The Unipolar Moment and the Culture of Imperialism
(Edward Said Memorial Lecture)

Noam Chomsky

Text of lecture given at Columbia University, December 3, 2009

“I think the greatest singular achievement of Said, as a literary critic, … has been to put imperialism at the center of Western civilization. What you find in both historical, political literature and literary works in the West in the last 400 years is a great emphasis on the role of enlightenment in the making of civilization and its discourse. You find a great deal of emphasis on rationalism … on democracy and democratic values, and on liberalism, as an aspect of enlightenment. There is an almost remarkable tendency to not mention imperialism as shaping the contours of Western civilization … In literary criticism and historical writing there are two times: before Orientalism and after Orientalism.”

I have been quoting the assessment of Edward Said’s literary contributions by his close friend and comrade in struggle Eqbal Ahmad, like Edward a rare and stellar example of an engaged intellectual, dedicated to truth and justice in word and in action. Their passing a few years ago is an irreparable loss for the poor and the suffering of the world, and for depth and clarity of thought and understanding.

Among Edward Said’s many achievements was to draw the “culture of imperialism” from the shadows and explore its deep roots and pervasive implications in many domains. In these remarks, I will try to explore some of its specific manifestations, focusing on the events that opened the way to the famous “unipolar moment” of unchallenged US global hegemony 20 years ago and the ways in which these are remembered on the 20th anniversary now being celebrated. To do so requires following two tracks: policy, and its interpretation through the prism of imperial ideology. The dawn of the unipolar moment is an instructive test case, in both domains.

We can gain a sense of how deep are the roots of imperial ideology by considering unambiguous cases. None are more clear than horrendous crimes that were frankly acknowledged by the perpetrators, but passed over as insignificant or even denied in retrospect by the beneficiaries. Settler colonialism, commonly the most vicious form of imperial conquest, provides graphic illustrations. The English colonists in North America had no doubts about what they were doing. Revolutionary War hero General Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War in the newly liberated American colonies, described “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union” by means “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru,” which would have been no small feat. In his later years, after his own contributions to these crimes were past, John Quincy Adams lamented the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty, among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement.” Some offered a more comforting refrain, among them Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story who wondered at the mysterious ways of Providence, which in its “wisdom” caused the natives to disappear like “the withered leaves of autumn” even though the colonists had “constantly respected” them.

Distinguished contemporary commentators reinterpret the wisdom of Providence in secular terms. The prominent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis hails Adams as the grand strategist who laid the foundations for the Bush Doctrine: the doctrine that “expansion is the path to security” — a convenient doctrine, for those who can get away with it, or who have powerful patrons. With evident appreciation, Gaddis observes that the doctrine has been routinely applied throughout the history of the “infant empire,” as George Washington termed the new Republic. He passes in silence over Adams’s gory contributions to the “heinous sins of this nation” as he established the doctrine in a famous State paper justifying the conquest of Florida on utterly fraudulent pretexts of self-defense. The conquest was part of Adams’s project of “removing or eliminating native Americans from the southeast,” in the words of William Earl Weeks, the leading historian of the massacre, who provides a lurid account of this “exhibition of murder and plunder” targeting “lawless Indians” and runaway slaves.

To mention an even more extreme current example, a few months ago, in The New York Review of Books, political analyst Russell Baker describes what he learned from the work of the “heroic historian” Edmund Morgan: namely, that Columbus “found a continental vastness sparsely populated by farming and hunting people … In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants.” No letters appeared in reaction, though four months later the editors published a “clarification,” which stated that in North America, recent research suggests that the numbers may have been as high as 18 million.

The “clarification” is perhaps even more telling than the original. Baker was not referring to North America — rather, “from tropical jungle…” The research is not recent, but decades old. It was also known long ago that the “sparsely populated … unspoiled world” included advanced civilizations (in the US too). Nevertheless, the exercise of genocide denial with a vengeance merits little concern, presumably because it is so unremarkable and in a good cause.

