Jonathan Schell on the Empire that Fell as it Rose

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Jonathan Schell on the Empire that Fell as it Rose

Had anyone in Washington bothered to read Jonathan Schell's prophetic -- or perhaps I should just say, historically on the mark -- book The Unconquerable World, Iraq could not have happened and all the dreams of the neocons, hatched in the claustrophobic confines of right-wing think tanks and the corridors of power in Washington, would have evaporated into thin air. A reconsideration of several centuries of the imperial "war system," as it built up through a series of extreme moments of violence in the last century to a kind of global paralysis that nonetheless left the Earth and all its inhabitants in deadly peril, Unconquerable World also laid out unerringly the successful resistance to that system, both by force of arms (in the form of national liberation movements) and by aggressively nonviolent means. In the process, Jonathan uncovered a series of nonviolent pathways in history that seemed to lead into a possible future and so might someday beckon us further.

Because I edited the book, I had an advantage. I knew the moment we took Baghdad and the looting began that some kind of resistance movement (or movements) would drive our then triumphant President to the polls in November 2004 and I wrote that immediately. The Unconquerable World is now out in paperback. I seldom say this, but you would be making a terrible mistake not to add it to your bookshelf and not, then, to rush it to the top of your reading list.

In the course of our work together, as he says below, we often discussed not just the imperial systems he was writing about, but the nature of the one we were living in. Here's our most recent exchange. Tom


Dear Tom,

You'll remember that just before the September 11 attacks, when I was writing and you were editing my book The Unconquerable World, you were much readier than I to call American policies "imperial" and the United States an "empire." I hesitated; I hung back. After all, one theme of the book was that the age of empires was over. The newly expired twentieth century, I pointed out, was one huge boneyard of empires: the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Ottomans, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians. Imperial rulers had repeatedly been amazed to find themselves overmatched by the localized, intense, and finally unquenchable forces of national resistance movements. More startling still, the success of those movements invariably depended mainly on political, not military strength. In some cases, such as Gandhi's independence movement against the British in India, and the Polish rebellion against the Soviet empire, the struggles succeeded without using violence at all.

The twentieth-century anti-imperial movement triumphed almost everywhere. No political creed, feudal or modern, was able to defeat it. Yet almost any political creed proved adequate for winning independence. Liberal democracy (the United States in 1776, Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s), communism (China, Vietnam, Cambodia), racism (the Boers of South Africa), militarism (many South American states), theocracy (Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in the 1980s), even monarchy (Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century) had all proved suitable for achieving self-determination. In these circumstances, it seemed almost unimaginable that the United States could really be aiming at that hoary old nightmare of the ages, the always-feared but never-realized ambition to win universal empire, otherwise known as "world domination" (as people used to say of the Soviet Union's goals in the Cold War years). In any case, didn't "imperialism" mean rule over other countries -- viceroys issuing orders from grandiose palaces, occupying armies, colonial administrations -- which were methods mostly avoided by the United States?

These differences regarding empire were quickly settled in your favor after September 11. I gave up my reservations. Like the empires of old, the United States set out to rule foreign lands -- directly, as in the case of Iraq (I won't even pause to rebut the risible claim that that country was recently handed "sovereignty") or indirectly, as in Afghanistan. I joined you in speaking of American empire. We were hardly alone. In fact, if there was one thing that everyone suddenly seemed to agree on, it was that the U.S. was an empire, and a global one at that. There were the right-wingers, like New York Times columnist David Brooks, celebrant of America's yuppie class, who called the United States the first "suburban empire," and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who wanted the U.S. to step up to "national greatness" and "benign" empire. (And which empire has not seen itself as benign?) There were the new realists, like the journalist Robert Kaplan, admirer of Henry Kissinger, who championed American "Supremacy by stealth," and supplied U.S. policy-makers with "Ten Rules for Managing the World." There were the liberal imperialists -- or, as I think of them, the romantic militarists-- like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East and elsewhere at the point of a gun. And then there was the left, which had long excoriated American imperialism and still did. Once, the left had stood alone in calling the U.S. imperial and was reviled for defaming the nation. Now it turned out to have been the herald of a new consensus. Yesterday's leftwing abuse became today's mainstream praise.

And surely there was no word in the extant vocabulary but imperial for the post-September 11 policies of the Bush administration -- for its unilateralism, its doctrines of preemptive war and regime change, its frankly avowed ambition to achieve global hegemony (although the administration itself continued to disavow the imperial label).

