America’s Empire at a Crossroads
An Interview with Jim Garrison

By Alexander M. Dake

Jim Garrison, president of the State of the World Forum -- a global network whose members include such distinguished figures as Mikhail Gorbachev, Oscar Arias, George Schultz, Jane Goodall, and Elie Wiesel -- has been engaged since the 1970s and 1980s in the citizen diplomacy movement to reduce nuclear tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. He’s refined his skills at facilitating private discussions among leaders across national boundaries and disciplines in several gatherings, of which the State of the World Forum and the Commission on Globalization have been the most recent examples.

Garrison has published several books, the latest of which, America as Empire: Global Leader or Rogue Power?, was published by Berrett-Koehler earlier this year. In it, Garrison urges his readers to acknowledge that America is an empire and asks what kind of empire America can and should be. Garrison is also the author of Paraview Press Civilization and the Transformation of Power.

Alexander Dake spoke with Jim Garrison about empire, an issue made even more important in light of the upcoming presidential elections.

AD: In your book America as Empire you describe America’s ascent from republic to empire. You see in the current situation the opportunity for the U.S. to become a transitional empire that will lead the world into liberal democracy. Could you explain that a bit more?

JG: First of all it’s important for Americans to internalize that not only is the U.S. the strongest nation in the world, but also the strongest nation in the history of the world. The U.S. currently controls more nations than any empire in history, both formally and informally. At the same time, history has moved beyond the nation state as the ultimate reservoir of sovereignty. That is a very important fact, because it means that even though the U.S. seems like a very mighty fortress, it rests on shifting sands. Still, the U.S. has had leadership before which made the best out of difficult circumstances and used those circumstances to build international cooperation and institutions based on American strength and vision.

AD: How do you characterize these times and the current state of the world?

JG: We are currently in the third major crisis of global affairs since the world wars of the last century. The world is interlinked by communication, trade, and travel in a way never attained before. The world is also beset by issues that can only be resolved globally: from ozone depletion to global warming, from overfishing to deforestation, from water scarcity to HIV/AIDS, from poverty and organized crime to failed states. The great tragedy in the world today is that never before has a nation been so strong as the U.S., never before has the world desperately needed dynamic leadership so much, and never before has that leadership been so conspicuously absent.

AD: When you speak of absent leadership you mean absent American leadership?

JG: Absolutely. If you look back in history, the first crises of world affairs were addressed and resolved by American leadership and American presidents. The initial surge of globalization was very unregulated, and it ended up in the calamity of the First World War. It was Woodrow Wilson, who after WWI made the first international attempt at global governance by establishing the League of Nations. After the world had descended into the Second World War, two other American presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, used the sovereignty of the U.S. to build what I call Global Governance 2.0. Most of the institutions around the world that frame international norms and procedures today were actually established under the leadership of the U.S. -- the UN system and the Bretton Woods institutions: the World Bank and IMF, the GATT (now the WTO), and NATO.

AD: What are you looking for in current American leadership?

JG: I call for a new Roosevelt, somebody who sees that the task of the U.S. is to be proactive and fundamentally constructive in the international arena. The main task for U.S. leadership is not the war on terrorism; it’s not to lead the global economy. It is to build the next generation of global institutions that will begin to deal adequately with the range of global problems facing the world.

AD: It seems that the U.S. is doing exactly the opposite of what you are prescribing: the war on terrorism is the main policy component of the current administration.

JG: Indeed, so America is at a fundamental choice point. It is about how our country will be remembered and that will be determined by how we lead or not lead. If we could build the next generation of global institutions, we would make obsolete the need for empire at a national level, which is what the U.S. currently represents. The U.S. could go down in history as the final empire, which I believe is a much more elegant and historically momentous achievement than chasing around the world for members of invisible networks and building in the U.S. a national security state on the erosion of our civil liberties.

AD: What other lessons do you draw from your study of the history of empires?

JG: I discovered that certain empires could last an amazingly long period of time and others only an amazingly short period of time. The empires that lasted the shortest period of time have overaccentuated military supremacy. The empires that have lasted the longest -- like Rome, like Britain, like the Ottomans -- lasted because they combined military supremacy with building institutions that were perceived by the governed by and large to be fair. Wilson and Roosevelt, too, combined military and economic power with building international institutions and using international law, which were mostly perceived by the rest of the world as being fair.

AD: During your travels around the world, how do you view the current attitude of the international community to the current American policies?

JG: The international community shows an allergic reaction to this administration. The reason is not because this administration is conservative or Republican, but because it is deconstructing the international system as we know it -- an international system, as I just explained, which was built by previous U.S. presidents. This administration is marginalizing the UN, is disrupting the international rule of law, has invaded Iraq by violating international law, is seeding anarchy around the world, and is replacing international norms and procedures with what the administration calls the coalition of the willing. I think that this unilateral foreign and military policy and a complete obsession with the war on terrorism are causing a lot of anxiety and resistance around the world.

AD: Is this not too harsh of a view of this administration? People around the world have criticized U.S. administrations before, have they not?.