Not all cases of genocide denial get such an easy pass, and the criterion is not difficult to discern. The European Union has approved a “Framework decision on combating racism and xenophobia,” which bans “publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes” if it is likely to incite violence or hatred. Putting aside the question of whether the Holy State should be granted the right to determine Historical Truth and punish deviation from its edicts, what is of particular interest is the selectivity of concerns. Historians feared that the framework decision might bar not only questions about the Holocaust, already banned in many countries, but also inquiry into crimes of the Ottoman Empire and Stalinist Russia. Perhaps there are other cases that come to mind, perhaps with Western powers as perpetrators and beneficiaries. That question apparently does not arise.

To this day, the United States is reverentially admired, at home at least, as “a city on a hill,” or as Ronald Reagan preferred, “a shining city on a hill.” Last April British historian Geoffrey Hodgson was admonished by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen for describing the US as “just one great, but imperfect, country among others.” Hodgson’s error, Cohen explained, is his failure to realize that unlike other states, “America was born as an idea,” as a “city on a hill,” an “inspirational notion” that resides “deep in the American psyche.” Its crimes are merely unfortunate lapses that do not tarnish the essential nobility of America’s “transcendent purpose,” to borrow the phrase of the eminent scholar Hans Morgenthau, one of the founders of the hard-headed realist school of international relations theory, expounding on “the purpose of America.”

The inspirational phrase “city on a hill” was coined by John Winthrop in 1630, outlining the glorious future of a new nation “ordained by God.” A year earlier, his Massachusetts Bay Colony had received its charter from the King of England and established its Great Seal. The Seal depicts an Indian with a scroll coming from his mouth pleading “Come over and help us.” The charter states that rescuing the population from their bitter pagan fate is “the principal end of this plantation.” The English colonists were guided by what Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice calls the “emerging international norm that recognizes the ‘responsibility to protect’ innocent civilians” facing terrible threats. The colonists were thus on a humane mission as they extirpated and exterminated the natives — for their own good, their successors explained. President Theodore Roosevelt orated that “The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries … has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place,” despite what Africans, native Americans, Filipinos, and other beneficiaries might mistakenly believe.

The venerable conception, still very much alive and operative, has been guided in part by the Providentialism that has so deeply influenced American culture from the early settlers to George W. Bush — the conception that we are carrying out God’s will, in his mysterious ways — and also by the thesis of Anglo-Saxon superiority tracing back to the original Aryans and the Teutons in the German forests, who maintained their racial purity by exterminating those in their path, beliefs deeply engrained in English cultural history and carried over to the infant empire established by the English in the “limitless and unspoiled world” they found. For the founder of American anthropology, Lewis Morgan, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” Charles Darwin endorsed the view that the history of the “culture of mind” from Greece to the Roman empire and onward “only appear[s] to have purpose and value when viewed in connection with, or rather as subsidiary to…the great stream of Anglo-Saxon emigration to the West,” finally to the United States, where the advance of civilization has reached its peak because the nation produced “the greatest number of highly intellectual, energetic, brave, patriotic, and benevolent men.” As the project was approaching its final success in the mid-19th century, California Governor Peter Burnett informed the public that the “war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct … The inevitable destiny of the [White] race is beyond the power and wisdom of man to avert.” The progressive national poet Walt Whitman saw the course of history in a similar way. Our conquests, he declared, “take off the shackles that prevent men the even chance of being happy and good.” On the conquest of half of Mexico, he asked rhetorically “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico…to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “It is very certain that the strong British race which has now overrun much of this continent, must also overrun [Texas], and Mexico and Oregon also, and it will in the course of ages be of small import by what particular occasions and methods it was done.”

For some, even the Teutons from the dark German forests didn’t pass muster, perhaps having mingled too long with lower Mediterranean orders. Benjamin Franklin resented the “Palatine boors [who] will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” Unlike the English, Europeans were “swarthy” to the trained racist eye. Examples are unfair, because the ideas have been so conventional.

Approaching the present, few eyebrows were raised when a leading scholarly history of US diplomacy, in 1969, commented wittily that after liberating themselves from British rule, the united colonies were able to “concentrate on the task of felling trees and Indians and of rounding out their natural boundaries” (liberal scholar Thomas Bailey).

