1. The American empire is a geopolitical assumption par excellence. There is no map of it, be such a map more or less agreed upon, official or otherwise. Everyone, however, be they partners or aspiring ones, friends and enemies, accepts its existence as obvious and indisputable. They all, or almost all therefore celebrate or rather curse its material and immaterial hyper-power. Sometimes turning the tables, with some “allies” detesting it (reciprocated) and various “opponents” longing to be admitted to its court. Nowadays, it is perhaps worth counting various proud citizens of the United States of America among the most convinced anti-imperialists, who are tired of sustaining its real or supposed costs and insensitive to glory.
Multitudes of political scientists, philosophers and sociologists – with the touching exception of geographers – squabble about the form and hence the substance of American supremacy. The merit of having unknowingly cut the Gordian Knot goes to a venerable French linguist, Oswald Ducrot, who, in the course of his almost nine-decade-long life, never appears to have become involved in this learned dispute. All this being the result of his studies on assumptions (1), a rhetorical axiom that takes for granted the truth of a statement as an accepted premise. In verbal strategy, the art of portraying or not portraying reality, but instead arguing one’s own, assumes pre-empting and closing all investigation.
Suppositions cannot be refuted. It is a an apparently descriptive statement and a de facto strategic and aggressive one. If (almost) everyone predetermines that the American imperial superpower exists, what superior evidence of its existence could there be? The American empire would exist even if it did not. In spite of Trump, the noisy symptom of a period of social-psychological rather than geopolitical withdrawal, such missionary fever continues to fuel various strategists as well as part of national/imperial public opinion. This because it has very old roots.
What we do not know and cannot imagine is whether it will reignite one of the frequent flare ups that, in almost two and a half centuries of history, have led the United States to fight 33 real wars – including the never-ending “War on Terror” – if not motu proprio, because they have been and are fought not against an enemy but in order to abolish a methodolgy (a profession?) as old as humankind.
All in violation of the solemn principle pronounced on July 4th, 1821 by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, according to whom the republic “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”, because otherwise “she might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” (2)
2. What remains is the problem of how to create a map of such supremacy, albeit nowadays less resplendent and more opposed. At times ignoring one another, empires have, until now, coexisted alongside other empires, each drawn filling in areas of maps or planispheres in the accepted colours. For centuries vast areas were assigned to lions, to imaginary bestiaries, to monsters, or to no one at all.
There is a cartographic moment in the history of the United States, far more intense and not as brief as Old Continent snobbism assumes. It is no coincidence that such a moment should coincide with the imperial moment; the annexation of Hawaii and, above all, the Spanish-American War that marked the advent of American power, until then rather neglected by world powers (the embassy in Washington was rejected as a minor and inconvenient posting by European diplomats, Italians included).
With the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10th, 1898, Spain handed over Puerto Rico, Guam, the Protectorate of Cuba and the Philippines to the United States. This Asian archipelago became, and, until 1946, remained America’s only authentic colony in the European sense of the word. President William McKinley, already having little enthusiasm for war – to which he had been pushed among others by his successor Theodore Roosevelt – spent more than one night on his knees, praying the Almighty to tell him what to do with that damned group of islands inhabited by savages, most of whom were nominally Roman-Catholics.
Some suggested that the republic should resist the diabolical, costly temptation of overseas enlargement and some opposed this, suggesting that the European monopoly on imperialism should be ended. God decided. This happened in the course of four night-time “inspirations” that shook the president’s mind and spirit, as he himself passed down to us. God decreed, in the following order that, 1) “That we could not give them (the Philippines Editor’s note) back to Spain - that would be cowardly and dishonorable; “2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany [...] that would be bad business and discreditable; 3) that we not leave them to themselves - they are unfit for self-government; and 4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them” (read: de-Catholicising them).
As soon as he awoke the following morning, McKinley summoned the chief engineer of the War Department (“our map-maker”) and told him to put The Philippines on the large map of the United States hanging on a wall in his office. He concluded the matter saying, “there they are and there they will stay while I am president.” (3) It would take Harry Truman to remove the map half a century later.
The dialogue between God and McKinley marked the beginning of American imperial map-making. Every empire usually likes to depict itself on world maps, choosing scales and projections exalting its extension and power. One borderline case is perhaps that of Portugal with its Mapa Cor-de-Rosa created in 1885 to show off its claim to vast African territories linking Portuguese colonies between Angola and Mozambique, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific.
McKinley’s enlightenment paved the way for American imperial pedagogy, founded on the visualisation of the planet’s vastness, still rich in unexplored areas, as well as the homeland’s rising rank on its seas and lands. All this was encouraged by the new ten-volume edition of the Century Dictionary & Cyclopedia & Atlas, for the first time including military maps, displaying a world they could only dream of to readers able to afford it (US $120, discounted to $60 at Wanamaker’s stores), perhaps also buying a bookcase capable of containing it. Popular maps spread, as hyper-simplified as they were prescriptive, distributed by major publishers; the yellow press early versions of modern day posters on boulevards, aimed at rather lazy readers who were not really distracted but instead easily excited.
