Getting past the Lone Superpower Syndrome |

Getting past the Lone Superpower Syndrome

Kirk Caraway

It’s easy to get carried away criticizing the Bush administration for its multiple shortcomings, from the disaster in the Middle East to the ones here at home.

You have to go back to Richard Nixon to find a president as widely despised as George W. Bush. Even Republicans are jumping off his bandwagon.

But one thing I hear from many Republicans who have made that jump is that it wouldn’t have been any better if a Democrat had been in the White House these last few years.

And on this they have a valid point.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and our ascent to the throne as the world’s lone superpower, it was only a matter of time before some president – either Republican or Democrat – set out to prove Lord Acton right, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

America is afflicted with the Lone Superpower Syndrome, and neither party is immune from its effects. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that was what was left at the end of the Cold War.

Some nations strive to build empires. The United States in some ways became the reluctant empire, pulled into that role by the vacuum of power, first after World War II, and even more after the Cold War.

It’s pretty hard to deny we are an empire, with more than 700 foreign military bases, and a military presence in more than 140 countries. And that was before George W. Bush became president.

It can be good to be an empire. We like to be in control. The downside is that being an empirical power goes against many of the principles for which the country was founded. Empires aren’t democracies, nor is there room for niceties like inalienable rights.

This means for America’s leaders to operate the empire, they must lie to the citizens who elect them, and to themselves, spinning each foreign occupation as “spreading democracy and freedom.” That is why any speech coming out of Washington about foreign policy is so full of doublespeak that you could light a city on the power generated by George Orwell spinning in his grave.

It becomes harder and harder to run the empire on the sly as time goes on. The truth becomes more difficult to suppress, as do the subjects of the empire. Being the top dog also makes one a target for every upstart empire builder to take a shot at, like what happened on 9/11. And we can’t just go in and slaughter populations who don’t bow to our wishes, as empires of the past have done.

I can see where maybe a Democratic president would have screwed things up differently than Bush. Perhaps instead of being stuck in the quagmire of Iraq, our troops would be scattered around the globe on impossible “peacekeeping” missions, in places like Darfur, Zimbabwe, Kashmir, etc., missions designed to expand power, not to save people.

Instead of handing out no-bid contracts to cronies, the Democrats would have probably given the money away as foreign aid to corrupt countries, to buy their loyalty to the empire.

The point is that none of this is going to stop until we get over the idea that America should be an empire ruling the world. The seductive attraction of unchecked power is too much for either party to resist. Like an alcoholic stumbling toward sobriety, the first step in fixing the problem is to admit that we are an empire. Here’s a question that should be put to the current crop of presidential candidates at the next debate. Try to pick the ones who are least in denial about what we really are.

But just getting out of the empire business isn’t enough. We need to strengthen international institutions to prevent other countries from filling that role. This is how we solved the power problem on the national level, by creating systems of checks and balances to keep would-be dictators at bay. And for the most part, it works.

One could look to the United Nations to accomplish this task, but that organization seems more designed to facilitate empires than to prevent them. Maybe that’s why it’s so dysfunctional, in some ways worse than Washington.

All of this wishing for sanity is probably for naught, as we will probably continue our empirical ways until, like all other empires before, we fall. But we can hope the next president can see the light before following the dark path we are on now.

— Kirk Caraway is editor of and also writes a blog on national issues at

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