June 18, 2019 | 75° F

WYNEN: Americans must decide on future of U.S. empire

Opinions Column: Reality Check

Human history is a history of empires. Ancient China, for example, had perhaps the earliest form of empire around 2,000 B.C. The Xia Dynasty was the first in a long-line of dynasties where warlords fought to command and control territory and centralize political power. The famous military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote his seminal treatise, "The Art of War," to instruct the emperor of the Zhou Dynasty on how best to maintain and gain control of hostile lands.

As the seat of empire began to move east, the Persian Empire became the largest in the known world circa 500 B.C. Fueled by desire for expansion and control of resources (as all empires are), the Persians attempted to conquer ancient Greece, a decentralized collection of city-states who fought each other as often as they fought outsiders. Despite having the numbers and resources that ancient Greece could not match, the Greeks were victorious in the defense of their homeland. In the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars, the city-state Athens gained much prestige. By 431 B.C., the Athenians had tributary city-states and colonies throughout the Greek mainland and Asia Minor, under the auspices of the Delian League of city-states.

Fast-forwarding through history, many empires have come and gone throughout West and East. The Roman, Ottoman, Spanish, British, Mughal, Safavid and others have shaped the human experience throughout the world. Today, the reigning empire is that of the United States. That may seem controversial to some, to call the United States an empire when it lacks common traits of those that have preceded it. Namely, the United States have not fought wars of conquest since 1898, it does not seek direct political control over other polities and it is generally benevolent in maintaining its hegemony. Just because it lacks the historic aspects of an empire does not make it any less so.

The United States, according to the liberal school of international relations, is a “liberal hegemon.” This means that the United States uses “liberal” means of command and control. Examples of this are the international organizations the United States backs to arbitrate international disputes (the United Nations and its subordinate organizations), to promote financial stability (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), as well as using the global market to create interdependency amongst nations. As Sun Tzu wrote thousands of years prior, war is expensive, and the best leaders can achieve their aims without it.

I should say that I am not advocating for or against the American Empire. It exists regardless of my opinion, and it does provide Americans with privilege and security hitherto unseen in human history. Of course, America is not a utopia and nor will it ever be: Any polity run by human beings will never be perfect. We have had our fair share of horrific episodes in our history -- Genocide of the indigenous population, systemic racism, an incredibly violent civil war, etc. These facts, however, do not take away from the fact that empirically, the United States is one the most benevolent empires ever to exist.

In 2016, the American Empire faces a turning point, one that each empire before America’s had to contend with. In time, empires fall due to a myriad of factors. Internal divisions, expensive wars, political corruption, encroachment of rivals and increasing debt all contribute to the collapse of empires. The elections in November aside, the American hegemonic order has various questions that it must answer. China and Russia have continuously tested the American order in the past four years. The Middle East is an ever-compounding headache for Washington, one that was woefully self-induced. The federal government is running a budget deficit of $20 trillion. The American people are at their most divisive since the 1960s. Political discourse is filled with vitriol and dehumanization of the other side. The first presidential candidate to be investigated for criminal activity by the federal government is one of two choices to be commander-in-chief of the military -- the other believes there are 12 articles of the Constitution when there are seven.

The American people will have to decide what costs we are comfortable with to maintain the American hegemony. Do we continue to be apathetic toward the choices of our leaders or continue to disregard the consequences of our actions? The United States possesses the preponderant military and economic force to maintain the international order for another 20 or 25 years. What happens then? Will we be prepared for the seat of empire to shift again as it has time after time, or will we choose to be ignorant about the coming challenges and pretend the status quo will remain? One way or another, we will find out.

Steven Wynen is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science with a minor in economics. His column, “Reality Check,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Steven Wynen

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