In a thought-provoking comment piece from last weekend’s Guardian, Eric Hobsbawm attempts to answer the question surrounding America’s supposed drive for world domination. It seems fair to assert that the United States sees itself politically as the big boss man, if you will, but does it follow from this that America wants to conquer the whole world, too?
Hobsbawm doesn’t think so, but that’s not to say there aren’t any with such pretentions. “The sudden emergence of a ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power [following the collapse of the Soviet Union] is hard to understand,” he explains, “all the more so since it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies nor the interests of the US economy. But patently a public assertion of global supremacy by military force is what is on the minds of the people at present dominating policy-making in Washington.”
But is this really part of a concerted effort on the part of the US government to conquer the world? Or merely the muscle-flexing of a schoolyard bully, who underneath it all is as scared and insecure as those he intimidates. America is the new kid on the block, after all; the stroppy teenager to Europe’s (ostensibly) mature adults. America has power and influence in abundance, but does not yet have the maturity to handle it responsibly. Not that Europe should be let off the hook here: even accounting for Vietnam, America has never been as reckless as, say, the Castilian empire was in its day. But most of these lessons have being learned; America, it seems to many, is too stubborn to learn from the rest of us. It wants to make its own mistakes, consequences for all be damned. We know our history, and we’re doomed to repeat it.
Hobsbawm ponders how the world might confront, or contain, the US where it comes to their potential (not necessarily actual) imperial aspirations. He sees a danger in those nations who might despise the ideology behind America’s military machine, but support the US if such support might help remove an injustice of one form or another (in turn giving the US an undeserved sense of moral superiority to reinforce their tower of political strength):
>This may be called an imperialism of human rights. It has been encouraged by the failure of Europe in the Balkans in the 1990s. The division of opinion over the Iraq war showed there to be a minority of influential intellectuals who were prepared to back US intervention because they believed it necessary to have a force for ordering the world’s ills. There is a genuine case to be made that there are governments so bad that their disappearance will be a net gain for the world. But this can never justify the danger of creating a world power that is not interested in a world it does not understand, but is capable of intervening decisively with armed force whenever anybody does anything that Washington does not like.
This last sentence is significant. There is a wide gulf of understanding between the United States and the rest of the world, wider than the oceans that separate us. The real issue with regard to perceived US imperialism, in my own view, is that most people probably wouldn’t mind so much, if mainstream American culture weren’t so simultaneously insular _and_ predatory (a poisonous combination if there ever was one). It cannot be denied that we enjoy the good that America has birthed, however directly or indirectly — for just one (admittedly weak) example, you don’t see many anti-globalisation protestors complaining about The Simpsons, do you? — but the world beyond US borders definitely resents being dictated to by a nation, a culture, that forces everyone to understand it, and yet refuses to understand us. America as stroppy teenager yet again. It is precisely this lack of mutual respect, of mutual understanding, that is at the very root of global suspicion of American motives and which permeates every level of politico-cultural interaction between America and the rest of the world.
And yet, this is a problem that cannot be solved by telling the US to ‘just grow up’. If only it were as simple as that.