The past decade's worth of American foreign policy debacles has led to some lazy thinking on American empire. Either the United States is using force to advance rapacious economic interests, or Washington is neglecting economic diplomacy because U.S. foreign policy has become too militarized. Right, now, neither argument holds up terribly well.
For example, the Financial Times' Lina Saigol looks at postwar foreign direct investment in Iraq and notes the prominent absence of U.S. and British firms:
After almost nine years, $1tn spent and 4,487 American and 179 British lives lost, theUS is withdrawing from Iraq, leaving the country’s vast economic spoils to nations that neither supported nor participated in the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea and Arab states have already invested billions in Iraq, far outpacing their US and UK counterparts in every non-oil sector from transport and telecoms to housing and construction.
This is really a variation of a theme. Take a look at Afghanistan, and the same pattern plays itself out -- significant U.S. military investment, remarkably little follow-on U.S. economic investment, significant investments by others. In short, arguments that the United States uses its military power to advance its economic interests don't hold up well at all -- unless one wants to posit that U.S. elites are really an executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party's economic bourgeoisie.
The overmephasis on military force has been a long-running criticism of American foreign policy. That said, it leads to some lazy analytical habits. Consider this NYT Sunday Review essay by Stephen Glain on the U.S. "pivot" to the Pacific Rim:
With the economy in disarray, President Obama chose a costly instrument in deciding to expand the American military commitment in Asia by deploying a Marine contingent to Australia; the move will only help insulate the Pentagon from meaningful spending cuts and preserve the leading role the military has played in foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks....
Indeed, America’s top diplomat has become the chief civilian advocate for military answers to diplomatic challenges. Speaking in Honolulu last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “a more broadly distributed military presence” in Asia. While in Manila, she appeared on an American warship and reaffirmed the nearly 60-year-old security pact between the United States and the Philippines. She also has endorsed the creation of an American-led regional trade pact that pointedly excludes China for the present, a remarkably petty snub compared to the way her legendary predecessor George C. Marshall offered (without success, in the face of Stalin’s suspicions) to include the Soviet Union in the postwar reconstruction plan that now bears Marshall’s name. And this month she visited Myanmar, where the Obama administration has assiduously worked to neutralize a corrupt and repressive government in favor of democratic reform; in the grander strategic game, this, too, could be read in Beijing as a tactic to weave the country — which has been Beijing’s ally — into an American noose around China.
OK, this argument is confusing on a number of fronts. First, how is ratifying an FTA with South Korea and negotiating a framework agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership an example of an excessive role for the military?
Second, President Obama was quite explicit in saying he would welcome Chinese participation in TPP. However -- like Marshall before him -- Obama is saying this because he's pretty sure China will be unwilling to pay the regulatory coin necessary to join.
During the 1990's, one could argue that U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Rim was too heavily dominated by the Treasury Department. During the 2000's, one could argue that it was too heavily dominated by the Defense Department. Right now, U.S. policy in the region looks like a decent balance of security and economic diplomacy. I suspect that this balance has been so rare for so long that analysts simply aren't used to recognizing it.