Kristol, others discuss empire at final Olin Center talk

By Brett Freeman

Students, faculty, and visiting academics gathered at the Swift Lecture Hall last Friday and Saturday for a conference entitled “Empire and Liberty,” sponsored by the John M. Olin Center. Speakers examined the historical and theoretical questions regarding imperialism and concluded with a roundtable discussion of “The Past, Present, and Future of American Empire.” This was the final conference of the Olin Center, which is being phased out after more than 20 years of service.

William Kristol, well known political commentator, editor of The Weekly Standard, and frequent guest on Fox News Channel, was on the concluding panel and focused much of his speech on current foreign policy. He received a chuckle from the audience when he admitted that he was asked to deliver ironic witticisms from the neoconservative position.

Following his lecture, Kristol told the Maroon that he viewed the U.S. as a “benevolent hegemony” rather than an empire. He explained that in the case of Iraq, “if you’re a real empire, you would look forward to patrolling it for 50 or 100 years, not hastening to encourage them to take over the reins.”

When asked whether the U.S. should exert more power, Kristol said that the country should “use its muscles on behalf of freedom and on behalf of people who are struggling against dictators, or at least [be] ready to use those muscles and also to help preserve world order.” Kristol added that the U.S. has not used its muscle too much in the last century, but rather that “we were too slow and too reticent to intervene.” He acknowledged that there was a possibility of the U.S. overreaching its capacity, but said, “The much greater worry would be [to let] too many things go too far in a bad direction in the world.”

Responding to a question about his latest column, “An Electoral Trifecta,” from the May 16 issue of The Weekly Standard, Kristol spoke about the future of countries such as North Korea, Syria, and Iran, saying, “We’re certainly going to have to be engaged. And therefore, there will have to be popular support for a policy of engagement, which often includes either the threat of military force or the deployment of peace-keeping troops.” Kristol speculated that if there is chaos in Syria and the current regime is overthrown—which, he said, would be fine with him—the U.S. might be asked to intervene.

During both days of the conference, the scholars discussed the Athenian, Roman, and British empires, but the conversation often turned to a comparison to the U.S. In his talk, “The Demands of Empire and the United Kingdom,” Jeremy Black, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, said that the question of an American empire is “not, of course, a recent issue.” Black pointed to the American founders’ debates about the organization of government and the relationship with American Indians as evidence of empirical designs from the country’s beginning.

Rita Koganzon, a second-year in the College concentrating in history, went to the conference because she is taking a class, “Machiavelli on War,” and wanted to hear Christopher Lynch, an assistant professor of political science at Carthage College, present “Machiavelli on Rome’s Republican Empire: Consequences and Alternatives.” Lynch translated Machiavelli’s Art of War, which is one of the books that Koganzon had been assigned in her class.

Colin Leslie, a student in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH), also attended the conference. Leslie found the conference interesting because he has “never seen […] the modern application of the part of the theory.” Leslie said that he is well versed in classical texts, and that this conference has shown him how his specialty can be applied to more current affairs.

Nathan Tarcov, professor in the Committee on Social Thought and director of the Olin Center, was pleased with the conference. Tarcov explained in an interview that the Olin Foundation in New York, which funds the center, originally planned for the center to go out of business because “it was opposed in principle to the idea of a perpetual foundation. And actually, it has taken it somewhat longer to spend all its funds than we first thought.”

When asked if he was disappointed about the closing, Tarcov said, “No, I think we’ve had a good run: 21 years, 26 conferences, 200 lectures. I’m proud of that and in no way disappointed.”