources of an American moral identity that persists despite sordid realities of power that can plague international politics. Indeed, the idea that empire was un-American, not befitting a New World nation that had transcended the expansive egotism and murderous rivalries that characterized the old world, had a resonant appeal in American politics. The fact that few organized political voices within America condemn the new American Empire as un-American appears to outsiders a true register of America's own changing identity.


According to Dana Villa, the concern that the practice of empire building would subvert the moral identity of a society underlay Socrates' criticism of Athenian imperial democracy. As Villa characterizes Socrates' view, "An imperial democracy cannot stay a democracy for long, since the basis of democratic justice-equal shares for all-demands a self-restraint directly at odds with the energies and ambitions of imperialism."2 In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke vigorously stated similar worries about the corrupting effects of empire on Britain. Empire is a craving for power that can corrupt the citizenry. It alters the balance of the constitution, and it implicates the nation in crimes for which it scarcely takes responsibility. Almost all empires have a profound impact on the internal political processes of a nation. Burke worried that the veneer of empire allowed the most venial of mercantile interests to gain ascendancy over the British constitution, and in a manner that was corrupting. Empire almost always enlarges the powers of the state at the expense of the people. The vast panoply of offices, institutions, and networks of patronage and favor that it occasions leads to concentrations of power that would be disallowed by any robust democratic constitutional scheme. Engaging in the grand project of building and maintaining an empire hides from view the internal infirmities and fissures that any complex society faces, and small plutocracies rather than citizens at large will tend to reap the greatest material benefits of these policies. According to this view, empire enlarges domestic inequalities, and the diversion of energies that it represents can have a profound impact on the domestic arrangements. U.S. senator J. William Fulbright's impassioned exhortation to his fellow citizens in The Arrogance of Power expressed many of the same concerns about what the project of empire building was doing to America, and what this would mean for the rest of the world.

The argument that empire corrupts the identity of a people has obvious appeal. Most peoples have a sense of practical identity, a set of shared values that define who they are; they like to think of themselves as being shaped by moral ideals, not just by the imperatives of power. These values provide authoritative constraints on their behavior. It assumes further that this practical identity is not simply an abstraction but is embodied in these peoples' shared practices and institutions. What empire puts at risk, then, is not some abstract moral value, or even simply the well-being of subject peoples, but rather the constitutive features of a peoples' moral identity.

But why, more precisely, have theorists like Socrates and Burke thought that empire would corrupt moral identity, and especially the moral identity of democratic peoples? The short answer is that empire appears to stand for everything that democracy stands against-namely, the lack of properly authorized political authority. Proper authority in international affairs may be claimed in two ways. Regimes can acquire authority by some claim to possessing the consent of the people over whom power is being exercised as expressed, perhaps, in practices of collective decision-making. Or it could at least have the seal of approval of duly constituted international bodies that formulate the rules of recognition by which states regulate their relations with each other. Thus, instances where there is some kind of appropriate multilateral authorization for armed intervention are not characteristically described as empire. Nor are all illegitimate acts of intervention tantamount to carrying out an imperial project. American intervention in Iraq has many of the hallmarks of an imperial project. This intervention used military means to acquire power in Iraq. Its consequence will be nothing less than the reconstitution of Iraqi society, and even if power is transferred to an Iraqi regime, this regime will operate under constraints set by the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But most of all, the absence of proper multilateral authorization contributed to the sense of illegitimacy of American intervention in Iraq and earned it the designation "imperial."3 Imperial acts seem to be paradigmatic instances of procedural illegality. And since the essence of legitimate political power is authorization, empire seems manifestly illegitimate. Whatever the consequential outcomes of an empire, its illegitimacy remains a ground for rebuke.

The failure to secure political authorization for the use of power is a failing that seems to reveal the character of a nation's moral identity. It reveals the propensity of a nation to set itself up as a judge in its own cause, to have little regard for the "opinions of mankind," and to be neglectful of many of the relevant consequences of its actions. There may be times, of course, when confronted with genocide or serious security threats, that nations may simply have to act on their consciences, and when the complicated negotiations of international society may be found morally wanting. Such interventions, however, are exceptions for which clear and forceful justification must be offered. On most occasions, setting oneself up as a judge in one's own cause is singularly narcissistic or arrogant or both. It suggests an unwillingness to submit to proper authority: a sentiment incompatible with democratic restraint.

