New Year Reflections on the U.S. Global Role and Its Limits

What is it about our contemporary political role that makes so much of what we attempt to do abroad ultimately self-defeating?
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The first hours of a new year are always an ideal time for people across the globe to reflect on their contemporary condition. They are an ideal moment to look back, in the hope that serious reflection now can improve conditions going forward. And it is particularly vital that we in America take this moment of reflection as this new year begins, given the enormity of the impact of our condition on the rest of the global order.

In the last days of 2014, the Obama administration made much of the formal ending of the war in Afghanistan -- the longest war in American history now supposedly finally over. But in truth it is not finally over. Significant numbers of American troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, and will be for the foreseeable future; and in any case the Afghan war is simply part of a wider set of military engagements by American forces in the region that remain on-going. As the Obama Administration claims closure in Afghanistan, it continues to wage war in the Middle East - America's third such war since 9/11 -- leading the military campaign against ISIS, even though the US commander of special forces in the Middle East is recently on record as admitting that "we do not understand the movement, and [that] until we do, we are not going to defeat it."

For as James Fallows commented at length in the current edition of The Atlantic, in spite of all our enormous expenditure on military personnel and equipment America keeps losing wars - or if not completely losing them, then at least regularly failing to translate superior US military capacity into desirable political settlements. For far too often for comfort, the more our men and women in uniform are deployed abroad, the more intransigent seem to be the problems that their deployment is designed to resolve. America may be the world's dominant super-power, and according to its own lights uniquely benign in that role, but the world it seeks to dominate is proving remarkably resistant to that supposedly benign dominance.

So perhaps now is a good time to ask why? What is it about our contemporary political role that makes so much of what we attempt to do abroad ultimately self-defeating? Is the American military presence abroad really as benign and as indispensable as our political leaders regularly insist that it is? And if it is, why is that not universally recognized?


One way of answering such questions is to note that the United States is not the first global power to experience limits on its capacity to shape events beyond its shores, nor is it likely to be the last. For the past two millennia at least, other political systems -- not least those of Ancient Rome, early-modern Spain, nineteenth-century Britain, and Russia under both the Czars and the Soviets -- have for a significant period of time exercised political domain over wide areas of the then known world. But unlike the contemporary United States, each of those imperial adventures eventually came to a desultory end. Power won became power lost -- and often lost in both a dramatic and an irreversible fashion. If the United States is not one-day soon to repeat this standard imperial pattern of ascendancy, hegemony and decline, those who govern us now might do well to reflect upon the necessary limits of empire that these early examples of global dominance so clearly demonstrate. For these are limits that could one day also apply to the United States, and could do so regardless of how often conservative political commentators insist that the American role abroad is not in any meaningful sense imperial at all.

Really -- not imperial at all? Well, consider America's contemporary condition in the light of at least these four regularly-visible limits of empire.

Military Limits

In the end, there always seems to be a serious military problem with empires. Empires cost a lot to build and a lot to maintain: a lot in money terms, a lot in terms of manpower and a lot in terms of political capital. Empires also invariably meet both resistance and push back from within the empire, and competition from other imperial entities beyond their borders, both of which ultimately inflate those costs substantially. This pattern of costs and resistance was very clear in the Soviet case, where ultimately the burden of Cold War competition and internal repression overwhelmed an economy stagnant for other reasons, and left the Soviet Union immersed in an Afghan war that it could not win and from which eventually it had ignominiously to withdraw. A similar pattern of imperial-overstretch brought Spanish power to an equally ignominious end in the Treaties of Westphalia and the Pyrenees between 1648 and 1659; and swept the British out of South-East Asia in 1942 and India by 1947. Empires regularly discover, that is, the truth of Talleyrand's often-quoted remark to Napoleon "that you can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it." Armies are so much better at winning power than at retaining it; and the costs of having to continually relearn this simple truth are surely ones that this time we will do well to avoid.

Political Limits

Military pushback against imperial rule would appear to be only one facet of a more general feature of empires: namely that they become more difficult to rule the larger they are and the longer they last. Partly this is because geographical size and communication capacity have historically been in tension. Certainly until the age of the internet, the farther away imperial subjects were from the metropolitan center, the longer it took for information and instructions to pass between them and those who ruled them. In the past, big empires were always based on indirect rule, and that indirect rule always and of necessity provided a space for resistance: either resistance by the traditional elites doing the local ruling, or by those they ruled venting their frustration with the colonial set-up at both the local and the metropolitan level. Settler colonies in particular were supremely difficult to effectively discipline from the metropolitan center, as Britain ultimately found to its great cost in the American case.