The hero of this imperialistic advertising campaign was William Randolph Hearst. Among other newspapers, the publishing tycoon with excessive political ambitions – at the time some even suspected him of having had the battleship Maine sunk on February 15th, 1898, while at anchor off Havana so as to spark a war against Spain and even to have commissioned McKinley’s assassination on September 6th, 1901 – was the owner of the Evening Press and the New York Evening Journal.
It was in these papers that, on December 5th 1898, anticipating the signing of the treaty in Paris, he published an instantly visually effective Map of the Greater United States, with the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii included and encircled, while other sources published a depiction of the East centred on Manila.
To sustain these maps, there were evocative statements such as the one that on May 15th, 1898, adorning an article in World, in which the wording above the Earth’s curve read, “the sun this day does not set on uncle Sam's domain. Before his sunset light fails the Philippines; Maine glories in the dawn”. (4)
We owe this 2010 study on the visualisation of the American empire to David Brody, associate professor of design studies at Parsons’ New School for Design, in Manhattan.
He is neither a historian nor a geographer. Brody describes himself as hostile to being confined “in one disciplinary box”, blending “history, ethnography, globalization, and many other areas of study”, to “finding meaning behind objects and design industries”. (5) Understanding an empire is not something for entomologists.
3. Between the hesitating subverter of the decomposing Hispanic empire (Catalonia will inform us whether this is ongoing) and Bush Senior, the mental and even physical maps of the world seen from the Oval Office, or rather from the Pentagon, remained sufficiently clear. Thanks to victories in two World Wars, America had asserted itself as the Number One in the world. Washington devoted itself to creating enormous spheres of influence in the world, as well as to completing its enlargement towards the Centre-South (Oklahoma 1907), South-West (New Mexico and Arizona 1912), North West (Alaska 1959), to elevating the Hawaiian archipelago to the rank of state (1959), to settling in micro-territories and insular areas, co-opting useful oceanic docking locations such as the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia, while conceding semi-autonomy to tiny Indian reserves useful as casinos later regulated by the Indian Gaming Regulation Act (1988).
These imperial areas include the Euro-Atlantic ensemble (NATO), the alliance with Japan and South Korea, understandings with petro-monarchies in the Gulf and brotherhood with Israel. The Iron Curtain – plus the unwelcomed Cuban appendix – was the only negative mark that remained impressed on the American planisphere from 1945 to the magical three-year-period of 1989-91 (the fall of the Berlin Wall, German unification and collapse of the USSR).
To this we Italians owe memories of having made us important on three different occasions, albeit as shabby border guards (the so-called Gorizia Line), custodians of the centre of Christianity (agreed: Catholic) and being equipped with the largest Communist party in the West.
After pushing its Soviet rival to suicide, during the long 1991-2001 decade Washington spread the postulate of being a single superpower, a position it will never abdicate sua sponte. Having penetrated the collective imagination of its opponents or aspiring competitors, also thanks to its soft power, Washington thereby assigned to itself the mutually interchangeable horizons of “globalization”. Strictly speaking, the unification of the planet.
No limits. Neither of space nor time. Two scientists, Americans of course, have proposed that time zones should be abolished, moving towards a universal time zone aimed at establishing a permanent calendar. Valid for everyone and forever. Not even Fukuyama ever went so far (6).
In such circumstances geopolitics become theology. There was still, however, the issue concerning the manner in which the American empire could be redrawn within the context of triumph. This not because of a whim, but to pay homage to the fact that drawing the areas of power, and hence those of powerlessness, is a strategic indicator and an unavoidable heuristic criteria, at least for those believing they are on the right side of history. In order to draw a new map of the American empire, yet another degree of assumption was needed.
In extreme terms, Ducrot’s second supposition sounded as follows; as it exists, but no American or alien knows or wishes to establish its limes, the empire of the United States was to be established on the basis of astronomy, circumscribed for the moment to the planet and to the atmosphere surrounding it.
One could add the moon, as it was there that on July 20th, 1968, in the midst of the Sea of Tranquillity, the commander of the spaceship Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, followed his ecumenical words – “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – with the patriotic gesture of planting the flag of the United States of America. Certainly not the United Nations’ flag, thereby creating, perhaps due to a subconscious assumption, the identity of America with the Earth. Satellite included; the property of which became the object of dispute after the U.S. Senate did not ratify the very Carterish 1979 Moon Treaty that would have assigned the moon to the supervision of an international authority in the event that it should become necessary to distribute quotas of resources and profits to “developing countries.”(7)
Planting the Stars and Stripes on the moon meant founding the uniqueness of the American Empire. While continuing to avoid the imperial brand and present itself as a republic – similar to the imperium romanum which did, however, vaunt an emperor, not a head of state elected for a period and burdened with a thousand shoestrings and counterweights – due to its universal mission the American superpower does not consider itself just that.