Yet the consensus was short-lived. As the debacle in Iraq unfolded, the note of the imperial trumpet grew uncertain. I also began to wonder again about my embrace of the language of empire. My old reservations started cropping up in new forms. For one thing, if, as so many mainstream commentators were saying, the United States was self-evidently an empire, when did this happen? Was it with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican-American war of the 1840s, the allied victory in the Second World War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that left only the "sole superpower" standing? Or was it perhaps at some undetermined moment in the giddy decade that followed? Did any of the new mainstream imperial apologists notice the development, or alert anyone else to what was happening? Was I looking the other way when the transformation was announced? I am unaware that any candidate ran on an imperial program, or that any voters voted for one. Or did empire simply sneak up on the country -- a stealth empire indeed -- as in the case of the British empire, once famously said to have been acquired in a fit of absence of mind? Can a people rule the world without noticing it?

Such an account of American history involves a spectacular denial of agency -- and of democratic responsibility -- to voters and politicians alike. Moreover, an assumption that the imperial deed is already done deprives the public of decision-making power for the future. Why debate a decision already taken? American empire then acquires the tremendous weight of accomplished fact, and the only realistic question becomes not whether to run the world, but only how to do so. Before the Iraq invasion, Michael Ignatieff of Harvard wrote that the United States was an empire "in denial." He wanted the United States to wake up and face its imperial responsibilities: "enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest," "laying down the rules America wants," "carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century -- Ottoman, British and Soviet." For "in the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones -- Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two -- that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past." This was reluctant, sorrowful imperialism. The British historian Niall Ferguson took the argument a step further, writing an entire book, Colossus, praising the fallen British empire and inviting the United States to step into its shoes.

These ideas seem to me to embody a grand misreading of events. Ignatieff and Ferguson appear to look at twentieth century history as a contest among empires that was won by the United States, opening the way for it to run the world. As I see it, however, the United States is likely to prove the last of the long series of imperial tenpins that have been knocked down not by other empires but by local independence struggles. Once it has become clear to everyone that the American imperial bid has failed, and with it the entire age-old imperial enterprise, we can return to the mountainous real work of our time, which is to put together what we have never had but now must create -- an anti-imperial, democratic way of organizing the world.

We're now almost three years into the out-of-the closet American imperial timetable, and I doubt even the most eager imperialists can argue that things are going well. North Korea, a member of the President's "Axis of Evil" has reportedly become a nuclear power, in defiance of the explicit threats made by the global hegemon. Iran, another Axis member, is heading down the same path. The long-awaited recovery of the American economy, like the empire it is supposed to support, is stalling. American forces are stretched to the breaking point around the world. World opinion on all continents has turned against the United States. But the centerpiece of the imperial endeavor is of course the war in Iraq, as Ignatieff recognized in his pre-war essay, in which he wrote that Iraq was "a defining moment in America's long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic."

The war, launched in pursuit of a mirage (those missing weapons of mass destruction), is an unqualified disaster. But the most remarkable "intelligence failure" in Iraq was not to see weapons of mass destruction where there were none; it was to blind ourselves to the struggle of national resistance that history told us would have to follow American invasion and occupation. It was perfectly reasonable (though mistaken) to think that Saddam Hussein had revived his WMD programs. It was delusional to imagine that the people of a post-colonial country would happily accept a new occupation. No consultation with British or French or Israel intelligence agencies was needed to grasp this lesson. It was writ large in the annals of twentieth century history, including the voluminous records of the United States' defeat in Vietnam. The lessons of Vietnam remain important not because the Vietnamese nation resembles the Iraqi nation but because Vietnam was America's very own, protracted, anguished experience of the almost universal story of imperial defeat at the hands of local peoples determined to run their own countries.

Like every other chapter in the long history of the fight against empire, the war in Iraq has had its peculiar features. When the United States arrived in Baghdad, there was no pre-existing popular resistance movement (or movements) in place -- Saddam Hussein had seen to that --, as there had been when the American military arrived in force in Vietnam. Neither was there any apparatus of an imperial puppet government at hand like Ngo Dinh Diem's in Vietnam. Instead, there was a double political vacuum. The consequence was anarchy, immediately visible in the looting of the country in the days following the conquest. Now, that vacuum is being filled on one side. Movements of national resistance have arisen in both the Sunni north and the Shiite south. (The Kurdish population is friendly to the United States but not to the Iraq that the United States wants it to join.) On the American side, a former Baathist official and CIA asset, Iyad Allawi, does the bidding of the United States without benefit of popular support. The contest has assumed a form distressingly familiar from other anti-imperial movements. The local resistors are weak militarily but strong politically. The imperial masters are powerful militarily but nearly helpless politically. History teaches that in these contests, it is political power that prevails. The shameful and piteous slaughter throughout southern Iraq of Iraqi Shiites, the people the United States supposedly went to war to save, has the look of one of those victorious battles that loses the war.

