Can Americans hear that they are overstretched?

By Michael Ignatieff
August 26, 2011

This is a response to Nader Mousavizadeh’s latest Reuters column, “A smaller America could be a stronger America.”

By Michael Ignatieff
The opinions expressed are his own.

What I found myself asking, as I read this extremely compelling critique of American imperial over-stretch, is how exactly a politician is supposed to tell Americans the bad news. What are the politics of honest discussion of imperial over-extension?

The change that Nader Mousavizadeh discusses can’t happen without political leadership, so what form of truth-telling will work here? Americans fear they have lived through a decade of decline, so there is no difficulty telling them what they already know. The more difficult message to pass is: we’re going to cut back on defense, we’re not going to go head to head for dominance with the Chinese in east Asia. We’re going to stay home and cultivate our garden, as Voltaire said, because our garden badly needs weeding.

Cultivating our garden means investing in our children, re-building our domestic infrastructure, taxing the rich and paring back on some entitlements in order to get our fiscal house in order. A kinder, gentler America, focused on the garden out back and deliberately leaving the challenges overseas to others is persuasive, but it’s a hard sell for any politician who wants to be President in a  country which believes it can do everything.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

I think the political system will collapse. Why? For the same reason the financial system collapsed. Our financial system is pretty well dead, it just isn’t buried yet. I would ask every American to seek freedom for themselves and for their families. When that freedom is found corrupt systems in Government and business will collapse, because they will have no support and nobody will buy their shoddy products.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

As a Canadian who worked 17 years of his career in the USA, I cannot see any politician standing up and telling Americans that they are not “the exceptional”. In fact our experience of living in the UK and visiting several European countries is that Americans are way down the list when it comes to exceptionalism. And by that I mean, people with a good understanding of his fellow man in all countries and not just the folks in one’s state. We had educated neighbors in Philadelphia who could not tell you any useful facts of persons in the next state west. There has never been an American “exceptionalism” as is being preached by Governor Perry and others and the longer it is preached, the more bankrupt our American friends will become. And Israeli exceptionalism is no more real.

Posted by JDonald | Report as abusive

Oh blah, blah, blah . . The real lesson is that the Japanese are not going to take over the universe as the natterers anticipated – twenty years ago. The lesson is about the Chicken Littles of the world. The American military is going to be changed so radically by robotization that everything current is obsolete anyhow.

But the US will maintain its essential preeminence for a long time to come. On the one hand this aura is mostly myth (as Vietnam showed) and on the other hand it is an awesome instrument of power.

The only real danger to the US will come when China hits a wall. And not because the Chinese are a political of philosophical threat, but because that big a crack-up is serious and unpredictable business.

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

@BowMtnSpirit is on the right track: there is a critical disconnect between what a majority of Americans want (even if they might debate the specific ways to get what they want) and the elites that run our politics, economy, and military. The system is set up to advantage an extremely small number of wealthy individuals and large global corporations.

US military policy is geared, in part, towards ensuring labor costs remain as cheap as possible, by exporting production and offshoring jobs, even if hollows out our middle class. This status quo, of course, will collapse due to lack of consumer demand (because not enough consumers will make enough to keep the economy going, especially if they’re in debt and/or their mortgages are near or under water). In theory, China’s military can be dealt with easily enough if our goals are mutually beneficial, which they currently are with Chinese factories producing US consumer goods.

As a practical matter, the use of a volunteer army, no draft, and paying contractors to do what soldiers should do all make it very easy to start and sustain wars indefinitely. Even though paying subcontractors, to take one example, is a colossal waste of taxpayer money compared to hiring (or drafting) soldiers to do the same tasks. While a few taxpayers scream and yell about the deficit, very few focus on the massive waste involved in hiring subcontractors for the military (or prisons, for that matter).

My hunch is that most Americans do not want empire. They want a domestic policy that makes us stronger (and healthier) and a selective foreign policy and military policy that achieves very narrow goals that support our domestic goals. They want more jobs created here than overseas. If true, there’s no need then to break it to Americans their empire cannot be sustained. You need to go talk to the politicians and those few who benefit from the current status quo. Chances are they won’t go (or change) easily.

Posted by FredFlintstone | Report as abusive

I like Mr. Ignatieff despite my disappointment in the last federal election, but in my opinion Michael Ignatieff’s essay is an academic musing mired in some Cold War-era thinking.

Some good points are made but the overall premise suggests one more politician out of touch with real people. The people are not as stupid as these politicians think.

The dire state of present-day America is understated so much so that the worst pessimists among ordinary Americans are likely the most accurate in their assessment.

I suspect that only old money and the extreme neo-cons (if there is much difference) really wants the status quo.

The average American is so entirely fed up with being bullied by their own government that a kinder, quieter America tending its own kind would be most welcome and no politician would have difficulty selling the idea; but any politician would have difficulty convincing folks that in fact they would follow through with their promise.

The post-Cold War dividend years on the 90s where indeed followed by a decade of decline.

In all that time the infrastructure was not renewed. That problem is severe to the extent that there is little need for cyber security in a country that can barely deliver power to its data centers. How ironic is that?

A kinder America would not be jailing its population in lieu of a stronger social safety net.

Politicians are so far out of touch with the ordinary person they represent that it is more likely change will only come from the bottom up.

Is revolution; anarchy; or a ground swell favouring some kind of public disobedience in the wind?

I think governments know secretly that the era of the population fearing its government may draw to a close as utter disgust and disappointment are replaced with anarchy and other forms of public disobedience. Maybe that is why we see population control tests like the recent years’ G20 ‘Police State’ experiences.

In summary, what I am saying is that the people in America have been downtrodden for so long that the garden had better be tended kindly or it will vanish from the earth just as did the Roman Empire, almost without a trace.

Posted by MichealOBrien | Report as abusive