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This article considers the ideational fabric of American empire. Section one discusses why liberal democratic empires are not particularly peaceful. Section two highlights the analytical value of a focus on U.S. strategic culture in explaining U.S. military practice. Section three looks more broadly at the role of identity in giving meaning to the U.S. imperial project and in giving reasons for the use of force in support of it. Throughout, comparisons are made with the British Empire and consideration is given to the meta-theoretical options and methodological challenges for the social science of strategic culture.

Empires are supreme acts of human imagination. They are as much about social as material dominance. They involve the creation of new identities, including those that span the usual "self-other" boundaries of nation-states. Even at a tactical and more technical level, ideas about what works and is right define the instruments of empire—including, critically, the place and purpose of military force. In this article, I consider the ideational fabric of empire. I focus on the concept of strategic culture, on the U.S. case, and on questions of why and how the country uses force to sustain this liberal democratic empire. Throughout, I also explore the meta-theoretical options and methodological challenges for the social science of strategic culture.

Section one of this article considers the relationship between liberal democracy and imperial use of force. Liberal democratic peace theory might lead some to expect liberal democratic empires to be peaceful. Looking at the United Kingdom and the United States, I discuss why they are still prone to war. In section two, I make the case for an analytical focus on strategic culture before proceeding to discuss the beliefs and practices embodied in U.S. strategic culture. Section three looks more broadly at the role of identity in giving meaning to the U.S. imperial project and providing a rationale for use of force in support of it.

First, let me briefly introduce the concept of strategic culture. This concept arose during the Cold War to highlight differences in how U.S. and Soviet policy-makers thought about nuclear strategy. Colin Gray famously defined strategic culture as "modes of thought and action with respect to force." Gray saw cultural beliefs and practices about war as deriving from national historical experiences, national aspirations, and geostrategic circumstances. Applied to the dominant concern of the day for International Relations (IR) scholars—nuclear war—strategic culture was a powerful analytical device for understanding variation in superpower nuclear behavior. [End Page 3] Scholars thus inferred a U.S. strategic culture of relative nuclear restraint, based on the United States' experience of low-casualty wars, its aspirations as a liberal hegemon, and the security afforded by its geo-strategic position. In contrast, the Soviet experience of tens of millions dead in two world wars and its aggressive aspirations for world dominance all pointed toward a strategic culture that could easily contemplate global nuclear war.1

With the end of the Cold War, the prospect of global nuclear war faded. In its place, a new challenge faces the sole surviving superpower: how to manage its empire. During the Cold War, "empire" was a derogative term used to describe Soviet dominance of its satellite and client states. Now proponents of U.S. hyperpower have rehabilitated and commandeered the term. As Joseph Nye has written, "the word 'empire' has come out of the closet. Respected analysts on both the left and the right are beginning to refer to 'American empire' approvingly as the dominant narrative of the 21st century."2 The bottom line is that, as Dimitri Simes points out, "whether or not the United States now views itself as an empire, for many foreigners it increasingly looks, walks and talks like one, and they respond to Washington accordingly."3

Force and Liberal Empire

The notion of a U.S. empire invites obvious comparison with its British predecessor. Indeed, just as the United States dominates the post-Cold War globe, so Britain ruled the post-Napoleonic seas. To be sure, both political scientists and historians have made the comparison. William Wohlforth draws a direct comparison with 19th-century Britain in arguing that the United States enjoys a greater concentration of power than any empire in history. The United Kingdom's empire rested on its financial muscle and "global-girdling navy." However, Imperial Britain was unable by itself to match the armies of France and Russia; instead, it had to play one great land power against the other. In contrast, the United States stands alone on top of the world. In all of the elements of material power—military, economic, technological, and geographical—the United States far outpaces the other great powers.4 Not only U.S. power but also its achievements invite comparison. So far, it would appear that Britain has left a deeper global imprint than the United States. In noting this, Niall Ferguson suggests that the British displayed more stamina in their imperial endeavors: the British expected to stay and build, while the Americans have typically expected to bomb and depart.5 For me, however, the most important comparison must be on the question of how these two different liberal democracies used force to create and sustain imperial orders.

The domestic systems of liberal democracies place considerable limitations on the use of force.6 Liberal democratic peace theory argues that liberal democracies externalize these domestic norms of non-violent dispute resolution when they encounter one another on the world stage.7 Domestic and international institutions reinforce the peace between liberal democracies. Democratic institutions make it difficult for political leaders to mobilize [End Page 4] their populaces for wars against fellow democracies.8 At the international level, democracies work through institutional structures to settle differences peacefully.9 Note that while institutions matter, shared identity provides the basis for liberal democratic peace. Peaceful compromise and institutionalized cooperation are prevalent between liberal democracies because, at a fundamental level, they trust each other.10 Equally, war is almost unthinkable between liberal democracies because of mutual empathy.11 Finally, we ought to recognize that the liberal democratic peace benefits from a virtuous dynamic whereby the shared expectation and common experience of peaceful relations reinforce one another.12