The internet has now shrunk those distances, of course, but it has not taken them entirely away; and in any event the governance problems of empire invariably run deeper than simply issues of distance. For any difficulty the center has in controlling the periphery is normally matched, in grand global adventures of the contemporary American kind, by problems of control at (and over) the center itself. Even democratic governments with global pretensions have difficulty avoiding the emergence of an imperial presidency -- one which, though democratically elected, slips inexorably into non- or even anti-democratic practices in the defense of imperial power far away from its own shores. At the height of the Roman Empire, faced with issues of this kind, the republic rapidly gave way to what was effectively a monarchy. Modern empires don't inevitably collapse in that fashion, but they do face a similar problem of excessive executive autonomy. We need only think of the problem of executive capacity in the Washington DC of George w. Bush and Dick Cheney to recognize the persistence of that problem.

Economic Limits

It's not all bad news for empires, of course. Empires in their prime also attract a lot of subsidy. They take things from peoples less powerful than themselves, and do so with relative ease because of that imbalance of military capacity. They also find borrowing resources from others outside the empire easier than it might otherwise be because the collateral asked of them on such borrowing is invariably low, relative to the borrowing capacity of non-empires. In financial as well as in military terms, that is, power and privilege goes together. However, this financial arbitrage inevitably comes at a serious long term price, for empires at times enjoy a credit rating that is too good for their own long term viability. At the very least, empires tend to end up (as in the British case) with a serious division of interests between their financial and manufacturing sectors. At the very worst (as with Spain) for all their wealth, empires still end up dependent on credit provided by bankers based in circuits of capital that lie outside the territorial reach of the empire itself, credit which if withheld leaves the imperial army unpaid and the imperial military capacity momentarily out of central control. Armies win imperial control, but it is bankers who eventually determine if it can be sustained.

Moreover, obtaining things easily because of imperial preference invariably weakens the ability of empires to generate those things themselves. It frees them from any immediate confrontation with the reality of market forces; and it alters the relative weight within their underlying economy of the sectors that manufacture things and those that merely play with money. Empires, as they succeed, invariably undermine the economic superiority on which that rise had initially been predicated. With Wall Street continuing to bounce back from the 2008 recession on a scale yet unmatched by Main Street, and with US-owned companies increasingly shifting their production off-shore in a global economy made safe for them by the US navy, it is hard not to see history repeating itself: first Rome, then Spain, England and now the United States.

Cultural Limits

Finally this: even privileged elites within dominant empires tend to wake up to the dangers of the erosion of the competitive strength of their domestic economy, if they wake up to it at all, too late. Empires rise but they also decline -- sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly -- in part because both their governing classes (and their central populations) come over time to believe more and more in the naturalness and permanence of that superiority. They come to take their global position of power for granted, and lose sight of the very special conditions necessary for its retention and growth. They also come to swallow much of their own imperial rhetoric, so progressively losing the capacity to understand their own growing unpopularity in far-flung parts of the empire. A heightened tolerance of war, a double-standard in relation to the legitimacy of violence (alright if we inflict it on others but not alright if they inflict it on us), even a blindness to both the violence of poverty at home and the violence of empire abroad: all these seem to be inevitable features of the culture of empire. For although the specific content of ideas and claims differs empire by empire, the general character of the imperial mindset does not. It is always a mixture of excessive hubris and growing ignorance: hubris about the intellectual or racial superiority of the imperial culture, growing ignorance about the depth and complexity of cultures on the imperial periphery. As the global reach of an empire increases, so too does its cultural parochialism. Some empires, like the British, fall in total self-delusion. Others, like the Russian, fall when that self-delusion is possible no more.


Some high-quality imperial scholarship clings resolutely to the view that empires are a good thing, and that the possession of one is a sign of both present and future strength. But the bulk of the evidence available to us on the character and trajectory of global power would suggest otherwise. It would suggest that empires grow strong only because powers around them grow weak, and that imperial stability is more a function of that continuing weakness than it is of factors exceptional and special to the global power itself. It would suggest that empires fool themselves if they think that their superiority is endemic rather than contingent, and a reflection of their inner strengths rather than of others' external weaknesses. Take those external weaknesses away, and imperial decline seems to follow as surely as night follows day. The bulk of the evidence would suggest too that empires begin militarily strong, politically focused, economically advanced, socially cohesive and culturally dynamic; but that invariably they end up militarily exhausted, politically gridlocked, economically weakened, socially divided and culturally depleted. By almost any measure, there is plenty of military exhaustion, political stalemate, economic erosion, social division and cultural deprivation in contemporary America. Which is why -- as the New Year begins, and before the detail of day-to-day politics again drowns out the space for quiet reflection -- it is worth pondering whether any of that exhaustion, stalemate, erosion, division and depletion is the product of the presence in the modern world of something that we might properly recognize as an American empire.

Originally posted, with full sourcing, at

This argument is developed more fully in David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires

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