Transcript of lecture by Max Boot, Council
on Foreign Relations, on "Does America Need an Empire?"
2003 Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley
12 March 2003
I’m honored to be pinch-hitting for Condy Rice. I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather be here in place of. As Captain Rosenberg mentioned, I’m delighted to be back at my alma mater. It’s been sort of a trip down memory lane this past week, I think I recognize some of the street people; they were here when I was a student here, and haven’t gone away, I’m happy to say. I’m also delighted to see what an active and terrific ROTC chapter Berkeley has. On first blush this would seem rather unlikely … sort of like finding Charlton Heston at a meeting of Handgun Control Inc. I’m glad that you’re here and doing such a terrific job, and that’s real tribute to Captain Rosenberg and Tom Barnes and all the other people responsible for organizing this program and putting on this terrific lecture series, which has gone on for 19 years and that I’m honored to be a part of.
Read the Berkeleyan article reporting on Boot's lecture
It’s especially appropriate that I’m here today in Berkeley discussing foreign policy, because of course Berkeley is the only city in America with its own foreign policy. I feel safe in Berkeley because it is a nuclear-free zone. That makes me feel very safe, although I’d feel safer if it were also a terrorism-free zone, but you can’t have everything.
I wrote what I thought were some terrific remarks for you -- terrific, witty, pithy and to the point remarks, but they almost didn’t make it here. I had the speech in my hotel room, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I was looking all over the place. Finally I found it in a trash can in the lobby. I guess Tom Bates must not have liked what I had to say.
The subject of my speech today is foreign affairs, and specifically America’s place in the world. That naturally brings up talk of the war we are about to embark on. I think so far things have been going pretty well. Preparations have been proceeding as smoothly as you could expect. Our troops are massing on the border. We’re getting support from important allies like Britain, Spain, and Italy. I’m fairly confident that within a few weeks’ time the enemy’s capital will be occupied. I know there are concerns about what happens after the capital falls, about the occupation, but for my part I’m not too worried about it: I think occupying Paris will be a very pleasant assignment. But I want to assure everyone in this room, and to set the record straight: just because we’re going to war with France, doesn’t mean that we are doing it for ignoble reasons. This is not a war about cheese. I say to you “No blood for cheese!” and I mean it.
The notion that the war we are undertaking is a war for oil is only slightly more silly than we might fight a war for cheese. In the present case, if all we wanted was oil, Saddam Hussein would sell us all we wanted. The only thing preventing more oil sales have been American-enforced sanctions, which Saddam Hussein and the big oil companies would dearly love to see lifted. The U.S. government refuses to lift those sanctions because Saddam Hussein has been building weapons of mass destruction in violation of 17 U.N. resolutions. This suggests that our primary concern has been the threat he poses, not the oil he possesses.
I hate to disappoint all the conspiracy-mongers out there, but I think we are going into Iraq for precisely the reasons stated by President Bush: to destroy weapons of mass destruction, to bring down an evil dictator with links to terrorism, and to enforce international law. In other words, what America is doing now is playing global policeman, and that is the subject of my talk today. Because the notion of America playing Globo-Cop stirs up a lot of opposition on both the left and the right, at home and abroad. Why, people ask, should America take on this thankless task of policing the world? It’s a very good question: I hope to provide a brief answer here tonight.
To answer the question of why America should be the world’s policeman, start by asking yourself: Does the world need a police force? To my mind, that’s like asking whether San Francisco or New York needs a police force. I think we’d all agree that yes they do need a police force, for the very simple reason that as long as evil exits, you have to have somebody who will protect peaceful people from predators. The international system is no different in this regard from your own neighborhood, except that the predators abroad are far more dangerous than ordinary robbers, rapists, and murderers. They are, if given half a chance, mass robbers, mass rapists, and mass murderers.
There are, to be sure, many international laws on the books prohibiting genocide, land mines, biological weapons, and all sorts of other nasty things. But without enforcement mechanisms they are as meaningless as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy exactly 11 years before the Wehrmacht marched into Poland. The hope of idealistic liberals for more than a century has been that some international organization would arise that would punish the wicked and protect the innocent. But the League of Nations was a dismal failure, and the U.N., as we are seeing recently, is not much better. It is hard to take seriously a body whose human rights commission is chaired by Libya, and up until a few weeks ago Iraq was going to be in charge of the disarmament commission. This sounds like a Monty Python skit, not what a serious world body should be about.