Were it a mere superior power it would be comparable to others, albeit seen from very far above. It is not even superiorem non recognoscens, as determined by the brocard: hierarchy does not deny but rather presupposes homology among states. It is instead a star player, endowed with a universal mission assigned by Providence. Its task is to equip itself with the means to achieve this.
This “manifest destiny”, distilled in total purity, knows no limits if not those that will be imposed by the citizens of a Union of States founded on the principles of European enlightenment and a number of its practical endowments (slavery included, for almost a century), which shies away from proclaiming itself an empire, but that among certain of its élites proudly considers itself one and, as such, becomes organised. It does so without giving itself too many constraints, let alone those sanctioned by international “law”.
On the contrary, in the extreme neo-conservative version – not only a political sect, the revolutionary and therefore utopian soul of the universal mission – the less introverted imperial establishment sees the world as potentially American. Even better, as an archipelago of minor Americas, albeit similar and friendly, managed by the United States. An example of this is provided by the caveats that real imperialism imposes on every universalistic ideology with Article 21 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which includes and legitimises the Monroe Doctrine, hence American dominion over the Western hemisphere. A case of the alleged universal law’s subordination to the United States’ imperial pan-Americanism.
This was not enough to persuade the Senate to ratify a treaty that was excessively invasive of American sovereignty.
While at least in theory the second assumption is resolved in favour of the identity between the American empire, the world and its eventual cosmic colonies, doubts remain concerning how one should portray an empire that generally does not like defining or outlining itself as such – original exceptions include George Washington who spoke of an “infant empire”. (8)
In fact America celebrates its anti-colonial roots, while accompanying the noun empire with adjectives that are often derogatory and aimed at the current demon (the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union according to Reagan). It is at this point that one moves from calm hypotheses to furious debates. No rhetorical tricks are now allowed. What applies is imperial self-awareness and the perceptions of others. What is at stake is the representation of one’s own power and that of one’s enemies and/or competitors, each with a perception of self that is often inversely proportional to territorial and demographic size. This we enter a poisonous, challenging and hostile arena.
Let us start with how the United States maps itself. Semi-official and pedagogic American planispheres are American-centric. They thereby stimulate a visual perception, excited by vivacious chromatic hues assigned to the centre of the world, bringing order to areas and creating a hierarchy of power. If Ducrot permits, this is a geo-aesthetic presupposition of great impact, in spite of or perhaps due to the majority of the public’s rather apathetic detachment from geography and history that is not their own. This is rare among empires. So far, however, we remain in the field of propaganda rather than that of knowledge; narrative rather than education. It is best to concentrate on the semi-hidden aspects and the ideological characteristics of the issue, both filled with consequences.
Ever since the United States has become or perceived itself as a global hyper-power, its geography is everything and nothing. Everything in the operative sense, as the instrument of imperial wars. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a secret strategic organisation based in Springfield, Virginia, produces, by statute, the most sophisticated means of geospatial localisation reserved to Washington’s civilian and military decision-makers.
No theoretical sub-species; according to the “Empire of the World” as the patriarch of British geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, prefigured American globalisation – moved by profound Messianism far more than by exuberant capitalism – no border is cogent or definitive. During the 1940s, Isaiah Bowman, the most influential American geographer who ever lived, warned that no border can be fixed in the world that limits the interests of the United States, (9) all the way to the presidential sanction entrusted twenty years later to John Fitzgerald Kennedy who said that nowadays American borders exist on every continent. (10)
Thus, when Limes ventured its own representation of the American empire, it based it on its thalassocratic gene, scanning the planisphere for areas that are the competence of American fleets, the backbone of the greatest excessive military power history has ever seen.
This while well aware that patrolling the oceans, especially in choke points that facilitate or strangle global trade, does not imply direct or indirect control over the great masses of dry lands, were it not simply due to demographic reasons; 4.6% of human kind could not govern the remaining 95.4% even if it were the hyper-armed army of a totalitarian state. This is why the United States has developed a hyper-technological version of the thalassocracy inherited from its former colonial master. Of course, competitors and even “allies” try with a degree of success to create spheres of influence also in some large lands and, to the extent they can, on some internal seas.
These are on the other hand incomplete and quite moveable, variably mapped depending on different points of view. No one, however, is capable of rising to the position of being a homologue of the global power emanating from Washington, where the imperative of the second (not last) American century remains dogma.
Let us thus approach the geopolitical issue par excellence, providing readers with one warning, a premise and (we hope) the provocative hint of an answer.
The warning: ever since Limes has existed, it has been our intention to expose to confutation hypotheses concerning ongoing conflicts of power and their debatable outcome in the near future. These are non-deterministic lines of reasoning, which even when assumed to be rational start from specific logics that are not universal and even less universalist.
Choosing one among the many, which often collide because they are inspired by different conventions, even concerning the definition of power – what is at stake – for which one fights, over what the spatial and temporal perimeters within which the-never-definitive verdict is expressed (but by whom?). This implies a continuous, always imperfect attempt to penetrate the (ir)rationality of others, the salt of all strategies. Nor does this exclude the fact that the dispute arises from the feeling that everyone knows one another all too well.
