150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
Beyond American Empire
July/August 2003
By Robert D. Kaplan

Three years ago, Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan characterized the United States as an empire at the height of its powers, and argued that in the not-so-distant future, it must relinquish its dominance to “a worthy successor.”

No doubt there are some who see an American empire as the natural order of things for all time. That is not a wise outlook. The task ahead for the United States has an end point, and in all probability the end point lies not beyond the conceptual horizon but in the middle distance—a few decades from now. For a limited period the United States has the power to write the terms for international society, in hopes that when the country’s imperial hour has passed, new international institutions and stable regional powers will have begun to flourish, creating a kind of civil society for the world ... There will be nothing approaching a true world government, but we may be able to nurture a loose set of global arrangements that have arisen organically among responsible and like-minded states.

If this era of reluctant imperium is to leave a lasting global mark, we must know what we are up to; we must have a sense that supremacy is bent toward a purpose and is not simply an end in itself. In many ways the few decades immediately ahead will be the trickiest ones that our policymakers have ever faced: they are charged with the job of running an empire that looks forward to its own obsolescence.

Winston Churchill saw in the United States a worthy successor to the British Empire, one that would carry on Britain’s liberalizing mission. We cannot rest until something emerges that is just as estimable and concrete as what Churchill saw.

Volume 292, No. 1, pp. 65–83

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