The U.N. provides a useful forum for palaver, but as an effective police force, it is a joke, as shown by its failure to stop bloodlettings in Bosnia, Rwanda, and many other places. Actually, I shouldn’t make light of it, because it’s worse than a joke. In Bosnia, the U.N. sent peacekeepers into Srebenicia, which it assured Muslim Bosnians was a safe haven. Then the blue helmets stood by as Serbs slaughtered 8,000 people in this supposed safe haven. In Bosnia the U.N. was far worse than a joke: it was an enabler of genocide. That’s the obvious reason we can have no faith that the U.N. is actually going to police the world and stop mass murderers like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
The best multilateral alternative is probably NATO. Unlike the U.N., NATO has the advantage of being composed exclusively of democracies that share a common heritage and presumably common interests, although the French in particular seem to have forgotten this for the time being. But even before the current controversy over Iraq, it was already obvious that the NATO alliance was too large and unwieldy to take effective military action. As Kosovo showed, targeting by committee does not work very well. And there is no sign, given French opposition to anything America does, that NATO will become any more effective any time in the foreseeable future.
The European Union is perhaps the only other serious multilateral alternative, and it’s even less potent than NATO, since it can neither field an effective military force, nor agree on a common foreign policy. We hear a lot about transatlantic disagreements these days, but the most bitter feuds are now within Europe, among different European nations. Eighteen nations of Europe have signed letters essentially backing the US and our Iraq policy, while France, Belgium, and Germany completely dissent. Europe is completely divided, and even if it weren’t, it would not have the military force required to deal with any kind of threats like North Korea and Iraq. They just don’t have the mans to take action anywhere outside their own borders; they are completely reliant upon American military protection.
So the question I have tonight is: who does that leave to be the world’s policeman, if you agree, as I do, that the world needs one. Who has to play that role. Is it going to be Belgium? Bolivia? Burkina Faso? Bangladesh? Our friends in Paris? I think the answer is pretty obvious. It’s the country with the most vibrant economy, the most fervent devotion to liberty, and the most powerful military. In the 19th century, Britain battled the enemies of all mankind, such as slave traders and pirates, and kept the world’s seas open to free trade. Today, the only nation capable of playing an equivalent role is the United States of America. We have more power than Britain did at the height of its empire. We have more power than any other nation in history in either relative or absolute terms. Don’t get me wrong: we still need allies. But as Madeleine Albright said, America is the indispensable nation.
With all that power, I firmly believe, comes responsibility. I believe we need to use our awesome power for the good of the world. Not only to roll back aggression and stop the spread of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, but also to stop the most egregious human rights abuses, such as the genocide that took place in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda. As Theodore Roosevelt said: “A nation’s first duties are within its borders, but it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties within the world as a whole. And if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the people that shape the destiny of mankind.
Now I should add that this global policing role that I propose is not entirely a selfless undertaking. In the 1990s, a lot of people fell prey to the illusion that globalization was an inexorable process; that no matter what, the spread of markets and freedom would take place and magically transform the world in America’s image. Tom Friedman of the New York Times even coined his famous McDonalds Theory of conflict prevention, which held that no two states with a McDonalds had ever gone to war. Now that sounded pretty good until 1999, until America and Serbia went to war. And you know what? There was a McDonalds in Serbia.
That suggests that we could no longer rely on “soft power,” in Joe Nye’s phrase, our soft power ranging from McDonalds to Madonna to advance U.S. interests around the world. The notion that we can do so is exactly the same fallacy that much of the world fell prey to before 1914, when there was an assumption that economic interconnectedness was making war obsolete. Clearly, that illusion was shattered in the mud of the Western Front in 1914. I think history shows that there is nothing inexorable about economic progress of the sort that we have all come to take for granted in the past decade and more. Without a benevolent hegemon to guarantee order, the international scene can quickly degenerate into chaos and worse. The 1930s turned out as badly as they did because Britain abdicated its international leadership role and Uncle Sam refused to pick up the mantle. The post-1945 era, by contrast, turned out as well as it did in large measure because America has been willing to underwrite the security of the global economy, which has been much to our benefit and to the benefit of the rest of the world.