The premise: the American empire is the world’s Number One. It dominates by military-technological power in almost every dimension, perhaps with the not secondary exceptions of cyber war, artificial intelligence and human espionage as the inevitable filter for the excess of information available.
Such predominance allows America to draw on power with agile largesse; thanks to its economic size (the first country for nominal GDP, second by GDP based on equal buying power, behind China, but with a difference in per capita income that remains abysmal); thanks to its exorbitant monetary privilege (the prevalent national currency used for international exchanges, forming an albeit declining currency block of 53%, in front of the euro’s 30%, with the yuan at 1.61%); its scientific and IT development, including the internet; its linguistic and cultural influence (soft power) also thanks to the providential expansion of ‘globish’, increasingly widespread and less critical shorthand anglophonia; the privilege of enjoying, as a republic, an enviable geographical position between two oceans and two non-threatening powers – although Mexico could become one in the future (11).
Finally, thanks to the paradox of spatial incommensurability, it is not possible to formalise a cartographic representation, hence one cannot establish its territorial ascent and decline as instead is possible for all previous empires. This confers on the United States a seductive aura of ubiquitous eternity.
The provocation: in view of all this, is the Number One really hegemonic? In our attempt to assess the world’s geopolitical state – its accelerated dynamics – this is the supreme question for which we do not have a clear answer, but can offer something that is far more insidious; doubt.
This because of the sense of limits we have adopted with this review and because any stentorian assertion on the subject would require a historical perspective we do not have. Just as Fabrizio del Dongo in the melee of Waterloo was under the illusion he could understand the sense of the battle from the front lines – Stendhal created a possibly ironic scene concerning the unreliability of direct witnesses (12) – not realising to what extent he was “enveloped” (in the Hegelian sense) in the current circumstances and social climate, and as Italians cheerfully included in its European sphere of influence, it would be incongruous for us contemporaries of the American empire to claim the right to dictate a verdict to our readers.
Let us therefore start from the concept that one can rise to the position of Number One according to most of the classical power indicators without becoming a global hegemonic because of this. With the not unimportant appendix that in America not everyone always considers glory the supreme asset. This is not because they are overcome by a feverish monastic vocation (as happened to a few emperors, even to Charles V) or by an ascetic calling, as happened to Simeon Stylites the Elder, who, unable to flee the world horizontally, climbed it vertically to live on top of a 15 metre-tall column in the Syrian desert. It is instead for the opposite reason; intolerance arising from the financial sacrifices imposed by the empire and all the more so if universal. It is this, and not anything else, that is the doubt instilled by Trumpism that will probably outlive its eponym hero.
We have begun to understand how the American empire is (not) organised, but in order to set out our thesis we need to understand the meaning of hegemony.
4. “Now to a tyrant or to an imperial city nothing is inconsistent which is expedient, and no man is a kinsman who cannot be trusted.” (13) This was how Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, expressed the Greek version of the concept of hegemony as the predominance of one city over others, united in a league aimed at fighting a mortal enemy. This was the 5th century BC, but the idea of political-ideological rather than military dominance was already discussed as being the root of power.
It is curious that all trace of hēgemonia as a (geo)political category vanished until the mid-19th century. It was the German historians who retrieved it in order to drive Prussia to elevate itself to a hegemonic position in the German Confederation that was created by the Congress of Vienna. This all took place more or less while the Turin-published Dizionario politico nuovamente compilato ad uso della gioventù italiana [Newly edited political dictionary for young Italians] reported on Piedmont’s aspirations regards to “hegemony” over Italy, similar to Berlin’s over the German region (14).
It was the most influential Italian political thinker in the current world, Antonio Gramsci, an original and prolifically antinomian Marxist, who was to revisit the concept, which Perry Anderson summarised as follows: hegemony is unthinkable without consensus, unfeasible without force. (15) While Gramsci wrote The Prison Notebooks, the German jurist Heinrich Triepel, a nationalist monarchist who had saluted Hitler’s advent in a disciplined manner because it was “legal”, wrote six hundred erudite pages about Die Hegemonie - Ein Buch von führenden Staaten [Hegemony, A Book of Leading States] (16), in which he defined cultural hegemony as comparable to domination (Herrschaft) imposed using power. This to remind one, as Anderson observed, that it is for this reason that the hegemonic state causes those hegemonised to imitate it, (17) only to add that hegemony can only be achieved among homogeneous states. (18)
Finally, so as to close the circle without lacking in respect for the professorial guild par excellence, the Germanic one, we will complete this review with two revealing and converging definitions of the concept (Begriff) of hegemony. The first one was provided by Rudolf Stadelmann, a young conservative scholar who was not exactly anti-Nazi, who in the posthumously published (1950) Hegemonie und Gleichgewicht [Hegemony and Equilibrium], in implicit controversy with the maestro Ludwig Dehio, author of Gleichgewicht oder Hegemonie, [Equilibrium or Hegemony], established that, hegemony and equilibrium are not mutually exclusive regulatory principles, they instead stand together like the convex and concave parts of one same vessel. (19)
The second comes from Henry Kissinger, a Bavarian Jew who escaped Hitler’s persecutions in 1938, later becoming one of the greatest architects and thinkers of American foreign policy, always maintaining both his guttural accent and Old European cultural outlook. He remained therefore fond of world order, a synonym for geopolitical stability, entrusted above all to empires agreeing to respect “a generally accepted legitimacy.” This is not to be confused with justice. Legitimacy means nothing more than “an international agreement about the nature or workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.” (20)
Kissinger’s fixed idea, from his master’s thesis on the leading players of the dawning European order to the less dazzling World Order (21) to the masterpiece Diplomacy (22), is that sooner or later every legitimacy is overwhelmed from within, because the dominant power no longer believes in itself and its values, and/or from the exterior due to the emergence of a more powerful rival. One must therefore replace it with the balance of power, a European exercise extrapolated from Descartes’ mathematics and Newton’s physics (principle of action/reaction), historically indigestible as far as the American empire is concerned.