It is important to recognize that after the civilizing effect of the activism of the Ô60s, such words are no longer acceptable, though there is still a long way to go.

With these inadequate words of background, let’s turn to the present, on the double track of policy and ideology, beginning with the latter.

The month of November 2009 was marked by the joyous 20th anniversary celebration of what British historian Timothy Garton Ash calls “the biggest year in world history since 1945,” which “changed everything,” thanks primarily to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms within Russia and his “breathtaking renunciation of the use of force,…a luminous example of the importance of the individual in history,” leading to the partially open Russian elections of March 1989 and culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, which opened the way to liberation of Eastern Europe from Russian tyranny. The general mood was captured well by barrister Matthew Ryder, writing in the London Observer. He spoke for the “niners,” the generation that is now providing global leadership, with Barack Obama in the lead, their conception of history having been “shaped by a world changed without guns” in 1989, events that gave them confidence in the power of dedication to nonviolence and justice.

The accolades for November 9 are deserved, and the events are indeed memorable. And the picture is compelling, as long as we keep rigorously to a dominant principle of imperial culture: focus laser-like on the crimes of enemies, and on our high-minded and courageous condemnation of their crimes. But crucially, make sure never to look at ourselves. The principles apply in the familiar way to the events of November. Some alternative perspectives may be instructive.

One was provided, unintentionally, by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who called on all of us to “use this invaluable gift of freedom … to overcome the walls of our time.” Good advice, and we can easily follow it. One way would be to dismantle the massive wall, dwarfing the Berlin wall in scale and length, which is snaking its way through Palestinian territory in gross violation of international law. Like virtually every state action, the “annexation wall,” as it should be termed, is justified in terms of security. But as is commonly the case, the claim lacks any credibility. If security were the concern, it would be built along the border, and could be made impregnable. The purpose of this illegal monstrosity, constructed with decisive US support and European complicity, is to allow Israel to take over valuable Palestinian land and the main water resources of the region, one part of a much broader annexation project. The highest Israeli authorities recognized from the outset that these programs were in direct violation of international law, but as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan commented in late 1967, “Settling Israelis in occupied territories contravenes, as is known, international conventions, but there is nothing essentially new in that,” so the issue can be dismissed — as long as the global hegemon provides diplomatic cover and needed material and ideological support.

Another perspective on the 2009 celebrations is provided by the leading scholar/advocate of “democracy promotion,” Thomas Carothers, who writes from an insider’s standpoint, having served in these programs during the Reagan administration. After reviewing the record, Carothers ruefully concludes that all US leaders have been “schizophrenic,” supporting democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic objectives: hence in Soviet satellites but not US client states.

These judgments were dramatically verified through the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin wall has rightly been celebrated in recent weeks, but there has been little notice of what happened one week later, on November 16 1989, in El Salvador: the brutal assassination of six prominent Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper Julia Elba and her daughter Celine, by the elite Atlacatl battalion, armed and trained by Washington. The battalion had just returned from a several-month refresher course at the JFK Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, and a few days before the murders took part in a further training exercise run by US Special Forces flown to El Salvador. Heralded as “El Salvador’s best,” the battalion had already left a bloody trail of the usual victims during the horrendous decade of the 1980s, which opened with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the “voice for the voiceless,” by much the same hands. The story was similar throughout Central America, leaving hundreds of thousands of corpses and general misery during a reign of torture, murder and destruction guided by the Reagan administration under the guise of a war on terror.

It was surmised at the time that the murder of the Jesuits was planned by the High Command of the Salvadoran Army. That was confirmed two weeks ago by publication in the Spanish press of a copy of the document ordering the murders and any witnesses, signed by the chief of staff and his associates, all of them so closely connected to the Pentagon and the Embassy that it is hard to imagine that Washington was unaware. The dramatic discoveries have yet to be reported here.

One can easily understand why the consciousness of the “niners” was shaped by dedication to non-violence and the power of idealism. That’s fair enough, if attention is rigorously guided by the culture of imperialism: focused on their crimes, with ours far removed from sight or memory.