By their very nature, empires force peoples to act on a morality that is, in Tagore's resonant phrase, "split down the middle," committed to the very things it disavows. What, for instance, does the claim of empire to bring the "rule of law" mean, when it is itself a violation of law? What does pacification of violence mean when empire is often itself an instrument of violence? It is, as Burke reminded the House of Commons, not much of an argument to say that we are allowed to violate law and morality in some part of the world on the grounds that someone else (the domestic despot) will violate morality in that part of the world anyway. This is to fall prey to what Burke called "geographical morality," which says "one set of rules for us, another for them," and is no more of an argument than suggesting that one is permitted to commit crimes because a certain number will be committed anyway. There is, of course, more than a touch of exaggeration in this argument. No nation will admit to being in, or is entirely in, the grip of geographical morality. There will always be some larger moral cause in whose name local proprieties and the restraint of procedure will be overridden. Indeed, imperial nations often shoulder their burdens with a great sense of pathos. They may admit that the means they deploy are often morally dubious, but they will insist that they have no option but to dirty their hands. To be in thrall to moral and procedural purity is not to act morally, but to abdicate responsibility. It would do little to protect people from the violence being inflicted upon them by regimes immune to all moral argument and sense of decency; it would do little to set them on a path of progress. Violating the rule of law is justified when upholding it would put people at great risk from malfeasors. Besides, the deployment of morally suspect means is only a temporary measure. Once order has been established, these will no longer remain necessary, and the world would have been saved from worse evils.

This line of justification is morally powerful and is part of the self-conception under which imperial powers often operate. These arguments may very well be justified in some circumstances and they should not be rejected out of hand. But it is important to note that this argument is often more self-serving than genuine. Who, it must be asked, is to judge the necessity of the means to these noble ends? Who is to weigh the balance of consequences? Who is to decide that the claims of normal morality need to be immobilized by the imperatives of necessity? An imperial nation may claim to be acting on moral considerations, but if its assessment of these considerations is not widely shared, and it is unwilling to fully subject its actions to the scrutiny of others, its actions will remain imperial nonetheless.

But perhaps more importantly, critics of empire often point to its own double standards. Imperial intervention is often selective. Empires claim to act upon moral considerations in some instances, while refusing the force of those same considerations in other cases. Clearly this argument is often insufficient to indict any empire. It may simply be the case that no power can intervene everywhere or in many places at once; the fact that it cannot bring about change everywhere is not an argument against bringing it about where it can. But the fact that there often appears to be no morally plausible reason why an imperial power intervenes in some instances but not in others suggests that its appeal to moral imperatives may simply be a pretext.

But the recourse to arguments that imperial intervention is necessary can at times be even more insidious. Often imperial powers are architects of the world order; they implicitly or explicitly sanction the behavior of states, encouraging them in some instances, discouraging them in others. They are thus implicated in patterns of state behavior in many parts of the world. Often the very regimes that imperial powers decry as being tyrannical and unjust have received encouragement and material help from them in the past when they served the imperial power's aims and objectives. In short, the imperial powers themselves bear some responsibility for producing the circumstances that now occasion their intervention. That the moral pathos of the present makes empire's complicity in producing the crisis that it must now respond to invisible to its citizens only emphasizes that the imperial nation has lost its sense of moral perspective, partly as a result of its own moral rhetoric. Salman Rushdie once made the point that the British don't know their own history because so much of it happened overseas. The same is often said of America as its overseas involvement expands. Americans often forget that for every nation rescued and made safe for democracy there are many whose democracy has been rendered precarious by the exercise of American power. CIA intervention in Iran and Guatemala, support for the Diem regime in South Vietnam, opposition to Allende in Chile, cooperation with Mobutu in the Congo, abortive intervention in Angola, covert operations in Latin America, and continued material and ideological support for many authoritarian regimes can hardly classify as making the world safe for democracy.4 This record sits ill with the justifications and ambitions of empire. Empire produces a kind of self-delusion, rendering the operations of national power less and less visible to its inhabitants. Indeed, this explains why citizens of imperial nations have seldom felt complicit in or responsible for the actions of their governments overseas. The reality of empire is this: the means adopted to secure it, and the methods used to govern it, will always be different from ones the imperial nation would condone within its boundaries, and it will reveal the imperial nation to be a different kind of moral agent than the one it claims to be.


