Instead of Empire

What if the American people chose a different path? What if we chose not to assume the mantle of empire?

To explore possibilities for an alternative to empire America, we invited five people to shed the light of their experience, spiritual leadership, and knowledge of world affairs. This is not a debate on whether we should go to war but an exploration of what might happen if the U.S. chose a path that is neither the Clinton-promoted future of corporate globalization, nor the Bush Doctrine of endless war. Each of them responded to questions sent them by YES!

The primary concern that seems to drive the willingness of Americans to go to war is the sense that we are not safe, especially since 9/11. What are the sources of threats to the US, and what could we do to increase our security?

Former US Ambassador to NATO Harlan Cleveland:

Harlan Cleveland, political scientist, editor, executive, diplomat, academic, dean, university president, and author

I have to start by quarreling with the question. “The willingness of Americans to go to war” is not at all clear to me. If it's easy (as it won't be); if it's short on American casualties (a dubious assumption); if we have plenty of help and don't have to go it alone (the Bush team may have blown the potential of a real coalition, in the UN or outside its purview), then there might well be an American majority for a “military solution” in Iraq. But none of these conditions exists, and the common sense of the American people still has a chance to prevail.

As to the essence of your question, the threats are palpable, but they have been enormously enhanced by the behavior of the US government. To the extent our government uses overwhelming power to bypass and belittle people who might otherwise be our friends and supporters, we'll engender reluctance and sabotage. Our government is alienating these potential members of the Club of Democracies with a fatal mixture of arrogance and neglect. In the past few months I have come to believe that the objective threats to US security pale by comparison to what our government is doing to arm our enemies and disarm our friends.

Presiding Episcopal Bishop Frank T. Griswold:

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and
primate the Episcopal Church, USA
The Most Rev. Frank T. GRiswold, presiding bishop and primate the Episcopal Church, USA

I think the real threat to the US is fear itself. We seem to be developing a paranoia that ultimately will poison the spirit of the nation, making us all suspicious and overly defensive.

The truth is, there is no such thing as absolute security. Life by its very nature puts us in a stance of vulnerability. You cannot protect yourself against everything, and no amount of government surveillance or police security or training people to be on the watch for suspicious people will ultimately protect us. The myth of security is itself dangerous. Having said that, obviously there are steps that nations take to ensure the security of the populace.

With respect to the real sources of threats, I think our deportment in the world creates the greatest exposure to anger and terrorist attack. We need to examine our relationships with other nations, particularly those parts of the world suffering from hunger, poverty, and violence. How do our policies, ordered to our own interests, affect other nations? How does the export of our culture, often at its worst, undermine the identity and values of other societies? By addressing these and other questions, and not simply arming ourselves, we can protect ourselves most effectively and most authentically.

Rabbi Michael Lerner:

Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun, author of
Politics of Meaning and Spirit Matters
Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun, author of Politics of Meaning and Spirit Matters

There are two basic theories about how to get security in the world. One says you get security by having enough physical strength and power to scare off or dominate everyone else who might threaten you. The other says that security comes from loving connection and mutual recognition with others. Both have strong historical bases, and it usually makes sense to have some kind of balance between the two. Unfortunately, the US is out of balance. We've tilted way too far toward domination and way too little toward loving connection with others.


Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis:

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the Institute for Policy
Studies & the Transnational Institute
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies & the Transnational Institute

Threats to the US have to be defined to clarify if we are speaking of threats to the traditionally defined “national interest”—usually meaning corporate wealth, military strength, and diplomatic power—or threats to the people of the US. Americans are threatened by virtue of living in the center of the most powerful empire that has ever existed. There is no reason to think that the contemporary US empire will engender less antagonism or last longer than earlier empires.

The single biggest threat to Americans' safety lies in US foreign policy, which has caused impoverishment and political disempowerment of nations and peoples across the world. There is an understandable tendency to blame Americans for the actions of their government or their military. While American citizens have not been routinely singled out for attack by international terrorism, that could soon change as our foreign policy becomes more aggressively committed to the extension of US military power around the world.

Protecting American lives can best be accomplished by creating a new internationalist movement in which Americans participate with (some) governments and (many) civil society organizations from around the world to counter the power-driven blandishments of empire that currently define the US global superpower.