The contrast through the 1980s between the liberation of Soviet satellites and the violent crushing of hope in US domains is striking and instructive, but even more so when we broaden the perspective. The assassination of the Jesuit intellectuals was a crushing blow to liberation theology, the remarkable revival of Christianity that had its modern roots in the initiatives of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, which he opened in 1962, an event that “ushered in a new era in the history of the Catholic Church,” in the words of the distinguished theologian Hans KŸng. Inspired by Vatican II, Latin American Bishops adopted “the preferential option for the poor,” renewing the radical pacifism of the Gospels that had been put to rest when the Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire — instituting “a revolution” that in less than a century converted “the persecuted church” to a “persecuting church” (KŸng). In the post-Vatican II attempt to revive the Christianity of the pre-Roman period, priests, nuns, and laypersons took the message of the Gospels to the poor and the persecuted, brought them together in “base communities,” and encouraged them to take their fate into their own hands and to work together to overcome the misery of survival in the vicious realms of US power.

The reaction to this grave heresy was not long in coming. In 1964, a military coup, for which the basis was laid by the Kennedy administration, established a National Security State in Brazil, overthrowing a mildly social democratic government and instituting a reign of torture and violence — “the most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century,” Kennedy-Johnson Ambassador Lincoln Gordon exulted, adding that the “democratic forces” now in charge should “create a greatly improved climate for private investment.” Gordon’s words were echoed a few days ago, when Obama’s Ambassador to Honduras called the elections under the military regime “a great celebration of democracy,” while the State Department informed the press that “the issue is not who is going to be the next president … The Honduran people decided that,” having exercised their choice between two supporters of the military coup that ousted the elected President. As often in the past, the US separated itself from almost all of Latin America, and even from Europe, in this brazen act of contempt for democracy and human rights.

In the wake of the Brazilian coup of 1964, a monstrous plague of repression spread through the hemisphere, including the first 9/11 in Chile — by any objective measure far more severe than 9/11 2001 — and the killers and torturers in Argentina who were Reagan’s favorites, finally reaching Central America through the 1980s. In the course of the terror and slaughter, the practitioners of liberation theology were a prime target, among them the martyrs of the Church whose execution 20 years ago is now commemorated with a resounding silence, barely broken. Forgotten almost completely are Julia Elba and Celina. The one survivor of the massacre, Fr. Jon Sobrino, reminds us that they are the symbols of the suffering masses of El Salvador, and the world.

There has been much debate about who deserves the credit for the fall of the Wall. It was also a topic of a recent meeting of the three presidents most directly involved. Germany’s Helmut Kohl concluded the meeting by saying “I know now how heaven helped us.” George H.W. Bush generously praised the East German people, who “for too long had been deprived of their God-given rights.” Gorbachev suggested that the US needs its own perestroika.

There are no such doubts about the demolition of the attempt to revive the church of the Gospels. The School of the Americas (since renamed), famous for its training of Latin American killers, proudly announces as one of its “talking points” that liberation theology was “defeated with the assistance of the US army — given a helping hand, to be sure by the Vatican, using the gentler means of expulsion and suppression.

The bitter campaign to reverse the heresy set in motion by Vatican II received an incomparable literary expression in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor. In this tale, set in Seville at “the most terrible time of the Inquisition,” Jesus Christ suddenly appeared on the streets, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, everyone recognized him” and was “irresistibly drawn to him.” The Grand Inquisitor, recognizing the grave danger, “bids the guards take Him and lead Him away” to prison, where the old man accuses Christ of coming to “hinder us” in our great work of destroying the subversive ideas of freedom and community. “We have taken the sword of Caesar” and follow him, not Thee, the Inquisitor admonished Jesus . We seek to be rulers of the earth so that we can teach the “weak and vile” multitude that “they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us.” Then they will be timid and frightened and happy. So tomorrow “I must burn Thee” and put an end to Thy evil ways. But finally the old man relented, and “let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

The pupils of Fort Bragg learned a harsher lesson.

In 1977, the highly respected Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande preached in El Salvador of his fears that “very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be allowed within our country. We’ll get the covers and nothing more, because all its pages are subversive … And I fear, my brothers, that if Jesus of Nazareth returned … they would arrest him. They would take him to the courts and accuse him of being unconstitutional and subversive.” His insight into policy was all too accurate. A few weeks later he was assassinated, again by much the same hands.

