Friday, January 16, 2015

Not An Empire

Clyde Prestowitz, Rogue Nation

Washington, D.C., is one of America’s loveliest cities. Its broad avenues, radiating from a central hub and punctuated by roundabouts and graceful monuments and plazas, give the city a slightly European air reflecting the taste of its original designer, the French urban planner Pierre L’Enfant. Its size and modesty set it apart from the capital cities of other great nations. With a population of less than 600,000, an area of just 68.25 square miles, and a legally mandated absence of skyscrapers, Washington is a relatively small city by world standards and lacks the powerful impact or awesome spread of a New York or Los Angeles, the grandeur of Paris, or the dense intricacy of Tokyo or London. [.. The] style of the city’s monuments as well as of many of its public buildings establishes a linkage with the glories of the classical past, specifically with great republics and republican institutions, not with empires and imperial traditions.

Here are no monuments to conquests or conquerors. Washington has no Arc de Triomphe, no Brandenburg Gate, no Buckingham Palace or Forbidden City. The most visited monument commemorates the only war America ever lost. Every day a steady stream of people somberly descend the gentle slope of the Vietnam Memorial near the Reflecting Pool to find the name of a friend, son, daughter, husband, wife, or lover etched on the black granite walls listing the roll call of the fallen. No general or admiral attracts such an endless flow of visitors. In Peking or Vienna or Rome, you cannot avoid feeling [.. an ..] imperial tradition. Washington displays a humbler, simpler mien, for it was never designed as the hub of an empire.

If you stroll from the Vietnam Memorial a few blocks up Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol, you come to the Ellipse on your left; from there you can see the rear of the White House. Though surely the best-known residence-cum-office in the world, it is not impressive as these things go. It pales in comparison to the 66,000 square foot mansion Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates built himself on the shores of Lake Washington, in Seattle. The grounds and gardens are pretty and well maintained, but insignificant compared with the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills or the Emperor’s moated and forested fortress in the center of Tokyo. Even more strikingly understated are the White House offices. I was surprised on my first visit to the Oval Office…at how small it is. Most CEOs of major corporations have a bigger working space. Other offices in the White House are downright laughable. The National Security Adviser, for example, barely has room for a coffee table and a visitor’s chair, and his or her deputy has an office that barely holds a desk. The White House was clearly never intended to be a palace.

We Americans are schooled in an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist tradition. We learn that our forefathers and foremothers came to this land to escape the oppression, corruption, and power politics of Europe’s monarchies and empires.