The US spends about the same amount on the military as the next 20 military powers combined, including our allies. Does the world need the US to act as an empire in order to keep the peace? What might a world without empire look like?

European Union Futurist Marc Luyckx:

Luyckx, futurist, formerlly with the European Union, and a
Brussels-based consultant
Marc Luyckx, futurist, formerlly with the European Union, and a Brussels-based consultant

When the astronauts came back from their trip in space and showed us that this blue planet is such a fragile gift, we collectively entered a new era.

We have to recognize that the industrial, hyperrational, patriarchal, top-down values, which were successful for getting the US to the moon, can't provide satisfactory answers to the urgent global question of our collective survival.

We need a new set of values: more feminine values, more inclusive values of connectedness with nature and the cosmos. We need to give priority to the common good of humanity, over national or particular interest.

In defense matters the same paradigm shift is underway. The latest treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, signed by the US, puts forward a brand new concept. Instead of being based on the classical concept of “balance of forces,” it is based on “mutual vulnerability.” Rather than relying on secrecy, this new treaty relies on transparency. Indeed, as Harlan Cleveland has been warning us since 1984, in the knowledge society, information always leaks. It is impossible to base future strategies on secrecy.

What to do with the terrorists? Should we employ the same violent strategies as the terrorists themselves? This is what Bush's strategies propose. Or should we seek the common good for the whole of the planet? The most urgent need may be to invent a new Marshall Plan for the whole world.

Phyllis Bennis: What the world needs to keep the peace is not an empire lording over the rest of the world, but a democratic international system based on law, global institutions, and the UN Charter. The vast disparities of income within countries and between North and South, the disempowerment of peoples around the world whose repressive governments rely on US financial, political, and military backing—these are the real threats to the peace, and a US empire does not make any of us safer.

A world without an empire would not be a utopia; it would simply allow nations around the world a chance to build better lives for their people and allow people around the world a chance at gaining human rights.

Empires are an old story, really—the story of a strategically unchallenged dominion, at the apogee of its power and influence, rewriting global rules. Two thousand years ago, Thucydides described the conquering of the island of Mylos by the Greeks in order to ensure stability for the Greek Empire's “democratic” golden age. The Melians asked, “What about democracy?” And the Athenians responded, “For us there is democracy; for you there is the law of empire.”

The Roman empire did the same, creating one set of laws for Rome's own citizens, imposing another on its far-flung possessions. The British empire did much the same thing. And then, at the end of the 20th century, having achieved once unimaginable heights of military, economic, and political power, it was Washington's turn. It remains for us, in this country, to bring an end to empire and a beginning of a search for real democracy in its stead.

Harlan Cleveland: If military power is used to dominate, the result won't be peace: too many people will express their resentment and their desire to be free in ways that make military force as we have known it irrelevant. Imperial ambitions would produce a widespread messiness that wouldn't resemble peace, but also wouldn't resemble war as we have known it. It would resemble in the international arena what we have already seen in the so-called “failed states”—anarchy, warlordism, constantly changing loyalties—opposition to the empire-builders being the primary glue that holds disparate groups together.

As an alumnus of both the Marshall Plan and NATO, I am convinced that there is a different, and more effective, way to wield great power. That's to use it to help build societies that share our historic beliefs in pluralism (being different together), tolerance (of others' beliefs, race, and cultural histories), and authority (derived from the governed). Working in this direction speaks to the most basic feelings of almost everyone. The US still has a chance to be a “city on a hill”—just so the hill is defined not as megatonnage of weaponry but as an aspiration for progress and equality in which, sooner or later, all people can share if they work at it.

A number of people have made a link between Iraq having the world's second largest oil reserves and the US interest in invading the country. US dependence on imported oil is increasing. What options does the US have apart from using military might to ensure access to oil?

Phyllis Bennis: US interest in Middle East oil is not primarily about making sure we can get the oil we need. The US doesn't import that much from the region (although the amount is indeed rising)—we have a wide range of alternative sources.

The oil issue during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and today is far more subtle and far more linked to US imperial design. The key aspect of oil policy has to do not only with direct control of the oil fields, but in continuing to act as guarantor of oil access for US allies in Europe and Japan who are far more dependent on Middle East oil. Playing that role ensures not only a means to satisfy the US corporate-bloated appetite for oil, but gains the US power vis-à-vis our allies, preserving the US role as a “hyper-power” with global reach.