The nature of modern war in particular makes it likely that whatever benefits empire may bring will irrevocably be compromised by the means employed to further them. Empire and war are closely allied; no empire has been created or sustained without war. Modern wars, even when conducted with the utmost restraint, impose heavy costs on victims. Even wars of humanitarian intervention rely on causing panics among civilian populations, and the costs of innocent lives usually remains unaccounted for. just as in domestic law it would be unjust to inflict serious costs of detention, loss, and injury, or the death of innocents in order to "enforce" the law, it is very odd to describe armed intervention that accompanies empire as a kind of benevolent regime. It may be that in cases where not intervening has "dire" consequences, the risks to innocents are morally permissible. But the bar for such interventions has to be set extraordinarily high, and widespread support for intervention is needed to give some assurance that this high standard has been met. War will always remain the antithesis of morality and justice, even though some wars might be deemed, in extreme circumstances, necessary. Most imperial nations rightly suggest that there is an important distinction between intentional killing of civilians and casualties that are an unintended consequence of war. The conduct of war is governed by norms about the proportionality of force. But the fact is that no nation going to war has ever subjected itself to a tribunal of any sort that can adjudge where the line between intentional killing and unintended consequences has been crossed, where the bounds of proportionality have been overstepped. Again, these are legitimate moral norms, but the fact that empires so often invoke them, without permitting any independent scrutiny of whether they have been complied with, risks emptying them of content. In a world where the lives of combatants of imperial nations are valued more than the lives of civilians in countries that are the targets of intervention, suspicions about the moral justifiability of intervention are bound to arise. The very means by which empire secures itself makes people complicit in evil; it compromises their identities as moral beings.

Finally, an eighteenth-century worry about empire seems curiously apt at this moment. This is a worry about the inherently expansionist logic of empire. Power, as Hobbes taught us, weighs pitilessly upon those caught in its snares. As Senator Fulbright put it, it is easy to "confuse great power with unlimited power and great responsibility with total responsibility."5 Even a nation not tempted by dreams of world domination is tempted to expand its influence, and in the process of doing so there is what Raymond Aron called "the growing tendency to substitute symbol for reality in the discrimination of interests and issues." A power that is looking to extend its influence is often apt to give local conflicts global significance. It gives in to the thought that any shifts in the power dynamics anywhere in the world have implications for the security and credibility of empire. Empire also requires the imperial nation to assert its power periodically as a reminder to the rest of the world of its resolve to remain preeminent. This syndrome can make empire a permanent issue for the imperial nation. No type of regime is proof against temptations of empire, and all regimes are liable to be corroded by it.

The worries that these critics have expressed about the practice of empire do not provide a decisive argument against an intervention of the kind exemplified in Iraq. It may be that sometimes nations have to put something of themselves at risk for a higher cause. But the extraordinary capacity of empire to corrupt the self-identity of a people reminds us of the kinds of moral considerations at stake, considerations too often ignored in the blasé discussions that surround empire.


No empire can be sustained by dint of sheer power alone. Empire requires legitimation, both internally and externally. No wonder Hobson remarked, "Is it surprising that the selfish forces which direct Imperialism should utilise the protective colours of these disinterested movements?"7 Empires need internal legitimation, since the project of building and sustaining an empire must be connected in convincing ways to a nation's identity. But imperial ideologies also seek to justify and legitimize imperial rule to those over whom they exercise dominion, since third parties often have reason to challenge their legitimacy. An imperial state is, by definition, characterized by a worldwide purpose. A globally paramount power is often charged with maintaining a modicum of international order and the establishment of an international environment that is consonant with the imperial state's idea or purpose. It does this in two ways: either by acting as an exemplar-setting standards that other nations emulate-or by soliciting the active cooperation and loyalty of other states.

It is a truism, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, that no nation can hope to gain allies, secure the active loyalty of other nations, elicit cooperation from them, and make them participants in the establishment of world order simply on the grounds that it is in the imperial nation's national interest. While the rhetoric of "national interest" is compelling to inhabitants of the imperial state, it gives no reason for others to go along with it. The doctrine of national interest doesn't appeal to shared values to secure compliance, but to incentives. Such compliance is usually opportunistic or sullen, and often both. It is not surprising, then, that empires tend to present their conduct as philanthropic in order to enhance its perceived legitimacy. The delicate trick in any imperial intervention is to present this philanthropic mission-saving the world, perhaps, or making it safe for democracy-as the most enlightened expression and interpretation of the "true" national interest. An imperial power must thus connect its national interest to its philanthropic aims in a convincing way. And its philanthropic aims must represent an idea of international order that other nations can go along with. As Raymond Aron once perceptively put it, "in the twentieth century the strength of a great power is diminished if it ceases to serve an idea."8