But the full truth may be that the war in Iraq was lost before it was launched. The preemptive war was pre-lost. The problem was not the Bush Administration's incompetence, great as that has been, but the incurable incapacity of any foreign conqueror to win local hearts and minds, on which everything, in the last analysis, depends.

Don't the recent fortunes of the "empire" as a whole reveal a similar pattern of political weakness underlying military strength? "Rise and Fall" -- these are terms inseparably connected to the story of empires, and the question at any given moment has ordinarily been where an empire is on this curve. But the place on the rise-and-fall trajectory of today's American empire is not easy to calibrate. It seems to be rising and falling at the same time. It garrisons the globe, but accomplishes little. The emperor in Washington thunders his instructions to the five continents but is often disregarded. America's military power is "super," but its use seems to hurt the user. Perhaps the American empire was pre-fallen. It seems not so much to rise or fall as, all at the same time, to expand and contract, to thunder and retreat.

We should perhaps not be surprised by this merging of sequence. The handwriting announcing failure was not on the proverbial wall in the form of a prediction whose fulfillment had to be awaited, it was inscribed in every history book of the last hundred years. The verdict was delivered before the crime was committed.

I know the question is many-layered. Critics were calling economic globalization imperialism long before George Bush ever attempted regime change in Iraq, and they still have substantial reasons for doing so. But surely it would be as much a mistake to assume the triumph of an American imperial system while the issue is still in the balance as it was for the president to proclaim "mission accomplished" on the USS Abraham Lincoln shortly after American troops had taken Baghdad.

The new imperialists told us that the United States could run the world if only it snapped out of denial and got on with the job. The results are before our eyes. Is the United States then a globe-straddling empire? Not just yet -- and maybe never.

Love, Jonathan

[Jonathan Schell is a Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute. His recent book on three centuries of imperial violence and responses to it, The Unconquerable World, Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People, has just come out in paperback.]


Dear Jonathan

As you know, I'm less a theorist of empire than an anti-imperialist by gut and intuition. But when you have a country whose military, spying, and covert-action budgets combined easily top the half-trillion dollar mark; when both major political parties at their conventions feel the need to immerse themselves to their eyeballs in the blood-drenched flag and in glorious memories of past wars; when our country seems incapable of not fighting a war or launching a military "intervention" somewhere on our planet every few years; when the sun never sets on our 700-plus military bases and our intellectuals, incapable of explaining the existence of those bases in such numbers, fall silent on the subject; when our elected Congress, with the supposed power of the purse, finds itself incapable of saying no, even to the most outlandish budgetary requests of our unelected military; when our President decides to reorganize our basing structure and redeploy tens of thousands of troops globally over the coming decade so that we will be even better prepared to intervene in what is now called the "arc of instability," which more or less overlaps with the major oil-lands of our planet, and his opponent responds by launching a fierce attack on him before a military audience for removing some of our troops from the Korean peninsula after half a century; when, no matter which presidential candidate wins the November election, the Pentagon and our intelligence services are guaranteed to grow still larger and be even more lavishly funded; when our globe -- the whole shebang -- is divided into five commands (PACOM, CENTCOM, SOUTHCOM, EURCOM, and the newest NORTHCOM, for North America itself), and the generals who head these commands act like global viceroys to whom our civilian diplomats must bow, while they themselves report only to the Secretary of Defense and the President; when our best-funded, blue-sky environmental research takes place in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and involves hitching nature to weapons development; when our military planners consider our militarization of space a singular priority for the future control of the planet; when we already have superweapons in the planning stage for the half-century mark, but no significant planning in the works for dealing with global warming or energy dependence next year; when -- but I know that you could add to this list as easily as I can -- then, it seems to me, based on the if-it-quacks-and-waddles-it's-a-duck school of political philosophy, you're talking about an imperial presence -- a military empire -- of a very advanced and unbalanced sort, though I do agree with you that it is a distinctly unfinished, even ungainly, creature and one that, from the very imbalance of its overwhelming (and o'erweening) military muscle in relation to its political and economic muscle shows signs both of overdevelopment and collapse; or put another way, our empire, at least at the moment, quacks and waddles, but neither in unison, nor particularly well.

