he United States is entering an era of reluctant imperialism. That era will be neither a clash of civilizations nor the end of history, but will contain elements of both. The new American imperialism forces us out of a strictly realist posture, in which we nurture our own democracy while trying to achieve a stable balance of forces among our not always democratic civilizational counterparts. Instead, as military success grants us greater control over portions of the non-Western world, we will undertake experiments in democratization. Those experiments in democratization will encounter cultural limits, both at home and abroad, forcing a partial reversion to realism. The challenge of an era of reluctant imperialism will be to find the proper balance between active democratization and realist prudence.
Given overwhelming support for this war and for the president, it may seem odd to call our coming imperialism "reluctant." Yet the swift and nearly cost-free success of the war in Afghanistan obscures two post-war problems of fundamental importance our culture, and theirs. The problem in our culture is our reluctance to take casualties and make sacrifices in the service of "nation-building." The problem in their culture is the lack of fit between many non-Western societies particularly Muslim societies and democracy.
Since the collapse of communism, America has been the dominant power in the world. Nonetheless and notwithstanding the claims of the Left to the contrary we have not been imperialists in any conventional sense. Our refusal to "finish the job," by ousting Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War, and our "abandonment" of Afghanistan after the retreat of the Soviets, reflect America's reluctance to take on an imperial role. Yet now that we have conquered Afghanistan and are about to conquer Iraq (and maybe other countries as well), we will be forced to confront the cultural complications, both at home and abroad.
Concerns about taking casualties have kept the American presence in Afghanistan small, inhibiting our efforts to root out the leadership of al Qaeda. Major questions remain about the size of the post-war peacekeeping force (which, out of concern for casualties, America has declined to join), about the nature of the emerging Afghan government, and about the problem of consolidating that government's power over local warlords and across the different ethnic groups. All of these problems will emerge again in Iraq after we have conquered it.
This is not to counsel passivity or doom. We can and must win a broad-based war against terrorism and rogue states. That war has only just begun. The question is not whether we can or should win such a war, but what happens after we do. In the wake of victory, reluctant imperialism will emerge both as a problem, and as wise policy.
The ultimate reluctant imperialist is George Bush, who disavowed any interest in nation building during the campaign, yet is prosecuting a war that will force us to reconstitute not a few governments in culturally alien lands. The president rightly refuses to stand idly by while terrorists and hostile nations prepare to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States. But that does not mean the president's concerns about nation-building have altogether disappeared. On the contrary, as noted, the administration's post-war policy in Afghanistan has already been inhibited by worries over casualties.
The advance and spread of technology has both forced us into imperialism and temporarily obscured the nature of our new imperial dilemma. The technology of mass destruction, and the turning of even "conventional" technology into an agent of mass murder, are forcing America to impose itself upon the world with surprising thoroughness. The British were able to rule Afghanistan indirectly. If we're lucky, we may be able to do the same. But the British did not have to contend with the possibility that a few rogue Afghans might blow up London. The new situation means that we may now require not only a fully cooperative Afghan government, but an historically rare extension of that government's power to the point where the local warlords are defanged something we may not be able to accomplish without a serious ongoing Western military presence, perhaps including casualties.
Technological advance, in the form of pilotless drones and laser-guided bombs, has kept the new imperialism painless and successful so far. But that technological success has also obscured the coming test. The problem is less a war against Iraq, in which casualties will be expected and accepted, than it is long-term de facto American rule in the Muslim world, where persistent problems could strain the unity and resolve of the American public.
Quite possibly, these problems can be avoided through the installation of stable and friendly Middle Eastern governments that can act as proxy police against a resurgence of terrorism. But a great deal turns on just how successful our "nation building" will be. It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which growing reaction against America and its proxies in the Muslim world and elsewhere forces the United States itself into continued international police action or war. Will we see model governments installed in Muslim lands, the growth of civil society, and eventual American withdrawal after the establishment of democratic bastions in the Middle East? Or will we, like the Israelis, be forced to deal with a series of anti-American "intifadahs?" Somewhere between those two scenarios is where the era of reluctant imperialism will play out.
We like to think that America has already been put to the test by this war and proven itself though a restored spirit of patriotism and willingness to sacrifice. But no such test yet has taken place. It's still difficult to say exactly what the current renewal of American patriotism means to figure the extent to which it is the fashion of the moment, or a true return to the something like the spirit of the generation of the Second World War. During that war, men took it for granted that they would serve, and maybe die. Today, we wonder whether significant casualties in even in an all-volunteer force will be acceptable to Americans especially in the post-war peacekeeping phase.