Without that it will fall from order into anarchy. Or rather, from more or less self-contained local conflicts to wide-scale war. In his opinion, however, the problem is that the primary objective of the balance of power is to prevent domination by one state and to preserve world order (23); in current term, abolishing the American empire and its global primacy.
Against this backdrop it is legitimate to envisage that the American empire’s legitimacy crisis started due to its loss of hegemony. Let us distinguish five markers.
First. To remain with Thucydides, for some time now Washington has no longer instilled “security and confidence” not only among its opponents – the four established in official documents plus many others not listed – but above all to its minority partners. These partners question the usefulness of subordination to an erratic empire, prey to a furious battle between strategic agencies and bureaucracies, between the establishment and the “populists” (those disagreeing with the mantra of the élites) excited by President Trump himself, the omnipresent multi-media standard-bearer, practicing the art of unpredictability (the obsession with distancing himself from his predictable cynical predecessor), taking care to contradict himself even many times every day.
The president matters little but appears a great deal. Nowadays people fight one another over “visibility”, a factor worth taking into account.
Second. Decision makers in Washington (what’s their phone number?), perhaps also because of the confused scrum that constantly keeps them busy, tend to reduce Gramsci’s hendiadys – consensus and power – simply to the second element.
Excessive military power is useful if aimed at a constantly revisable well-established strategy. It can instead turn against its executors, as confirmed on a daily basis by the reckless, unfinished and perhaps unfinishable military campaigns in the Middle East, passed off as “War on Terror”. It must be a coincidence that the United States won all the wars it fought before becoming a superpower, and lost, or at best drew, all significant conflicts it engaged in after World War II, from Korea to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to Iraq (without mentioning the performance in Somalia). It may be perhaps cabalistic that the Americans instead won the only war they didn’t fight, the decisive one against the Soviet Union.
This was a triumph that, however, obliged them to give up that half of the regulating dirty work that Moscow carried out in systemic terms within its own empire, work that Washington is now mostly and unenthusiastically obliged to do. Optimists hope that the low-intensity indirect and direct wars (Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Sahel) and the risky air and naval encounters in contested Chinese waters or the Baltic, express the empire’s astute military maintenance, with a few unconfessed concessions to Kissinger’s balance of power, without considering the sad anti-hegemonic inference. One must, however, take into account how such exercises have led to the temporary but impressive result of aligning China and Russia; the two greatest declared enemies.
This was more a choice made by Washington than their own preference. With China appearing to be returning North Korea (or perhaps the entire Korean peninsula?) to its own sphere of control and the absolute novelty of Russia forming a fragile but for the moment efficient tactical triangle with what remains of the Persian and Ottoman empires, once its extremely proud historical rivals, like Saudi Arabia and Israel. If this is the result of the “constant game of whack-a-mole to maintain the status quo” as theorised by Jacob L. Shapiro, we are not sure to what extent is complies with American interests. (24)
Reducing the imperial Armed Forces to an international super police force, like many other states subcontracting an increasing portion of these tasks to not-entirely reliable mercenary formations, demoralises the military and invalidates state monopoly of violence also on the domestic front.
Third. Albert Einstein liked to repeat that “It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” In the American case, the theoretical template is subordinated to the creation of models, a scientism-related neurosis of neo-positivist origin aimed at creating a mathematics of human behaviour.
This is the result of formidable technological development, especially in the IT field, which applied to geopolitics would like to turn data and strategies incorrectly considered “exact”, expressible in current or literary language, into alphanumeric characters. Without neglecting the hyper-textual fashion that prevents the hierarchisation of reasoning. Even worse, it makes it optional, to the detriment of philology and critique. The compulsive search for a measure to establish, for example, whether after 17 years the United States is winning or losing the war Afghanistan, archetype of the “War on Terror”, is exemplified in a conversation held towards the end of the Bush Junior administration.
