New York Times - July 25, 2004
Kill the Empire! (Or Not)
ADDIS. The whole premise of our thinking had been that threats come from states. Then suddenly, overnight, levels of damage were done exceeding those at Pearl Harbor by a gang most of us had never heard of. That is a profound change in the national security environment. It exposes a level of vulnerability that Americans have not seen since they were living on the edge of a dangerous frontier 150 years ago.
KENNEDY. I'd agree, and then add another slant. The whole system of international law was predicated upon states. There's no thought given in the U.N. Charter to nonstate actors. There needs to be agreement on what states can do now with threats from nonstate actors.
GADDIS. It seems to me that the Bush administration did immediately sense the significance of this new geopolitical situation. Fundamental reassessments of American grand strategy tend to take place in response to crises. And a surprise attack obviously is in many ways the most rattling kind of crisis. What the Bush administration did was to announce a strategy which had never totally been absent from American history -- the idea of pre-emption. That is, when sources of danger exist, the United States has the right to take them out. There was a long history of this kind of behavior in the 19th century.
KENNEDY. I'm not going to underestimate the impact of 9/11. But I would argue that the folks who came into office with the president were already fundamentalists. So that the basic change was not in reaction to 9/11. It was people who wanted to step aside from a considerable number of international treaties. They were beginning to alter the agenda in a way that Roosevelt and Kennedy would have thought a bit disturbing. And then comes 9/11, so you can focus all your attention on a crusade. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves: what was the Bush administration doing with regard to Iraq? One time it says it's concerned about weapons of mass destruction. Another time it says Saddam is planning nasty things in the Middle East. And other times he's a moral transgressor of the highest order. You have to wonder whether they were just digging into this big barrel, bringing out whatever was the best excuse for the moment.
GADDIS. My own sense is that when you see anyone providing that many different justifications, they have one big justification that is not being talked about. The idea, quite simply, was to frighten any state that might, in the future, be harboring terrorists. It's like the parking sign that Mayor Koch used to put up around New York. Remember those? ''Don't even think of parking here.'' Don't even think of harboring terrorists. This, I think, was the real reason we went into Iraq.
KENNEDY. Well, I think we have frightened states quite a lot. Look at the changeover in Libya in the past 12 to 15 months. Now, what I would suggest we begin to think of, in consultation with others, is a set of resolutions concerning states that harbor terrorist organizations. It may come to something as serious as saying that those states endanger their own sovereignty. This will be a hot debate, of course, since one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
GADDIS. Where I would like to be 15 or 20 years from now is living in a world in which the international community as a whole justifies action, retaliatory or pre-emptive as the case may be, whenever brutal authoritarian regimes are practicing their terrible arts on their own people. The world now must be made safe for democracy, and this is no longer just an idealistic issue; it's an issue of our own safety. And by ''our'' I mean not just the United States, but the international community as a whole. If you take a long historical sweep, this is not as improbable as it might sound.
KENNEDY. It's going to be harder to do than we think. You may recall, even after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, four permanent members of the Security Council voted for intervention, but China abstained. It just was not willing to vote for things like this. So how are we going to do it?
GADDIS. I never said it was going to be easy. It's a long-term objective. You're quite right to say that the Chinese government would not look kindly on external pressure. At the same time, it seems to me incontestable that the Chinese government these days does treat its own people far better than at any time within living memory. So the trend is there, and I think it is worldwide. Does the United States Have an Empire?
GADDIS. Of course. We've always had an empire. The thinking of the founding fathers was we were going to be an empire. Empire is as American as apple pie in that sense. The question is, what kind of an empire do we have? A liberal empire? A responsible empire? I have no problem whatever with the proposition that the United States has an empire.
KENNEDY. I have quite a bit of a problem; I don't like that one bit. The fact is that most of the rest of the world thinks we are imperial, not to mention imperious. And then you have to ask, what are the consequences of that?
GADDIS. The really important question is to look at the uses to which imperial power is put. And in this regard, it seems to me on balance American imperial power in the 20th century has been a remarkable force for good, for democracy, for prosperity. What is striking is that great opposition has not arisen to the American empire. Most empires in history have given rise to their own resistance through their imperious behavior. For most of its history as an empire, the United States did manage to be imperial without being imperious. The great concern I have with the current administration is that it has slid over into imperious behavior.
KENNEDY. John has put his finger on something very interesting, which is this dominant position of the U.S. not yet causing the emergence of counterweights. And I say ''yet'' because I think there's quite a considerable danger that it will. We now have a Europe with a larger G.D.P., and we have a China growing so fast you can hardly keep your eyes on it. Our great power status is unchallenged at the orthodox military level. But it's beginning to look a little bit more fragmented in other dimensions.
GADDIS. Paul has been worrying about American decline ever since he published a famous book something like a decade and a half ago predicting this.
KENNEDY. I'm still worrying.
GADDIS. What is really striking, if one looks at the half-century of American global pre-eminence going back to World War II, is the extent to which we did stick with it over the long haul. It is quite a respectable record.
KENNEDY. Yes. But my argument always has been concern about the overstretches -- and that's measured not just by the number of troops and air bases; it's about economic sustainability, fiscal and trade imbalances. Keeping the balance there is about the single most important thing an American administration should do, and trying to see where international organizations work and where we can't make them work. This sense of what works and what doesn't has been lacking, and we need to get back to it. I am angry at what the government has done in the past two years. I think they've made a lot of mistakes. And we pay a considerable price for that.
GADDIS. I'm angry about something as well. I'm angry that the current administration thought creatively about the situation it confronted on Sept. 11 and responded with a serious reconsideration of American strategy, but then they screwed it up in Iraq. They violated a really fundamental principle. It's the dog-and-car syndrome. Dogs spend a lot of time thinking about and chasing cars. But they don't know what to do with a car when they actually catch one. It seems to me this, in a nutshell, is what has happened to the Bush administration in Iraq.