JG: First of all, I think what is going on among American allies is much more systemic and deeper than ever before. In the last 24 months the approval ratings of the U.S. have dropped dramatically overseas. Even in a staunch ally such as Canada, the approval rating of the U.S. has dropped by over 40 percent. Those polls are replicated in Europe, Latin America, and Far East Asia. Precisely at the point where we need a new Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, President Bush is spending more money on military expenditures than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. will spend next year over $500 billion on military procurement. In the meantime, all other major problems such as health, poverty, and the environment are not being addressed, neither here nor globally. It seems to me that the current administration is totally out of sync with a large part of America and the rest of the international community.

AD: Do you see any role for the international community or America’s old allies to influence America toward becoming the transitional empire you would like to see?

JG: It’s hard to say. Obviously in the upcoming elections, only Americans can vote. I think that, for example, Europeans need to follow their own principles and stand up against the Bush administration whenever they need to. Tony Blair is a demonstration of what happens to people who think they can use their special relationship with the U.S. to influence American behavior. Tony Blair has not influenced an iota of the Bush agenda. Rather, the Bush administration has manipulated Blair, and the UK and the world know it. I think Blair could have emerged as a real European statesman, but he didn’t understand the basic cynical motivation of the current administration.

AD: George Soros, someone you know well, has recently published The Bubble of American Supremacy, in which he takes a definitely partisan position, blaming the current administration and the Bush doctrine for taking the U.S. in the wrong direction. Do you agree that this is a partisan issue of Republican versus Democratic politics?

JG: I think it’s important to point out that Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman were all Democrats. I think the Democratic Party has a deeper appreciation for the kind of multilateral institutions and the principles of multilateralism than the Republican Party. Republicans tend to emphasize military strength. Democrats reinforce the principles of collegiality. For example, under Bill Clinton, the U.S. experienced one of the most efficient U.S. economies in modern American history. At the end of Clinton’s second term, there was a huge government surplus and close to full employment, and by and large the world approved of U.S. policies. Then in less than four years of the Bush administration, we have gone to a hyper-militaristic mode, to some extent triggered by the trauma of 9/11, but largely based on a neo-conservative agenda. It is hard to ignore those historic differences.

AD: You speak of the necessity of new international institutions to deal with the current crises in the world. How do you see those institutions developing?

JG: Let’s just talk a moment about Iraq. It’s only a matter of time before the next Saddam Hussein, the next Adolf Hitler, the next Slobodan Milosevic arises somewhere in the world. The world community needs to use the failure of Iraq (or the failure of Kosovo, for that matter) to design a mechanism to ensure that the new Saddam Hussein is spotted early on, that the international institutions are alerted in the appropriate way, and that the international community can exercise the appropriate responses to ensure that we do not have more genocide or more massive erosion of civil liberties. The world did not respond in time to what was going on in the former Yugoslavia. The world watched Saddam Hussein for 10 years, and the international community did not react. In both cases the U.S. went outside the UN with various allies and took out Milosevic and Hussein. I believe that the invasion of Iraq was just as much a fault of an inactive and paralyzed UN as it was of a hyperactive and malevolent Bush administration. The essential point is that the international system designed 60 years ago is working less and less, and the U.S., as the founder of the UN, should make the UN relevant again for the 21st century rather than marginalizing it.

AD: In your book, you mention the establishment of the International Reconstruction Fund. What would be its role and what other kinds of institutions do we need?

JG: The more the world globalizes, the more human interaction takes place at a global level. We have to build those regulatory institutions at a global level that we enjoy at a national level. According to the IMF, one-third of the 200 nations in the world today are either failing or have already failed. Nations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan, Yugoslavia -- the list goes on. We do not have any mechanism at the international level to help these countries. The international situation is eroding and getting worse. If we had an International Reconstruction Fund that had $20 to $30 billion at its disposal, it could start rebuilding these countries under international norms and procedures. Another example is the World Trade Organization, which works reasonably well. But it needs to be balanced with a global environmental organization. We also need the International Labor Organization to have as much efficacy and teeth as its counterpart, the WTO. We need a global Security and Exchange Commission to deal with international capital markets. For these initiatives to take form, we will urgently need visionary leadership from the U.S.

AD: It is clear you do not see that kind of visionary leadership currently in the White House. What would it mean to your ideas and proposals, or even to the current crises in general, if George W. Bush would be reelected in November?

JG: These ideas will be discarded by the new Bush administration, just like many other good ideas are being discarded right now. If the American people reelect him then I believe it will do irreparable damage to the goodwill and reputation of the U.S. abroad, it will do irreparable damage to democracy here at home, and it may be an administration from which neither the U.S. or the world will soon recover. The American people and the international community should be aware that George W. Bush won’t suddenly change his current policies and turn into a nice guy if reelected. A reelection will give him a mandate to deepen a neo-conservative agenda, which essentially is to establish military supremacy over the world for the next 50-75 years. That’s why I firmly believe that the upcoming election is the most critical one in our lifetime.
Books by this author:
America as Empire: Global Leader or Rogue Power?
Civilization and the Transformation of Power

Other relevant books:
The Bubble of American Supremacy by George Soros
The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson
Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky
Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency by Patrick J. Buchanan
Spiritual Leadership by Erik van Praag

Relevant articles:
“The New American Century” by Arundhati Roy
“Power and Weakness” by Robert Kagan

Relevant websites:
State of the World Forum
Initiative on Community Engagement and Democracy 

© 2004 Alexander M. Dake



Transforming the World One Book at a Time