Must America Embrace Empire to Be Safe?
Must America Embrace Empire to Be Safe?
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
by David Gordon
Christopher Layne and Bradley Thayer both specialize in
international-relations theory, in particular what they term "grand
strategy," but they hold very different views on what foreign policy the
United States ought to pursue. "Distilled to its essence, grand
strategy is about determining the state's vital interests — that is,
those that are important enough for which to fight — and its role in the
world" (p. x).
Despite their differences, they are friends, and American Empire
is a debate between them. Each author begins with a long chapter
presenting his conception of grand strategy: these chapters were written
independently. After this, each responds to the other in a shorter
chapter. Layne has much the better of the argument, though he has not
fully broken from one of the dubious claims of what is misleadingly
called "realist" theory.
Both authors agree on a fundamental fact. America is at the present
time an empire, despite the facts that our leaders disclaim imperial
Is America an empire? Yes, it is. An empire is a state that surpasses
all others in capabilities and sense of mission … an empire has
worldwide interests … empires always have a mission they seek to
accomplish — this is usually creating, and then maintaining, a world
order. (p. 3)
True, our political leaders refuse to use the word "empire," but this is understandable:
They choose not to use it because it does not help to achieve the
grand strategic goals of the United States.… For an American president
or senior official to state that America is an empire would only help to
organize resistance to it. (p. 4)
A better objection to thinking that America is an empire is that we
do not have very many colonies, in the style of the empires of old. This
however is a matter of form rather than substance.
A great power also can establish an informal empire by using
its military and economic muscle — and its culture and ideology … to
install and maintain compliant, friendly regimes in foreign territories.
By ruling indirectly through local elites, an imperial power can forego
the burdens of direct colonial rule. (p. 59, emphasis in original)
Thayer defends the current order, in which America seeks to dominate
the world, but it is not altogether clear why he does so. He devotes the
bulk of his essay to a description and celebration of American power,
arguing that we can, if so minded, continue for a long time to impose
our will on the rest of the world.
The United States has the ability to dominate the world because it
has prodigious military capability, economic might, and soft power.
["Soft power," roughly, is cultural and ideological influence.]… Will it
be able to do so in the future? The answer is yes, for the foreseeable
future — the next thirty to forty years. (p. 12)
No doubt America also has the power to blow up the world, but it
hardly follows that we should do so: "can" does not imply "ought." If,
as Thayer thinks, we need to undertake the very costly task of imposing
order on the rest of the world, must there not be some nation, or group
of nations, that would otherwise pose a grave danger to our safety? If
no such danger impends, why should we undertake the Herculean task of
dictating and enforcing the terms of international order?
Thayer fails utterly to show that the United States stands in peril
from any other country. To the contrary, he shows that each of the two
most likely challengers to American hegemony — China and the European
Union — faces significant obstacles to an attempt to become the world's
Although its continued economic growth is impressive, China faces
major problems that will hinder its ability to replace the United States
as the world's hegemon … unlike China, the EU [European Union] does nor
pose a danger to the American Empire for two major reasons — political
and economic. (pp. 32, 34)
Thayer argues to this effect in order to show that the United States
can maintain world dominance, but he does not see that he has at the
same time undermined the case for doing this. Unless we face some
powerful global antagonist, what is the point of the enterprise Thayer
Thayer might reply to our objection in this way. We face no imminent
danger from others only if we maintain our hegemonic position. Should we
abandon this, other nations, China in particular, might supplant us and
hence threaten our security.
This response exposes the most basic objection to the line of thought
that Thayer pursues. He takes for granted that a world power, at least
one with a different political system from our own, poses a threat to
us. Why need this be so? To take his example of China, in what way would
even a vastly expanded and more powerful China pose an existential
threat to the United States? What political ambition does China have in
the Western hemisphere, let alone in America itself? The only
territorial conflict Thayer adduces between America and China involves
Taiwan, surely not an integral area for American security. Of course, a
power that vies for hegemonic primacy is a threat to America, if
one assumes that America needs to be the world's dominant power. But why
assume this? Thayer's defense of American hegemony begs the question by
building hegemony into the requirements for American security.
