2011-12-09 / Columnists

The New Frontiers

The End Of Empire
Commentary By Daniel Solomon

In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville took his much-ballyhooed tour of America, wandering the country and marveling at the egalitarianism that paled in comparison with the strict class structure of his native France. The United States was on the edge of the world, pushing against the frontier, with soil for all to till, truly an example of the pastoral idyll. Americans liked it that way, and some were concerned about how our nation would develop, whether it would remain the agrarian republic that Jefferson envisioned or morph into a European-style imperial power. Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, was working on his magnum opus at the time, a fivepart series of paintings titled, “The Course of Empire,” which expressed beautifully these worries.

The first work is called “The Savage State,” depicting at the break of dawn a rugged wilderness populated by people who look like Native Americans. The second, known as “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” shows plowed fields tended to by the salt of the earth, a picture straight out of Greece’s Dorian Age. The third, “The Consummation of Empire,” is set at high noon and recalls the pomp and splendor of Rome at its apogee. The fourth is “Destruction,” where the city of the previous scene is sacked during afternoon by invaders, conjuring up the Visigoths and Huns. The fifth and last is “Desolation”; the once-bustling metropolis lies deserted and crumbling as dusk descends.

Many scholars have used Cole’s masterpiece as a visual aid for their theories about the decline of America, challenging the fatuous notion of exceptionalism with the stark reality of civilization: that, after a century of wars and police actions, our day in the Sun will eventually end, just as it has for every power that has come before us. They posit we are in the phase between “The Consummation of Empire” and “Desolation,” and that there’s no going back. I’m more optimistic; we are at that point, but we can change course, if we’re willing to recognize the faults of our foreign policy and are open to sweeping changes in our defense posture.

Right now, we have troops stationed in 148 countries across the globe and at 662 bases in 38 different nations. Our global presence is very much similar to the footprint that the British used to have before the decolonization of the post-war era, with several important caveats.

Our Anglo-Saxon friends practiced a more transparent form of imperialism, actually taking over places, subjecting the inhabitants to direct rule, and exploiting natural resources for hungry manufacturers and consumers in the United Kingdom. The United States’ means of control are more insidious. The CIA has toppled unfriendly regimes in Iran and Indonesia, Nicaragua and Guatemala, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the list goes on and on.

This political clout lays the groundwork for economic domination. And that’s not to say that empire is always bad. India benefited greatly from British rule, prospering from the elimination of backward cultural practices such as the caste system, sati, and thuggee, the emergence of an educated bureaucracy, the introduction of English, and the construction of a modern infrastructure system. This sort of thing is costly to maintain and, eventually, people get sick of paying through the nose to fund overseas adventures while domestic troubles are mounting.

In the aftermath of World War II, Britain couldn’t afford to maintain its empire. It was awash in debt and its citizens had lost their sense of fight. The few times it did try to resist what Prime Minister Harold MacMillan called “the wind of change,” it was shut out, losing jungle battles in Malaysia and failing dismally to retake the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. Generally, the U.K. bowed out gracefully.

Our situation is similar, though I don’t believe that we will suffer the same loss of status that Britain did. We are, however, spread too thin, slowly ending conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and grappling with a $700 billion defense budget that has sapped domestic programs of needed funding. The obvious result of this is a protest movement like Occupy Wall Street, which one could easily compare to the U.K.’s own Winter of Discontent.

It is clear that the American Empire has to end. Fortunately, that does not necessarily spell our decline. We have to continue to defend our interests around the globe, but we must do so in a cost-effective way, a way that doesn’t draw the ire of the world’s citizens. Moving to a foreign policy model based on soft power is the best solution.

If you have ever opened a diplomatic journal – Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy Magazine are my favorites – you know exactly what I’m talking about. A phrase coined in 1990 by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, soft power means our “ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them.” In other words, it is peace through respect rather than peace through strength, leadership by collaboration, not coercion.

