JUNE 23, 2003
Martin E. Marty
The Berlin Journal of the American Academy in Berlin asked Michael Ignatieff, author of Empire Lite, Josef Joffe, publisher of Die Zeit, David Rieff, fellow at the Academy and author, and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, historian at Bielefeld, to take a look from Berlin at the "American Empire." None of them shout. Wehler is very critical of recent German moves. Ignatieff uses the language of empire "lightly." Rieff characterizes the new imperial mission not as a desire to take land but "world policing," a "euphemism for empire." Ignatieff fears the "nationalism and narcissism" that today threaten the American reassertion of global power after September 11. Also, "be diplomats!" is his cry.
Sightings notes that from their distance these commentators employ almost theological visions of empires past and of the American empire (all right, "world-policing burden") today. Rieff finds a failure to account for original sin (my term) in the current administration's "irenic, unshakeable belief ... that an American empire will never be corrupted by its own power in the way that all previous empires in human history have been; that it will, by definition, be a force for good in the world," and that no one dare question these assumptions. But "politics, at least outside the world of Islamic fundamentalism is not supposed to be about faith." Today, "skepticism about America by Americans is, well, un-American." Rieff sees good American intentions but, "the old Biblical [?] adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is appropriate here, and the road to empire is, indeed, the road to Hell."
Wehler examines, with some historical sophistication, Americans' belief that theirs is the theologically-endowed "Chosen Nation." He writes, "In its current form, the familiar religious message is particularly strong: that America has a historic world mission to fulfill and is predestined to be the global superpower." As the elimination of an inhumane dictatorship -- Rieff rightly calls Saddam a "monster" -- "is cloaked in the traditional rhetoric of mission. It is not a surprise that this religious claim to superiority has unleashed protest the world over." Wehler goes on to write, "American interest politics would be far more convincing if it were disassociated from the political religion of nationalism. Traditions that ascribe a mission to a 'chosen people' tend to have a fatal legacy."
Wehler signs off: "Let us hope that with the help of its well-developed talent for self-criticism, America will nevertheless be able to distance itself from its own nationalism. Only then will its superpower status be more tolerable to the rest of the world." And then many (of us) who proudly salute the flag will not have to cross fingers during salutes when our other banners (of empire) pass by.