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Echoes of empires past

By Richard Bernstein
New York Times


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BERLIN, Germany -- As the United States began the task of finding Iraqi leaders to take power after the war is over, there were many in Europe and elsewhere who were reminded of an earlier period in global history — the era of imperialism.

"What cannot now be disguised, as U.S. marines swagger around the Iraqi capital swathing toppled statues of Saddam Hussein with the stars and stripes and declaring 'We own Baghdad,' is the crudely colonial nature of this enterprise," wrote Seumas Milne, a columnist in The Guardian, the leftist British daily.

Mr. Milne's comment, in a newspaper that rarely misses a chance to cast the United States in a negative light, was an especially virulent and hostile expression of a view that has become common in recent days.

That view, which Mr. Milne shares with many other commentators and government officials, is that the war in Iraq confirms the status of the United States as no longer just a superpower, but an unambiguously imperial power. It is seen as a country that uses its might to establish dominion over much of the rest of the world, as Rome once did, or as Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many Americans will quarrel with that view, convinced not just of the absence of any American ambition to control foreign territory but persuaded by the Bush administration's assurance that power in Iraq will be turned over to Iraqis as swiftly as possible. It is not generally part of the American self-conception to associate the United States or even the Pax Americana with the great empires of the past.

But elsewhere in the world, the United States is being seen in a new way, as the latest — and perhaps most powerful — of the imperialist powers that bestrode the globe over the centuries. As evidence, critics cite not just the sudden collapse of Iraqi resistance, but the stunning American military triumphs in recent years, in Afghanistan, Kosovo and in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

With this observation, that the United States represents what the respected German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this week called a "hegemonic internationalism," comes the question: will it turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing for the rest of the world?

"The key terms of the new imperialism will be the ability of the U.S. to provide security and stability for other nations without imposing an American way of life," Karl-Otto Honrich, a sociologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, said in a telephone interview. After the war in Iraq began, Mr. Honrich wrote a much noted article subtitled "Without a Hegemonic Power There Can Be No Peace."

"Over the last 10 years, U.S. hegemony has become clearer as a function of what America has done in the world," he said. "It has taken on the role of world police in several cases, and successfully done so.

"The function of the U.S. right now is to tell the world there is someone who is ready to fight in cases of big security and disorder," Mr. Honrich said. "The U.S. has taken on this role, and hence its leadership has become a social reality."

To some in Europe, the operative word is not so much imperialism as it is unilateralism. The frequently repeated American contention that the United States led a broad coalition into Iraq has not been very convincing to those who feel that the war illustrates a new twist on imperial behavior: the use of pre-emption in the face of widespread opposition even from close allies.

"The neo-conservatives in the U.S. have developed a new imperial vision," said Guillaume Parmentier, the director of the Center on the United States at the French Institute of International Relations. Senior Bush administration advisers, like Paul D. Wolfowitz and Richard N. Perle, are commonly seen in Europe as having gained decisive influence over foreign policy to the disadvantage of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is viewed as a sort of defeated multilateralist.

The speed of the victory in Iraq is being seen as likely to bolster the prestige and influence of those in Washington who, Europeans believe, would now like to embark on further military conquests, in Syria, Iran or possibly North Korea.

"Traditionally, the U.S. has emphasized its great convincing and coercive power on other states," Mr. Parmentier said. "Its foreign policy managed to convince other heads of state that what they were doing was in their national interest, and this was American's great strength.

"Today, the U.S. is affirming a much more blunt and brutal stance," Mr. Parmentier continued. "Its vision for foreign affairs has somewhat retrograded to a more national or even nationalistic definition, in the most limited sense of the term, as it was understood in the 19th century."

Outsiders wonder whether the United States will use its power from now on as it has in Iraq, free of the constraints of multilateralism and dismissive of its allies.

Some answer that question with a stark new definition of the American goal, which is not so much to control unconventional weapons or to bring about government change in Iraq, but to establish unchallenged global dominance. This view, which would seem strange, almost paranoid, to many Americans, is heard in serious and respectable places in Europe.

"The 'war against terrorism' is certainly an excuse, and an organizing principle, but not in and of itself a primary motive for a strategic new direction in international relations and American world policy," Stefan Frölich, a German scholar and a professor of international politics at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, wrote in the "hegemonic internationalism" commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative daily with a long tradition of pro-American views.

"In this sense, the war against Iraq can be seen as a logical and necessary defense of American predominance," Mr. Frölich wrote. Critics of "the increasing imperial assertion of the Bush regime," he continued, "are judged to be promoting a policy of 'appeasement' toward rogue states like Iraq."

No historical period is exactly like another, and few people are arguing that the United States is a new Rome or a new colonialist Britain. In the main view being expressed in Europe, it is not the classic imperialist goal of national wealth and resources that is driving the United States.

In the more radical view of American power — represented by The Guardian or by Mr. Frölich — the United States is seeking global dominance almost for its own sake. The more moderate view is that Washington has reacted, or perhaps overreacted, to the threat of terrorism. The American destiny, as the German newsweekly Der Spiegel put it recently, is "to bring peace to the world through war." In other words, the motive is good, even if the actions are violent and possibly unjustified.

But there seems to be a strong emerging view that the immensity of American power amounts to something different in the world.

"Throughout the history of mankind, certainly no country has existed that has so thoroughly dominated the world with its politics, its tanks and its products as the United States does today," Der Spiegel said.

What are the consequences? Some commentators are waiting to see whether new military actions stem from the Iraqi victory, which, they believe, would be final confirmation of the new American imperium.

"Does the policy remain on this trajectory and they go off hunting other regimes that are judged undesirable and dangerous?" said Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "Or do they say: 'Whew, that was a sweat politically, the Iraqi campaign. We better slow down and attempt to reconstruct multinational understanding and consensus.' "

Echoing this view, but with eyes on another potential crisis, an influential South Korean commentator, Kim Young Hie, a columnist for the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, worries that American success in Iraq will backfire when it comes to North Korea.

"For Pyongyang, Iraq was the second shock and awe after Afghanistan," Mr. Kim wrote. "When Bush is determined to do something, he just goes ahead. And America undoubtedly has the military prowess to carry out his will. This message is sinking in with Kim Jong Il."


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