You know, Jonathan, it's important for us to remember that there was once quite another tradition in America. Whatever our country was in the 1950s, you and I, like so many of our peers, like so many American kids before us, were raised to believe that empire was a dreadful, un-American thing, and inconceivable for us. We were, of course, already garrisoning the globe, but there was that other hideous empire, the Soviet one, to point to. We absorbed, in any case, a powerful predisposition against the imperial, one that I can still feel in your letter (and in myself), one that was only fully cast off in this country in the era of the younger Bush, thanks to what the imperial Chinese once called a "rectification of names." But I still believe (as I know you do) that that belief was a valuable one, whatever the realities. I still believe that there are other, better, saner ways than garrisoning the globe; that it is un-American (un-my-America, anyway) to be doing what we're doing.

Of course, these days the minute you begin to write such things, you're promptly dubbed an "isolationist," though I'm distinctly an internationalist who doesn't believe that the leaders of this Earth should be left alone to commit crimes against their own or other peoples, or that any people should be left alone and powerless to face the disasters of our world. I just also know, again in my guts, that today nothing in our world can be made anything but worse by sticking to the imperial path.

What remains to be seen, as you say, is where exactly we are on the rising-and-falling "curve" of empire, or have we indeed managed to turn it into a single synchronous event, as you suggest? The Bush administration, with its torn up international treaties, its strident insistence on the right to preventive war and U.S. global domination, its urge to institutionalize an offshore gulag (and the legal thinking that must accompany it), and of course its occupation of Iraq, has followed an extreme and thoroughly militarized version of an American imperial dream. As Chalmers Johnson has, to my mind, effectively explained in his book The Sorrows of Empire, from 1945 on, the United States pursued an imperial policy based on the military base rather than the colony. We would set up our bases -- little Americas -- in other countries, get extraterritorial rights for our troops, and with our economic power at our backs and close ties with local elites, go about our global business. Iraq, it seems to me, represents a striking deviation from this path. It is the closest thing in our lifetimes to a straightforward colonial land-grab (whatever pretty words the neocons may have woven around it). And it is clearly failing, hence all the military and intelligence officials up in arms and angry indeed. A Kerry administration would undoubtedly try to return us to our older form of imperial creep. The question is: Could it do so? Or rather, has the world so changed in the brief but wrenching interim that imperial policy in any form will prove bankrupt?

Part of our problem, I suspect, lies in conceiving of an empire-less world; or put another way, one legacy of all those empires you wrote about, even though each of them fell before the unconquerable world, the people's world, that you speak of so eloquently, is that our only script for hundreds of years was imperially dominated. That was no less true of the rebels and revolutionaries who put all their energies into opposing empire (and so, as with all things we oppose fiercely enough long enough, became in one way or another imperially fused). The United States, having in our own moment reached the pinnacle dreamed of by all past empire builders, a global imperium, but in a thoroughly half-assed and half-baked fashion (as you point out), seems to be proving that the very idea of empire is indeed bankrupt (and by the time we're done, we may be quite literally bankrupt too). Trying to deal with this situation, I think we're hobbled by having no other script. We don't quite know what to do without the idea of empire. We simply can't imagine a functional world that lacks the imperial element, or if you prefer (as we Americans liked to say before we got so briefly but thoroughly into the imperial spirit), a global policeman. A world without its sheriff still seems a fearsome prospect to us. You might say -- with a bow to the original Manchurian Candidate rather than its bankrupt modern cousin -- that we've been imperially brainwashed in certain ways. Whether we hate the global policeman or love him, all we can imagine is a kind of chaos without him, not the possibility of new kinds of order as yet unimagined (and perhaps still unimaginable), as yet, as you've said to me many times, "to be invented."

So we sit on a powder-keg planet inside a great military machine that garrisons the globe from Thule, Greenland to Northern Australia, from Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula to Okinawa in Japan, shivering with fear and ready, by default, to opt for the history of war and empire. Let me -- since what do I have to draw on except my own experience? -- for my final comments mention my work as an editor with another author, Adam Hochschild. His latest book, Bury the Chains (due out in February), is a history of the British anti-slavery movement. What's makes it so inspiring is that slavery was no less embedded in the eighteenth century world where he begins than empire has been over the last century; the world was no less unimaginable without it, and those madmen and kooks -- mostly Quakers -- who first opposed it in England really did have to imagine the then nearly unimaginable. Yet within perhaps three-quarters of a century, with the help of endless, tireless organizing and, of course, a series of vast, bloody slave revolts in the Caribbean colonies of England and France, slavery had become the almost unimaginable thing.

The question, for us, is whether we have those seventy-five years, but perhaps that's a topic to be saved for another exchange.

Love, Tom

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell was the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. Among many other works, he was the author of The Real War, The Fate of the Earth, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  He died on March 25, 2014.


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