Is America an Empire?

This painting shows "Manifest Destiny" (the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In 1872 artist John Gast painted a popular scene of people moving west that captured the view of Americans at the time. Wikimedia Commons

America’s zeal for anti-imperialist projects abroad has created a new imperialism of its own that is expansive and provocative of conflict.

November-December 2017

But empire had a more sinister meaning, even at the time, signifying an apparatus of power and arbitrary rule that had gone beyond its just limits, and this darker side has been its more usual connotation in political speech over the last two centuries. As John Adams put it on the eve of the American Revolution, in the course of arguing that the British Empire was not an empire at all, but a limited monarchy: an empire is “a despotism, and an emperor a despot, bound by no law or limitation but his own will: it is a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy.”

Historians have increasingly recognized that American rule, as it played out over time, meant the dispossession of and domination over disparate peoples, a key attribute of the move from continental to hemispheric to global empire. Judging the overall record, it might fairly be said that the United States was most imperial with respect to the peoples of color on its progressively expanding continental and oceanic frontiers (e.g., Indians, Africans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Iraqis); it was least imperial in its approach to the European system and in its own internal organization (which accorded equality and internal autonomy to the new states of the expanding union). That there is an internal as well as external aspect of the question, however, complicates any easy summation. There might be domination within, as well as domination without, an imperial relation not only to other peoples, but also to one’s own people. The federal union, as perfected in 1787 by the Constitution, was intended by its framers to operate as an antidote to the ills of the European state system, widely seen as having given an unconditional surrender to the theology of force. The new federative system created at Philadelphia, truly a new order of the ages, was anti-imperial in vital respects, and dedicated to peace. But it also as the price of union consolidated domestic slavery in the southern states—a system of domination, wrote Frederick Douglass, “one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.” The southern states, in the years before the Civil War, were no less inveterate in describing schemes to interfere in their “domestic institutions” as an imperial project par excellence. “Call it imperialism, if you please,” northern abolitionists answered; “it is simply the imperialism of the Declaration of Independence, with all its promises fulfilled.”

IF EMPIRE is about domination, liberalism is about resistance to domination, in the name of right. Within every liberal, resistance to unjust domination runs deep, and just about all Americans are liberals in this sense. It should come as no surprise that there is a long tradition of anti-imperialism in American political thought. Walter Lippmann could write, in 1944, that “the American antipathy to imperialism . . . is organic in the American character, and is transmitted on America soil to all whose minds are molded by the American tradition.” The appeal to anti-imperialism, however, does not resolve the problem, but rather re-states it, as nominal opposition to imperialism has been part of the justification for every major American war, just as it has figured in all the dissents against them. Faithful to an anti-imperialist ethos, one set of Americans have wanted to stay away from war; another set of Americans, those who urged war or the threat of war, insisted they were being faithful to that same ethos. In this curious interplay of rival anti-imperialisms the relation between empire and liberty is central—and is so for both sides of the argument. The anti-imperial thread in American political thought bespeaks enduring (though clashing) commitments that go to the core of the national purpose.

In U.S. foreign policy and the theory of international relations, this argument among nominal anti-imperialists—some in favor, other opposed, to force or the threat of force—is the most important and enduring antagonism. Unfortunately, the opposition is very inadequately captured by conventional categories in international relations and indeed of political thought more generally, since the two key schools, realism and liberalism, have thinkers on either side of the question. The colloquial terminology of “hawks” and “doves,” who differ mightily in their estimations of the utility and morality of force, gets to the central antagonism better than these conventional categories. Though hawks and doves differ strongly over the use of force, they are invariably, in their own rhetoric and self-imaginings, fierce anti-imperialists themselves. One side says you need empire to preserve or promote liberty; the other warns that the embrace of empire and force is in crucial respects a bargain with the devil, with liberty imperiled in the pursuit.