The last evil empire?

The US has replaced Soviet Russia as the world's imperialist bully, argues Thomas Fleming argues
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The Independent Online
Negotiations over the future of Kosovo are scheduled to resume in a week's time, but the mood in Washington is far from conciliatory. Last week the US Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, again threatened to bomb Yugoslavia if the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, continued his crackdown on the Albanians. Bill Clinton made similar threats and spoke of the "inexorable logic of globalisation". Madeleine Albright was even more plain-spoken during the final days of talks at Rambouillet last month. Cutting through the usual foggy rhetoric about regional stability and democracy, the Secretary of State told the Albanian delegates that they had to sign the agreement, because otherwise Nato could not bomb the Serbs when they refused to ratify the agreement.

According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, no agreement is valid if it has been "procured by the threat or use of force". In fact, once upon a time the whole point of diplomacy was to find non-violent solutions to international conflicts. For American diplomats, apparently, the reverse is now true. Peace has to be justified, while bombing is self- evidently a good thing, whether the target is an oil pipeline in Iraq, as it was last week, a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan - or anywhere in Serbia.

The United States has come a long way in a very short time. In the weeks after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, American political leaders began calculating the "peace dividend" to be realised once the troops were brought home and the weapons factories shut down. Within months, however, those same politicians were discovering new dangers to world peace: South American drug lords, Middle Eastern dictators, and the empire- building Bosnian Serbs, whose entire population could fit comfortably into the ruins of Detroit.

In fact, there is an American military presence in over 100 countries around the globe. Saddam Hussein and the Serbs still top the list of international threats, but the director of the CIA recently warned the American Congress against the armed might of North Korea, which could develop a two- stage missile that - if it found a way of adding its current single-stage missile on top - just might be able to hit some iceberg off the coast of Alaska.

This is what life is like in the "world's only remaining superpower". We Americans go to bed at night cringing in fear over what the Serbs and Koreans are plotting, and because we do not trust our ground forces to storm the walls of Pristina or Pyongyang, we must rely on the threat of Nato air-strikes.

Now that the Soviet empire belongs to history, and for the foreseeable future Germany is in no position to go back to rattling sabres, the United States is top dog - unchallenged in its might, but irresponsible in its leadership and uncontrolled in its appetite for hegemony. Some American conservatives (in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, for example) are already calling for an American "imperium", which they have tried, unsuccessfully, to distinguish from an American empire. (Americans don't study Latin.) Whatever we agree to call it, American adventurism - so reminiscent of Soviet adventurism under Brezhnev - represents the greatest force for evil in the world today.

The comparison of Brezhnev's Russia with Clinton's America is not entirely far-fetched. Of course, life in Moscow was grimmer than it is in Santa Barbara, but at least Soviet citizens were spared some of the seamier blessings of American-style democracy: child pornography on the news stands, virtual sex on the internet, and on TV the prime-time confessions of Monica Lewinsky - the goddess of sexual consumerism.

For the two decades after Vietnam American consumers had to be content with "getting and spending", and our imperial urges were tranquillised by soft porn and prescription drugs, but with the election of a former spy-chief to the presidency, the globalists came out of the closet, dresssed for combat. The Gulf War was the turning point. Despite George Bush's slick diplomacy, his administration never made it plain either to Congress or to the people what we were doing in Iraq. It was all about oil. Or the legitimacy of the Kuwaiti royal family. Or a demonstration that we had finally got over Vietnam. It didn't matter which pretext was trotted out, Congress approved and the American people loved it. Our top guns were kicking ass and running about the same risk as having a night on the town in Los Angeles.

Granted, we did not topple Saddam Hussein; in fact we accomplished virtually nothing - except this: we showed our rivals who was running the world. The Japanese were flooding the American market with cheap cars and television sets; the Europeans were progressing steadily towards an economic and political union that would potentially beat American competition; but we had the guns and the bombs. Of course, we always did have them, but so long as the Soviets were around we were reluctant to use them. Now the gloves are off. The Europeans must not succumb to delusions of independence, when even Chiquita banana turns out to have more clout than the entire European Union.

It is too easy to blame Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright for American foreign policy. The truth is, there is virtually no political opposition to the new imperialism, except in the sense that the Republicans are even more eager to use military force. The one honourable exception is Senator Bob Smith, the New Hampshire Republican running for his party's presidential nomination. Describing Mr Clinton's threat to bomb the Serbs as "outrageous", Mr Smith went on to declare that "Kosovo is as much a part of Yugoslavia as New Hampshire is of the United States". His sense of political geography is shared by few of his colleagues, and it will win him few votes in the upcoming primary elections.

There are those who like to say that all this bullying and bombing is the fault of evil politicians, because the heart of the American people is uncorrupted. This a dangerous fantasy: although half of Americans polled in a recent survey said they couldn't find Kosovo on a map, some 55 per cent are in favour of bombing the place. The TV Nation has thrown its support behind President Clinton, and all they will care about, if we do start bombing, is the complete safety of the American boys and girls who drop the bombs and fire the missiles. Mothers and fathers have always worried when they sent their children off to war and we have always prayed that our kids would kill their kids and come home safe and sound. The difference today is that we Americans believe we have a right to impose our will on the world without running any significant risks. If the Serbs succeeded in inflicting a few hundred casualties, the American public would demand either an end to the campaign or the use of nuclear weapons, preferably some of the clean little tactical devices the Pentagon has been working on.

In their hearts most Americans mean well. In many respects, the American empire is still the smiley-faced theme-park that Europeans remember. We can never hope to match the domestic tyranny of Chinese Communists or the jackbooted religious zealotry of Islamic fundamentalist states. We don't like jackboots or concentration camps over here; we prefer soft pornography, recreational drugs, and cable television. Hedonism does a far more effective job of controlling the yahoos than crackdowns or forced-labour camps, and if only Saddam and Slobodan would give up their futile resistance to Americanisation, their people could enjoy all the blessings of imperial citizenship: a Big Mac in every microwave, a satellite dish in front of every trailer, and endless reruns of Seinfeld, Melrose Place and Friends.

From time to time the French try to limit the number of American films that can be shown in France, and a few months ago I saw an anti-McDonald's demonstration in front of the duomo in Milan, but when Uncle Sam sends out the call for allied peace-keeping troops, the French and the Italians will be there. Like the Ionian Greeks who accompanied Xerxes in his campaign to enslave Hellas, they will do what they have to do.

Americans, of course, don't study either Latin grammar or Greek history. This is where the English have the advantage. In a coy wink at the truth, Tony Blair's government has named the Kosovo mission "Operation Agricola" after the Roman general who pacified Britain, first by bribing the savages with consumer luxuries and then by mercilessly crushing all resistance. Agricola was the father-in-law of the historian Tacitus, who summed up Roman imperial policy in a speech given by a British chieftain: "They make a desert, they call it peace." Or, in the contemporary idiom of the US Senate, they conduct missile strikes and they call it peaceful resolution.

Thomas Fleming is editor of `Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture'.