The Price Of Empire: Immigration (And Other Nasty Stuff)

It only took the Washington Post a

few decades
, but by late last month it had finally
caught on to a trend in conservative thought—that some
people regard the United States and its relationship
to the rest of the world today as an imperial one. "In
recent years," the Post

reported breathlessly
, " a handful of conservative
defense intellectuals have begun to argue that the
United States is indeed acting in an imperialist
fashion—and that it should embrace the role." (Empire
or Not? A Quiet Debate Over U.S. Role, Washington
, August 21, 2001)

The main such "conservative defense intellectual" is
one Thomas Donnelly, a director of the Project for the
New American Century, which espouses a foreign policy
line that is—well—imperialist. Mr. Donnelly, according
to the Post account, believes U.S. military commitments
abroad today are so firm and so entrenched—about 20,000
troops in the Persian Gulf area alone, not to mention
others in the Balkans and elsewhere—that the United
States effectively has become a "great power" able to
impose its will on other powers.

It`s important that we think of ourselves as an
empire, Mr. Donnelly argues, because "we`d better
understand the full range of tasks we want our military
to do, from the Balkans-like constabulary missions to
the no-fly zones to maintaining enough big-war capacity"
to deter a major adversary from emerging.

Some on the right agree and some don`t, but even
though it may be news to the Post, the idea that the
United States is an empire is not at all new. In the
1940s, anti-communist strategist

James Burnham
argued that the United States should
take over the international role of the fading British
Empire as a bulwark against the Soviets and their
allies. Whether Burnham would have supported a post-Cold
War imperialism is

another question
, but lots of conservatives—at least


Then again, lots of conservatives—paleo-conservatives—haven`t.
Some, drawing on the isolationists of the 1930s, dislike
and oppose virtually any foreign commitment. Others
favor an international role and international power for
the United States but oppose both the globalism that
threatens to swallow national sovereignty and the
imperialism that locks the nation into endless war.

But the discussion of an American empire among those
who most often discuss it seems studiously to avoid
dealing with the central issues that should be at the
heart of the debate: Why should the United States be or
become an empire, and what will being one mean for our
internal character? In the age of the Cold War, when the
free world was faced with concerted aggression and
subversion from the Soviets and their allies, and the
only power able to resist them was the United States,
empire made a good deal of sense. Global commitments at
least contained the Soviets (sometimes) and may
ultimately have helped strangle their own empire in the

But since the Soviet collapse, power has dropped into
the American lap without much thought or effort. There
is no apparent enemy today, and policies to prevent one
from emerging won`t work indefinitely. Some of the most
powerful empires of the past could not have emerged
without an enemy to resist—Rome
against Carthage

Britain against France
—and in the absence of an
enemy, it`s not clear what would keep the imperial
engine humming or why anyone would want it to.

Conservatives who oppose an imperial role for America
today tend to do so not only because of the commitments
in blood and treasure that empire always costs but also
because of the effects imperial expansion will have on
American society. Mass immigration into the imperial
homeland is one impact that empire always seems to
have—in Rome 2,000 years ago, and in Europe and America
today. So is the enlargement of the central government
and the disciplining of the population for military
involvement—everywhere and all the time.

It ought to be clear, at least to those Americans and
those conservatives able to think beyond the brass bands
and baubles that imperialism always brings, that empire
also has its price. Sometimes, as when a country is
faced with an implacable and mortal enemy, the price is
worth paying or at least trying to avoid, but it`s not a
price any self-governing republic would want to pay or
be able to pay without ceasing to be a republic.

The price of empire for ancient Rome was not only

by the slaves and foreigners it conquered
but also the

of the emperors themselves and the
destruction they finally inflicted. If the United States
really wants to be and remain the kind of empire that
savants like Mr. Donnelly are gloating over, we need to
think carefully about what prices we`ll have to pay for
it and whether they`re really worth paying.


September 10, 2001