America, the Unintended Empire?

One in a series of excerpts from THE NEXT DECADE by Stratfor CEO George Friedman.

The United States possesses what I call “deep power,” and deep power must be first and foremost balanced power. This means economic, military, and political power in appropriate and mutually supporting amounts. It is deep in a second sense, which is that it rests on a foundation of cultural and ethical norms that define how that power is to be used and that provides a framework for individual action. Europe, for example, has economic power, but it is militarily weak and rests on a very shallow foundation. There is little consensus in Europe politically, particularly about the framework of obligations imposed on its members.

Power that is both deeply rooted and well balanced is rare, and I will try to show that in the next decade, the United States is uniquely situated to consolidate and exercise both. More important, it will have little choice in the matter. There is an idea, both on the left and on the right, that the United States has the option of withdrawing from the complexities of managing global power. It’s the belief that if the United States ceased to meddle in the affairs of the world, the world would no longer hate and fear it, and Americans could enjoy their pleasures without fear of attack. This belief is nostalgia for a time when the United States pursued its own interests at home and left the world to follow its own course.

There was indeed a time when Thomas Jefferson could warn against entangling alliances, but this was not a time when the United States annually produced 25 percent of the wealth of the world. That output alone entangles it in the affairs of the world. What the United States consumes and produces shapes lives of people around the world. The economic policies pursued by the United States shape the economic realities of the world. The U.S. Navy’s control of the seas guarantees the United States economic access to the world and gives it the potential power to deny that access to other countries. Even if the United States wanted to shrink its economy to a less intrusive size, it is not clear how that would be done, let alone that Americans would pay the price when the bill was presented.

But this does not mean that the United States is at ease with its power. Things have moved too far too fast. That is why bringing U.S. policy back into balance will also require bringing the United States to terms with its actual place in the world. We have already noted that the fall of the Soviet Union left the United States without a rival for global dominance. What needs to be faced squarely now is that whether we like it or not, and whether it was intentional or not, the United States emerged from the Cold War not only as the global hegemon but as a global empire.

The reality is that the American people have no desire for an empire. This is not to say that they don’t want the benefits, both economic and strategic. It simply means that they don’t want to pay the price. Economically, Americans want the growth potential of open markets but not the pains. Politically, they want to have enormous influence but not the resentment of the world. Militarily, they want to be protected from dangers but not to bear the burdens of a long-term strategy.

Empires are rarely planned or premeditated, and those that have been, such as Napoleon’s and Hitler’s, tend not to last. Those that endure grow organically, and their imperial status often goes unnoticed until it has become overwhelming. This was the case both for Rome and for Britain, yet they succeeded because once they achieved imperial status, they not only owned up to it, they learned to manage it.

Unlike the Roman or British Empire, the American structure of dominance is informal, but that makes it no less real. The United States controls the oceans, and its economy accounts for more than a quarter of everything produced in the world. If Americans adopt the iPod or a new food fad, factories and farms in China and Latin America reorganize to serve the new mandate. This is how the European powers governed China in the nineteenth century—never formally, but by shaping and exploiting it to the degree that the distinction between formal and informal hardly mattered.

A fact that the American people have trouble assimilating is that the size and power of the American empire is inherently disruptive and intrusive, which means that the United States can rarely take a step without threatening some nation or benefiting another. While such power confers enormous economic advantages, it naturally engenders hostility. The United States is a commercial republic, which means that it lives on trade. Its tremendous prosperity derives from its own assets and virtues, but it cannot maintain this prosperity and be isolated from the world. Therefore, if the United States intends to retain its size, wealth, and power, the only option is to learn how to manage its disruptive influence maturely.

Until the empire is recognized for what it is, it is difficult to have a coherent public discussion of its usefulness, its painfulness, and, above all, its inevitability. Unrivaled power is dangerous enough, but unrivaled power that is oblivious is like a rampaging elephant.

I will argue, then, that the next decade must be one in which the United States moves from willful ignorance of reality to its acceptance, however reluctant. With that acceptance will come the beginning of a more sophisticated foreign policy. There will be no proclamation of empire, only more effective management based on the underlying truth of the situation.