The two events — the collapse of Russian tyranny and the destruction of the evil ways of the Gospels — were linked symbolically when the hero of 1989, Vaclav Havel, came to Washington shortly after the assassination of his Salvadoran counterparts. Speaking before a joint session of Congress, he received thunderous applause when he praised the US as “defenders of freedom.” The intellectual classes were entranced. At the extreme dissident end, Anthony Lewis hailed Havel for teaching us that “we live in a romantic age.” The Washington Post described Havel’s message as a “voice of conscience” that speaks “compellingly of the responsibilities that large and small powers owe each other.” Others wondered why American intellectuals do not ascend these lofty heights.

One may imagine the reactions if the circumstances had been reversed — a thought experiment that could teach us a good deal about ourselves.

Let’s turn to the second track, policy. How did policy-makers react to the fall of the Wall, initiating the unipolar moment?

A few weeks later, the US invaded Panama. The purpose was to kidnap a minor thug who was brought to Florida and sentenced for crimes that he had committed, for the most part, while on the CIA payroll. He had switched from valued friend to evil demon by dragging his feet on supporting Reagan’s terrorist wars in Nicaragua. The official pretexts were easily refuted at once. The invasion killed several thousand poor people according to Panamanian human rights investigators. There are no official US sources: “We don’t do body counts,” as General Tommy Franks, the conqueror of Iraq, explained. The invasion reinstated the rule of US-linked bankers and narcotraffickers. It is commemorated by a Day of Mourning — in Panama. It was hardly more than a footnote to history, but had some new features. One was explained by former high State Department official Eliot Abrams, who pointed out that this was the first time the US was able to intervene without concern for a Russian reaction somewhere in the world. As other prominent commentators elaborated, with the Soviet deterrent gone, the US would be more free to resort to force, violence, and subversion to achieve its global aims. Another novelty was that the invasion of Panama could not appeal reflexively to the Communist threat. A new pretext was needed, and was quickly supplied: the threat of Hispanic narcotraffickers seeking to destroy the United States. The “drug war” had been declared by Richard Nixon, for interesting reasons that I will have to put aside. But it took on a new role as the unipolar moment dawned.

Similar considerations guided the general formulation of policy after the collapse of the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” aiming for world conquest, to borrow JFK’s phrase. Within months, Washington outlined its new course: in brief, everything will stay much the same, but with new pretexts. We still need a huge military system, but for a new reason: the “technological sophistication” of third world powers. We have to maintain the “defense industrial base” — a euphemism for state-supported high-tech industry. We must maintain intervention forces directed at the Middle East energy regions — where the significant threats to our interests “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to decades of deceit. All of this and much more like it was passed over quietly, barely even reported. But for those who hope to understand the world, it is quite instructive.

As a pretext for intervention, the “war on drugs” was far too narrow. A more sweeping mission was needed. The intellectual community quickly turned to the task. They declared a “normative revolution” that granted the US the right of “humanitarian intervention” as it chose, for the noblest of reasons, by definition. The traditional victims were unimpressed, to put it mildly. Conferences of leaders of the global South bitterly condemned what they called “the so-called `right’ of humanitarian intervention.” Their stand was upheld by a High-Level UN panel in 2004 with leading Western figures participating, among them former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and the distinguished Australian diplomat Gareth Evans.

A refinement was therefore necessary, and again, the intellectual classes rose to the occasion, devising a new doctrine, “Responsibility to Protect,” familiarly known as R2P, now the topic of a substantial literature, many conferences, new organizations and journals, and much praise. The praise is justified, at least in one respect. We may recall Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought about Western Civilization. He’s alleged to have said “It would be a good idea.” And the same holds of R2P. It would be a good idea.

On that much everyone should agree. But then the usual problems arise. Just what is R2P, and when does it apply?

On the first question — what is R2P? — there are two versions, commonly conflated in the West. One was given formal expression at the UN World Summit in 2005. A radically different position is articulated in the founding document of R2P, the Report of an International Commission in 2001 of which the leading figure and spokesperson is Gareth Evans.