However, there are reasons to expect democracy to produce less restraint in imperial states. For starters, imperial elites are less reliant on domestic support when it comes to producing military power; they can mobilize resources from colonies for this purpose. In addition, domestic public opinion in the imperial state may not strongly oppose the use of force if it occurs in the far-off margins of empire and if the costs are borne by the colonies.13 We also need to recognize that liberal ideology can be a spur to, as well as a brake on, war. Liberalism may trigger wars between democracies and non-democracies. Just as they naturally trust each other, liberal democracies treat non-democracies with particular distrust. War is also ripe between democracies and non-democracies due to the lack of mutual empathy and lack of shared expectations for, or experiences of, peaceful relations. Given all this, liberal democratic empires may be all too ready to use force against polities and peoples that display undemocratic and illiberal characteristics. For example, given the unsavory Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban, the United States had little difficulty mobilizing international and domestic support for the conquest of Afghanistan.14 U.S. President George W. Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said of the Taliban on American TV: "It's a very repressive and terrible regime. The Afghan people would be better off without it. We will see what means are at our disposal to do that."15

In time, we may expect that some democratic practices if not liberal ideas will spread to the edges of empire. This raises the question of how identities and institutions function to restrain state-directed violence within settled empires. Arguably, the spread of liberal democracy in the Indian subcontinent undercut the option of suppressing Indian independence by the brute application of British force.16 But empires seeking to promote liberal values and ideology may also start wars. A good example is the use of force by the United Kingdom to abolish slavery in the early- to mid-19th century.17 Possible comparisons might be humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion by the United States, though the country has a mixed record on both.18 Such crusades against illiberal practices suggest war-like impulses that may be peculiar to liberal democratic empires. [End Page 5]

One final mediating influence on the peaceful impact of liberal democracy on imperial governance is race and ethnicity. Racial and ethnic difference can reduce restraint in the use of force by states and other communities. Against opponents deemed to be lesser beings, anything goes, whereas against other civilized opponents, certain tacit restraints come into force. For instance, while the German General Staff had long opposed the introduction of machine guns on European battlefields, it approved their use against African natives in the late 19th century.19 The British Imperial General Staff adopted a similar double-standard for explosive "dum-dum" bullets, arguing that the legal prohibition against their use did not apply when fighting "savages" in Africa.20 At a more profound level, slavery and genocide show how violent social practices can be fashioned out of racial differences. The same is true of ethnic conflict. Whether such conflict comes from elite manipulation or mass hostility, it is the social fact of ethnic difference combined with historical grievances that makes violence possible.21

The important point is that democracy is no panacea here. After all, the Nazis acquired power through electoral means and then went on to carry out the Holocaust as well as the genocidal invasion of the Soviet Union.22 Indeed, the introduction of democracy can push competing political elites to mobilize public support by resorting to extremist ethnic or racial ideology.23 The genocide in Rwanda, carefully planned and executed by elected Hutu extremists, once again horrifically demonstrates the danger of illiberal democracy.24 Even in liberal democracies, racial minorities may be disproportionately at risk of experiencing internal and even repressive use of force. The history of race relations in the United States is one of progressive state recognition of the equal rights of racial minority groups. Yet black and Latino men today face harsher discipline by the state than white men do: black and Latino offenders receive lengthier imprisonment terms and more frequent death sentences than white offenders for similar crimes. Moreover, things seem little improved: nine times more black men were imprisoned in 2004 (899,000) than in 1954 (98,000).25

This all raises the question of how race and ethnicity affect the degree of restraint in the exercise of imperial force, in the context of both the expansion and policing of empire. The British invasion of Abyssinia in 1867 and U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 were both characterized by the grossly disproportionate use of force: in these two cases, large numbers of black Africans and Latinos died ostensibly in order to protect a handful of white people.26 Panama was not an aberration. Racial difference facilitated savage warfare between the United States and Japan in World War II.27 One may also go back to the brutality of the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) and U.S. army operations against Native Americans in the 1870s to see how race reduced military restraint both at the margins and at the heart of empire.28 [End Page 6]

U.S. Strategic Culture

The realization that the American Empire will not necessarily be a peaceful one invites us once again to look at U.S. strategic culture. Cultural approaches to strategic studies have exploded onto the IR scene since the end of the Cold War. What does this new literature say about the nature of strategic culture? One major development has been a broadening in levels of analysis to include culture below and above the level of states. There have been numerous studies on the impact of organizational culture on military operations. There is also a massive new literature on norms and rules that are institutionalized in regional and international regimes. Here I am referring, of course, to the rise of constructivism in IR.29 Much of this literature deals with non-military matters—for example, much of it focuses on the evolution and spread of human rights norms. However, there are many constructivist studies on issues like the normative order of NATO and international prohibitions against certain means and modes of warfare.30 Culture operates at and across multiple levels—organizational, national, regional, and international—to shape military activity.31

So which level should we take in analyzing the culture of U.S. imperial force? If the question is one of fighting style—in particular, of the degree of military restraint used—then perhaps one should look at cultures that are specific to each of the four armed services. Such an approach is suggested by Jeffrey Legro's work on the impact of organizational culture on British and German military restraint during WWII.32 Against this, one might argue that international norms matter most in the modern era, given the proscriptive power of the U.N. Charter, which rules out unilateral use of force (except in self-defense), the growing number of treaties outlawing the development and use of certain weapons, and the increasing force of the laws of armed conflict (LOAC). Indeed, U.S. opposition to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which it may be held accountable, indicates just how serious a constraint it perceives the LOAC to be on the use of force.33

However, I would argue that the national level—i.e., strategic culture—remains the most important for policymaking and the most promising for scholarly inquiry. Much of the scholarship on organizational culture and military operations draws on case studies from the early to mid-20th century.34 In the U.S. case, the role of organizational culture in determining how the U.S. military fights has decreased since the mid-1980s. This is a direct consequence of the push for "jointness" in the U.S. military and the resulting shift in power from the service chiefs to the commanders-in-chief (CINCs) of the regional and functional commands. Critical here was the 1985 Defense Reorganization Act (better known as "Goldwater-Nichols"), which greatly increased the autonomy of the regional CINCs and the authority of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In short, service chiefs have been sidelined as major players in shaping U.S. strategy, doctrine and operations.35 Indeed, deepening jointness is critical if the U.S. military is to realize its Military Transformation to network-centric warfare.36 [End Page 7]

I am much more persuaded, therefore, by the idea of a cultural system operating at the national level to shape a distinctly U.S. approach to the use of force. Strategic culture is here taken to mean beliefs about the use of force shared by a national community of military and civilian leaders. U.S. strategic culture may be said to contain three biases that inform U.S. military practices: technological fetishism, casualty aversion and legal pragmatism.

Gray has highlighted the bias toward techno-centric warfare in U.S. strategic culture.37 This was most evident in America's air war against Japan, which resulted in the deaths of some 400,000–900,000 Japanese civilians. According to Michael Sherry, the U.S. military was able to engage in such apocalyptical warfare because "leaders and technicians of the American air force were driven by technological fanaticism—a pursuit of destructive ends expressed, sanctioned and disguised by the organization and application of technological means."38 The carpet-bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia in the mid-1960s to early 1970s provides another such example.39 However, Gray's point was that this fetish for technology was ingrained in all the military services and shared by those civilian policymakers involved in military matters. Historically, there has been varied enthusiasm for new technology within the U.S. military, with the air force being the most techno-friendly and army being the most techno-phobic. After all, the air force is a service predicated on a new military technology—the airplane. To a lesser extent, the navy (and marines) depended on technology to stay afloat (and later to roam above and below the seas). By contrast, the army has traditionally relied much more on basic manpower to wage war.40 Yet the introduction in the 1970s of electronics into land-based weapon platforms changed all this. New technology was also crucial to the logistical structures created to support and service the new battlefield systems.41 Today, all four services (including the army) have keenly embraced the Military Transformation agenda, with its high-tech vision of future warfare.42 Indeed, it would seem that the army has been the keenest service advocate of Military Transformation.43 In short, Gray's observation about the techno-centric nature of U.S. strategic culture is more accurate than ever.

Recent years have seen a great deal of discussion of the second aspect of U.S. strategic culture: casualty aversion.44 This aversion is rooted in the Vietnam War, when a steady stream of returning war dead eventually eroded U.S. domestic support for the war in the mid- to late-1960s.45 The collapse of the U.S. mission in Somalia in October 1993, following the combat deaths of only 18 soldiers, dramatically signaled the post-Cold War limits of U.S. casualty tolerance. Blame often falls on the U.S. public for this casualty aversion. However, polling data shows that the public is prepared to accept war dead, even on humanitarian missions.46 In this regard, it is important [End Page 8] to note there was no collapse in public support for the Somalia mission in October. In fact, politicians pulled the plug on the operation in anticipation of an adverse public reaction that never actually materialized.47 Moreover, politicians and senior military officers most keenly feel this sensitivity to casualties, having experienced the political fallout from Vietnam. Junior military officers and the U.S. public appear to be more prepared to accept risk, provided the mission serves some purpose.48 Nonetheless, casualty aversion is all too evident in U.S. strategic culture, from the emphasis on "Full Dimensional Protection" in joint military doctrine, to the political refusal to deploy U.S. ground troops in risky humanitarian interventions (as in Rwanda in 1994 and Kosovo in 1999).49

The final aspect of U.S. strategic culture is a pragmatic approach to international law. This can most clearly be seen in the doctrine and diplomacy of the Bush administration. Under Bush, the United States has been heavily criticized for its disregard for international law. Critics warn that the Bush administration's actions –withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and opposing international regimes like International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, and the Ottawa Convention banning landmines—threaten to undermine the legal institutions that order the world and give legitimacy to U.S. hegemony.50

In fact, the United States has always had an uneasy marriage with international law. The United States took the lead with the United Kingdom in creating the current legal order around the U.N. Charter. Since then, it has also been at the forefront of developing the international legal system. At the same time, it has repeatedly ignored its obligations under international law, especially when taking unilateral action to protect U.S. national security.51

Notwithstanding this ambivalence, it is quite clear that the Bush administration is seeking to create additional normative space for itself in terms of the use of force. We can see this in how it has sought to expand the concept of anticipatory self-defense to include preventive use of force. There is a right of pre-emptive self-defense in customary international law. Whereas pre-emptive use of force counters an imminent threat, preventive use of force addresses an emerging threat.52 The point is that, in practical terms, preventive use of force borders on aggression and, as such, is plainly prohibited under international law.53 The Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive/preventive use of force reflects a pragmatic U.S. approach to international law—an approach that adjusts legal rules to the reality of U.S. power and one that allows the law to be read "purposively" in order to make it fit the present day.54

We can see a similar pragmatic approach to international law at the military-operational level. The U.S. military mirrors the rest of U.S. society in its attention to legal risk. Thus, since 1990, lawyers have been embedded in U.S. military units from the battalion level up. However, the U.S. military [End Page 9] has exercised less military restraint than its coalition partners in its campaigns in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, U.S. military officers are beginning to argue that the absolute legal prohibition against attacking civilian targets is no longer relevant in the context of much greater strike precision (which reduces the risk of collateral damage), the move to effects-based operations (which reduces damage to civilian structures), and the imperative for counter-leadership targeting (which may shorten campaigns and save lives in the long-run).55

These three elements of U.S. strategic culture are mutually reinforcing. The armed forces harness high technology as a means of minimizing U.S. casualties—principally through reliance on airpower and other distance strike assets.56 As noted above, legal pragmatism facilitates the development of precision strike warfare. It also permits an expansive interpretation of military necessity which more generally facilitates the use of overwhelming firepower to reduce force vulnerability in military operations.

Identifying Empire

As analysts of strategic culture, what should be our focus? For Gray, strategic culture is found in both the thoughts and actions of policy-makers and military officers, but the new literature on strategic culture seeks to explore how thought causes action, therefore defining it in terms of ideas that have behavioral consequences. Attacking Gray's approach, Alastair Iain Johnston argues that from an analytical point of view, beliefs and behavior must separate in order to isolate and track the causal impact of culture (as opposed to some other variable such as technology or force distribution).57 Gray considers this nonsense. He writes, "The traffic of ideas and behavior in strategic affairs is continuous." In contrast to the notion of culture as a "cause" of military behavior, he suggests that it be treated as the "context" that weaves together and gives meaning to strategic action.58 The Gray-Johnston dispute mirrors a meta-theoretical debate in constructivism. Like Johnston, most U.S. constructivists seek to empirically fix and track the causal effect of cultural norms. However, many European scholars take epistemological issue with this approach, arguing that the intertwining, contingency and fluidity of beliefs and practice make them inappropriate subjects for social science analysis.59

So far, my own work on culture and war has followed the U.S. social science track. Positivist approaches are particularly well suited to explaining how cultural norms regulate behavior. Norms operate in this way to provide technical scripts and moral codes for military action, and these may be found easily in military doctrine, national policy and international law. Indeed, such an approach is appropriate for much of what I have discussed above: namely, the culture of techno-centric warfare and the reinterpretation of legal rules on the use of force.60

Positivist approaches are not so effective at showing how norms operate at a deeper level to constitute actors and meaningful action. Here we need to delve into the use of language and images, the articulation of [End Page 10] identity, and the negotiation of social situations. In short, we may need to sacrifice the rigor of social science in order to realize the richness of a more interpretive constructivism.61 Even as a self-professed social scientist, I can see that such a trade-off may be necessary in order to fully appreciate the relationship between force and empire. Identity is central to the imperial project. Thus, liberal democratic empires seek to project abroad progressive images regarding the benefits of empire. Equally, identity is central to how metropolitan publics view the imperial enterprise of testing the self, encountering the exotic and domesticating the foreign.62

A move to interpretivism would have the additional advantage of helping to address the elite bias in existing scholarship on strategic culture. This bias is somewhat odd since there is a massive social science literature on political culture that seeks to build national profiles of public as well as elite opinion. In Nuclear Strategy and National Style, Gray claims "[t]he concept of strategic culture is a direct descendant of the concept of political culture."63 Indeed, one might expect this. However, Gray does not actually draw on the political culture literature in developing his approach. Overall, John Duffield concludes that the concept of strategic culture "has in fact been developed independently, with little or no reference to the literature on political culture." Ironically, even Duffield, who seeks to import the political culture literature into strategic studies, focuses on elite beliefs and values. He does this because, in his view, elite political culture is easier to measure, is more elaborate and detailed, and "is likely to have a much more immediate bearing on national security" than public beliefs.64

In contrast, the social history of warfare shows that strategic culture has a wide range of sources and that public belief matters in how countries wage wars. Numerous groups in civil society—including artists, business interests and the media—are all involved in the cultural framing of war. Ordinary people also enact their own ideas in participating in war, be it on the battlefield or the home front.65 Much of this social history deals with the world wars—wars which, by their total nature, involved and indeed consumed whole societies. However, I would argue that popular culture and civil society are equally indispensable to the creation and evolution of empire. For example, missionary movements and business entrepreneurs both harnessed popular ideologies of social progress to justify the expansion of British civilization in 19th-century Africa.66 Similarly, both business groups and Republican Party leaders drew on the popularized "science" of geopolitics to promote the rise of the U.S. navy and the projection of U.S. capital into Asia as a means of revitalizing the American economy at the turn of the 20th century. The expansion of American naval and commercial power also linked to the creation of a new socially unifying national identity—one more suited to the post-Civil War United States and able to accommodate the social dislocation associated with industrialization and with the assimilation of immigrant populations. By expanding outwards and encountering the "other," Americans could in this way identify themselves.67

The problem here is one of method-driven theorizing. A focus on political, policy and military beliefs serves to facilitate causal analysis, in [End Page 11] that elite beliefs are easier to isolate and track. Obviously, social historians are not shackled by such concerns. Equally, a move toward a more interpretivist approach offers the possibility of bringing civil society back into our accounts of strategic culture. An interpretivist take on U.S. strategic culture would open several promising lines of inquiry, especially in terms of the mutually constitutive relationship between military force and identity. For example, both the United States and Britain developed force projection postures that did not threaten liberal democracy back home. Indeed, in 19th-century, Britain navies were viewed as being progressive in contrast with land armies, which were considered characteristic of illiberal powers.68 Similarly, nuclear-armed air power was favored in early-Cold War U.S. society because it offered security without sacrificing liberty. Political leaders worried that the alternative—to raise taxes and a massive land army—threatened to turn the United States into a garrison state.69

Another obvious line of inquiry is in the construction of threat. David Campbell's Writing Security powerfully demonstrates the strategic use and subconscious invocation of language, symbolism and imagery in threat creation and the purpose this served in developing in-group identities and loyalties in the Cold War United States.70 We may witness a similar dynamic in the current "War on Terror." Through this campaign, America has articulated a moral asymmetry between responsible and rogue states, pushing Iran, Syria and North Korea to the margins of the world normative order. Again, comparisons may be made with Imperial Britain's war on piracy and its campaign against the North Africa oligarchies.71 Domestically, Bush's War on Terror serves to bind Americans to a renewal of the national security state.72 Foreigners and fear therefore are integral to the reproduction of the United States' imperial identity.


What may we expect from the American Empire? As a liberal democracy, it may exercise restraint in some respects, but in a world shared with illiberal opponents and one that contains much racial and ethnic diversity, liberal democratic empires still may be violent creatures and places. Moreover, liberal ideology provides just cause for war. Arguably, humanitarian imperatives, particularly to "save strangers" from massacre or gross misrule, will increasingly provide the template for war in the 21st century, one that will also increasingly inform U.S. use of force.73

Strategic culture also provides moral codes and technical scripts to guide and regulate American use of force. To be sure, culture operates at multiple levels, including above and below the state, to shape military [End Page 12] behavior. However, of all the levels of normative analysis, the national level provides the most explanatory power for the relationship between policy beliefs and military practices. A focus on U.S. strategic culture thus draws our attention to a military preference for high technology, an aversion to casualties, and a pragmatic approach to circumventing legal restraints on the use of force.

Iraq is a vivid reminder of the material and moral hazards of the use of force by a liberal empire.74 It also illustrates the points above. It reveals the role of liberal ideology in fueling war and shows the American approach to warfare in action. High technology and legal pragmatism were very prominent in the blitzkrieg invasion of Iraq. The United States has taken sizeable numbers of casualties in this war, with more than 2,000 deaths so far. Nevertheless, it is too early to say whether this means U.S. political and military leaders have gotten over their casualty aversion. Certainly, this number does not come close to the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.75

Let me close with two conclusions. The first concerns the social science of strategic culture. A focus on the beliefs of policy and military elites can tell us much about the cultural biases that shape how the United States does and will use force to protect, police and expand its empire. Such a "thin" constructivism also misses much. It is poorly equipped to explore the broad range of agents in civil society involved in producing and enacting norms of war. Crucially, it tells us little about the relationship between identity and the purpose of empire or the role of force in reproducing both. This suggests the need to move toward a "thicker" constructivism, one that is better able to follow scripts and codes for action "all the way down" to the identities that sustain them. This approach, in turn, creates all sorts of methodological challenges for social scientists, especially if tracking causation remains the objective—challenges that nonetheless need to be faced.76

