[OUTLOOK]Introspection suits an emperorThe new year arrives with mounting prospects for a war in Iraq and rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
As always, Uncle Sam is at center stage of both productions. The ongoing theoretical debate and the policy decisions here are being driven without a full understanding of the essence of American positions and values, and that only makes things worse. What then, is America all about?
In a New York Times column eye-catchingly titled, “American Empire,” Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff shrewdly describes America’s current standing in the corridors of history.
Having started out as a republic in the New World, America apparently never wanted to become an empire. Many of the nation’s presidents, including George Washington, warned of America’s losing its essence as a republic if it sought world-wide influence. Yet after successfully fighting two world wars and the ensuing Cold War, it suddenly, if reluctantly, finds itself as a 21st century empire.
In sectors from politics and economy to military and culture, voices doubting the overwhelming influence of the lone standing superpower do not amount to a whisper. America bears on its shoulders not only the responsibility to sort out the true nature of its inheritance from the past but also the world’s expectations to assemble a blueprint for the coming age as its largest and most significant shareholder.
Like it or not, America, in a nutshell, is an empire.
Regardless of whether by will or by circumstances, assumption of empire status brings with it both glory and peril. Precisely for that reason, Mr. Ignatieff declares “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon, published in America’s birth year of 1776, a must-read for America’s citizens and politicians. What are the lessons and legacies of the Roman Empire?
Arrogance of leadership is a telltale indication of a waning empire. Roman Emperor Augustus warned earlier of the dangers of spreading a state’s zone of influence over untenable distances. Equally harmful was assuming Rome to be the capital of the world without knowing about developments in faraway lands. The illusion that superpower status renders both the ability and justification to rule the world should also be avoided.
These history lessons from the Roman Empire should never be ignored. Rather, modern-day Romans should well realize how much more complex an adversary the 21st century can generate.
The first complexity is the rushing currents of nationalism rooting for liberation from various social constrictions. Second is the hegemonic leader’s self-delusion that all less-developed countries yearn to duplicate its path.
And even while the lone superpower in the 21st century strenuously but wisely navigates to avoid these mental straitjackets, there is another dilemma that awaits Empire Americana.
Allowing an oppressive regime to roam free for the sake of keeping the peace, or on the other hand intervening militarily in the affairs of another sovereign state under the banner of restoring human rights and freedom are seductive quandaries that are best cast aside.
Mr. Ignatieff prescribes that America come to grips with its own limitations. The leadership in Washington must focus on the intricacies of diplomacy rather than the destructiveness of a military approach as the best way to settle conflicts, and it must acknowledge the stature of both China and Russia, perceived by many as two superpowers-in-waiting, while it respects the positions of lesser powers. Only when America strengthens international cooperation and alliances can it dodge the fate of the Roman Empire.
As a friend and ally, the Republic of Korea thoroughly welcomes America in its quest to find an appropriate and comfortable place in the annals. And we take heed of the competitive efforts by China, Japan and others to coordinate their own relationships with the United States to their full advantage.
Our self-portrait of the Korean people has traditionally displayed wisdom and prudence. We should value our special kinship with the American empire while pursuing a relationship of equal footing, based on the tenets of freedom and human rights.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo