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

I am of the latter school. America’s zeal for anti-imperialist projects abroad has created a new imperialism of its own that is expansive and provocative of conflict. America’s role over the last seventy years is often justified as building an “anti-imperial” world, that is, a liberal world order that is “rule-based” and in which American dominance is critical to avoid the predations of opposing despotic empires. This widely accepted account ignores the degree to which the United States got in the habit of violating the rules, rather than upholding them. It fails to appreciate that the “liberal order” has itself undergone great change, greatly expanding its geographical reach and abandoning rules (like nonintervention and sovereignty) that were once central to it. The pluralist conception of the society of states, once closely identified with liberalism, became over the last generation a shadow of its former self, displaced by doctrines of indispensability and exceptionalism and revolutionary overthrow that have given the United States a wide remit to intervene in the affairs of other nations. The pattern of rule breaking and support for revolutionary upheaval abroad, especially marked in the last fifteen years, raises a question about America’s fidelity to liberal ideals. It also raises a question about its provision of “world public goods”—that is, systemic benefits to the global order from which all states profit, an advantage often touted on its behalf.

Especially notable as counterevidence to the sunny portrait of America’s liberal purposes—and of its beneficence in bestowing public goods—is U.S. culpability in sowing disorder in the Greater Middle East. There the American formula for ensuring stability and establishing peace and liberty has proven deeply destructive. Absurdly, this quest was informed by the view that destroying existing state structures was a viable path to goal of peace, when its manifest tendency was to unleash anarchy throughout the region, giving extremist groups a wide field of maneuver. In seeking the overthrow of so many governments, the United States became deeply complicit in sowing disorder, a far cry from its order-building efforts in Western Europe and East Asia after World War II.

Those who emphasize the anti-imperialism of the U.S. record in foreign policy especially fail to take adequate account of the phenomenon whereby the United States not only defeated and dismantled adversary empires but also acquired, in the act of defeating them, many of the characteristics once deemed obnoxious in these enemies—powerful standing military establishments, a pervasive apparatus for spying and surveillance, a propensity to rely on force as a preferred instrument of policy, and a disdain for popular opinion or legislative control in matters of force. The institutions of the U.S. national-security state are essentially problematic from the standpoint of liberal traditions. As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address, “Overgrown military establishments” are “inauspicious to liberty” under any form of government and “are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Over the past quarter century, the overgrown military establishment and national-security apparatus maintained by the United States has become threatening to domestic liberty and international freedom—that is, to both the “liberties of individuals” and “the liberties of states.”

Among both critics and supporters, American foreign policy has been indelibly identified with the maintenance of a liberal world order. The customary practice has been to accept whatever the United States has done, or whatever rule it has promoted, as “liberal.” If the American vision of world order has had flaws, it has then followed that these flaws must be ascribed to liberalism. In fact, however, liberalism’s abundant resources are better deployed in a critique of the U.S. vision of world order. The most cogent critique of the U.S. role arises from within the liberal tradition, not outside of it.

What, then, is the relation between American empire and the liberal tradition? The national-security elite sees them in a tight alliance; I see them standing increasingly in mortal contradiction. The empire, I contend, threatens liberty, despite having been built on its foundation, recalling the history and predicament of Republican Rome. “The history of Roman historiography,” notes J. G. A. Pocock, is the history of “the problem of libertas et imperium, in which liberty is perceived as accumulating an empire by which it is itself threatened.” My argument is that this has become the central problem of American history, if not yet perhaps of American historiography. This was so even before the age of Trump; it seems a clear and present danger now.

THE EXISTENCE of this phenomenon in the United States should occasion no real surprise. It had been prophesied. The explanation was developed brilliantly in Joseph Schumpeter’s “The Sociology of Imperialisms.” Drafted in 1918 in dire and tragic circumstances, on the eve of the collapse of his homeland, Austria-Hungary, Schumpeter supposed capitalism to be bereft of the imperialistic urge and treated imperialism as an “atavism” representing precapitalist forces that had survived into the bourgeois epoch. Across the ages, the key phenomenon was that the war machine, “created by wars that required it, . . . now created the wars it required.” Schumpeter wrote that of ancient Egyptian imperialism, but he applied the insight widely. Schumpeter spoke of the Roman policy