Some of the worst tragedies of human history occur when elites are incapable
of acting in their own interest. The waning years of ancient Rome, for example,
were full of misguided political and military adventures that brought death and
destruction to the elites, their allies and their enemies alike. Unfortunately
we are again facing such a situation.
It seems inevitable that the United States will soon conduct a full-scale war
in Iraq. The US is also engaged in a war on terrorism that may extend to all regions
of the globe. And, most importantly, the US has embarked on a foreign policy of
"security" that dictates that it not merely react to threats but anticipate them
with pre-emptive strikes.
These military adventures are one sign that the US is fast becoming an imperialist
power along the old European model, but on a global scale. It is imposing itself
as the active and determining center of the full range of world affairs, military,
political, and economic. All exchanges and decisions are being forced, in effect,
to pass through the US.
The ultimate hubris of the US political leaders is their belief that they can
not only force regime change and name new leaders for various countries, but also
actually shape the global environment - an audacious extension of the old imperialist
ideology of mission civilisatrice . Regime change in Iraq is only the first step
in an ambitious project to reconstruct the political order of the entire Middle
East. And their designs of power extend well beyond that.
Many political and economic elites around the world, however, do not favor
the creation of a new US imperialism. One common view is that European political
leaders generally oppose US unilateralism because it excludes them and prefer
instead multilateral political and military solutions. What are most significant,
however, are not the conflicting interests that separate US elites from others,
but rather their common interests.
The common interests of the global elites are most visible in the economic
sphere. Business leaders around the globe recognize that imperialism is bad for
business because it sets up barriers that hinder global flows. The potential profits
of capitalist globalization, which whet the appetites of business elites everywhere
only a few years ago, depend on open systems of production and exchange. This
is equally true for the captains of capital in the US. Even for the US industrialists
drunk on oil, their real interests lie in the potential profits of capitalist
Their common interests are equally visible from the perspective of security.
It is foolish to believe that the removal of a few malefactors, such as Osama
bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, will provide security. Not even the US leaders have
the illusion that this war will bring peace. They see it rather as a long-lasting
and perhaps interminable war driven by continually emerging threats. US military
actions will, in fact, most likely only feed the antagonisms created by the inequalities
of wealth and power around the world, increasing exponentially the insecurity
of global elites. This is doubly true for US elites since unilateral military
actions paint a bull's-eye on the US for anyone seeking to attack the center of
However, there is an alternative to US imperialism: global power can be organized
in a decentered form, which Toni Negri and I call "empire". This is not merely
a multilateral coalition of leading nation states. Think of it as multilateralism
squared. Empire is a network composed of different kinds of powers, including
the dominant nation states, supranational organizations, such as the United Nations
and the IMF, multinational corporations, NGOs, the media, and others. There are
hierarchies among the powers that constitute empire but despite their differences
they function together in the network.
This decentered network power of empire corresponds to the interests of global
elites because it both facilitates the potential profits of capitalist globalization
and displaces or defuses potential security threats. Once empire is firmly established
as the prevailing form of global rule, those who oppose the domination of global
elites in the name of equality, freedom, and democracy will certainly find ways
to struggle against it. But that does not mean that we prefer imperialism today.
We can be confident that in the long run their real interests will lead global
elites to support empire and refuse any project of US imperialism. In the coming
months, and perhaps years, we may face a tragedy that we read about in the darkest
periods of human history, when elites are incapable of acting in their own interest.
Michael Hardt is professor of literature at Duke University, North Carolina,
and co-author with Antonio Negri of Empire
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002