The meeting involved a high ranking intelligence officer and the authoritative political analyst and the Secretary of State’s advisor, Eliot Cohen. After the officer had rattled off statistical data and power point presentations, Cohen asked, “Are we winning?” The answer was “I don’t know”. (25) Some people at the Pentagon are starting to believe that the outcome of every war does not depend on statements made by the winner (“Mission accomplished”, unfortunate both when spoken by George W. Bush and more recently by Trump, following the fireworks show put on in Syria on April 14th with no effect whatsoever on the conflict) but on the loser’s admission of defeat. This is impossible in the “War on Terror”: when one “terrorist” is killed, alongside “collaterals”, another twenty materialise.
Finally, the formalisation in algebraic form of any human event encourages analogies, the downfall of all strategies, the nemesis of geopolitics. Expressed in the lessons learned packed up in mind-numbing algorithms, this means that an event that takes place in Tanzania is promoted as the ideal type for “analogous” events replicable anywhere, from Lapland to Easter Island, from Skagerrak to Yunnan. When dealing with wars, the stated reproducibility of Bosnian experiences on the ground in Mesopotamia, for example, has produced tragicomic results.
Fourth. Edward Gibbon claimed that Rome was protected by the barbarians, because before conquering it they would have ceased to be such. The Urbe would have assimilated them. That is what happened for centuries, as born witness to by the ethnic variety if Rome’s emperors and its elites. But how cohesive is today’s America? How cohesive will it be in the future, especially if the difficult assimilation of the chicanos and other not only Hispanic ethnicities is added to the resentment of white people of European origin – the founding and dominating race of the empire currently afflicted by a frustrating syndrome of relative deprivation among its middle and lower classes – were the identity issue become exasperated? (26)
For how long will the split between the establishment, which considers itself the leader of “global” elites, and the intermediate classes afflicted by the downgrading of structurally temporary jobs, by senseless political humiliation as well as gratifying projects and ideologies, remain manageable? Are the semi-free live mass information circuit, financial shortcuts (we have learned nothing from 2008) and technological sprints enough to make up for the latency of community bonds? Enough to mitigate the disgust for a proclaimed but almost only declaimed democracy? These are dilemmas that afflict the entire West, and not only, but that at its very centre assume strategic importance for the rest of the planet.
Fifth. The catalogue of empires does not include a global one and history indicates that the extension of supremacy in space ends up weakening its control. Imperial greatness and hegemonic profoundness finally tend to diverge. A paradox experienced by Europeanism – implicit ideology (pathology?) of an Old Continent’s quasi-empire for which time has run out, perhaps a late memory of Hegelian euro-centrism that envisaged such a destiny (27) – when after the fall of the Berlin Wall it declared it wanted to both enlarge and deepen, as if these two elements did not reciprocally exclude one another. To what level will this tension also be applied in a real and powerful empire such as the American one, which considers itself global?
And, above all, there is the unequal but exponential demographic growth, increasingly more significant in more unstable continents (Africa and Asia), which relativises the albeit enviable American demographic asset and a relatively young average age (38 years compared to 44 in the largest European countries and about 18 years in West Africa). When at the end of the 19th century, European empires divided up the world, white people were the majority in a population estimated to consist of about one and a half billion souls, a number destined to increase fivefold towards the middle of this century.
When we discuss more or less vast historical empires, we must take into account that the human environment they settled in was not at all constant. This so-called global century appears to be on its way towards the accentuation of demographic, economic and biological inequalities, as well as geopolitical disputes. The “small planet”, to use Massimo Livi Bacci’s metaphor, is far less governable than when it was shared out among European imperial states and statelets, from Great Britain to Portugal, from France to Belgium, from Holland to Italy, from Austria-Hungary to Spain, from Germany to Russia and to Turkey (28).
The American empire is sentenced to choose between globalism – theoretical because overextended – and non-universal hegemony – negotiated and/or conflicting with minor powers ensuring they are kept separate. If it does not choose it will sooner or later disintegrate. If it lasts, proudly raising its head to feel great again, it will be because it will have reduced its – hegemonic – magnetic field, playing on weakness and divisions between rivals of a decidedly inferior rank.
5. For now we have explored the world’s geopolitical dynamics starting from the leading player, which many (not only Americans) consider global. However, every subject, including Number One, acts within an environment that conditions and at times inhibits its strategy. On this occasion devoted to the feat of identifying different perceptions of the world, we have therefore arbitrarily selected five conflicts or crisis areas, all involving a minimum or maximum degree of American involvement. Should it be necessary, this confirms the extent of the United States’ responsibilities and influence at a planetary level.
For each we have identified an Archimedean point: Taiwan because of the contest between the United States and China centred on the Far East’s mediterraneans; Yokosuka, the Japanese cornerstone of the Seventh Fleet monitoring the immense Indo-Pacific; Kaliningrad, the Russian fort in former East Prussia surrounded by NATO (USA); the Strait of Sicily, Chaoslandia’s Euro-Mediterranean border, the tragic chokepoint for the south-north migratory corridors, the latitudinal partition between areas of destitution and conflicts and lands of peace and affluence, of which we are the extreme and very permeable border; Djibouti, a former French colony (once the Territory of the Afars and the Issas), a republic the size as Lombardy but set on the strategic African shores of the Bāb al-Mandab Strait, where 40% of global trade passes though and it is on its beaches, in its ports and airports that the military bases of France (also hosting Spanish and German soldiers), China, the United States, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia (under construction) and perhaps more to come, stand shoulder to shoulder facing one another.
