It makes us think of all those overbearing old European powers from Rome to Russia, "the white man's burden," colonial exploitation and the rest. We don't go in for pomp, crowns, robes and scepters and the associated vaunting and groveling.
We just want everyone to be free and equal, "treated with dignity," as Mr. Clinton put it, so that they can "hope to build a better life" or "try to build a peaceful, democratic future" or "start building the future of peace." And not just to build, but to rebuild - to "begin to rebuild their lives" and to "rebuild their roads and their schools, their power plants and hospitals, their factories and shops."
So when we extend our sway over other countries we have to find more
decorously democratic words for it. We call ourselves a "superpower" or, better yet, a "world leader."
We have "vital interests," but also "values" and "ideals." And ''responsibilities" - what Mr. Clinton called "the responsibilities of world leadership." Without our military "presence" abroad, there might be a ''vacuum" that would be filled by "hate." So we must be prepared for ''hard work" and "sacrifice" to "stop the suffering" and "save women and children."
All these lofty goals are not only achievable (apart from being ideal, they are also "clear, realistic goals"), they are harmonious with each other and with our "vital interests in the region."
Moreover, they are absolutely necessary, because "problems that start beyond our borders can quickly become problems within them." Since everything, everywhere, may affect us, we have a stake in every foreign conflict. It is never in our interest to do, or even to tolerate, bad or even slightly shady things abroad. We must constantly exercise our virtue around the world.
Does Mr. Clinton literally believe all this? Maybe he does, in the same way Leonid Brezhnev could be said to believe in the labor theory of value. Whether strictly true or not, such language serves certain functions. It justifies the exercise of power in acceptable euphemisms.
The odd thing is that the American empire has become something like the structure of the old American Republic. Though the United States is now highly centralized within, and the powers reserved to the states have become defunct, the empire still permits its provinces to govern themselves internally, provided they are loyal to the overarching order.
The federal government has in effect abolished the Constitution within our borders while imposing it on the rest of the world.
The American empire is still, so to speak, at the federal phase. It isn't totally centralized. At times its provinces can even insist on marginal increases in freedom.
During the early 1960s, Charles de Gaulle demanded, and got, a little more autonomy for France, on the understanding that France would remain within the American imperium.
The American people have mixed feelings about an imperial role. The positive feelings are called "responsible," as opposed to the negative feelings, which are called "isolationist."
The alleged "national interests" of the United States don't necessarily have anything to do with your interests or mine; in fact we may be taxed heavily to support them without getting any benefits. The "interests" in question are generally those of the government in Washington, which we are expected to give the loyal support one accords to the home team.
It would all be so much simpler and clearer if we could face facts and admit that the United States is an empire now. Empire may be, within limits, defensible, just as government itself is, within limits, defensible. But it should be evaluated on its real merits, not disguised as a purely humanitarian enterprise.