Now when I suggest that America play Globo-Cop, skeptics reply that America has an isolationist past, and no desire to play world policeman. The Cold War, many suggest, was an aberration, and since the end of the Cold War America will somehow revert to its traditional isolationist traditions. In fact, if you look at the history, rumors of American isolationism are much exaggerated. Since the earliest days of the republic American traders, missionaries, and solider have penetrated to the farthest corners of the world. America even has a long record of military action abroad. In my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, I document 180 landings of U.S. Marines abroad between 1800 and 1934. Think about that: 180 landings in 134 years, more than one a year. And this at a time when most of us have been conditioned to think of America as isolationist. Far from isolationist, American soldiers, sailors, and marines were landing and fighting in all sorts of places: Sumatra in 1832, or Korea in 1871, Samoa in 1899. If you look at this pattern it does not suggest an isolationist nation. Far from it.
American intervention went up another notch, of course, in 1898. No longer were we landing forces for a few days at a time. Now the U.S. was staying longer in places like the Philippines, Cuba, and Panama, in order to shape the security environment more to our liking. In fact, in 1904 Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine...and I’m sure you will see my weakness for Teddy Roosevelt when I quote his words here. I think the Roosevelt Corollary is an important document. Roosevelt declared that “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence that results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation. And in the western hemisphere, the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.” That’s exactly what I’m talking about tonight.
Now when Roosevelt wrote those words, the western hemisphere was the only place where America exercised military hegemony. In the rest of the world, we relied upon the Royal Navy to defend ‘civilized society.’ Today, however, America exercises almost as much power everywhere around the world as it once had only in the Caribbean. Thus, I think by Roosevelt’s logic, the U.S. is obliged to stop chronic wrongdoing for the simple reason that if we don’t , nobody else will do the job. And that is precisely what we have been doing for the past decade in places like Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and shortly in Iraq.
As part of this mission, I believe we need to undertake the dreaded task known as nation-building...or as I prefer to call it, more accurately, state formation. Winning a military victory in a place like Kosovo or Afghanistan is meaningless unless you have some way of translating short-term battlefield success into long-term political success. The only way to do that is by forming a stable state that is capable of policing the area and preventing a recurrence of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or other human-rights violations. Therefore, it is in our own interest to foster viable states in many lawless corners of the world. This I might add is not a new mission for the U.S. It is something we have done not only in Italy, Germany, and Japan, most spectacularly, but also before that in places like the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. There’s a very long history of the kind of nation-building that we’re now undertaking in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
Another name for what we’re doing, by the way, is liberal imperialism. That’s not a name that is traditionally associated with U.S. policy, but it’s apt to describe our mission in many parts of the world, and it’s not a name that we should necessarily shy away from. It used to be that only leftist critics of America talked of American empire; but I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon occurring in the last few years. American empire has become respectable. It’s been featured on the cover of US News and World Report, the New York Times Magazine, the Weekly Standard, and many other publications. It’s also been endorsed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by such unlikely figures as David Rieff, Michael Ignatieff, and Christopher Hitchens — all well-known writers and intellectuals of the left. They understand that in a world full of murderous tyrants, the only protection that decent people can count on will come from the United States of America. They certainly can’t count on the French: they can’t deal with Ivory Coast, let alone Iraq. The only thing the French army is good for is teaching other armies to surrender properly.
Any talk of American empire and global policing inevitably brings warnings of blowback, the notion that by strongly asserting our power we will turn the rest of the world against us, and bring greater grief to our shores. This argument has some superficial plausibility, as witness, for example, the great resentment occasioned by the presence of American troops in South Korea, as we’ve seen recently. But there’s a funny phenomenon going on which I’d like to comment on, which is that while some countries want the Yankees out, many more want us in. In places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and very shortly Iraq, ordinary people clamor for American intervention, and welcome U.S. troops as liberators. Once more, very often America’s reviled by the international community for not intervening. For instance, we’ve been heavily criticized for not doing more to stop genocide in Rwanda, to bring peace to the Middle East, to unify the Korean peninsula, to stop AIDS in Africa, and on and on and on. It sometimes seems as if we can’t win: We’re attacked either for being too interventionist or too isolationist. In other words, we get blowback for acting, and blowback for not acting.