In spite of everything, the state of the world remains a world of states. In this, it remains loyal to Hegel, according to whom “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” (29) Only such a supreme institution has the right to participate in universal history. The prophets of the extinction of states have been proved wrong. If anything, we are seeing a proliferation of states, which in a classical inflationary manner accentuates internal degenerative symptoms, delegitimizing the more fragile ones while re-legitimising the real, well-established mature ones. In 1945, the United Nations was founded by 51 countries. Nowadays at the United Nations, in addition to schoolchildren, tourists, the followers of a naive but nice cosmopolitism, officials who are usually well paid, there are also the delegates of 193 Member States, excluding various having the status of observers.
There are dozens of other so-called or aspiring state-like entities, a few new Tortugas, tax havens, refuges for terrorists, mafia-ruled domains with an institutional protocol, plus a few fought-over or neglected no-man’s lands complete the “international community”. Were he to come back to life, Herr Professor Triepel, formatting his work for Kindle, would deduce that hegemony is not bestowed in this world, as it would assume homologous states. One does not fool around with science.
If we were Americans, however, we would not be disheartened. This on condition that lower level issues must come before messianic utopias and vain universalist ambitions and also before relevant inelegant ideological fineries – the infamous “human rights”, the elusive “international community”, now and again even quite selective “international law” (ok in Crimea, no thanks in Kosovo) – which offend one’s own intelligence and that of others. Warlike frenzies excited by the availability of boundless military panoply and large (“voluntary”) mercenary militias, which are present wherever there is a lack of a national vocation for soldiering, must be calmed. If used in an a-strategic manner (“to do something”, not “to fight for victory”) these undermine Washington’s credibility. While aimed at dividing and punishing opponents, they at times unite them.
But then, are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the Pentagon’s black list – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea – capable of replacing the United States as the world’s Number One? And do they really wish to? What threats are involved?
Perhaps as far as the Middle Kingdom is concerned, currently still busy with reunification or at least with not falling apart (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet), reforming both a political and manufacturing system; a country that also envisages staring into the eyes of the American hyper-power, perhaps challenging it to a deadly duel (probably deadly for both and for us with them). In the meantime, under the neo-Jacobin dictatorship of Xi Jinping, Beijing is trying to escape Washington’s strangulation and its crown of ambiguous Asian partners, launching itself into the formidable adventure involving the new silk roads. It js veiled imperialism in Mandarin sauce that, it seems, is wandering around our peninsula.
Perhaps not at all as far as Russia is concerned, now in proud survival mode, which only Obama and Trump’s foolishness and the phobias of some Baltic states have repainted as a great power, linking the country to the Chinese enemy. As far as Iran is concerned, a slightly larger than medium-sized power, the United States and Israel will perhaps end up realising that they have far less to fear from the Persian and Turkish empires, real states compared to the tribal Bedouin petro-monarchies in the Gulf experiencing a triple crisis caused by identity, energy revenue and the epidemic of jihadists that has escaped their control and that of the Americans. Finally there is the agile young man who from his “hermit” P’yongyang seems to have used refined tactical intelligence to nail the superpower to negotiations on the nuclear issue and could aspire to win the 2018 Nobel Prize for geopolitics if there were one, but can hardly aspire to global supremacy.
On condition it does not decide to inflict pain on itself, in spite of the torrential apocalyptic literature it produces, in the world of states the United States can aspire to remain the Number One. For a long time.
And perhaps in a few centuries time, when traces of the American empire remain in history books, an archaeologist will solve the mysterious cartographic rebus that tormented Mr. McKinley and his successors. He will rediscover Del rigor en la ciencia, the brilliant fragment Jorge Luis Borges attributed to the imaginary Suárez Miranda author of Viajes de varones prudentes (Travels of Prudent Men), Book Four, chapter XLV, Lérida 1658, together with the comment by Umberto Eco, dedicated to the paradox of the Normal Map.
Borges wrote, “…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided Point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the
Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” (30)
And this is the exegesis of the text by Borges according to Umberto Eco - “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1:1” – of which we briefly quote the three final appendixes, recommending to the reader the fascinating considerations on the concept of a Normal Map and Russell-Frege’s paradox. First, “Every 1:1 map always reproduces the territory unfaithfully.” Second, “At the moment the map is realized, the empire become unreproducible.” However, “it could be remarked that, with the second corollary, the empire fulfils its most secret dreams, making itself imperceptible to enemy empires; but thanks to the first corollary, it would become imperceptible to itself as well.
