America's imperial ambitions

November 14, 1997|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- Bill Clinton's first foreign policy action when he became president was to bomb Iraq. Now, five years on, perhaps he is going to end up bombing Iraq again. With a military whose firepower has no peer, supported by a budget more than the military budgets of all the other industrial nations of the world combined, the temptation to work outside of U.N. authority and deliver a quick one is obviously difficult to resist. The job of U.S. president comes with the burden of 200 years of America's twin aspirations -- to be invulnerable and to be able to realize its imperial ambitions.

Worldly wisdom

One thing can be said with assurance after watching Mr. Clinton as commander-in-chief for five years: He never absorbed in any significant amounts the worldly wisdom of his mentor, William Fulbright, the Arkansas senator who became chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee and who resisted President Lyndon Johnson's expansion of the Vietnam War with far greater effectiveness than the Oxford student out on the streets of London, shouting slogans at the American embassy. It was Fulbright who coined the phrase, in the title of his great book on foreign policy, ''The Arrogance of Power.''

Mr. Clinton once said that the United States cannot be ''simply . . . another great power.'' But he has never put flesh on this thought and has surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers who could not sit comfortably in the same room as the likes of Fulbright.

If Bill Clinton had wanted a different foreign policy in the mold of Fulbright there were good thoughtful people to hire -- such as Ronald Steel, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and author of ''Temptations of a Superpower,'' who has argued that ''if America is not to exhaust itself in pursuit of grandiose ambitions it must re-establish a sense of the feasible.'' Or Harvey Sapolsky, professor of public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who earlier this year in a seminal article in Harvard University's International Security effectively demolished the rationale behind America's growing reach abroad, in particular NATO expansion and a more vigorous presence in east Asia.

Perhaps, too, he should bring in the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, Farsed Zakaria, who in an artful piece in its non-establishment rival, World Policy Journal strips off the layers of obfuscation and myth-making in American foreign policy to make plain that the United States has always been driven by expansionist desires and now that it meets no real resistance is perhaps at last going to realize its innermost desires.

''Once, the story goes,'' mocks Mr. Zakaria, ''there was a great and pure republic called the United States of America. It was governed by statesmen who husbanded the nation's power and exercised it prudently. America's history was not one of imperialism but of economic growth and nation building.''

The only period when this comfortable, but very widely accepted received interpretation, is disallowed by today's conventional wisdom was during the presidency of William McKinley, who at the end of the 19th century unaccountably went to war with Spain and annexed the Philippines.

'The American ideal'

If only this were the only exception. But the truth is, writes Mr. Zakaria, ''ever since the thirteen colonies, nestled east of the Allegheny Mountains, relentlessly marched west to acquire and occupy the continent, expansionism and imperialism have been

part of the American ideal.''

These ambitions were not exhausted with the conquest of California. In the 1850s, in the aftermath of the Mexican war, American leaders waxed lyrical on the need for further expansion.

American diplomats tried to negotiate the purchase of parts of Mexico, Cuba and Hawaii. Even Canada was a target. John Quincy Adams thought that, eventually, the United States would annex all of North America.

For a while, the Civil War tempered these ambitions. Once over, they reappeared, with new fervor. Since Britain had allied itself with the defeated Confederacy, revenge would be sweet if its Canadian possession to the north could be taken. Only the might of the British navy kept the American debate, led by Abraham Lincoln's imperial-minded secretary of state, William Henry Seward, within sensible bounds.

A major power

By the turn of the century, America had the wealth, the power and the means to chart its own foreign waters, irrespective of Britain. And now, at century's end, the world is America's oyster. The danger of such power is the danger of those who always fly too close to the sun. To believe that what is good for America is good for the world is to set America up, in the due course of time, for an equal and opposite reaction.

This is not to say that today's issue of bringing Saddam Hussein to book is wrong. It is profoundly right. But, although America has the military muscle to do it alone, it has to discipline itself to take the world along with it.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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