Our key option is to diminish our dependence on imported oil by decreasing our dependence on all oil—meaning we should reinvest money and research into serious alternative fuels. We must reject the view first put forward by President Jimmy Carter who called the Persian Gulf's petroleum, half a world away from us, “our oil,” and recognize instead that we have no more right to other countries' oil than anyone else. And we must diminish the power of US-based oil companies in domestic US politics—which means that we must undermine the influence of this petro-administration in the White House. We need regime change in Washington!

Marc Luyckx: Is this policy the right one in a pre-hydrogen era? If you listen to the Rocky Mountain Institute, soon we will have hydrogen fuel cars, with zero pollution.

Perhaps many in the US find war attractive partly because it provides a sense of being part of a powerful effort with a transcendent purpose. Apart from war, where do you think Americans could find a sense of national purpose?

Harlan Cleveland: Not all wars have “the power of creating a sense of unity and national purpose.” The war in Vietnam was, in the end, so divisive that it eroded the American sense of unity and induced millions of Americans to question our national purpose. France's war in Algeria had a similar impact in French politics. A unilateral “preemptive” attack on Iraq will not be widely regarded as serving a “transcendent” purpose. Even if it's instantly successful, its long-running aftermath will likely come to be seen as a quagmire.

Apart from World War II, America in my lifetime has found a transcendent sense of purpose in four sustained government initiatives. One was FDR's New Deal (1933), focused on poverty, unemployment, and public works. Another was the Marshall Plan (1948), soon followed (and bracketed in the public mind with) the North Atlantic Alliance (1949). Yet another was the civil rights movement, culminating in the legislation of the 1960s. And another was the early phases of the space program, highlighted by JFK's 1961 promise to put a man on the moon before the end of that decade. There is an opportunity now for a different kind of “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East.

Michael Lerner: First, let the US become the major force in the world committed to eliminating hunger, homelessness, disease, inadequate health care and inadequate schooling. Let it do so by becoming the major force in the world committing its resources to redistributing wealth globally so that everyone can live at a level of material well-being comparable to that of the American middle class today, and let this be accomplished in a way that is ecologically sustainable.

Second, let the US become the major force rectifying the damage done to the Earth by 150 years of ecological irresponsibility, instead of being perceived as the major force limiting serious ecological reform.

Third, let the US become the world champion of a new definition of productivity, efficiency, and rationality, so that they become measured not only by the extent to which any given institution or social practice maximizes money and power, but also to the extent that that institution or social practice tends to produce loving and caring human beings who are morally, ecologically, and spiritually responsible, and who respond to the universe with awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.

To help fund these steps, let the US take the entire $1.5 trillion that George Bush allocated for tax cuts and let that be dedicated to financing these three directions.

Frank T. Griswold: In the gospel it is reported that when Jesus was arrested, the enmity that had existed between Pilate and Herod was overcome, and on that day they became friends. This story has repeated itself over the ages as a sense of common purpose has been achieved through the identification of a common enemy. In our own day, the disparate elements of our nation have been gathered up and given a sense of national unity through the use of demonizing rhetoric, the language of paranoia, and a personally focused object of evil, namely Saddam Hussein.

One of the most disconcerting elements of our present national ethos is the sense—sometimes spoken and sometimes not—that God holds the United States in special favor and blesses our policies. Indeed some unthinking patriotism is rooted in that perspective. As God's blessing is claimed for our national purposes, we would do well to remember that being in relationship with God means yielding one's perspectives to the larger perspective of God rather than seeking to enlist God's approval for one's own points of view. Praying is not simply about putting forth our petitions but about having our own attitudes and opinions enlarged by those of God, who embraces the whole world, seeks the well being of all persons, and looks upon the people of all nations with compassion and love.

I believe our national leaders are bound to call us to live out of our better natures, our deepest aspirations to make meaning, live in peace, and be mindful of the suffering and injustice both here and around the world —rather than out of fear and the ensuing clutch on what serves our self-interest. Since we declare ourselves as one nation “under God,” might we not look for a new sense of national unity based on a larger vision of the common good: one that takes us beyond our borders and unites us with the struggles, sufferings, and aspirations of the world.

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