The World Summit basically reiterated positions already adopted by the UN, at most with a sharper focus. The Summit adopted the persistent stand of the World Court, the Global South and the High Level UN Panel that forceful action can only be carried out under Security Council authorization, with an irrelevant exception, though it granted the African Union a qualified right of intervention within the AU itself. If that exception were generalized, the consequences would be interesting. For example, Latin American countries would be authorized to carry out large scale terror in the US to protect victims of US violence in the hemisphere. The conclusion is immediate, but never drawn. We can put the AU exception aside, though it is commonly adduced by proponents of R2P to show that it is not an instrument of imperialism, but rather is rooted in the South — as it is, in the World Summit version of R2P.

The second version of R2P, in the Evans Report, differs fundamentally from the Summit declaration. In its crucial paragraph, the Commission authorizes “action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations … subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council.”

This paragraph was plainly crafted to apply retrospectively to the bombing of Serbia, just what was forcefully rejected by the global South, the High Level Panel, and the World Summit version of R2P. This provision of the Evans commission effectively authorizes the powerful to use force at will. The reason is clear: the powerful unilaterally determine their own “area of jurisdiction.” The OAS and AU cannot do so, but NATO can, and does. NATO determined that its “area of jurisdiction” includes the Balkans — but not NATO itself, where shocking crimes were committed against Kurds in southeastern Turkey through the 1990s, all off the agenda because of the decisive military support for them by the leader of the Free World. NATO later determined that its “area of jurisdiction” extends to Afghanistan. And well beyond, to include protection of pipelines, sea routes and other “crucial infrastructure” of energy systems on which the West relies. The expansive rights accorded by the Evans Commission are in practice restricted to NATO alone, radically violating the principles adopted by the World Summit. They explicitly open the door wide for resort to R2P as a weapon of imperial intervention at will.

Let’s turn to the second question: how is R2P applied in practice? The answer will surprise no one who has the slightest familiarity with history, or elementary understanding of the structure of power. I will not run through the highly selective application, but consider just a few examples. There is no thought of devoting pennies to protect the huge numbers dying from hunger and lack of health care, at a level far higher than Rwanda among children alone, and not for 100 days but every day. Protected populations are also barred from protection, among them the victims of US-Israeli attack in Gaza, who are protected persons under the Geneva conventions. Victims who are the direct responsibility of the Security Council also are unable to appeal to R2P, for example, Iraqis subjected to Clinton’s murderous sanctions, condemned as “genocidal” by the administrators of the UN programs, the respected international diplomats Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who successively resigned in protest for that reason. Or the victims of the worst massacres of recent years, in the Eastern Congo, where only the cynical might suspect that the neglect has something to do with the fact that the worst offender is US ally Rwanda, and that multinationals are making a mint from robbing the region’s rich mineral resources with the crucial aid of the militias tearing the place to shreds. And on, and on, just as the rational would expect.

Returning to the dawn of the unipolar moment, another question that came to the fore at once was the fate of NATO. Its traditional justification had been defense against Russian hordes. With the USSR gone, the pretext evaporated. Na•ve souls, who had faith in prevailing doctrine, would have expected NATO to disappear as well. Quite the contrary. NATO quickly expanded to the East, in violation of pledges to Gorbachev. As I just mentioned, it has now expanded to a global intervention force under US command. One motive, presumably, is to prevent Europe from pursuing an independent course, perhaps along Gaullist lines, a primary concern of US planners since World War II.

More generally, policies during the unipolar moment and to the present have kept closely to the guidelines devised by FDR’s planners during World War II. They recognized that the US would emerge as the dominant global power, displacing Britain. Accordingly, they developed plans for the US to exercise control over a substantial portion of the globe. This “Grand Area,” as they called it, was to comprise at least the Western hemisphere, the former British empire, and the Far East. In the Grand Area the US would hold “unquestioned power” and would act to ensure the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its “military and economic supremacy.” Note the similarity to the Bush doctrine that so outraged articulate opinion 60 years later. Review of the intervening period reveals that the same doctrines prevailed throughout, as they still do.

