The Rising Fall of the American Empire

Republican imperialism has left the US divided. Can a United Nations initiative save America from itself?
“America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof.”
—George W. Bush, second inaugural address, January 20, 2005

“For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
—Condoleezza Rice, American University in Cairo, Egypt, June 20, 2005

“I assured the Secretary-General that Canada will work energetically between now and September to build a global consensus on his report, to have it endorsed by leaders at the summit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations to be held in September in New York, and to put it into action.”
—Paul Martin, commenting on the release of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report, “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All,” March 21, 2005

This was the summer when global realities—mass murder in London and popular mobilization for Africa—intruded on Canadian introspection. It is scarcely believable that not so many weeks ago, we were all focused on the political drama in Ottawa. As Canadians looked inward, casting doubt that we could afford a robust foreign-aid budget when our at-home health care, educational, and anti-poverty needs are so great, our elephantine neighbour to the south was looking outward and inward at the same time. It still is, and has no choice, which is why these days it is easier being a Canadian than an American, save for the growing imperative of solving the time-honoured Canadian dilemma of what to do with the American appetite for oil, water, and for winning the war against terrorism.

During recent travels, I have found Americans divided in their views on this war, but not necessarily in the ways we might assume. In the blue states, I have encountered plenty of liberals who excoriate George W. Bush every chance they get. But they also express concern about potential terror attacks on their cities in a way that Canadians never would. And in the red states, while I find fewer people with nasty things to say about the president, many express serious doubts about the war in Iraq and where it will lead. A tour guide in Lafayette, Louisiana, joked with me about Parisian snobbery regarding the way French is spoken in Cajun country. “I tell them, ‘get over it, you’re not in Paris,’ ” she said. “Anyway, the Parisians are not coming so much right now because they’re mad at us about the war.” She sighed and then added, ” It’s the wrong war.”

In southern Louisiana, there are plenty of signs in windows and bumper stickers urging people to Support Our Troops. But the war feels like something to be endured, like bad weather, not something for which there is passionate support. I found the same elsewhere, and one sensed that the mantra according to President Bush—”[The Iraqi insurgents] continue to kill in the hope that they will break the resolve of the American people, but they will fail”—as delivered on July 4 at an Independence Day speech in West Virginia, is being accepted with weary resignation. Americans might well send letters of encouragement to the troops in Iraq or visit the family of a dead soldier down the street, but of late I’ve sensed something else happening. Almost always in my travels through the United States, I, an anti-war Canadian, have been warmly received, but today there is more to it than a friendly welcome. There is, I believe, a longing to take shelter in the society of others, to not be alone in a world of detractors, whether they be from Paris, Canada, or the Middle East.

The difference between Bush’s “proclamation” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s assessment of the United States’ failures in the Middle East and announcement of a “different course” is more one of degree than kind. Both hit Jeffersonian nerves, but neither answers the troubling question: does the world, or the Middle East, want the particular brand of liberty or democracy that the United States is proclaiming or supporting? In his second inaugural address, Bush hearkened back nearly four years, to the wellspring of 9/11. Five months later, with the war in Iraq ongoing, Rice, perhaps reflecting a more sober administration, took a longer view. Of course, it must be said that sixty years ago—i.e., after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II—a global political internationalism emerged in the form of the United Nations. The idea was that by gathering nation-states around the table and forcing compromises upon them, the UN would create stability in an insecure world and keep imperialism at bay.

In design and structure, the UN represented the birth of a new global conception of co-operation across borders, while reinforcing the notion that political borders are sacrosanct. After a half-century of symmetric wars—states lining up against states in a manner not dissimilar to medieval warfare—and the imperial usurpations before that, the formation of the UN seemed a workable compromise. It was a victor’s decree, no doubt, but both victor and vanquished were relieved that wars of aggression seemed, with all those delegates sitting around the table, less likely. Such actions stood against the tenets of an emerging international law.

So why is it, then, that a single nation, the United States, has taken it upon itself to be both the world’s supercop and freedom’s patron saint?
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