The ability of any imperial power to serve an idea depends upon whether the imperial nation can itself exemplify the ideals it professes. If the imperial power claims as its mandate the pacification of violence, it will be more credible if it is not itself associated with indiscriminate violence. If it claims to carry the mantle of democracy, it will be judged by the nature of its relations with various regimes around the world. If it claims to be a beacon of freedom, it will be judged by how it practices its liberties. If it claims to stand for the truth, its own credibility will be an asset, and if it claims to stand for international order, its willingness to cooperate fairly with other nations will make its idea of order more palatable. An imperial nation might harbor the illusion that its power alone will allow it to get its way in the international system, and often this is true enough. But an order so created is likely to be more fragile than one sustained by more enthusiastic ideological compliance. The problem is that the exercise of imperial power not only compromises the imperial nation's relation to its domestic political morality, but also diminishes its claim to a special form of legitimacy vis-a-vis other nations due to its promotion of universal values or global interests. Empires depend normatively on the claim to be the best of nations, and yet the exercise of imperial power erodes the basis of that claim, both in actual practice and in the eyes of the world.


In the course of establishing their ideological credibility, empires have to negotiate the delicate line between exercising authority on the one hand and articulating a rule of difference on the other. On the one side there is the claim that the imperial nation deserves to be in a position of authority. Its virtues and capabilities, its historical achievements and its future agenda, make it uniquely capable of exercising dominion. The disinterested agency of the imperial nation will be the means through which good things will flow: democracy, peace, progress, civilization, knowledge, and much else. On the other side this assertion of superiority and moral privilege runs the risk of alienating both those over whom power is being exercised and those outside the imperial domain. Empires represent others as lacking just those moral and political qualities that give the imperial nation its special status and authority. Empire creates a sense of otherness that often marks cultural relations, even to this day. The implicit or explicit hierarchy of cultures on which the authority of empire often rests produces a politics of resentment. Even when the subject nations accept the benefits of empire, the sense that they are creations of the exercise of some other nation's power, rather than self-made in some significant sense, marks the sense of self of many postcolonial nations. This is often the source of resentment against the West, and many people view America as representing a more successful continuation of Western imperial design.

Traditional empires of the nineteenth century appeared permanently schizophrenic. On the one hand they wished for the rest of the world to emulate them. On the other hand they asserted simultaneously that the colonies were incapable of such emulation, hence the need for almost permanent tutelage. The dependence of the imperial state on its subjects leads it to indefinite extensions of its temporary rule, and leads it to impose more and more implausible "requirements" for self-rule upon them. Britain, for instance, justified its rule on the grounds that it brought civilization, progress, the rule of law, and modern institutions to the natives; at the same time, the continuance of empire was premised upon the thought that the natives were as yet incapable of civilization, progress, and modern institutions. The tensions inherent in these underlying assumptions constituted the ideological setting in which the politics of colonialism and the nationalist responses to colonialism unfolded.

American policy since 1945 has all the hallmarks of an imperial power: an ambition to recast the international order in light of its own interests and values, a propensity to exercise regularly military power and covert operations in almost all parts of the world, and a willingness to put peoples and regimes under its tutelage. But it is an extraordinary fact that the label of "empire" was never quite as easy to pin on America as it had been on previous preeminent powers. In part this was due to the fact that a racial rule of difference that had characterized most empires, that permanently set up a gulf between colonizer and colonized, was harder to attribute to American conduct. But more importantly, this was a function of American self-perception: it consciously thought of itself as a republic that did not aspire to the glory of domination. "Empire" was un-American in every sense of the term.

But externally there was an attempt to encase American actions in the logic of the ideas America sought to project. Before the two world wars, with the exception of the annexation of the Philippines, it attempted to justify its foreign adventures on the grounds that the imperial behavior of other powers imperiled the stability in the American zone of influence, its part of the hemisphere. It was drawn into two world wars reluctantly. It retreated into a relative isolationism after the First World War, and after the second World War it undertook the enormous task of reordering Europe and Japan. America's military presence, financial assistance and interpositions on behalf of democracy provided the conditions for their future peace and prosperity. The peculiar horrors of World War II made Europe and Japan more than willing partners in this enterprise and made American tutelage seem less than imperialistic.

During the Cold War, the doctrine of containment led to promiscuous American intervention around the world to uphold regimes, institutions and values favorable to the ideological leanings of the United States, at least in the minimal sense of being anticommunist. These interventions often took place against the aspirations of the people who inhabited these territories. These peoples often bore the horrendous costs of the interventions. America could, nevertheless, justify these interventions as necessary to stopping the expansionary designs of the Soviet Union. Indeed, during the Cold War the containment doctrine allowed America to violate American beliefs while claiming to defend them. For all its horrific excesses, the conduct of war during the heyday of the Cold War at least had a plausible and principled justification. For many outside America, claims that America was defending freedom may not have been more than an ideological veneer, but at least it had some plausible connection to the story America told itself about its place in history and its mission in the world. Even the sordid compromises with dictators and illiberal regimes could be placed in terms of this larger narrative. It is not an accident that countries that suffered the worst at American hands-Vietnam and the dozens of other dictatorships in Africa and Latin America sustained by American power--could in some ways meaningfully cling to the distinction between America and American foreign policy. They could, in some ways, forgive American actions as the artifact of international geopolitics while clinging to the power of the American ideals themselves. A critique of American power, and an allure of America itself, were not incompatible dispositions.

America's post-Cold War interventions--the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan--also had a plausible basis and connection to its identity. And they managed to appeal to some values that could be the basis for others assenting to them. In each case, there was a plausible reason for military action, turning back Saddam Hussein's attack on Kuwait, preventing ethnic cleansing, or the dismantling of a horrendous regime that had harbored those who attacked America directly. And in at least two of the three cases, America convinced the world that it was not being a judge in its own cause; it honored its own democratic ideals by winning world public opinion on its side. Some may doubt whether support for America was genuine or was coerced by the fear of American power; some may plausibly insist that these interventions were unjustified. But at least the cause was plausible and not entirely incompatible with American ideals. And public opinion came around.


The background sketched in the previous section needs to be borne in mind in interpreting reactions to America's conduct at the current conjuncture, especially in places like India. How are recent American actions and policy statements being interpreted and understood? Is there a sense that a guiding idea redeems the newfound willingness to project American power abroad? The gravitational pull of any great power is always immense and countries like India are falling over backward to ingratiate themselves with America and accommodate its interests. But what is this ingratiation in aid of? What is the "idea" that America represents? The difficulty many observers of America across the world are having is this: the "philanthropic" cloak, in which all empires seem to don themselves, seems to be carrying very little imprimatur of conviction. It is easy to underestimate the effect that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has had upon the credibility of American claims to be acting in the service of noble ideas. Moreover, the perceived lack of commitment to rebuilding Iraq has led many to reject the idea that this war was motivated by the goal of promoting democracy. In addition, the lack of credible evidence linking Iraq with the al-Qaeda network has made it difficult to view this war in terms of security interests, or as a necessary part of the "war" against terrorism. The absence of a clear justification, of the high-minded purpose commensurate with a great cause, of the missionary zeal that betokens an allegiance to an idea, make the intervention in Iraq seem no more than an exercise in power politics, a superior power exercising its power and writ as it pleases, pure and simple.

As a result, a view that had formerly prevailed only among those who were deeply skeptical of U.S. policies--that is, that America is a friend of democracy only when it serves the interests of its power and that it is more committed to getting rid of hostile regimes than it is to creating genuinely stable ones--has become more widespread. Instead of creating a new global architecture based on a partnership with nations, America is seen as consistently resorting to unilateralism. Its financial and economic commitment toward creating the basis for a lasting peace and justice in the global order appear more and more questionable, and the purported reasons for its interventions, such as the existence of security threats, seem mere pretexts for the extension of its power. That America wants to establish and maintain an international environment consonant with its purposes is clear, but what those purposes are is increasingly obscure. The Bush administration seems committed to an expansive global agenda, yet enlists the support of the American people by playing on the fears that the attacks of September 11, 2001, have induced. As Fulbright presciently noted, "it is a curiosity of human nature that lack of self-assurance seems to breed an exaggerated sense of power and mission. When a nation is powerful, but lacking in self-assurance, it is likely to behave in a manner dangerous to itself and others."9 It is widely perceived that Americans have, since September 11, been trying to compensate for their vulnerability by trying to reassert the myth of American invincibility.

