Bureaucratic Empire

As the late Zbigniew Brzezinski argued, America is the final empire of what is an approximately 500-year “age of empires” that has now largely ended. But the paradox is that while America is an empire, it is not entirely an imperial nation a la Britain and a number of other Western nations. Hence, even though America participated in the imperial pursuits of other Western nations in recent decades, America is not necessarily a full-fledged imperial nation or a conventional empire of a European mold. 

As S.N. Eisenstadt argued, Western style “bureaucratic empires” arise out of very peculiar and specific conditions and premises. There are two conditions or premises in particular which are to be accounted for above all else when explaining the rise of “bureaucratic empires,” including the one which arose in the United States in recent decades. For one, there is “the tendency of the rulers toward implementing autonomous political goals.” And on the other hand, there is “the development of certain (even if relatively limited) levels of differentiation and free-floating resources in all the major institutional spheres of the society.” 

“Bureaucratic empires” can persist as long as these two conditions or premises are met or satisfied and are operating concurrently, as Eisenstadt argued. All of it amounts to a very delicate balancing act, in the sense that the society’s energy and resources have to flow in a balanced and equal manner between all levels and strata of society. But more often than not, and as Eisenstadt noted: “The different specific political and administrative organs of these polities were not able to perform their functions of interrelating the political sphere with other social spheres and of insuring the mutual flow of resources among them.” And amidst the breakdown of the concurrent operation of the basic conditions or premises upon which a Western “bureaucratic empire” is based, what arises is “the tendency of the bureaucracy itself to displace its service goals to the rulers and to major strata – emphasizing goals of self-aggrandizement, and thus seriously impairing its own efficiency.”

But as Morton H. Halperin, Priscilla A. Clapp, and Arnold Kanter noted, in the American case of bureaucratic empire, American bureaucrats are to a certain extent interlocked with streams of “proposals” and “suggestions” from all sorts of individuals and groups who in turn seek to influence the government’s course of action. The ultimate course of action on the part of the government amounts to “a compromise drawn from suggestions by a number of individuals, and what is then done will be heavily influenced by the standard operating procedures and interests of the implementers.” 

Hence, in the American case of bureaucratic empire, bureaucratic formalism and bureaucratic interests are for the most part balanced with proposals and suggestions from outside of the bureaucracy when it comes to determining the American government’s ultimate approach or course of action regarding certain international dilemmas and international issues. What is also important to note is that “bureaucratic empire” also means that there is a “delegation” of many administrative and governmental duties traditionally held by the legislative bodies onto the bureaucratic agencies and bureaucratic organizations. 

American bureaucrats were initially able to draw their authority, power, and resources away from legislative bodies and away from the people whom these legislative bodies represent by virtue of the aura of “expertise” and the myth of “national security” in the early 21st century and even during the infamous ‘Cold War.’ But by drawing the power and the resources away from the legislative bodies and towards themselves, the American bureaucratic empire ended up creating the imbalance of resources on a societal scale and scope which in turn fomented the current democratic challenge to their power on a scale and scope that arguably goes beyond America’s borders.

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