The Dust of Empire

By Karl E. Meyer

The aggressive militarism of the United States that has resulted in the current occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has lead many historians and political commentators to begin discussing the ramifications of an “American Empire.” Since Imperialism has accumulated some negative baggage over the years – a reputation for racism, economic exploitation, and non-representative government – apologists for the American Empire have tried to distinguish it by saying that America is a benevolent, reluctant or unconscious Imperial power.

In The Dust of Empire, Karl Meyer argues that America rules its global empire indirectly, often through the use of authoritarian client states. The problem with such an “informal empire” (another term that gets used), is that Americans tend to reject such a role “and show small talent for empathetic reflection on how others, less favored, may view us.” In addition, America faces a “crippling disadvantage in its encounter with the inner Asian world” (the subject of this book) that is “worse than a lack of knowledge.” “It is lack of curiosity.”

Such indifference is understandable. The world’s “only remaining superpower” no longer has any reason to hide its contempt for both enemies and allies as it pursues its national interests abroad. This was the Imperial goal as announced by Colin Powell: to simply be the “biggest bully on the block.” Who cares what other people think?

Domestic criticism of American foreign policy since 9/11 has been equated with treason and terrorism, so it’s no surprise to sometimes find Meyer being as indirect as the Imperial rule he describes. But his inclusion of Mark Twain’s scathing remarks on the Boer War is obviously more than just a historical footnote:

Mr. Chamberlain [then British colonial secretary] manufactures a war out of material so inadequate and so fanciful that they make the boxes grieve and the galleries laugh, and he tries hard to persuade himself that it isn’t purely a private raid for cash, but has a sort of dim, vague respectability about it somewhere, if he could only find the spot; and that, by and by, he can scour the flag clean again after he has finished dragging it through the mud.

But that’s enough about U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Following an excellent introductory essay that considers America’s current global hegemony as “Pax Britannica, Squared,” Meyer goes on to provide historical sketches of the various countries that make up the “Asian heartland”: Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the newly-minted Caucasus and Central Asian states. In each case he also brings us up to date. One wonders how many Americans are aware of the fact that the U.S. now maintains large military bases in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This is a stealth empire as well.

As a history of the region, The Dust of Empire provides a sad, familiar chronicle of serial occupation and ideals disposed of by power. The only thing keeping many of these countries from the fate of neglect suffered by most African nations in the twentieth century has been oil. Meyer sees it as a dubious blessing: “For nations as well as people, great expectations of inherited wealth can corrupt and paralyze.” It also makes them a likely target for liberation.

The lessons learned?

History is not a blueprint but a cautionary tale. It is replete with warnings to those who believe that they can outguess the future, or that their country has a mandate from providence, or that alliances are a nuisance, or that a brusque arrogance is preferable to simulated humility.

In other words, Meyer is against the present administration’s radical unilateralism. In addition, he offers some gentle swipes at the nature of the American Empire itself. Put simply, the protection of U.S. investments in oil and gas pipelines may not be in America’s national interest if it comes at the price of exposing America’s revolutionary ideals as so much hypocrisy. Already it seems clear that the U.S. is less interested in exporting freedom and democracy than infesting the Third World with more brutal thugs and generalissimos to be removed when they cease to be of use to America, Inc.

In 1898 Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, confessed that, to him, countries were mere “pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a great game for the domination of the world.” Meyer believes that greater awareness and empathy will make America a more effective player of this ancient game. Of course imperialism has a moral dimension – it is one of the great moral issues of our time. The question is whether an American empire can afford to be idealistic and dominate the world at the same time. Meyer quotes John F. Kennedy on the limits of imperial ambitions: “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind.”

Unfortunately, the new rulers of the world seem to be taking their lead from comments made by George Kennan in 1948:

We have 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, our real job . . . is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so we have to dispense with all sentimentality . . . we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.

As Meyer demonstrates, not thinking has been the easy part.

Review first published July 20, 2003.

%d bloggers like this: