Is America building a global empire? The answer to this question is by no means clear, but it seems obvious at this point that even if we are not building an empire, the American government is engaging in imperialistic activities the world over: stationing troops, keeping (or trying to keep) local and regional peace and stability, providing support and protection for American companies that extract resources and labor.
The most obvious question raised by all this is whether we should be doing it at all, and to what purposes. This is a legitimate and important question. But let’s set it aside for the moment and simply assume as a given that the United States will be militarily, diplomatically and economically engaged in many parts of the globe for the foreseeable future. Comparing ourselves to past empires, how are we doing?
In an article in The New York Review of Books entitled The Mirage of Empire, John Gray notes that “American bases span the globe, often serving goals similar in kind to those pursued by European colonial powers, but the US is nowhere engaged in colonial rule of the sort that Britain and other European powers established throughout much of the world.”
European imperialists made a long-term commitment to the territories they annexed. They spent large parts of their lives immersed in the cultures of the countries they had colonized, learning the languages and often forging enduring alliances with local rulers. As well as subjugating and exploiting their colonies they also ruled and lived in them. European imperialism involved many atrocities — in German Southwest Africa and the Belgian Congo large numbers died in conditions not far removed from slavery, and it was the British who began the use of air power against civilian populations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the Twenties, for example. Moreover, the views formed by European colonial elites of the countries they occupied were colored by a mix of racial prejudice and Orientalist myths. Nevertheless, the close familiarity of some of these colonial rulers with the languages, histories, and ruling classes of the colonies made possible a degree of political control over them that went far beyond anything that could be achieved by military force alone.
This point has been made before, but I think it’s an important point that we haven’t yet absorbed. For better or worse, the United States is engaged in transformative efforts from Latin America to Afghanistan and Iraq. More and more, we are turning to our military as the primary tool in these endeavors. (The military is also replacing FEMA domestically, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.) Yet our military and State Department are still structured around short-term tours of duty and temporary engagements that make it impossible for any individual to develop a lasting relationship with and understanding of a particular region in all its complexities.
In this regard, the image of America as the world’s policeman is instructive. Our ideal police officer is the beat cop who knows his precinct through and through — its shopkeepers, its wiseguys, its hubs of gossip. He can tell the difference between troubled teenage vandals who need to be let off with a stern warning and dangerous criminals who need to be collared on whatever technicalities he can find. His enforcement of the law is informed by a deep intuitive understanding of the social dynamics of his community.
America’s policing efforts to date seem more like the macho thrustings of hyperarmed SWAT teams bent on demonstrating their own awesomeness. I’ve lived in some crime-riddled spots, and I was always happy when the cops moved in to take some control, but I think I would’ve liked it less if they’d gone in Fallujah-style, rescuing my neighborhood by evacuating and levelling it.
To do better than that will require the long-term commitment of resources, including human resources. A first step might be restructuring the State Department into regional sections so that diplomats can serve repeatedly in a particular region, developing the local knowledge, connections and language skills that we so badly need and lack. At the start of their careers, Foreign Service officers could either select a region of specialization, just as they currently select a particular career “cone,” or area of professional specialization (the cones are Management, Consular, Public Diplomacy, Political and Economic), or else let the State Department assign them to regions based on need. Just as the current system makes it harder to join up in the more coveted cones because competition is stiffer, recruitment could be weighted to favor those who choose the least popular regions.
The State Department could obviously retain the flexibility to move officers with particular skills as necessary to locations outside their regions of specialization, and changing geopolitical dynamics would at times require that staff be moved from one region to another. Nevertheless, the Department should make every effort to keep officers focused on a given region for the bulk of their 20-year careers.
There are risks involved in this regional approach. A traditional reason for keeping Foreign Service officers on short postings is to prevent them from developing attachments to particular countries and regimes, leading to biased thinking and even corruption. This is a legitimate concern, but I believe the importance of gaining deeper regional understanding outweighs these risks. Nevertheless, the State Department would have to watch for signs of officers who have “gone native” or become unduly cozy with regional power elites. One way to prevent such developments is simply to ensure that regions are reasonably large and diverse. It is one thing to spend two decades becoming an old India hand, and quite another to hop from one South Asian capital to another over the course of twenty years.
Another risk of dividing the State Department into regional sections is that the department would lose coherence, fragmenting into disconnected fiefdoms. To prevent such fragmentation and ensure that best practices and valuable experience are distributed throughout the Department, officers should be rotated to posts outside of their regions of specialization once every third or fourth foreign posting. This would also help prevent burnout, especially for those officers who have chosen the most difficult regions.
Similar changes will also be needed elsewhere in government, particularly within the intelligence community and the military. The current situation, in which local knowledge is gleaned from translators, immigrants and politically motivated expatriates, is untenable. There is much to malign in 19th-century European imperialism, not least its racism and its contempt for the local populations over which it often rode roughshod. This should not blind us to those elements of the old colonial system that were effective and not wholly reprehensible. If America is going to continue to assert its will in the world — and I have no doubt that it is — we would do well to learn from the more effective habits of the older empires, even as we try to avoid their moral pitfalls. Certainly a bit more knowledge of the locals would be a worthy replacement for chaos punctuated by air assaults, which is what we have now. If people are losing lives to American arms, it would be good for us to have a clearer understanding of who they are and why we’re shooting at them.