The upcoming presidential election will be as much a referendum on empire as anything else. If a Democrat becomes president, the U.S. will demolish its chances of becoming a successful empire. If the Republican John McCain becomes president, the U.S. will not only continue occupying Iraq, but will likely expand its military influence in an attempt to dominate the Middle East.
Two excellent books take opposing sides on this issue. Niall Ferguson’s Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire argues that we have long been an empire, without seeing ourselves as one (while the rest of the world is well aware of it). According to Ferguson, it is far more dangerous for us to be unconscious of our imperialism than to expand it knowingly and willingly, helping to make the world a more orderly place. Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic agrees that we are an empire; but that we are on the path followed by Rome which was forced to substitute tyranny for democracy (as opposed to Britain, which saved its republic by giving up its empire). We can already see the evidence of Chalmers’ thesis in the subverting of the Constitution by Republicans led by the Bush administration, including the government’s invasion of privacy, use of torture, and restriction of free speech.
John McCain clearly wants to expand our empire, but whether he will come around to publicly calling that is an open question. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, and like the rest of the Democratic Party they are unlikely to invade any other countries unless there is a clear threat to our country; it is unclear, however, whether they will reduce the U.S. military presence in other countries which is the clearest manifestation of empire.
I share the opinion of most Democrats that the U.S. must lead by example rather than by force. This is a consequence of my belief that people are neither good nor evil (good and evil are characteristics of actions, not people), and that given enough knowledge and power all of us will come close to acquiring the most happiness and longevity possible within physical constraints.