Soft power has long been a key part of the State Department’s toolkit, from the Marshall Plan to JFK’s Alliance for Progress. But just like how State is overshadowed by Defense, soft power takes a back seat to hard power, i.e. direct military action. When Barack Obama swept into office, he promised a new emphasis on soft power, but he has not gone far enough in re-orienting American foreign policy. Indeed, in an effort to counter the growing influence of China in Southeast Asia, Obama announced plans to open a new military base in Darwin, Australia staffed with 2,500 troops.

Meanwhile, as we put more feet on the ground, China seeks to win the hearts and minds of people in that region and the world over. It has sprinkled billions of dollars around Africa, signing economic cooperation pacts and energy deals with a clutch of leaders. It has bought the goodwill of many in the Pacific Rim with infrastructure projects financed by state-owned corporations.

It has even made inroads in the West, setting up Confucius Institutes to spread its propaganda and launching a charm offensive that has touched everything from the billboards atop Times Square to many of our country’s movie theaters and sports arenas. You might think this would prompt Congress to pump up the budget for international assistance, but you would be wrong. In fact, 165 House Republicans recently penned a letter urging the total defunding of the agency, USAID, responsible for aid. That might be politically wise, it is, however, a geopolitical blunder.

As noted analysts like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia’s Earth Institute have observed, it would cost chump change for the United States to drastically reduce the prevalence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria in Africa and to fund family-planning services there. In the Middle East, we would do well to modernize our media outreach to regular folks through our external news agency, The Voice of America, which suffers for both a lack of money and a long history of mismanagement. In Southeast Asia, we could plow funds into efforts for regional cooperation, like the Mekong River Committee.

Of course, these are just a few examples of policies we should look into. They are certainly cheaper than the oversized military we have today and, if anything, entail a lower risk of the “Desolation” and “Destruction” that Cole so ominously foretold.


After reading the correspondence in reference to my previous column, I have to say that I take umbrage at the way Dr. Harold Paez has characterized me and the Occupy Movement. The people in Zuccotti Park, well, who were in Zuccotti Park and still hold various public squares across the nation, are not seeking the overthrow of American society. They are, to borrow a line from George H.W. Bush, fighting for a kinder, gentler nation. They want to break the stranglehold that corporate money and crony capitalism have put on our democracy and return the government to the people. Their protest is not Crown Heights or Newark or Watts or any other urban riot. Indeed, they’re not the ones causing violence; the police, with their heavyhanded tactics, are responsible for that.

As for Dr. Paez’s criticism of my “tiresome, one-sided ideology,” I will say that I don’t hate Republicans – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Nelson Rockefeller were great men. These giants have passed from the scene and look at who and what have replaced them. Today, the Republican Party is corrupted by an incredible cruelty of spirit, which is clearly discernible from Herman Cain’s jokes about an electrified border fence, Ron Paul’s insistence that uninsured people should die if they can’t pay up, Michele Bachmann’s assertion that those who cannot find work should not eat, and Rick Santorum’s praise for suffering. That’s not to excuse the Democratic Party; it is an imperfect vehicle for a liberal policy agenda. Still, as FDR once said, “better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

Lastly, Dr. Paez, I could respond to your wisecracks about detention, but though I am a Stuyvesant senior who doesn’t really appreciate being condescended to, I won’t. Using someone’s youth as a means of discrediting them is a cheap tactic and is the province of the intellectually bankrupt.

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First of all, Mr. Kerr, Dr.