A good illustration is Bush’s immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, regarded as a centrist moderate, pretty much Obama’s model. Under Clinton, the US officially reserved the right to act “unilaterally when necessary,” including “unilateral use of military power,” to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” without even the pretexts of self-defense on which the Bush neocons insisted. The Clinton doctrine elicited no condemnation, unlike the arrogant and contemptuous proclamations of the Bush administration. And rightly, since it reiterated long-standing positions, and was presented with polite restraint.

In the early years of WWII, planners thought that Germany might prevail in Europe, but as Russia ground down the Wehrmacht, the vision became more expansive: the Grand Area was to incorporate as much of Eurasia as possible, at least Western Europe, its economic heartland. Detailed plans were developed for world order, soon implemented. Each region was assigned its “function” in the US-dominated global system. Thus Southeast Asia was to “fulfill its major function as a source of raw materials for Japan and Western Europe,” under the US aegis. The South in general was assigned a service role: to provide resources, cheap labor, markets, investment opportunities and later other services, such as export of pollution and waste.

At the time, the US was not much interested in Africa, so it was handed over to Europe to “exploit” for its reconstruction from wartime destruction — George Kennan’s phrase. One might imagine different relations between Europe and Africa in the light of history, but these were not considered. In contrast, Middle East oil reserves were recognized to be “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” the most “strategically important area in the world,” in Eisenhower’s words. Control of Middle East oil would provide the United States with “substantial control of the world,” top planners recognized. The principles remain in force.

With regard to Latin America, postwar planners concluded that the primary threat to US interests is posed by “radical and nationalistic regimes [that] appeal to the masses of the population” and seek to satisfy the “popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses” and development for domestic needs. These tendencies conflict with the demand for “a political and economic climate conducive to private investment,” with adequate repatriation of profits and “protection of our raw materials.” A large part of subsequent history flows from these conceptions.

Support for harsh dictatorships proceeds unchanged. As President Obama set off to deliver his highly praised Cairo speech, he hastened to explain that he did not regard Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian leader. “I tend not to use labels for folks,” Obama said; when a political leader uses the word “folks,” we should be prepared to shudder at what follows. Obama obliged, praising Egypt’s brutal dictator as “a force for stability and good” in the Middle East. Just as in the past, support for democracy, and for human rights as well, keeps to the pattern that scholarship has repeatedly discovered, correlating closely with strategic and economic objectives.

Small wonder that outside the West few can take US charges against Iran very seriously, not only the alleged concern for human rights, but also the primary charges: that Iran is concealing something from the IAEA, as it doubtless is. Others are concealing nothing at all, for example, the three countries that have never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty — India, Pakistan, Israel, all of which have relied on US support for their nuclear weapons programs. At the peak of the recent furor about Iran, India announced that it “can now build nuclear weapons with the same destructive power as those in the arsenals of the world’s major nuclear powers.” At the same time, the IAEA passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT and open up its nuclear facilities to inspection. The US and Europe tried to block the resolution, and when they failed, voted against it. It passed anyway. President Obama assured Israel that the US would support its rejection of the resolution. The White House also assured its Indian ally that it can ignore Security Council resolutions on nuclear weapons, most recently Resolution 1887 on Sept. 24.

Obama reacted to Resolution 1887 in a different way as well. Two days after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his inspiring commitment to peace, the Pentagon announced that it was accelerating delivery of the most lethal weapons in the arsenal short of nuclear weapons, 13-ton bombs to be delivered by B-52 stealth bombers, designed to destroy deeply hidden bunkers shielded by 10,000 pounds of reinforced concrete. There is no secret about what they are for. Planning for these “massive ordnance penetrators” began in the Bush years, but languished, until Obama called for developing them rapidly when he came into office.

These comments of course barely scratch the surface of formation and implementation of policy during the unipolar moment. One significant element is the continuity of planning and interpretation since World War II, when the US shouldered the responsibility that was eloquently described by Winston Churchill: the responsibility to protect the interests of the “satisfied nations” whose power places us “above the rest,” the “rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations” to whom “the government of the world must be entrusted,” now under Washington’s guiding hand. That remains the operative meaning of the fashionable phrase “responsibility to protect.”