The second conclusion concerns the cultural lineage of contemporary U.S. imperialism. According to Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, the Bush administration's unilateralism is the expression of a "neoconservative moment" in American diplomacy. They argue that "the neoconservatives have taken American international relations on an unfortunate detour, veering away from the balanced, consensus-building, and resource-husbanding approach that has characterized traditional Republican internationalism." They conclude that inevitably, the "pendulum [will] swing back" to a more moderate American diplomacy.77 I think that Halper and Clarke overstate their case. I would suggest that neoconservative ideology—emphasizing moral certitude and military unilateralism—took root in American diplomacy with such ease because it found a fertile bed in U.S. strategic culture. The moral crusade to spread democracy goes back to President Woodrow Wilson and took center stage during Bill Clinton's presidency.78 Equally, the preference for military unilateralism was noticeable in the Reagan years, while the right of preventive use of force was first asserted by U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root in 1914.79 Unilateral and preventive use of force is also consistent with a strategic culture that engages in high-tech distant warfare legitimated through legal pragmatism. This is not to deny that the neoconservatives [End Page 13] have brought a new unilateralist emphasis to U.S. diplomacy.80 Moreover, insofar as this has shifted U.S. foreign policy off its traditionally more moderate and multilateral moorings, Halper and Clarke are right to point to the shocking impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the U.S. polity and the boost this gave to the neoconservative cause.81 But of equal importance, I would say, was the fit between neoconservative ideology and U.S. strategic culture.82 This would suggest that U.S. military unilateralism has a longer life expectancy than that predicted by liberal critics such as Halper, Clarke and John Ikenberry.83 Supported by pre-existing U.S. strategic culture, the "neoconservative moment" may drag on for some time yet.

Theo Farrell

Theo Farrell is reader in War in the Modern World at King’s College London.


1. Colin S. Gray, Nuclear Strategy and National Style (Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Press, 1986).

2. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "American Power and Strategy after Iraq," Foreign Affairs 82, no. 4 (2003): 60.

3. Dimitri K. Simes, "America’s Imperial Dilemma," Foreign Affairs 82, no. 6 (2003): 93.

4. William Wohlforth, "The Stability of a Unipolar World," International Security 24, no. 1 (1999): 5–41.

5. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London: Allen Lane, 2004). Arguably the current spate of nation-building activity in Iraq is atypical of the United States. Certainly, nation-building on this scale has not been seen since the end of World War II and, in any case, Ferguson is quite right to note that America’s record on this is poor in comparison to the British Empire. On U.S. nation-building, see James Dobbins et al., America’s Role in Nation-Building from Germany to Iraq (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2003).

6. These normative restraints on violence owe their lineage to the evolution of civility and manners in early modern Europe. Over a matter of centuries, Europeans increasingly became less crude and violent in their public and private dealings with one another. This process of "civilization" started in court society, spread to urban elites, and from there eventually to the public. European civility gained expression in liberal ideology and voice in the emergence of democratic institutions. John Keane, Violence and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

7. William J. Dixon, "Democracy and the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes," American Political Science Quarterly 88, no. 1 (1993): 14–32.

8. Zeev Maoz and Bruce Russett, "Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Peace," American Political Science Review 87, no. 3 (1993): 624–638.

9. Bruce Russett and John Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001).

10. Charles Lipson, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

11. John M. Owen, Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).

12. The interplay of experiences and expectations of peaceful relations is explored in Ido Oren, "The Subjectivity of the Democratic Peace: Changing U.S. Perceptions of Imperial Germany," International Security 20, no. 2 (1995): 147–184.

13. Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey, "The Imperial Peace: Democracy, Force and Globalization," European Journal of International Relations 5, no. 4 (1999): 414–415.

14. Arguably this was a disproportionate response to the launch of a terrorist attack from Taliban controlled territory. Eric Myjer and Nigel White ask: "Does an attack against a small part of the United States, albeit one with devastating consequences for the people in the area hit, justify an armed response against a whole country, with aim not only to root out the terrorists but to destroy and remove the effective, though unrecognized, government." [End Page 14] Eric P. J. Myjer and Nigel D. White, "The Twin Towers Attack: An Unlimited Right of Self-Defense?" Journal of Conflict and Security Law 7, no. 1 (2002): 8.

15. Bob Woodward, Bush at War (London: Pocket Books, 2003), 127.

16. Ferguson, Empire, 330–338.

17. Ethan A. Nadelman, "Global Prohibition Regimes: the Evolution of Norms in International Society," International Organization 44, no. 4 (1990): 479–526.

18. For an assessment, see Theo Farrell, "America’s Misguided Mission," International Affairs 76, no. 3 (2000): 709–718.

19. Trutz von Trotha, "‘The Fellows Can Just Starve’: On Wars of ‘Pacification’ in the African Colonies of Imperial Germany and the Concept of ‘Total War’," and Sabine Dabringhaus, "An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900–1901," both in Manfred F. Boemeke, Roger Chickering, and Stig Forster, eds., Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 415–436 and 459–476.