Some believe that the war itself will suffice to regenerate the spirit of patriotism and sacrifice that was lost in the sixties. But the cultural changes of the sixties cannot be explained simply, or even mostly, by post-war demobilization and prosperity. What really changed after World War II was the way we lived. The decline of small towns and the breakup of tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods in cities gave way to expanding suburbs and impersonal urban apartment complexes. The heightened cultural individualism that followed is rooted in these changes in the structure of our lives, and not only in the presence or absence of war or a national enemy.
Sixties individualism disguises a deeper yearning for some grand collective enterprise. That, in fact, is the secret of the leftward turn in the liberalism of recent decades. As I argued in "The Church of the Left," the need to enroll in a mass crusade for liberty is what drives the Left to exaggerate oppression or imagine oppression where it does not exist. Without some grand and fundamental threat to liberty or equality against which to crusade, the tedium of "bourgeois" life threatens to reassert itself.
It's true that the Left's crusades against imaginary dangers cannot survive undiminished in the face of a genuine threat to the nation's life and liberty from a foreign foe. The war will definitely suck out a good deal of the air that the Left depends upon to fuel its P.C. fire. But the crusading spirit of the sixties and its aftermath was never particularly serious to begin with. Commitments were generally more a question of display than of sacrifice. That is why even a replacement of the bogus crusades of the P.C. Left by a genuine battle for American survival and democracy may not be able to sustain itself under pressure, if the post-war going gets tough. The American ethic of collective sacrifice has been undermined by the new conditions of our lives in a way that the war may only partially regenerate.
And even the traditional American spirit of democracy is divided on the question of our role in the world. We want to spread democracy, yet our democratic ethos resists imposing our ways upon others. The problem is that the technology of terrorism and mass destruction now gives us little choice but to literally become the world's policeman.
So one side of America's reluctant imperialism our low tolerance for casualties and our general distaste for the imperial role presents a potentially serious long-term problem in the new international environment. But in another sense, America's imperial reluctance may not be an entirely bad thing. That's because of problems with "their" culture, not ours.
Americans are generally overly optimistic about the appeal of our democratic system and culture to the rest of the world. The American way does in fact have a powerful international appeal, in no small part because, to a much lesser extent than we have experienced here in the West, traditional social networks throughout the world are loosening up giving way to greater individualism. But to say the least, those changes have been only partial and intermittent. The persistence of kinship structures and other traditional forms of local political organization around the world continues to place significant barriers in the way of democratization.
We are therefore caught in a bit of a trap. The advent of techno-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction means that we haven't the luxury of leaving the non-Western world alone. Islamic fundamentalism cannot be allowed to flourish while we wait for a long-term transformation of the Muslim world, lest we all be killed in the meantime. That means some sort of effort at democratization of the Muslim world by a de facto American imperial power will inevitably be made.
It just might work, too. The pressure of the war itself the sobering effect of defeat on the Muslim world could conceivably create enough space for a democratic experiment to succeed in one of the newly conquered Muslim states, or perhaps in Iran after an anti-fundamentalist revolution. But given the profound social and cultural barriers to modernization in the Middle East, it's equally possible that our experiments in democratization will fall flat, leaving us mired in a Middle Eastern mess. And unlike Vietnam, the ongoing threat of terrorism will make it impossible for us to entirely wash our hands of that mess.
So given the fact that our survival is literally at stake, and given the fact that there is no turning back from our expanded involvement in the world, a little reluctance mixed in with our zeal for democratic reform might not be such a bad thing. What the post-war world really holds in store in a complicated series of experiments in "nation building." Kemalism the total rejection of tradition in favor of modernity isn't going to work. It hasn't even worked in Turkey, where special historical circumstances allowed it to be imposed from within. How much less will Kemalism work if forced on the Muslim world by an imperial America? So whatever we try will require delicacy, and a willingness to make changes in light of events.
The war to date has appeared to teach the opposite lesson. Worries about the Muslim "street," the tenacity of Afghan fighters, even the harshness of the Afghan winter, all came to naught in the face of American power a power so boosted by technological advance that it surprised even the hawks. The war party, of which I count myself a member, is therefore now in full flower. Yet the lesson of the war so far is misleading. When the guns fall silent and the lasers are switched off, when the righteous and welcome enthusiasm of the day gives way to the post-war world, make way (for good and for ill) for the reluctant imperialist.
- Mr. Kurtz is also a fellow at the Hudson Institute