Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor.
America has become an empire, a fact that Americans are reluctant to admit and that critics of the United States regard with great alarm.
Since the end of the cold war, the US has exercised an unparalleled and largely unrivaled influence throughout the world economically, politically, culturally, and militarily. Critics of America, at home and abroad, are right to worry about how US power is being used.
The critics charge that America is no different from other rapacious empires that have trampled the continents in previous centuries. Within the universities, intellectuals speak of American policies as “neo-imperialist,” because they promote the goals of empire while eschewing the term.
America talks about lofty ideals, the critics say, but in reality it pursues its naked self-interest. In the Gulf War, for example, America’s leaders asserted they were fighting for human rights, but in truth they were fighting to protect US access to oil. The critics point to past US support for dictators like Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and the Shah of Iran as evidence that Americans don’t really care about democratic ideals.
Even now the US supports unelected regimes in Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. No wonder, the critics say, so many people around the world are anti-American and some even resort to terrorism to lash out.
Are the critics right? They are correct to note the extent of American influence, but wrong to suggest that the US is no different from such colonial powers as the British, French, and Spanish that once dominated the world. Those empires like the Islamic, Mongol, and Chinese empires were sustained primarily by force. The British ruled my native country of India with some 100,000 troops.
US domination is not sustained primarily by force. True, America has bases in the Middle East and Far East, and it can intervene militarily just about anywhere in the world.
But the real power of America extends far beyond its military capabilities. Walk into a hotel in Barbados or Bombay and the bellhop is whistling the theme from “Titanic.” African boys in remote villages wear baseball caps. Millions of people around the globe want to move to America. Countless people are drawn to America’s technology, freedom, and way of life.
Some critics sneer that these aspirations are short-sighted. Perhaps they are right. People may be wrong to want the American lifestyle, and may not foresee its disadvantages, but at least they are seeking it voluntarily.
What about the occasions, though, when America does exercise military power? Here we can hardly deny the critics’ allegation that the US acts to promote its self-interest. Even so, Americans can feel immensely proud of how often their country has served their interests while simultaneously promoting noble ideals and the welfare of others. Yes, America fought the Gulf War in part to protect its oil interests, but it also fought to liberate the Kuwaitis from Iraqi invasion.
But what about long-lasting US backing for dictators, like Somoza, Pinochet, Marcos, and the shah? It should be noted that, in each case, the US eventually turned against their regimes and aided in their ouster.
In Chile and the Philippines, the outcome was favorable: The Pinochet and Marcos regimes were replaced by democratic governments that endure. In Nicaragua and Iran, however, one form of tyranny gave way to another.
These outcomes highlight a foreign- policy staple, the principle of the lesser evil. This means that one should not pursue a thing that seems good if it is likely to result in something worse. A second implication is that one is usually justified in allying with a bad guy to oppose a regime that is worse. A classic example was the American alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler.
Thus, many US actions that support tin-pot dictators become defensible. Remember, America was fighting a cold war. If one accepts that the Soviet Union was indeed an “evil empire,” then the US was right to attach more importance to Marcos and Pinochet’s anti-Soviet position than to their autocratic thuggery.
NOW the cold war is over, so why does America support despotic regimes like those of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the royal family in Saudi Arabia? Again, examine the practical alternative to those regimes.
Unfortunately there do not seem to be viable liberal, democratic parties in the Middle East. The alternative to Mr. Mubarak and the Saudi royal family appears to be Islamic fundamentalists of the bin Laden stripe. Faced with the choice between “uncompromising medievals” and “corrupt moderns,” America must side with the corrupt.
Remember, also, the larger context. America is the most magnanimous imperial power ever. After leveling Japan and Germany during World War II, the US rebuilt them. For the most part, America is an abstaining superpower. It shows no real interest in conquering the rest of the world, even though it can. On occasion, the US intervenes in Grenada or Haiti or Bosnia, but it never stays to rule them.
Moreover, when America does get into a war, it is supremely careful to avoid targeting civilians. Even as US bombs destroyed the infrastructure of the Taliban, American planes dropped rations of food to avert hardship and starvation of Afghan civilians. What other country does such things?
Jeane Kirkpatrick once said that “Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is.” The reason many Americans don’t feel this way is that they judge themselves by a higher standard. Thus if the Chinese, the Arabs, or the sub-Saharan Africans slaughter 10,000 of their own people, the world utters a collective sigh and resumes normal business.
By contrast, if America, in the middle of a war, accidentally bombs a school and kills 200 civilians, there is an uproar and an investigation. All of this demonstrates America’s evident moral superiority.
If this be the workings of empire, let us have more of it.
Dinesh D’Souza’s new book, What’s So Great About America, has just been released by Regnery Publishing. He is the Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California. You can also read this article online on the Christian Science Monitor website here.