20. Trutz von Trotha, "‘The Fellows Can Just Starve’: On Wars of ‘Pacification’ in the African Colonies of Imperial Germany and the Concept of ‘Total War’," Manfred F. Boemeke, Roger Chickering, and Stig Forster, eds., Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 415–436; Antonio Cassese, International Law, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 31–32.

21. Stuart J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).

22. Around 4.7 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Almost 9 million civilians died in the German invasion of the Soviet Union, as well as around 8 million Soviet soldiers. The Nazi plan for the colonization of Soviet territory involved the deliberation liquidation of whole communities considered to be "subhuman:" 31 million Soviet citizens were to be removed and killed, while 14 million with "better racial qualities" were to be kept alive to act as slave labor for German colonists. Omer Bartov, Germany’s War and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); William D. Rubinstein, Genocide (Harlow: Pearson, 2004), 166, 186; Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 268.

23. Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, "Democratization and the Danger of War," International Security 20, no. 1 (1995): 5–38.

24. Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, 1959–1994 (London: Hurst and Co., 1995).

25. The Sentencing Project, Racial Disparity in Sentencing (New York, 2005). Figures for incarceration are from The Sentencing Project, Briefing Memo, "New Incarceration Figures" (New York, 2004), 3. Both documents are available at The impact of America’s punitive culture on U.S. foreign policy is explored more generally in Michael Sherry, "Dead or Alive: American Vengeance Goes Global," David Armstrong, Theo Farrell and Bice Maiguashca, eds., Force and Legitimacy in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2005).

26. "To protect American lives" was one of four official reasons for the U.S. invasion of Panama; the others were to restore democracy, to apprehend an indicted "drug lord," and to ensure the security of the Panama Canal. None of these reasons withstands critical scrutiny. See Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (London: Vintage, 1991), 149–155.

27. John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race, Power and the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986); Craig Cameron, American Samurai: Myth, Imagination and the Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division, 1941–1951 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

28. Robert M. Utley, "Total War on the American Indian Frontier;" and Glenn Anthony May, "Was the Philippine-American War a ‘Total War’?" both in Boemeke et al., Anticipating Total War, 399–414 and 437–458.

29. Theo Farrell, "Constructivist Security Studies: Portrait of a Research Program," International Studies Review 4, no. 1 (2002): 49–72.

30. On the normative order of NATO see Thomas Risse-Kappen, "Collective Identity in a Democratic Community," in Peter A. Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 357–399; Frank Schimmelfennig, The EU, NATO and [End Page 15] the Integration of Europe: Rules and Rhetoric (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). On normative prohibitions in war, see Richard Price, The Chemical Weapons Taboo (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Ward Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002); Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

31. Multi-level norm analysis is explored in Theo Farrell, The Norms of War: Cultural Beliefs and Modern Conflict (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

32. Jeffrey W. Legro, Cooperation Under Fire: Anglo-German Restraint During World War II (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995).

33. Jason Ralph, "International Society, the International Criminal Court and American Foreign Policy," Review of International Studies 31, no. 1 (2005): 27–44.

34. Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991); Cameron, American Samurai; Legro, Cooperation Under Fire; Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War: French and British Military Doctrines between the Wars (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

35. This point is emphasized in Gen. Tommy Franks with Malcolm McConnell, American Soldier (New York: Regan Books, 2004), 207. See also Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military (London: W. W. Norton, 2004), 61–77.

36. This point is emphasized by one of the architects of the U.S. Revolution in Military Affairs in Adm. William A. Owens, "Creating a U.S. Military Revolution," in Theo Farrell and Terry Terriff, eds., The Sources of Military Change (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), 205–220.

37. Colin S. Gray, Weapons Don’t Make War (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1993).

38. Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987), 251–252.

39. Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989).

40. This is argued in Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

41. Chris C. Demchak, Military Organizations, Complex Machines: Modernization in the U.S. Armed Services (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).

42. Harvey M. Sapolsky and Eugene Gholz, "Aerospace Power Projection," Consulting Memo, January 2004.

43. See, for example,

44. Jeffrey Record, "Collapsed Countries, Casualty Dread, and the New American Way of War," Parameters (Summer 2002): 4–23.

45. John Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: John Wiley, 1973).

46. Steven Kull and I. M. Destler, Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), 81–112.

47. James Burk, "Public Support for Peacekeeping in Lebanon and Somalia: Assessing the Casualties Hypothesis," Political Science Quarterly 144 (1999): 53–78.

48. Don Snider, John Nagl, and Tony Pfaff, "Developing Commanders for Peace and War," in Michael Duffy, et al., eds., Strategic Policy Studies 3: Culture and Command (Exeter: SPSG, 2000), 48–50.

49. "Full Dimensional Protection" is one of the four key operational concepts in Joint Vision 2020. The other concepts are "Dominant Maneuver," "Precision Engagement," and "Focused Logistics." Text of this doctrine is available at

50. G. John Ikenberry, "America’s Imperial Ambition," Foreign Affairs 81, no. 1 (2002): 44–60; Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Christian Reus-Smit, American Power and World Order (Cambridge: Polity, 2004).