The events of September 11 revealed, in the wellsprings of sympathy they produced, the hitherto iconic status that America had enjoyed. America subsequently drew almost unanimous support from the international community for its war against terrorism, and there was immense hope that America would lead a new world order committed to the pacification of the kinds of violence that victimize innocent civilians and destabilize democratic regimes. It is probably not an exaggeration to claim that after the American intervention in Iraq, that reservoir of broad public support, which great powers require for their actions to be seen as legitimate, has been greatly diminished. Many of those who are inclined to give America great leeway in the use of force think America's use of war as a tactic is more punitive than prudent. The conduct of war, in Afghanistan or Iraq, was successful in getting rid of odious regimes. But the flimsiness of the pretexts on which the Iraq war was waged, the apparent lack of commitment to rebuilding it afterward, the civilian casualties incurred in the process, and the impunity with which the "opinions of mankind" were disregarded, have suggested to many that America is less a power driven by a clear ideological vision capable of eliciting wide assent than a regime driven by faith in its own might. There is a fear that America has lent credence to the very anti-Americanism that made it such an object of sympathy after September 11. American conduct has lent ammunition to those who view American power as a provocation. In the long run, this will only strengthen forces, both governmental and nongovernmental, that would like to hold the international system hostage to exercises of power.


In India, America still enjoys great prestige, and interdependencies between the two nations will most likely ensure that this will remain so. Many countries will be drawn to America for their own parochial reasons, and the countries of South Asia are no exception. India and Pakistan are strategically competing with one another to seek American intervention in terms that are perceived to be favorable to them. But all parties courting or resisting America are operating under the assumption that there are no ideological restrictions on this game, no moral lines, no shared values that need to be adhered to; the only constraints are the imperatives of power.

Among America's most strident recent admirers, however, are many who are deserving of great suspicion. Many, like the Hindu nationalists currently in power in India, see in recent American conduct an unprecedented opportunity--that under the pretext of a war on terrorism, military brinkmanship of the riskiest sort can be justified. Many admire the single-mindedness with which the Bush administration has pursued its objectives, and wish India would follow suit. What restrains India is not solicitude for some norms of international order, norms whose authority lies in disarray after the American conduct, but the very stringent practical limits on what India actually can do.

A great nation that is regarded merely as a source of patronage, rather than an embodiment of admired values, has surrendered a major source of both power and legitimacy. When both supporters and detractors of a country are indifferent to its ostensible principles, the supporters will be only as reliable as the rewards they are provided for their support, and the detractors will easily set themselves up as morally superior to a power viewed as opportunistic and self-serving. In the affairs of nations, as in domestic politics, legitimacy is a potent force, and its absence subtly but surely weakens any power. A great democracy can commit great crimes because of an error of judgment; it may even make inexcusable mistakes and it may even flaunt its own power. But the idea that an open political society should sleepwalk its way into so momentous an undertaking may, in the long run, be the most distressing thing many in India remember about the Iraq episode.

For many, the lack of democratic contention that seemed to characterize American politics in the lead-up to the war in Iraq revealed something about the way identities of nations are transformed by war and empire. It is in the nature of empire to transform the character of patriotism. By its peculiar alchemy, empire produces an identification of patriotism with power. What is the psychological attitude that sustains empire? It is simply the claim that a nation has a status and moral standing that cannot be questioned, that its superiority to everyone is self-evident. That is what entitles a nation to be an empire. To question the legitimacy of its power is just to question its superior standing. The ability of societies and nations to take moral criticism seriously diminishes in proportion to two sentiments: fear and arrogance. Empire produces a peculiar combination of both. It paradoxically expands the sense of vulnerability. The more expansive a nation's power the more it feels uniquely targeted. Indeed, in the argument with Europe this refrain was most evident. Europe and America were talking two different languages because America kept insisting that it is the object of threats in a way Europe is not; it is more likely to be a target than Europe. In some objective sense, this is obviously true. America is more likely to be the object of the rest of the world's resentment, because it is more deeply implicated in politics around the world, and it is a potent symbol of freedom that many genuinely despise.

There is some truth in America's claim that some forms of anti-Americanism are sui generis. It is difficult to believe that the forms of anti-Americanism we witness are entirely a direct consequence of the misapplication and presumptuousness of American power. If that were the case we would have seen more virulent forms of it emerging in regions of the world that have directly borne the brunt of American power. Vietnam suffered devastation on an unprecedented scale; the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, and it suffered a humiliating defeat in World War II; Sudan was hit with cruise missiles; and regions of Latin America have consistently borne the brunt of American intervention. Yet these are not the places where one is likely to find ideologically potent anti-Americanism. Even in the Middle East, the Palestinians, who have much to complain about, are by and large willing to talk to Americans. While many in the Middle East have used the Palestinian issue, the Palestinians themselves seem to have been less stridently anti-American than many who claim to fight battles on their behalf.

The point is not that America is not genuinely a target and may need to defend itself. The point is that the reach of American power will contribute to its sense of fragility, a sense that it is embattled everywhere. The identification of patriotism and power arises out of this sense of fragility, and questioning the application of American power will become ever more easily interpreted as giving aid and succor to its enemies and encouraging its friends in the wrong way. It is interesting that three of the most important democracies in the world, the United States, Israel, and India, are experiencing the same phenomenon under the assaults of terrorism. Belligerent nationalism has become increasingly legitimate, the suspension of liberty is seen as inevitable, and military brinkmanship is seen as the means of resolving security dilemmas. Part of their reactions is a genuine response to the fear of terrorism, but somewhere both India and Israel have been emboldened by the American turn toward the exercise of power.

Most Americans, by instinct and conviction, would loathe being enlisted in imperialistic projects. Their enlistment is premised upon arguments that appeal to their sense of innocence and well-being, not upon the appeal of a grand cause. This is why, politically, the argument that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction had more resonance and was crucial to the administration's case for war. That this argument was so easily sold to the American people shows how self-fulfilling the logic of an empire is. Whether the Bush administration lied about the extent of the threat Saddam Hussein posed or whether it simply made a genuine mistake, the fact that the American people proved so easily susceptible to this argument reveals the real dangers of empire. It strengthens the suggestion that for empires causes are but pretexts that sustain their expansionary logic.

American prestige is diminished because the very basis on which it acquired authority-its own commitment to freedom and a vibrant democracy, at least to its citizens-seems oddly compromised in the conduct of this war. We know from history that undertaking war can be a symptom of fear as much as it can be a symptom of strength. And we also know that wars undertaken, when they have no clear relation either to a nation's interests or its ideals, can corrode the internal life of nations, or at least reveal their weaknesses. The real price of Iraq may not be only the human costs or the shifts in geopolitics it brings about. It may be the ominous things it reveals about American democracy itself, how its prestige stands diminished. It also points to the fact that America now draws such allegiances as it does because of its power, not its ideals, because of alliances of opportunity, not shared values. This will considerably diminish America's capacity to create and use its power in the service of order and justice in world affairs. That American power is so overwhelming might disguise this fact for the time being. As Adlai Stevenson once memorably said, "it is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them."

America's greatest service to the world has been the occasional power of her own example. Its capacity to reinvigorate itself and develop a moral identity that can draw on its traditions, an identity that restores it to internal health on the one hand, and a capacity to carry moral weight with the rest of the world on the other, will determine whether its power will endure and produce a just international order.

1 Although it is a measure of a transformation in the terms of debate that many commentators openly profess the virtues of empire. see, e.g., Niall Ferguson, The Cash Nexus (New York: Basic Books, 2000), ch. 14.

2 Dana Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 34.

3 What constitutes proper multilateral authorization is a tricky question for many reasons. This is partly because international law on this matter is unsettled. It is also the case that nations intervening typically claim some form of authorization. In the case of Iraq, the United States appealed to Resolution 1441 and earlier security Council resolutions. It tried to make the case that the international community was not living up to its own resolutions. Whether or not this claim is tenable would require a separate paper. The crucial point is that a form of intervention that is widely accepted by the international community, not just by members of a particular alliance, is less likely to be described as an imperial intervention.

4 John Lewis Gaddis, "Order vs. Justice: An American Foreign Policy Dilemma," in Rosemary Foot, John Lewis Gaddis, and Andrew Hurrell, eds., Order and Justice in International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 161.

5 J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 31.

6 Raymond Aron, The Imperial Republic (Delhi: Prentice Hall International, 1974), p. 309.

7 John A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, 3d ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1988), p. 196; also available at www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/Hobson/hbsnImp11.html.

8 Aron, The Imperial Republic, p. 304.

9 Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power, p. 32.

* I would like to thank Jedediah Purdy for his invitation to think about this subject and the enormous intellectual stimulation he has given me over the years on this topic, and Christian Barry for his extraordinary editing and incisive questions, which made this piece less reckless than it originally was. The responsibility for its content remains mine alone.