There are two assumptions about human nature that seem to drive the political ideology of most people. Perhaps it is as simple as love vs. fear, which is the fundamental struggle of every person. Politically, it manifests itself in this way: Some believe that we must conduct ourselves with a distrust of other people, using power to get our way and operating with a premium on control. Others believe that ultimately people are good (or at least self-interested and lazy) and if we work together, build relationships, learn to depend on one another, and trust, that we can ultimately build a better world.This isn't just a political issue, really. These two assumptions drive everything from government relationships to marriages and work relationships. All relationships. In terms of personal relationships, there is quite a bit of consensus that cooperation is better than control. We know that true spiritual growth is probably unlikely if you are going through life with a clenched fist and forcefully manipulating everyone in sight. However, I argue that we need to apply these concepts to a larger context--the relationships between nations.
Imperialism is morally empty for a variety of reasons. It is based--by definition--on exploitation. 'We came, we conquered, we depleted your resources for our gain.' The "new colonialism" practiced today by the USA is more subtle than the style of the old European empires, but essentially the same phenomenon happens. Through manipulation and strong-arming poor countries, the larger countries exploit their resources in such a way that under develops those nations and prevents them from gaining the prosperity that we get off of their labor. Wars and preemptive strikes are considered necessary for maintaining a "peaceful" world climate for our nation. Potential disruptions of this world order are put down harshly.
But Imperialism is also wrong because ultimately it is a failure. It does not have long-term viability. Just take a look at history and you can see a very predictable pattern. Many nations rise, many nations have their day, and every one of them falls. And they seem to fall in very predictable ways on a schedule that you can actually plot. In our modern day, empires rise and fall extremely quickly. The Ancient Egyptians had a couple thousand years on top of the heap. The Romans had one thousand. The Arab and Ottoman empires several hundred. The British a couple hundred. The Soviet Union toppled in 70 years and most argue that the USA has already peaked. There is little debate that the future is quickly going to China and India. There is an accelerated rate of change due to the growth of technology and population.
Practicing imperialism--despite being cruel in the first place--just won't set up much of a future for our children. The only thing inevitable for an empire is that it will ultimately fall. At least the Ancient Egyptians could argue that they could enjoy a couple thousand years of prosperity before their fall. We cannot make those claims, today.
I would be willing to risk the political future of this country to experiment with a different method. There is nothing to lose: Imperialism has a very definite and predictable end. The fact that the USA (much like the United Kingdom) sits on a geographical "island" from our "colonies" may allow us to maintain some sovereignty even if the nations we run eventually rise up (which they will--they all will), but I am not sure I would want to depend on that. 9/11 has showed us that we are not as isolated as we think.
Terrorism is one of the primary ways that colonial nations topple their overlords. The barbarians at the gates of Rome were kept at bay for many years, with the huge cost of depleting the Roman treasury and whittling and wearing down the resources and resolve of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the barbarians broke through. Looking back, we wonder if the terrorism of 9/11 bears any resemblance to that, but remember that looking back at history is 20/20 and entire centuries appear like they happened overnight. Its only be a few years since 9/11, and its not hard to imagine a future where the US is crippled by consistent needling of terrorism. Think about the huge crippling impact that 9/11 had on our infrastructure: All air travel was grounded, border checks intensified, etc. A regular dose of 9/11's could really bring us to our knees, spiraling into economic depression.
Trying to win against terrorism by force is like playing that game at the fair where you hammer down the gophers as they pop up. As soon as you hit one (or think you hit one), there are two more popping up elsewhere. This is why the fundamental issue with counter-terrorism has always been why do they hate us? This question has been mocked, but it is blatant common sense: If no one wanted to attack us in the first place, then we probably wouldn't getting attacked.
The "reasons" given for Islamic terrorism skew the point: "They just hate us because we're free; they just hate us because their religion tells them to, so you can't reason with them." All false assumptions. Actually, terrorists express the desire to do their deeds based on a number of political, social and economic reasons. They feel that terrorism is their only weapon to fight what they consider to be injustice. Terrorism is the last ditch weapon available of the oppressed. Wanna know another secret? It works. Terrorism has toppled many empires in the past, and it can topple more and more of them in the future. Trying to seal every crack in our defenses and chasing every shadow will soon deplete our country morally and economically. You can't defend against everything. What you can do is resolve it at its root. People who are living in economic prosperity are not attracted to terrorism. This is a fact. People do not attack someone with whom they have mutually interdependent and beneficial relationships.
Trying to force one's will upon another country and forcefully trying to put down every possible revolt and uprising is a losing battle. However, it may be successful for a while. The big guy is the big guy, after all. But the oppressed will keep trying, and they will exploit vulnerabilities just like the big guy has been exploiting them. There will come a time when the Imperial overlord is weak, its attention divided, its resources stretched thin and its treasury bankrupt. Then you have a situation where a once-powerful nation is vulnerable with many people with a gripe against it and the will to knock it down. The Empire model has within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
The alternatives for US foreign policy are more difficult to nail down into sound bites. People commonly look to Switzerland as an example of what could be: This is a nation that hasn't been attacked in centuries and which does the banking for the world. They have a modest image. The more we know people from other nations, tear down cultural barriers to understanding each other, and the more we have crossovers for students, scientists, businesses and travel, the more people see a vested interest in each other. All sides may have to give a little, but if the end result is truly a win-win, there will not be any more wars and there won't be any terrorism. There won't be any empires, either, but I would imagine they won't be missed.