After its successful invasion of Iraq, the U.S. appears to be at the height of its power. One can understand why many feel the U.S. is supreme and omnipotent. Indeed, this is precisely what Washington wants the world to think.

No doubt, the U.S. is very powerful militarily. There is good reason to think, however, that it is overextended. In fact, the main strategic result of the occupation of Iraq is to worsen this condition of overextension.


Overextension refers to a mismatch between goals and means, with means referring not only to military resources but to political and ideological ones as well. Under the reigning neoconservatives, Washington’s goal is to achieve overwhelming military dominance over any rival or coalition of rivals. This quest for even greater global dominance, however, inevitably generates opposition, and it is in this resistance that we see the roots of overextension. Overextension is relative–an overextended power may in fact be in a worse condition even with a significant increase in its military power if resistance to its power increases by an even greater degree.

This point may sound surreal after the massive firepower we witnessed on television night after night over the past month. But consider the following and ask whether they are not signs of overreach: the failure to consolidate a pro-U.S. regime in Afghanistan outside of Kabul; the inability of a key ally, Israel, to quell, even with Washington’s unrestricted support, the Palestinian people’s uprising; the inflaming of Arab and Muslim sentiment in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, resulting in massive ideological gains for Islamic fundamentalists–which was what Osama bin Laden had been hoping for in the first place; the collapse of the cold war “Atlantic Alliance” and the emergence of a new countervailing alliance, with Germany and France at the center of it; the forging of a powerful global civil society movement against U.S. unilateralism, militarism, and economic hegemony, the most recent significant expression of which is the anti-war movement; the loss of legitimacy of Washington’s foreign policy and global military presence, with its global leadership now widely viewed, even among its allies, as imperial domination; the emergence of a powerful anti-American movement in South Korea, which is the forward point of the U.S. military presence in East Asia; the coming to power of anti-neoliberal, anti-U.S. movements in Washington’s own backyard–Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador–as the Bush administration is preoccupied with the Middle East; an increasingly negative impact of militarism on the economy, as U.S. military spending becomes dependent on deficit spending, and deficit spending becomes more and more dependent on financing from foreign sources, creating more stresses and strains within an economy that is already in the grip of deflation.

Just a few days after its military victory over a fourth-rate power, we are already witnessing the political quicksand that the Americans have stepped into in Iraq, as fundamentalist Islamic political currents among the majority Shiites appear to be the political inheritors of the deposing of Saddam Hussein. If a stable, pro-U.S. order in the Middle East is Washington’s goal, then that is nowhere in sight. What is likely instead is greater instability that will tempt Washington to employ more military power and deploy more military units, leading to a spiral of violence from which there is no easy exit.

Pax Romana versus Pax Americana

Nearly three millennia ago, another empire confronted the same problem of overextension. Its solution enabled it to last 700 years. The Roman solution was not just or even principally military in character. The Romans realized that an important component of successful imperial domination was consensus among the dominated of the “rightness” of the Roman order. As sociologist Michael Mann notes in his classic, Sources of Social Power, the extension of Roman citizenship to ruling groups and non-slave peoples throughout the empire was the political breakthrough that won the mass allegiance among the nations dominated by the Romans. Political citizenship combined with the vision of the empire providing peace and prosperity for all to create that intangible but essential moral element called legitimacy.

Needless to say, extension of citizenship plays no role in the U.S. imperial order. In fact, U.S. citizenship is jealously reserved for a very tiny minority of the world’s population, entry into whose territory is tightly controlled. Subordinate populations are not to be integrated but kept in check either by force, or the threat of the use of force, or by a system of global or regional rules and institutions–the World Trade Organization, the Bretton Woods system, NATO–that are increasingly blatantly manipulated to serve the interests of the imperial center.

Though extension of universal citizenship was never a tool in the American imperial arsenal, during its struggle with communism in the post-World War II period Washington did come up with a political formula to legitimize its global reach. The two elements of this formula were multilateralism as a system of global governance and liberal democracy.

In the immediate aftermath of the cold war, there were, in fact, widespread expectations of a modern-day version of Pax Romana. There was hope in liberal circles that the U.S. would use its sole superpower status to undergird a multilateral order that would institutionalize its hegemony but assure an Augustan peace globally. That was the path of economic globalization and multilateral governance. That was the path eliminated by George W. Bush’s unilateralism.

As Frances Fitzgerald observed in Fire in the Lake, the promise of extending liberal democracy was a very powerful ideal that accompanied American arms during the cold war. Today, however, Washington or Westminster-type liberal democracy is in trouble throughout the developing world, where it has been reduced to providing a façade for oligarchic rule, as in the Philippines, pre-Musharraf Pakistan, and throughout Latin America. In fact, liberal democracy in America has become both less democratic and less liberal. Certainly, few in the developing world see a system fueled and corrupted by corporate money as a model.