51. John F. Murphy, The United States and the Rule of Law in International Affairs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

52. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington DC: 2002), 15, at See also Jeffrey Record, "The Bush Doctrine and War with Iraq," Parameters (Spring 2003): 3–4. [End Page 16]

53. Michael Bothe, "Terrorism and the Legality of Pre-emptive Force," European Journal of International Law 14, no. 2 (2003).

54. Shirley V. Scott, "Is There Room for International Law in Realpolitik? Accounting for the U.S. ‘Attitude’ Towards International Law," Review of International Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 71–88.

55. Such "norm stretching" is discussed in Theo Farrell, "World Culture and Military Power," Security Studies 14, no. 3 (forthcoming 2005).

56. Eliot A. Cohen, "The Mystique of U.S. Air Power," Foreign Affairs 73, no. 1 (1994): 109–124; Benjamin S. Lambeth, The Transformation of American Air Power (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000).

57. Alastair Iain Johnston, "Thinking about Strategic Culture," International Security 19, no. 4 (1995): 32–65.

58. Colin S. Gray, "Strategic Culture as Context: the First Generation of Theory Strikes Back," Review of International Studies 25, no. 1 (1999): 49–70.

59. See, for example, Maja Zehfuss, Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

60. See Farrell, The Norms of War and Farrell, "World Culture and Military Power."

61. On this trade-off, see Jack Snyder, "Richness, Rigor and Relevance in the Study of Soviet Foreign Policy," International Security 9, no. 3 (1984–85): 89–108.

62. Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 38–56. See, for example, Gautam Chakravarty, The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

63. Gray, Nuclear Strategy and National Style, 34

64. John Duffield, World Power Forsaken: Political Culture, International Institutions, and German Security Policy After Unification (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), 24, 33–34. An important exception is Thomas U. Berger, Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

65. For a literature review, see Theo Farrell, "Memory, Imagination and War," History 87, no. 285 (2002): 61–73.

66. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 2001 [2nd edn]), 184–216.

67. See chapters by Peter Trubowitz and Edward Rhodes in Trubowitz, et al., eds., The Politics of Strategic Adjustment: Ideas, Institutions, and Interests (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

68. Jeremy Black, "Force and Legitimacy in World History," in David Armstrong, et al., eds., "War and International Relations: A Military-Historical Perspective on Force and Legitimacy," in Armstrong, et al., Force and Legitimacy in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2005).

69. Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

70. David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).

71. Gerry Simpson, Great Powers and Outlaw States: Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

72. Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 187–191; Benjamin R. Barber, Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy (New York, W. W. Norton, 2003).

73. Nicholas J. Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ian Holliday, "When is a Cause Just?" Review of International Studies 28, no. 3 (2002): 557–599; Lawrence Freedman, "The Age of Liberal Wars?" in Armstrong, Farrell and Maiguaschca, Force and Legitimacy in World Politics. See also the Report of the U.N. Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (New York: United Nations, 2004), paras. 204–209.

74. For contrasting but both critical views, see Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2003); and Michael Mann, [End Page 17] Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003). For an update of the argument in this book in light of Iraq, see Mann, "The First Failed Empire of the 21st Century," Review of International Studies 30, no. 4 (2004): 631–653.

75. John Simpson, "No ‘Vietnam’ But Much to Be Done," BBC News, Mar. 29, 2005, at

76. The best attempt at this is Ted Hopf’s masterful Social Construction of International Politics: Identities and Foreign Policies, Moscow 1955 and 1999 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002).

77. Stefan Halper and Jonathan Glover, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 7, 9. A similar view is advanced in Reus-Smit, American Power and World Order.

78. This is argued in Colin Dueck, "Hegemony on the Cheap: Liberal Internationalism, from Wilson to Bush," World Policy Journal 20, no. 4 (2003/04). See also Tony Smith, America’s Mission: the United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994); Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002).

79. This is noted in Lawrence Freedman, Deterrence (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), 90.

80. This is recognised by Colin Dueck, though he locates this strategy of American primacy in neo-Wilsonian ideas. See Dueck, "Ideas and Alternatives in American Grand Strategy, 2000–2004," Review of International Studies 30, no. 4 (2004): 511–537.

81. Halper and Clarke, America Alone, 31–35. See also Michael Cox, "Empire, Imperialism, and the Bush Doctrine," Review of International Studies 30, no. 4 (2004): 597.

82. On external shock and cultural match as enabling conditions of normative change, see Theo Farrell, "Transnational Norms and Military Development: Constructing Ireland’s Professional Army," European Journal of International Relations 7, no. 1 (2001): 63–102.

83. G. John Ikenberry, "Liberalism and Empire: Logics of Order in the American Unipolar Age," Review of International Studies 30, no. 4 (2004): 609–630. [End Page 18]

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