IN his 90 years, British historian Eric Hobsbawm has seen war and contemplated its catastrophic impact on societies large and small. In his latest collection of essays, "On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy" (Pantheon: 128 pp., $19.95), he argues that the greatest danger in the 21st century is in "the global ambitions of an uncontrollable and apparently irrational government in Washington" bent on exporting an ideology of liberty and democracy and, in the process, squandering America's moral authority and influence.
Tough words, even from a historian long known for his Marxist philosophy. But as Hobsbawm traces global economic trends that favor "Asian dynamos" (China and India, among others), he notes persuasively that the United States, the world's sole superpower (by virtue of its high-tech military capability), is the only major empire in history that "has also been a major debtor" -- and currently is indebted to those very Asian governments.
Since the end of the Cold War, a burgeoning of armed conflict has resulted in genocide and forced migrations. But the U.S. and its allies have had limited success with intervention. One reason, Hobsbawm contends, is that whereas the British Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries exerted power mostly for trade, the U.S. has pursued an "imperialism of human rights." The question is whether the U.S. will try to "maintain its eroding global position [with] politico-military force . . . and in so doing promote . . . not global peace but conflict."