First of all, Mr. Kerr, Dr. Paez is a podiatrist, so he would have a DPM, not a PhD. And being old does not entitle you to respect; in fact, the elderly often stay in the way of the new and stifle progressive change. You hate China so much, but your bit about reverence for old people is very Confucian. About the Tea Party, the rallies never were as big as those of OWS--they were mostly a creation of right-wing media and corporate front-groups like Americans For Prosperity. OWS was a spontaneous movement and though the mainstream Democratic establishment latched on, they rode back seat to grass roots activists. Also we tried supply-side, it was called Reaganomics, and do you know what that did, it sky-rocketed the deficit and produced a highly unequal, unfair society. Regulation isn't what holds this country back, it is a lack of demand, and guess what, the crisis was caused by a lack of regulation. And what understanding of war and geopolitics do you have, Mr. Kerr? In fact, the US's military spending accounts for 43% of that spending worldwide; China's share stands at 7.8%. We can afford to take a cut; I'd say reduce the budget to $300 billion. Check it out: http://www.globalissues.org/article/75/world-military-spending#WorldMili... we don;t need foreign powers to flush our freedoms down the toilet, when we have people you in this country, who would naively trade freedom for security, e.g. the Patriot Act. And by the way, you calling me a Marxist is like me calling all Republicans fascists; it really shows that you have no understanding of what Marxist theory is. America is not only the force in the world; there are many good countries out there, and criticizing America is not unpatriotic. It was Jefferson who said, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." CHECKMATE.

Daniel, Checkmate? Don't


Checkmate? Don't think so. Whilst your most recent article is an improvement on earlier efforts, I stand by the assessment that your writing rarely drifts from the model of left-wing boilerplate.

Your thesis that America is an Empire, is flawed. The parallels you build comparing America to Great Britain are simplistic and on the order of an Apples and Oranges error on both historic and geopolitical counts. Where you're correct, is that America (for better and often worse) propped up regimes for it's national self interest. Yet, your historic references don't take into account the geopolitics at the time. America was, in many of the incidents you cite, at loggerheads with the Soviet Union and world communism who were (and are) seeking to set up puppet regimes of their own around the world. Dysfunction begot dysfunction, not pretty but more accurate than your take on the big bad American empire. Great Britain's history is it's own, it's empire, the collapse of same can have lessons pulled from it, but your take is far to simplistic. I would venture that a single 2000 word newspaper article folding in Cole's paintings into the mix, never had a chance. The present deployment of American troops to their various locations--world wide--just don't fit your argument. Bases in Germany, Japan, Guam, Canada (yep they're up there too), speak to the dynamics of post WWII Soviet aggression, not America as empire. You save precious little criticism of the highly aggressive military posturing of China. This is not empire building? To borrow from your essay, "It has bought the goodwill of many in the Pacific Rim". I happen to know many who live in the Pacific rim, China scares the hell out of them. The goodwill only extends to those they've already dominated putting into place stepping stones to expand further into the region. Your exhortation of "soft power" actually does seem to have a British historic parallel, that of the Munich agreement and Chamberlain's claim, post facto, "There will be peace in our time." Nations of aggression--such as China--see "soft" as weak and act accordingly.

Your statement that #OCCUPY as a "grass roots" movement and dismissal that the tea party, which numbers in the millions, not thousands, as some sort of commercial ploy rings hollow. The grass roots beginnings of OCCUPY are open for debate too, looking, by and large that ACORN & MORE along with SEIU are the Primum Mobile for OCCUPY and as nearly everyone knows, those particular groups are in the pocket of the democrat party. No small wonder that these small bodies of offensive protestors have been roundly disliked by the American public, but broadly supported by democrats. Of course until they clued in that the public was not on board. The end of OCCUPY's encampments occurred about a hot minute later. A recent tour of OCCUPY Harvard revealed not a single protestor in attendance. Some populist movement. Compare to--say--the largest ever march on D.C. (by national park estimates) that the tea party held prior to the ramming of the health care bill down the America's collective throat, and you'll quickly discover that the difference in membership is not by a little, but an order of magnitude. Do those aligned with the tea party like that banks were bailed out? No--just like OCCUPY. There are some commonalities between the two, but OCCUPY doesn't seem to dislike what the federal government does--curious. Yet, this populist tea party movement you are dismissive of? They number in the millions, they ARE the masses too and deserve to be taken just as seriously, if not more so as they caught on that there was something profoundly wrong with America's direction more than a year prior to OCCUPY.