Recovery of the moral vision needed to create consensus for U.S. hegemony will be extremely difficult. Indeed, the thinking in Washington these days is that the most effective consensus builder is the threat of the use of force. Moreover, despite their talk about imposing democracy in the Arab world, the main aim of influential neoconservative writers like Robert Kaplan, Robert Kagan, and Charles Krauthammer is transparent: the manipulation of liberal democratic mechanisms to create pluralistic competition that would destroy Arab unity. Bringing democracy to the Arabs is not even an afterthought as a slogan that is uttered tongue in cheek.

The Bush people are not interested in creating a new Pax Romana. What they want is a Pax Americana, where most of the subordinate populations–like the Arabs–are kept in check by a healthy respect for lethal American power, while the loyalty of other groups–such as the Philippine government–is purchased with the promise of cash. With no moral vision to bind the global majority to the imperial center, this mode of imperial management can only inspire one thing: resistance.

Challenges to the Empire

The present in Afghanistan is likely to be the future in Iraq–that is, an inability to consolidate a stable political order, much less a truly representative and democratic one.

The combination of their policies of internal repression and their failure to come to the aid of the Palestinians and the Iraqis is likely to put the Arab regimes allied to the U.S.–the most noteworthy of which are the governments in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt–in an even more precarious position with respect to the Arab masses. A strengthening of political Islam is a likely result, and Islamic groups are likely to either come to power or be serious contenders for power in many of these countries. Ironically, a democratic opening up of the political systems in these countries–which Washington is said to be desirous of–is likely to lead to this outcome, even in Iraq, where the radical stream of Shiite Islamic politics is dominant. The same boost to Islamic groups is likely to be the result in the rest of the Muslim world, especially in two places considered extremely strategic by the U.S.: Pakistan and Indonesia.

Like Washington’s security, Israel’s security, the enhancement of which has been a primordial objective of neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol, will be compromised even further. This, as well as the bigger frustration of failing to create a stable political base for American hegemony via formal democratic mechanisms, will lead the U.S. to contemplate an unpalatable choice: withdraw or impose direct colonial rule. It will, however, try not to face this choice as long as possible and continue to pour more money and resources to unworkable political arrangements.

At the same time, local variants of the new global civil society movement for peace and against corporate-driven globalization will achieve power or threaten to come to power in other parts of the world, particularly in Latin America. The examples of Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela will become more attractive as neoliberal economics becomes even more discredited in the context of prolonged economic stagnation at the national, regional, and global levels.

With the U.S. increasingly seen as a universal threat and with their economic interests increasingly at odds with Washington, France, Germany, Russia, and China will consolidate the balancing coalition that emerged during the Iraq crisis. Some of the more weighty developing countries, like Brazil, India, and South Korea, might eventually join this formation. This balancing coalition is likely to be a permanent fixture, though its members may change.

One consequence of this diplomatic alliance will be closer coordination in military matters. Indeed, the formation of a European Defense Force distinct from NATO is likely. Another will be increased military spending, arms buildups, and arms research by members of the balancing coalition, whether separately or in cooperation with one another. Still another will be greater economic and technological cooperation to create the economic infrastructure for protracted military competition. Ironically, Washington’s crusade to monopolize weapons of mass destruction will lead to greater investment in the development of such weapons among its big country rivals, while not stopping their development by smaller countries or by non-state actors.

Global economic stagnation and U.S. unilateralism will lead to a further weakening of the IMF and WTO and a strengthening of trends toward protectionism and regionalism. Regional economic arrangements, combining trade preferences, capital controls, and technological cooperation will become even more attractive in opposition to both multilateral free trade arrangements and bilateral trade deals with the U.S. and the EU. Trade wars will become more frequent and more destabilizing.

One actor will be central in all this: China. As the American economy is mired in stagnation and Washington is overextended militarily and politically, China will grow in relative strength. The unilateralists will grow more and more preoccupied with China’s growing strength and will sharpen their political and ideological competition with Beijing. At the same time, their options will continue to be limited given Wall Street’s increasing financial stakes in China, American corporations’ increasing dependence on investment in that country, and the U.S. consumers’ escalating reliance on imports from China, from low-tech commodities to high-tech goods. Washington will not find an easy exit from its Chinese conundrum.

Finally–and ironically, given recent events–the UN will enjoy a new lease on life, as countries realize that its ability to grant or withhold legitimacy remains an important tool in international realpolitik. The role of the UN as a mechanism for isolating the U.S. will be enhanced, and Washington is likely to respond with even more vituperation and threats to cut off funding, though it will not be able to boycott the organization.

Like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy prior to the Second World War, the U.S. is likely to be more and more isolated in the community of nations while retaining the immense power to plunge that community into disorder.

One thing is certain: if the Romans were around today, they would come up with one conclusion: this is no way to manage an empire.

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