Imperialism, Robert Kaplan argues, has gotten a bad rap, “despite empires’ having offered the most benign form of order for thousands of years, keeping the anarchy of ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war bands to a reasonable minimum.” He concludes:

This by no means obliges the American military to repair complex and populous Islamic countries that lack critical components of civil society. America must roam the world with its ships and planes, but be very wary of where it gets involved on the ground. And it must initiate military hostilities only when an overwhelming national interest is threatened. Otherwise, it should limit its involvement to economic inducements and robust diplomacy—diplomacy that exerts every possible pressure in order to prevent widespread atrocities in parts of the world, such as central Africa, that are not, in the orthodox sense, strategic.

That, I submit, would be a policy direction that internalizes both the drawbacks and the benefits of imperialism, not as it has been conventionally thought of, but as it has actually been practiced throughout history.

In practical terms, it seems that what he’s arguing for is military spending levels and an energetic foreign policy consistent with the period extending from the start of the Pax Americana during the first Gulf War, up to the initiation of the second Gulf War. New to the mix — and this is me interjecting — would be increased black ops to counter the increase in terrorist acts against us, our friends, and our interests.

The Cold War was one of history’s aberrations, brought to an end by the Soviet Union collapsing under the weight of its inherent contradictions and a big push from President Ronald Reagan. Minus a great ideological foe, the first George Bush and Bill Clinton got things more or less right. We can quibble over this initiative or those cuts or that program — but that’s how democracies lurch towards policy decisions, foreign or domestic, in the first place.

Broadly speaking, though, Bush and Clinton helped bring a lot of peace to the world (Kuwait, Ireland, the Balkans) or tried in good faith to (Israel/the Palestinians), at a price the country could afford (5-7% of GDP). They managed all this while also managing to help our former rival decline quietly. That was no mean feat, given the stew of ethnic hatreds, historical grievances, ill-drawn borders, first-world weaponry, and nuclear bombs, stretching from the former intra-German border in Central Europe, all the way to Vladivostok in the North Pacific.

I would add that it’s probably no coincidence that with the exception of a brief recession in 1991, the Bush/Clinton years were also remarkably prosperous ones.