A point of correction too, I didn't actually call you a Marxist, but rather a spreader of Marxist boilerplate. Different. It is understandable that you would take it personally. This didn't extend, so much, to this particular article, but others focused on class warfare attempting to leverage a hatred of those greedy overlords exploiting the workers to line their nests. Textbook Marxist agitprop 101 Daniel. I stand by the statement. If you've opposed this--meaning class warfare-- do point it out, I'll retract my claim to your standing as a agitprop spreader. It is pretty common for those with only academic experience--often taught lefties in their own right--to take such positions. Considering you're afforded this forum though, refutations should & must be made. Your attack on Reaganomics is rather odd too. Failed? Don't know were you were during the Reagan administration, but the economy was going good guns during those years. Did I miss something? Most economists characterize the Reagan years as either the first or second largest expansion of the American economy in history with a average GDP of over 22%, greater than during the Clinton years. Capitalism is not perfect, but if you examine how folks manage under this system, vs. alternatives, it doesn't take a genius to figure out where people do prosper and where they do not.

Yes, I'm for limited government not spending beyond it's means, a leading military, capitalism, the constitution, rule of law, honesty and a reverence for fact and knowledge. Your rather funny Jefferson quote--due to it's misattribution-- actually comes from a 1961 publication, The Use of Force in International Affairs: "If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism? Even if it was Jefferson's quote, that "dissent" you're so enamored with, is actually aimed at the government--not Wall Street--so, I guess a welcome to the tea party is in order. In fact the quote is more often associated with communist and historical revisionist, Howard Zinn. What I take away from your columns is that you are smart, but neither experienced or wise. Your reply didn't even manage a stalemate much less a checkmate. Do you even play chess? Your move...

You're right, the miscreants

You're right, the miscreants at Zuccotti, beyond being of little consequence, have more to do with democrat election strategy leveraging class warfare than anything else. Once it was an obvious fail, and became a liability, THEN it was cleaned up. If you want a genuine populist movement--of the people--the numbers would go to the the tea party (gasp!), who had millions involved in marches, protests and town hall events. By comparison, OCCUPY is piddling. The American government spends more than it takes in and massively over-regulates, suppressing economic growth and prosperity. A fifth grader with a checking account could tell you that.

Further, you're right, you shouldn't be discredited for your youth, you should be discredited for the vacuous Marxist boilerplate you trot out in--near as I can tell--every column you author, trimming one catch phrase after another in to support world socialist dominance.

Newsflash, America is a world power because of it's capitalism and many of the world's problems today are due in large part to our weakened stance. The weaker the only moral force in the world becomes, the more emboldened the very enemies of mankind become. You deeply criticize America, but what of the alternatives? Has there ever been a murderous regime as vile as Stalin's Soviet reign of terror? Line em up; Pol Pot, Mao, Che, Castro and what do you have? One murderous crumb after another. For those aware of history, that trail leads to an obvious place, one that someone with ideological blinders will never see.

Oversized military? Are you aware that the president of China just informed this navy to prepare for war? Should that can of worms ever be opened, you'll have wished America's military was many times larger than it already is. It is a dangerous, unfair world out there and America had to learn the hard way--a number of times--what letting one's guard down invariably leads to. We have bases for a reason, international alliances to fend off those who'd take what we have, our freedoms, liberties and rights, flushing them down the proverbial toilet. Your understanding is theory only, the writing you author, naive due to that fact.

Finally, I must add you have very little merit due to one overarching personality trait you possess. I shouldn't be surprised due to the fact the very nearly every proponent of things left suffer narcissism to on degree or another, but Dr. Paez is not only in possession of a PhD., but is your elder. For this alone, a certain level of reverence is due. His points were well made--better than yours--and to be blunt, far more respectful.

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