America has never been an empire," George W. Bush asserted in November 1999. "We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused - preferring greatness to power, and justice to glory." Even as plans for a long-term US occupation of Iraq are unveiled, Bush continues to reassure us that nothing colonial is afoot.
This insistence that the "indispensable nation" should not be mistaken for an imperial hegemon has long typified America's rhetorical posture towards the world, and it requires an obtuse orientation towards both the character of contemporary US power and American history. A key move is semantic - "imperialism" reduced to mean formal colonial empire of the bad old European variety, which America has purportedly always eschewed. Inconvenient instances of direct US occupation - the Philippines, Haiti, Puerto Rico - are, if not overlooked altogether, explained as "accidental" acquisitions, more or less hastily relinquished.
As Andrew Bacevich points out, protestations of inadvertent imperialism were the stock-in-trade of absent-minded European colonialists. More usually, US policy-makers have preferred a policy of outright denial of imperial intent or heritage. Whether, in the event of Iraq's protracted occupation, US "imperialism" can continue to be disavowed by conflating empire with colonies remains to be seen. Anticipating that this characterisation of America's global role may become harder to refute, some commentators already prefer to burnish the image of empire than to deny the categorisation outright. Thus Michael Ignatieff, styling the war on terror as a crusade for human rights, has recently encouraged Americans to pick up the burden of empire and "get used to it".
Bacevich is equally eager to acknowledge America's empire, but he provides a much clearer-headed critique of the project's underpinnings than those liberals sounding a Kiplingesque note for the 21st century. For him, there is nothing altruistic about a world-ordering project whose guiding ambition is scarcely to uplift and democratise benighted peoples. Nor is it a case of Americans "getting used" to an imperial role, thrust on them by the lowering forces of disorder and atavism. Since the very founding of the republic, US elites have regarded an open global trading system as conducive not only to American prosperity and Republican virtue but also to the cause of international harmony.
Drawing on a materialist tradition of analysis, Bacevich reaches for Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams to illuminate the continuities between US expansionism past and present. Little distinguishes William McKinley's "splendid little war" of 1898 from recent operations to "Restore hope" and "Provide comfort", to yield a "Necessary harvest", deliver "Enduring freedom", or even "Infinite justice" (as the war in Afghanistan was briefly baptised).
Training a withering eye on this proliferation of ever more grandiloquent code names, Bacevich argues that a striking feature of the presidencies of George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton was the militarisation of power projection, with an increasingly "pro-consular" role for the military in US global policy. Taking issue with those critics who branded both Bush Sr and Clinton as dithering ad hoc interventionists (less operation "Just cause" than "Just because"), Bacevich insists that there was indeed pattern and purpose at work. Far from having become a "superpower without a mission", the post-cold war US pursued a very particular grand strategy - one from which it has rarely deviated and to which the events of September 11 2001 have given only added zeal.
Bacevich calls it the "strategy of openness" - the pursuit of an integrated global economy structured by US interests. Where Bush Sr failed to articulate a convincing vision of America's post-cold war role, Clinton excelled as a booster for globalisation, linking traditional US championship of "freedom" to sponsorship of free markets and free movements of peoples, products, values and capital. The shibboleth that democracies eschew war with one another was supplemented by a new nostrum, in effect an "electronic peace" thesis: that wired societies would necessarily become pacific liberal polities. Regarding themselves as triumphally on the "right side of history", the post-cold war presidencies have proclaimed a mandate to prise open protectionist hold-outs, discipline unruly regions and oust those evil dictators who have turned pro-Americanism into the love that dare not speak its name in the world's dingier corners.
Ironically, however, given the considerable muscle required to keep doors open, or force their locks, Americans, Bacevich argues, have become loath to sacrifice, or even endanger, their lives for any cause. Whether one finds it convincing to attribute this post-martial malaise to multiculturalism and enervating scepticism towards national meta-narratives is another matter. Less contentious are his assertions that America has, increasingly, contracted out empire's more onerous burdens (calling on latter-day "Gurkhas" to prosecute the dirty business of actual combat), while espousing strategies of "coercive diplomacy" that insulate US forces from harm.
"Openness" has been forcibly made the only game in town, sceptics silenced by charges of treacherous "isolationism". Bacevich, for one, is unimpressed by the goal of global dominance and by a strategy of forcing open markets and manufacturing zones that has precipitated devastating "blowback". American Empire stops short of proposing an alternative. But at a time when operation "Endless euphemism" is the order of the day, it is refreshing to find someone willing to call a spade a bloody shovel.
Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.
American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy
Author - Andrew J. Bacevich
ISBN - 0 674 00940 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 320