Is the United States an empire of war or an empire of love? In the early days of the Iraq war, journalists and scholars wrote of our empire of war, comparing the United States to grand historical realms of the past supposedly built on the battlefield. As our occupation of Iraq began, Robert Kagan mocked European pacifists as being from loving Venus, while manly Americans were from warlike Mars. But in Greek myth bellicose Mars played the fool, while beautiful Venus got her way.
War breaks rather than makes empires. The 1914 invasion of Serbia doomed the Habsburgs and began the First World War; the 1941 war against the Soviet Union brought down Nazi Germany; the 1979 occupation of Afghanistan fatally wounded the Soviet Union, and now the war in Iraq bleeds the United States dry. Although Europe has its share of problems, it is Venus rather than Mars that carries the laurels of victory. The European Union has expanded twice since the United States invaded Iraq, adding 12 countries to the ranks of its members. It is now more populous than the United States, and has a much larger economy.
Why not be an empire of love? Of all of these empires of the past, the most durable was that of the Habsburgs. For half a millennium they ruled much of Europe from their Austrian capital Vienna. It was their global empire, stretching from Latin America to East Asia, upon which the "sun never set." Though they fought their share of battles, they were known for clever diplomacy and wedding pacts. As a king of Hungary put it before the Habsburgs incorporated his own country: "Let others fight wars! Thou Happy Austria marry. What Mars gives to others, Venus bestows on thee." In the 19th century, the Habsburgs managed, though a series of compromises, to govern a dozen nationalities, not to mention Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. The high culture of their empire left us the literature of Kafka, the psychology of Freud, and the painting of Klimt.
Where did that empire of love of go wrong? In the fateful summer of 1914, the Habsburgs overreacted to an act of terrorism. After an assassin killed their crown prince, the Habsburgs invaded neighboring Serbia, provoking the First World War. Four years later the monarchy was brought down. We might find a lesson about the rise and fall of empires there, if we wished to seek it. Empires that ascend in a spirit of accord and compromise can last; empires that seek pretexts for war will not.
Can the United States recreate itself as an empire of love? We would have to admit our mistakes, and learn from the past. We would have to relearn manners and graciousness. We would have to announce a withdrawal from Iraq, and renounce the doctrine of preemptive war. We would have to be consistent in our support of democracy throughout the world, supporting the process even when it leads to the victory of parties we dislike. According to opinion polls, Muslims favor democracy, but do not believe that American policy supports it. We would also have to learn to be less stingy. No developed country in the world gives less foreign aid, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than the United States. France gives twice as much, Britain three times as much, Sweden five times as much.
An empire of love would make virtue from necessity. We are not the military power we thought we were, and we are not the economic power we might have been. We need partners and friends. Europe is a natural partner in a future empire of love. If the United States accepted multilateralism and international law, and raised its foreign aid to European levels, there is no reason why we could not enjoy the kind of respect in the world that Europe does today. Indeed, in this sort of friendly competition, Europe would be our only rival. We still speak the language of the world, we still write the best novels, we still make the best films and television programs. The world needs leadership, now more than ever. It is time for the first gentle steps.