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

*** “which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with the aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies.” ***

Schumpeter’s thought itself might be characterized as an ideological atavism, a surviving remnant of liberalism in a scene where it had been routed by militarism. Recognition of the phenomenon against which Schumpeter warned in 1918 was by no means new; it had been diagnosed by America’s Founders, as by other thinkers in their age. “I have beaten the Romans, send me more troops,” as Rousseau related the words of Hannibal. “I have exacted an indemnity from Italy, send me more money.” Alexander Hamilton found it “astonishing with how much precipitance and levity nations still rush to arms against each other,” given that war had “deluged the world with calamities for so many ages.” Never, said Jefferson, had so much false arithmetic been deployed as in the calculation favoring the benefits of war and preparedness. That standing forces played a critical role in perpetuating Europe’s war system was widely credited in the early United States, whose thinkers explored the question systematically. A key purpose of the federal constitution is that it would enable America to largely dispense with the engines of despotism—i.e., standing armies—that had been the ruin of liberty in the old world. This danger formed the central justification for the union in the early numbers of The Federalist. Insight into this security problem was the weighty substratum on which the federal government was built.

The Founders are often thought of as concerned simply with domestic matters, but their thought actually bears witness to Cicero’s observation, highlighted by Grotius, that “the master science is the one which deals with alliances, agreements and bargains between peoples, kings, and foreign nations; that is, with all the rights of war and peace.” The Founders gave this old insight a new basis of peculiar relevance to republican states, showing that such states could not maintain their institutions intact, or preserve the liberty of their citizens, in the midst of perpetual war. The type of international system that a state inhabited bore mightily on the type of regime that could be established. A war of all against all, it was readily seen, would suffocate liberalism. Insecurity, as Hamilton expressed it, compels

*** “nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free.” ***

The republican liberalism embraced by the Founders understood that peace was a condition of liberty. They thoroughly digested the danger that military establishments, forming distinct interests within the state, would deform republican institutions by acquiring an exaggerated importance. What they warned against has, in fact, occurred. The development is not only anti-republican in disordering the working of our political institutions, but also anti-liberal in its attachment to coercive remedies and its readiness to compromise individual rights.

In his famous oration of July 4, 1821, when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, he prophesied that were America to enlist “under other banners than her own . . . the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” In Adams’s ornate telling of the consequences, “The frontlet upon her brow would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but instead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power.” This classic understanding of the antagonism between liberty and force suggests, in turn, an understanding of the relationship between liberalism and force. The traditional view of this relationship, in keeping with Adams’s own, held the maxims of each to be in collision with the other. In the words of Oswald Garrison Villard, writing in the aftermath of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy, “For war and liberalism to lie down together anywhere, at any time, with any excuse, means only one thing—disaster to liberalism.” Villard had good cause for alarm. Taking note of the gross restrictions on freedom of speech that occurred during Wilson’s tenure, his contemporary Walter Lippmann found it “forever incredible that an administration announcing the most spacious ideals in our history should have done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”