Reject the Myths of Empire

Americans need to stop thinking like imperialists and we need to stop buying into the myths of empire, including the myth that defeat in some peripheral theater is a world-historical disaster.

Ross Douthat suggests that defeat in Afghanistan will have adverse consequences for the U.S. elsewhere in the world:

That said, defeats on distant frontiers can also have consequences closer to the imperial core. The American imperium can’t be toppled by the Taliban. But in our outer empire, in Western Europe and East Asia, perceived U.S. weakness could accelerate developments that genuinely do threaten the American system as it has existed since 1945 — from German-Russian entente to Japanese rearmament to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Douthat is making a slightly more subdued version of the bogus credibility argument, but it is still wrong. It doesn’t make sense that a defeat in Afghanistan would threaten the U.S. position in Europe or East Asia. The nature of a peripheral war where the U.S. has no vital interests is that it is peripheral, and therefore its effects for good or ill are bound to be limited. U.S. defeat should be a cause for humility, reflection, and learning, but if anything it should focus Washington’s attention on those interests that are truly important. To borrow from Douthat’s Roman comparisons, defeat in the Teutoburg Forest or during Julian’s disastrous Mesopotamian campaign had little or no effect on the wider empire. If there is a lesson to draw from them, it is that it is unwise to take big risks with unnecessary military campaigns.

One reason why the U.S. embarks on these unnecessary military campaigns is the conceit that it is an empire that must police the “frontiers.” A normal country with a normal foreign policy would not delude itself into believing that it has the right or responsibility to try to pacify “distant frontiers.” Its leaders would not try to con the public into continuing unnecessary wars for the sake of “credibility” and prestige. If we would free ourselves of these pointless wars, we ought to give up on the imperial pretensions that keep them going for decades. That means that Americans need to stop thinking like imperialists and we need to stop buying into the myths of empire, including the myth that defeat in some peripheral theater is a world-historical disaster. Jack Snyder identified this as the first myth of empire in Myths of Empire:

Just as proponents of expansion have promised that cumulative gains will lead to imperial security, so too they have warned that losses in the empire’s periphery can easily bring a collapse of power at the imperial core, through any of several mechanisms: a cumulative erosion of economic and military resources; the increasing difficulty of imperial defense owing to the loss of strategic forward positions; or the progressive abandonment of the state by its allies, who might infer that it would not live up to its commitments.1

As Snyder notes, it is “[r]elatively satisfied powers like Britain and the United States [that] have been especially prone to this domino theory.” This is a myth used to justify continued intervention in peripheral conflicts by trying to tie something that doesn’t matter to a state’s security to its core interests. If you “fear some of the possible consequences of the weakness and incompetence exposed in that retreat,” as Douthat says he does, you are buying into this myth.

Another myth of empire is the one that Snyder describes as the myth of offensive advantage. “Over the past two centuries, great powers have repeatedly fought costly, unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan, all justified by the alleged cost-effectiveness of forward defense of vulnerable imperial holdings.”2 Advocates of a British “forward” policy claimed that fighting in Afghanistan was necessary to keep India secure. That was almost certainly wrong, but it was a lot more plausible than believing that we have to keep troops in Afghanistan to prevent an invasion of Taiwan.

When a state embraces these myths of empire, it is prone to overexpansion and it tends to suffer even worse defeats in the future.

It is common to compare the American empire to Rome, whether it is intended as praise or as a warning, and Douthat also does this in his column. The more relevant cautionary tale, however, is that of Spain. Spain was an extraordinarily powerful and wealthy major power in the early modern period, and with its huge colonial possessions in the Americas and Asia it was close to being the superpower of its time. Because it had extracted vast wealth from its colonies, it was able to finance endless wars that make ours seem brief in comparison. The Spanish war with the Dutch alone went on in its fits and starts for eight decades, and the monarchy declared bankruptcy nine times despite its extraordinary resources. The outlays for its ruinous, desultory wars were so great that they exhausted the wealthiest state in Europe again and again. That is the path that the U.S. has been on, and getting out of Afghanistan is the first step in choosing a different path.

Douthat concludes:

And applied to the American empire as a whole, this fear points to a hard truth: You might think that our country would be better off without an imperium entirely, but there are very few paths back from empire, back to just being an ordinary nation, that don’t involve a truly wrenching fall.

Every state has the choice of unwinding its unnecessary commitments on its own terms, or it can wait until it is forced to give them up under worse conditions. The U.S. can begin the work of shifting burdens for security responsibly to other regional powers now, or it can exhaust itself in a vain pursuit of dominance until it is no longer able to meet all of its commitments. If we wish to avoid the “truly wrenching fall,” we need to make a major overhaul to our government’s foreign policy strategy.


Snyder, Myths of Empire: p.3.


Snyder, Myths of Empire: p.4.