In fairness to Thayer, he does succeed in mentioning a genuine threat
to America. He is right that Islamic terrorist groups pose a genuine
danger, but it surely does not require world hegemony to contain attacks
from them. Further, as Layne aptly points out, these attacks are
responses to American policy in the Middle East, itself a product of the
hegemonic grand strategy. Were America to pursue a modest strategy
confined to defense of our own territory, it is highly doubtful that
these groups would view us as a target.
The United States may be greatly reviled in some quarters of the
Islamic world, but were the United States not so intimately involved in
the affairs of the Middle East, it's hardly likely that the detestation
would have manifested itself as violently as it did on 9/11. (p. 70)
The assumption that American security requires world hegemony is
indeed a puzzling one, and it is Layne who clarifies what lies behind
it. As mentioned earlier, both authors are realists, who stress the
primacy of power in international relations. Layne notes that one type
of realist theory underlies Thayer's approach. "Offensive realism holds
that the best strategy for a great power is to gain primacy because, if
it can do so, it will not face any serious challenges to its security"
As the old adage has it, the best defense is a good offense, and some
proponents of this school of thought willingly embrace drastic
prescriptions for policy. The mere prospect that China might rise in
power to challenge American primacy is for these offensive realists
sufficient grounds for launching a preventive war against that country.
Advocates of containment hope that … this strategy will halt China's
rise and preserve America's primacy. However, as one leading proponent
of containment argues, if these steps fail to stop China's great power
emergence, "the United States should consider harsher measures." That
is, before its current military advantage over China is narrowed, the
United States should launch a preventive war to forestall China's
emergence as a peer competitor. (p. 73)
Layne does not mention in the text the author of this harrowing idea,
but his reference discloses that it is the book's coauthor, Bradley
Thayer (p. 99, note 74).
Layne's response to offensive realism is within its own terms a good
one. He points out that the pursuit of world hegemony will arouse the
resentment of other nations, encouraging them to unite against the
Up to a point … it is a good thing for a state to be powerful. But
when a state becomes too powerful, it frightens others; in self-defense,
they seek to offset and contain those great powers that aspire to
primacy. (p. 63)
So far as the danger to us posed by rising powers like China is
concerned, why not rely on regional coalitions of nations to "balance
against" the new threat? This is the essence of the "offshore balancing"
strategy that Layne favors. It is, he holds, much less costly and
dangerous than offensive realism.
The key component of a new geopolitical approach by the United States
would be the adoption of an offshore balancing strategy.… The other
major powers in Asia — Japan, Russia, India — have a much more immediate
interest in stopping a rising China in their midst than does the United
States, and it is money in the bank that they will step up to the plate
and balance against a powerful, expansionist state in their own
neighborhood. (p. 76)
Though Layne makes some excellent points, he fails fully to break
with the "realist" axiom that the mere existence of a powerful state
poses a danger to us. Thus, he calls for the government to regulate
trade with China in order to hamper its technological progress:
American trade with China should be driven by strategic, not market,
considerations.… Individual American corporations may have an interest
in penetrating the Chinese market, but there is no national interest, for example, in permitting U.S. firms to facilitate China's development of an advanced aerospace industry. (p. 74)
Unless a nation directly threatens us, why should we endeavor to impede its activities?
Despite taking for granted this dubious realist dogma, Layne's essays
are insightful. He notes that, in justification of American hegemony,
offensive realism is often combined with another wrongheaded view,
democratic-peace theory. This holds that democracies do not fight other
democracies. Hence, it is highly desirable for world peace to establish
democratic regimes where these do not presently exist. Concerning this
position, Layne remarks,
The democratic peace theory is probably the most overhyped and
undersupported "theory" ever to be concocted by American academics. In
fact, it is not a theory at all. Rather it is a theology that suits the
conceits of Wilsonian true believers — especially the neoconservatives
who have been advocating American Empire since the early 1990s. (p. 94)
Though offshore balancing is a vast improvement over American empire,
it is not the best available grand strategy. The prize goes rather to
isolationism: its proponents "argue that the United States should
withdraw from involvement in international politics" (p. 3).
Long ago, John Quincy Adams expressed the point in more eloquent
fashion: "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy."
David Gordon covers new books in economics, politics, philosophy, and law for The Mises Review, the quarterly review of literature in the social sciences, published since 1995 by the Mises Institute. He is author of The Essential Rothbard, available in the Mises Store. Send him mail. See David Gordon's article archives.
Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to
reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is
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