We would have to postulate an empire that achieves awareness of itself in a sort of transcendental apperception of its own categorial apparatus in action. But that would require the existence of a map endowed with self-awareness and such a map (if it were even conceivable) would itself become the empire, while the former empire would cede its power to the map.” Third: “Every 1:1 map of the empire decrees the end of the empire as such and therefore is the map of a territory that is not an empire.” (31)
Acta est fabula.
(Translated by Francesca Simmons)
1. Cfr. O. DUCROT, Dire et ne pas dire. Principes de sémantique linguistique, Paris 1998 (third increased edition), Hermann.
2. J. Q. ADAMS, “She Goes Not Abroad in Search of Monsters to Destroy”, a speech made on July 4th 1821, The American Conservative, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/repository/she-goes-not-abroad-in-search-of-monsters-to-destroy/
3. Quotes by William McKinley from J. BANCROFT DEVINS, An Observer in the Philippines; Or, Life in Our New Possessions”, Boston 1905, American Track Society, cfr. D. BRODY, Visualizing American Empire. Orientalism & Imperialism in the Philippines, Chicago and London 2010, The University of Chicago Press, p. 1.
4. Cfr. D. BRODY, op. cit., p. 95.
5. This was the manner in which Professor D. BRODY presented himself on the Parsons website, https:www.newschool.edu/parsons/faculty-rofiles/?id=17179872844
6. S. WILKINSON, “This Guy Says Getting Rid of Time Zones Will Improve Everyone’s Life”, Vice, 8.3.2016.
7. G. H. REYNOLDS, “Who Owns the Moon? The Case for Lunar Property Rights”, Popular Mechanics, 1.6.2008.
8. Cfr. “Contending with the American Empire: Introduction”, (http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9118.pdf
9. Cfr. N. SMITH, American Empire, Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2003, p. 27.
Cit. in W. A. WILLIAMS, Empire as a Way of Life, New York, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 198-199
11. Cfr. “The power of Mexico”, Limes, no. 8/2017.
12. STENDHAL, La Certosa di Parma, Turin 1963, Einaudi, Chapter III, pp. 39-54.
13. THUCYDIDES, La guerra del Peloponneso, Milan 1989 (6th edition), Rizzoli, p. 438 (Book VI, paragraph 85).
14. Cfr. Dizionario politico nuovamente compilato ad uso della gioventù italiana, Turin 1849, Pomba, p. 274.
15. Cfr. P. ANDERSON, The H-Word, The Peripeteia of Hegemony, London-New York City 2017, Verso, pp. 6 ss. See also ID., The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. With a New Preface, London-New York City 2017, Verso, passim. See also G. COSPITO, “Egemonia/egemonico nei ‘Quaderni del carcere’ (e prima)”, International Gramsci Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1 Egemonico/subalterno, article 23, pp. 49-88.
16. H. TRIEPEL, Die Hegemonie. Ein Buch der führenden Staaten, Stuttgart 1938, Kohlhammer, passim.
17. Cit. in P. ANDERSON, The H-Word, op. cit., p. 26.
18. Ivi, p. 27.
19. R. STADELMANN, Hegemonie und Gleichgewicht, Schloß Laupheim 1950, pp. 8-9. Or L. DEHIO, Gleichgewicht oder Hegemonie, Krefeld 1948.
20. H. A. KISSINGER, A World Restored. Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822, Boston 1957, Houghton Mifflin Company – Cambridge 1957, The Riverside Press, p. 1.
21. Cfr. H. KISSINGER, World Order. Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, London-New York, New York- Toronto-Dublin-Melbourne-New Delhi-Auckland-Parktown North 2014, Allen Lane (Penguin Books).
22. Cfr. H. KISSINGER, Diplomacy, New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Tokyo-Singapore 1994, Simon & Schuster.
23. Ivi, p. 67.
24. J. L. SHAPIRO, “Ideology Is Dead”, Geopolitical Futures, 4.4.2018, https://geopoliticalfutures.com,
25. G. JAFFE, “For Trump and his generals, ‘victory’ has different meanings”, The Washington Post, 5.4.2018.
26. Cfr. D. FABBRI, “United States vs Messico, il Nordamerica stretto”, Limes n. 8/2017, pp. 29-45. See also in same review the editorial entitled “Uncle Sam is not my uncle”, pp. 7-26.
27. Cfr. M.A.R. HABIB, Hegel and Empire. From Postcolonialism to Globalism, Cham 2017, Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 14-15.
28. Cfr. M. LIVI BACCI, Il pianeta stretto, Bologna 2015, il Mulino.
29. G. W. F. HEGEL, Lezioni sulla filosofia della storia, Roma-Bari 2003, Laterza, p. 36.
30. J. L. BORGES, “Del rigore nella scienza”, Tutte le opere, volume I, curated by D. PORZIO, da L’artefice, translated into Italian by F. TENTORI MONTALTO, Mondadori 2016 (20th edition ), p. 1253.
31. U. ECO, Il secondo diario minimo, “Dell’impossibilità di costruire la carta dell’impero 1 a 1”, Milan 2013, Bompiani, pp. 157-163.