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The Weakness of Empire

An unmanned drone hovers over the house of a suspected leader of a terrorist cell, the craft’s camera and missiles controlled by a soldier thousands of miles away on the plains of Kansas. A missile is launched, and the terrorist is blown apart—but so are innocent bystanders, among them a dark-eyed eight-year old girl named Aeisha who dreamed of becoming a doctor.

Can our war on terror justify the death of this child? Or is it a step down a path not only toward the creation of more terrorists, but also toward our resembling terrorists more? Are there better ways of achieving our goals? This is not a liberal or conservative issue; it is not only an ethical challenge, but also a question of practical self-interest bearing on the safety of our own children. As we make greater use of drones, we find it impossible to imagine that similar technologies might someday be used against us.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the United States continues to assume that it can most effectively head off potential threats by deploying, from 800-odd bases around the world, the most powerful military force in the history of the planet. Have we citizens given conscious consent to this policy, or have we drifted into it? Will genuine security be the outcome of continuing in this direction? Or is our police-the-world conception of power as obsolete as those of past empires like England, Spain, the Soviet Union—or Rome?

If our imperial project collapses because we relied too much on military definitions of strength, it will not matter whether our motivation was the disinterested expansion of freedom, or the self-interested expansion of markets for our goods, or the control of remaining sources of fossil fuels.

Why do empires fail? First because they over-extend themselves, second because the peoples of the world always push back against what they perceive as unjustified domination, and third because true security calls for addressing issues that are insoluble by military means— issues like the global challenge of maintaining sustainable sources of food, water and energy in the context of growing climate instability.

Over-extension can be seen in what we already ask our volunteer military to do in our name—repeated tours of duty which put intolerable pressures on families; nation-building projects beyond the scope and skills of our troops; and the giving and receiving of brute violence that resolves nothing. Over-extension also has obvious implications at home, where economic stresses, including the ever-rising national debt, challenge our domestic resiliency.

The second reason over-reliance upon military strength will fail is pushback. What Americans may rationalize as noble aims, people in other cultures, who are as real as we are in spite of cultural differences, will be less willing to see in a positive light. War, no matter who is perceived to have started it, is often embedded in a cycle of retaliation that continues through generations. This vicious circle will create more terrorism than it eliminates.

Our belief in American exceptionalism, which at its best posits our ideals as the hope of the world, has a shadow side: we think we are exempt from reaping what we sow. We assume we can rationalize torture or the murder of innocent bystanders without a terminal loss of integrity. If we do, we will gradually become the very thing we despise and resist. And then pushback, the violent response to our own violence, will only increase.

A third reason we need to change the way we think about our strength is that there are security challenges the military is not presently designed to address—though this could change, and is already starting to change, as military leaders understand the need to win hearts and minds.

But the cost of preparing for and waging even small wars has become so huge that it becomes much more efficient to prevent wars by meeting human needs directly. Should we maintain bases to secure the flow of oil from the Middle East, or should we build windmills in our own Midwest that not only increase our supply of non-fossil-fuel energy, but also allow us to lighten our military footprint in places where it may be fatally resented? Manufacturers of missiles and fighter jets who are concerned that if peace broke out their bottom line would suffer, can also make the solar panels and mass transit infrastructure that are alternative indicators of national well-being.

We can apply similar thinking to the places where extremists are actively training to do us harm. The reality that 500,000 Soviet troops could not subdue the tribal chaos of Afghanistan in a decade of occupation contains a lesson for America about the role of military force in making a barely functioning state more resilient. In his school building projects, Greg Mortenson has shown another way, tapping into a universal yearning for the education that will lead people beyond the simplistic temptations of extremism.

Finding alternatives to militarism is based in a paradigm shift that has already occurred. It happened during the fifty-year experience of the cold war period, including the hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. Those who possessed nuclear weapons, the ultimate military option, realized that they could not use them to win wars, because such use might initiate a world-destroying holocaust.

With the understanding that our planet is too small to sustain another world war, there is now a global consensus that nuclear weapons are useless and self-defeating. But because our existing stockpiles of warheads cannot deter non-state entities from using nuclear or other means of mass destruction, the way forward to security is blocked first of all by the weapons themselves—including our own. Nuclear war itself has become the ultimate enemy. The negotiation of reciprocal treaties for the reduction of existing warheads and the securing of loose nuclear materials becomes the only path open to the community of nations that leads to safety for all.

The United States is strong enough to defend itself not only militarily, but also to strengthen global security by enlarging its non-military initiatives toward a world in need. It will help us arrive more quickly where we wanted to get by the unworkable model of domination. When you become more secure, autonomous, and resilient, I become more secure. It is more in my interest to befriend you, to ask what you really need and try to supply it, than to threaten or bomb you into submission.

Our country can still decide to awaken from the delusions of empire and instead lead the world beyond war. If we humans can learn to resolve our conflicts without the use of nuclear weapons that would exterminate millions, the way is surely open to resolving our conflicts without violence on any level—without blowing up Aiesha, the dark-eyed girl who dreamed of becoming a doctor.

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