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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Empire and Its Denizens

(Reprinted from the issue of May 15, 2003)

Capitol BldgPower seems to have a life of its own. At every level, from the local social club to global politics, it seems to have a tendency to consolidate. There are people who are interested in it, love it, and seek it; most people ignore it and remain naïve about it. Naturally, the former nearly always rule the latter.

Our Lord tells us to be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves.” As C.S. Lewis observes, it is easy to forget the first part of this counsel. We need to be wary of power without coveting it. Our Lord, seeing through the Pharisees but never emulating them, is our example.

What is the pattern of power in our time? With the end (or temporary cessation) of the new war in the Mideast, I believe we can begin to see a broad outline.

I have often written about the baneful trend toward the centralization of power within the United States, where the federal government has acquired an effective monopoly of power since the Civil War, such that it can now declare abortion a “right” which no state may abridge. A similar and possibly even more dangerous trend has been occurring globally for many years.

In 1946 James Burnham published The Struggle for the World, in which he contended, against all received opinion at the time, that a third world war was likely to begin soon — within five or ten years, he predicted. The atomic bomb had accelerated the pace of history. Like many of Burnham’s predictions, this was carefully reasoned but wrong, yet not absurdly wrong. One of his most arresting predictions — not a prophecy, but an analysis — was that the struggle must end with either a Soviet or an American global empire.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union were deadly enemies, and the Cold War several times came close to a nuclear showdown. As it was, there were very hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War finally ended with the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991, though it had been virtually finished by 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.

In hindsight, I think we can see most of the 20th century, from 1914 to 1989, as a single “Great War.” That was what World War I was called until World War II usurped the title; as a French general remarked at the armistice, this was not a real peace but a 20-year truce. But what began as a European war centering on Germany became indeed a “struggle for the world” when World War II ended with another false peace. And in 1989 the United States finally emerged as the victor, enjoying global hegemony.

Only a few Americans have clearly understood that contrary to our sentimental illusions, the old federated constitutional republic has become not only a single consolidated state, but an empire as well. Today the president has ceased to be a mere executive, subordinate to the legislative branch, and has become an elective emperor, a temporary Caesar.

This change is hard for Americans to see, because it goes against our cherished national myths and has no close historical precedent. But foreigners may see it more clearly than we do. To American ears, the phrase “American imperialism” still sounds like leftist jargon. But it is more accurate than our slogans of democracy.

In my view, we are now in a new phase of history. The “Great War,” the struggle for the world, has ended in empire. Now the empire has entered a series of smaller wars to consolidate its power. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (which began as "Operation Infinite Justice") was one of those wars.

War is only one of the means of global control. Money, trade, credit, propaganda, punitive sanctions, and international agencies (under U.S. domination) are others. The Wilsonian fiction of “self-determination” is still honored verbally, but in fact the U.S. claims the authority to decide the internal arrangements of other states. Iraq, for example, must be “democratic” in some sense, but it must not elect Baathist or Islamicist rulers. Iraqis, in other words, may hold popular elections, but only within a “constitution” dictated by the U.S.

This has naturally produced a hostile reaction around the world. Mass demonstrations and riots against “globalization,” terrorist acts, and the huge recent antiwar movement are some of the signs of the times. Foreign governments, traditional allies and enemies alike — France, Germany, Russia, China, and North Korea, among others — have also made their displeasure known. The entire Muslim world hates the U.S.; Islam, not just “radical Islamism,” is basically incompatible with the American Empire and Muslims know it. So is Christianity, though most Christians haven’t yet realized it.

Militarily, the empire appears more than invincible. Al-Qaeda made a brief and spectacular impression, but seems to have shot its wad, after giving the empire an excuse for new controls on its American population. Any new challenge will probably come from China, but not for a few years at least.

And yet America doesn’t think of itself as an empire. Even its rulers still seem to believe this remains “the land of the free.” It makes its conquests in the name of democracy, freedom, liberation, and human rights. But it is easily angered by expressions of insubordination, as the French have just learned. Secession from the empire, like secession from the U.S., is forbidden.

One of the oddities of this empire is that it has no formal doctrine. It refuses to call its acquisitions conquests or to repudiate the U.S. Constitution, which has become a dead letter. Yet its mentality is imperial, as the popular outrage against France illustrates. How dare these satellites act like sovereign states!

Can this empire last? Nobody knows. Its currency and economy are shaky; everything could collapse suddenly, though it probably won’t. Bill Clinton took the role of temporary emperor lightly; George W. Bush, egged on by advisers, takes it seriously; a new emperor could be elected next year, and might well avoid Bush’s heavy-handed approach to the satellites. American power will remain for the time being, but how it will be wielded is another matter.

At any rate, the old America — the America of hard work and sound money, of thrift and piety, of small property and free markets, of individual freedom and responsibility, of limited government and dispersed power — is gone.

The kind of people who made the old America hardly exist anymore. Their descendants might as well belong to another species; anyway, they will soon be outnumbered by aliens and “minorities.” Few women now would even think of having large families.

Americans neither remember the old America nor comprehend the new one, which defies comprehension. What is an “American” these days? Someone who has filled out the proper forms? One out of hundreds of millions of disinherited people, who have nothing in common but a government that supplies them with depreciating paper currency? A mere digit of the empire, I suppose.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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