In the near past, the member States of the EU have not only avoid to follow the US in some of their plans with regard to disarmament, persecution of international crimes, environmental protection or affirmation of human rights, but they have been the bastion of positions that the US expected to defeat. In contrast to the American approach of “full spectrum warfighting” it has been claimed a European approach of “full spectrum peacekeeping”. It is true that after the S-11 the Americans have managed to attract some of the Europeans to the war side, thus creating serious doubts about the feasibility that the EU be a political subject. It has become too common the sight of the most important Heads of Government looking for to being received in Washington, participating in restrictive meetings or showing themselves up by means of mass media and not by the normal diplomatic ways. In the Iraq war, the unconditional subordination of Great Britain, Spain or Italy to the Bush Admini¬≠stration, drifting apart from Germany and France has only been the most significant evidence of a serious breach among Europeans. To be the first commercial power or the first aid development donor is not enough if one assists vicariously in operations decided and controlled by those that do not respect institutions nor norms. If one accepts that Europe can only grow within an euroatlantism defined by the US strategic decisions, the process of the European construction, although necessary, will become a secondary one.

The Great Delusion

“Voila le soleil d’Austerlitz!” Napoleon boasted, recalling his triumph seven years earlier over the Austrians, as his officers formed outside the gates of Moscow in 1812. This bit of over-the-top braggadocio merely symbolizes a larger truth: that emperors and empires, sooner or later, get things wrong. History is littered with the shards of their grandeur:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert…

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair…

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In a sense, the imperial penchant for failure is a pity, for, otherwise, humanity might, by now, have emancipated itself from its narrow tribalism to achieve a form of the global unity so enthusiastically espoused by Alexander the Great, Claudius I and Napoleon, not to mention prominent contemporary publicists of international law.

But bad things always happen, even to relatively benign imperialists as well as (fortunately) to the really awful ones like Adolf Hitler. Invariably, at some point, they or their minions make a fatal mistake.

The message of history appears to be that, for an empire to sustain itself, it must generate an ethos of invincibility. Where democratic rulers are sustained by their legitimacy, rulers of empire need to be perceived as infallible. Unlike elected presidents, they cannot be seen to fall on their face for, when the subjects begin to snigger, the game is up.

And, the thing is, the emperor always stumbles.

Truly thoughtful imperialists have tried to beat the odds by setting up a facade of legitimate institutions behind which, for example, the wizard of Windsor could safely rule unobserved. Lord Lugard dubbed this “indirect rule” utilizing traditional chiefs and nabobs. But the enlightened British imperialists, like their less-benevolent predecessors and cohorts, found that they could neither extirpate nor allay people’s eagerness to rule themselves. And so, things fall apart. To the colonially ruled, imperium is always them, never us.

This “us-them” phenomenon appears to be the stumbling block over which emperors always fall. If being nice and enlightened toward the other side of the “us-them” equation were the answer, Hungary would still be a prosperous and contented partner in the Austro-Hungarian imperial “ausgleich”. As Oliver Cromwell discovered in Ireland, people prefer to take their chances on self-misrule rather than rule by them.

This easily-accessible lesson of history is worth another look as the United States, hot on the heels of Macedonia, Rome et al., enters into what Andy Warhol might have characterized as its 15 minutes of fame as the world’s single superpower. The American President has already made clear that he intends to use those 15 minutes to get them extended indefinitely. Still, history cautions against putting one’s bet on that lame cavalry horse.

A far more constructive way to spend one’s allotted span of imperium might be to plan for the time after it is, inevitably, over. After all, those 15 minutes of disproportionate power afford a unique opportunity to influence the shape of the international system in ways that accord with the lone superpower’s cherished social, political and legal values.

Even such a strategy, informed by enlightened self-interest, is stumble-prone. In the second half of the twentieth century, Britain set out to decolonize its empire by reproducing the Westminster model of democratic governance in one-third of the world. In some parts of the globe it took root, but failed disastrously in others. What that semi-noble experiment tells us is that an imperial power, because to the very end it is seen to be government by them, has great difficulty telling us what to do after “they” turn over the keys.

The trick -a very difficult one- is for the dominant power to convince those it dominates that they are participating as equals in inventing the institutions that will govern the common enterprise after the end of imperium. It is as if the sole superpower were to convene a conference of the nations to draft the post-imperial constitution of the world. The meeting would take place behind the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” where the negotiators, knowing themselves to be the representatives of nations but unaware of which nations they represented, would engage in a common search for truly neutral, fair principles of transnational governance: except that everyone would know, unofficially, which were the representatives of the sole superpower. An America truly pursuing its national interest by preparing for the end of its monopoly on power would use its 15 minutes precisely to influence, with great subtlety, the configuration of the next era. If it hopes to achieve that goal, it will be because it succeeds in convincing the world that they, and not the US, invented the new configuration.

Instead, Washington seems determined to do what all other empires did: lay down the rules by which everyone else, except it, are expected to play. This may work for a while, but in the end it will fail, and it will leave nothing behind but its clay feet standing sentinel in the desert.