Overall, however, I think the risks of being weak are much greater than the risks of being strong. The contrast was on vivid display after 9/11. When the World Trace Center and Pentagon were attacked, there was jubilation in many parts of the world. They were literally dancing in the Arab street. By contrast, three months later, when the Taliban fell, the expected uprising in the Arab street did not occur. Our victory in Afghanistan was met with a deathly silence in the Middle East.
What this goes to show, I think, is that the world is impressed by American strength and contemptuous of American weakness. We hoped in the 1990s that by not confronting terrorists and their sponsors we might be able to appease them, to avoid incurring their wrath. But it turned out that there was nothing we could do to appease these fanatics. They hate everything we stand for: sexual, political, and intellectual freedom; democracy; female emancipation; secularism – the whole bundle of things known as modernity. They hate it, because our very existence poses a threat to the worldview of these Islamist extremists. There is nothing we can do to appease them. Instead, by trying we only convince them that we could be attacked with impunity. When it comes to our implacable enemies, we will never be loved. I hope we will at least be feared.
But can America afford to police the world? Many critics argue that we can’t. They fear that an American empire will, like many of its predecessors, fall victim to imperial overstretch. That’s the argument made famous by Paul Kennedy in his 1989 bestseller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. But if you talk to Paul today, even he admits that America is not declining as fast as he thought it would. In fact, during the 1990s the U.S. rose while most of our competitors — Europe, Japan, and Russia — fell by the wayside. Overstretch can be a legitimate worry for any nation, but given our vast resources, we are not anywhere near the redline yet. Our defense budget is larger than that of the next 18 nations combined, but it still consumes less than 3.5 percent of our gross domestic product, down from twice that during the Cold War on a typical level.
This is hardly unsustainable: if anything, I would argue that we’re not spending enough today, given the procurement holiday we took in the 1990s. And underspending on defense is often much more dangerous than overspending. The British Empire presents Exhibit A of what I’m talking about. Why did the British Empire ultimately collapse? As Neil Ferguson argues in his new book Empire, coming out in a month or so, the British Empire collapsed not because of native revolts, which were never that severe. The Empire ultimately collapsed because the British did not spend enough on defense. In its imperial heyday, from 1870 to 1923, London spent only 3.1 percent of GDP on defense. This created a potent navy but a very weak army. Bismarck was asked what he would do if the British army landed in Germany; he famously replied that he would send a constable to arrest them. Because the British did not spend enough to deter German aggression, they became embroiled in two world wars that bled them dry. It was ultimately the cost of winning those two wars, and not the cost of imperial policing, that cost Britain its empire. In retrospect, it would have been cheaper for Britain to spend more on defense if it would have helped to avert two catastrophic conflicts. For that matter, it would have been cheaper for America to spend more on defense in the 1920s and ‘30s if it might have averted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
This is a lesson worth remembering. If we need to spend more on defense to meet all of our obligations today, and I believe that we do, this is a small cost to pay considering the alternatives. And when I say alternatives, let me be clear: What I have in mind is 9/11. During the 1990s we essentially ignored Afghanistan. Who cared what happened in that small landlocked country far away? So said our foreign policy mandarins. The ‘so what’ question was pretty definitively answered on 9/11. The answer lies in the rubble of what was once the World Trade Center. Now I know that living on the West Coast the events of 2001 can seem rather remote. But let me tell you: I used to work in a building across the street from the World Trade Center. I was down there that day: I saw what happened. I saw the walls of soot and ash; I saw the towers fall; and I saw people dying. That is not something I ever want to see again, and what I saw that day was a direct consequence of the fact that we’d allowed Afghanistan to become a breeding ground of terrorism. And I say never again. Never again must we make that same mistake and lose thousands of American lives.
Now it is in our own self-interest as well as in the interest of local people in Afghanistan that we rebuild that country; that we foster democracy there; and that we ensure that it never exports terrorism again. What was true in Afghanistan is equally true of many other states that sponsor terrorism and scheme to acquire weapons of mass destruction. North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, and other states pose a major threat to world peace and to American lives. So do terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda. If we don’t stop the bad guys, who will? If we don’t police the world, who will? The job of policing these distant lands — places full of failed states, criminal states, or simply a state of nature — ultimately falls to us, which means that whether we like it or not, liberal imperialism appears to be in our future. It’s a big task, but as Kipling warned America, “You dare not stoop to less.” Thank you.