Empire or Republic?
Matthew J. Walton

On Friday, February 6, Jonathan Schell spoke at Syracuse University on the topic, “America in the Second Nuclear Age: Empire or Republic?” Schell, the Peace and Disarmament editor for The Nation, writes frequently on topics such as nuclear policy and nonviolent social activism, and is the author of The Fate of the Earth and most recently, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. He began his lecture by acknowledging the radical changes in US foreign policy since 9/11, highlighting strategies and rhetoric favoring military dominance, regime change and the troubling doctrine of preemptive war.

Schell also talked about the de-politicization of the US and its population’s loss of faith in the political process, but was hopeful that these trends were reversing, citing several recent studies on US Americans’ political views. After an overview of his conception of US society and the current political environment, Schell dove right into his main topic: the classification of the US as an empire.

There are many theories regarding the US imperial position and ambitions. These range from the view that the US has never been an empire but is beginning to (reluctantly) fill the role, to the perspective that not only is the US an empire but it was destined to play this part and is somehow making the world better by doing so. Schell maintains that while the US has not yet crossed the line between constitutional republic and empire, US foreign policy displays a “powerful imperial bent,” and that we have reached a critical turning point in deciding the future of the nation.

Central to his argument is the idea that the guiding principle of US imperial methodology is an effort to stop the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). He pointed out the irony (which was not lost on the audience) of fighting “wars of disarmament,” that is, conflicts waged to stop the proliferation of WMDs. And while there may be other, less-publicized motives for US global interventions, according to its rhetoric the United States is quickly becoming a “disarmament empire.”

Clearly, Schell is not a proponent of recent trends in US imperialism. Although he acknowledged that coaxing the US back to the bounds of the republic would not be an easy task, he provided hope in his answers to the following questions: Will these imperial tactics continue to work in the twenty-first century? Can military force and dominance still be translated into political power?

Schell believes that as the global political climate changes, the answer to the first question is a resounding “no.” He cited numerous examples of political power generated by mobilizing people to action. Most notably was the dissolution of the Soviet Union — a case in which political power was used in a nonviolent way by people working together to bring down an empire. He said that this political power is always available and, when tapped, has the ability to resist imperial tendencies. The main thing keeping this latent power from emerging is lack of reinforcement. We can make the answer to the second question “no” by providing more positive representation of popular, nonviolent political acts, thus legitimizing them and making them more effective in countering the imperial aims of the US.

The question and answer period provided Schell with an opportunity to speak in more detail on issues related to the US empire. In response to a question on US influence in Latin America throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he suggested that we are beginning to lose our control in that region due to the proliferation of transnational networks and organizations. While national leaders have made important stands against Western hegemony (most notably at the stalled trade talks in Cancun in 2003), their actions would not have been possible without the political power generated from the support of their populations.

Schell was also asked what vehicles and opportunities US Americans can use to tip the balance back in favor of republican ideals rather than imperialist ones. His response was inspiring and offered support to people who see the unilateral actions of our government as distressing and almost impossible to combat. He said that he is encouraged by the renewed domestic interest in politics, specifically as it pertains to foreign policy and globalization. In addition, he is confident that US Americans still have all of the tools necessary for regime change at home, namely democratic institutions, a strong constitution which guarantees basic rights and a population which continues to mobilize for action and social change. For those of us who remain deeply concerned about US imperialism, he presented this encouraging thought: “There is something in this world that does not love an empire.”

Jonathan Schell will speak again in Central New York on Tuesday, April 6 at 7:30 pm at Grewen Aud., Le Moyne College, co-sponsored by Peace Action of CNY and the Le Moyne College Center for Peace and Global Studies.

Matthew is a graduate student in political science at Syracuse University and is currently composing an opera based on the trial and incarceration of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist.