Is America an Empire?
Is America an Empire?
By David C. Hendrickson
AMONG THE commanding symbols of American civilization, none are more important than empire and liberty. From George Washington’s journey to the Monongahela River in 1754 to George W. Bush’s conquests in Mesopotamia in 2003, observers have puzzled over the relationship between our thirst for dominion and our attachment to freedom. When Patrick Henry argued in 1788 against the “great and splendid empire” he espied in the vision of the Constitution’s architects, he set that in opposition to the liberty that was America’s original resolution:
*** “If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.” ***
Some variation on Henry’s theme has been played on every subsequent occasion in which the use of force figured—1798, 1812, 1818, 1830, 1846, 1861, 1898 and on to the wars of the American Century. As much as these debates might be dismissed as belonging to another age, without relevance to our globalized world, they express views that go to the core of the nation’s purposes and convictions today. The relation America bears to liberalism and imperialism, to use the modern terminology, is of intense interest in the contemporary world, but in a fundamental sense it has always been such.
DESPITE ITS centrality, the relation between empire and liberty is not easy to characterize. It is certainly complex. The debate over it can rise to great heights of eloquence; it can fall into the labyrinths of obscurity. Both imperialism and liberalism (and their cognates) have a multiplicity of meanings, employed in a multiplicity of contexts. Liberty, instantiated in “the American system,” referred to “written constitutions, representative government, religious toleration, freedom of opinion, of speech and of the press,” as a Kentucky ally of Henry Clay put it in 1822. But it has also signified collective freedom, especially independence from foreign rule, and the freedom reflected in the integrity of the nation’s political institutions.
Empire is an especially slippery concept, tending toward domination in theory but in practice displaying relaxations that concede much freedom to the periphery. While empire is typically defined in terms of alien control and domination, nearly all successful empires relied on indirect means of control. They usually required the cooption of local elites. They were often patchwork and incoherent affairs, with no clear delineation of the lines of authority. As Edmund Burke famously said, describing a world in which “seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution,” the first rule of empire was that it couldn’t control everything.
*** “The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigour of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders. Spain, in her provinces, is, perhaps, not so well obeyed as you are in yours. She complies too, she submits, she watches time. This is the immutable condition, the eternal law, of extensive and detached empire.” ***
Burke reminds us that political structures have been called empires, and figured long in the mind as such, that do not comport with any simple portrait of sheer domination. Burke is one of a handful of great theorists of the empire of liberty, and his admonitions on how to run the British Empire, c. 1775, are not irrelevant to the administration of the American Empire today. Describing the relation England could bear to its American colonists, he wanted “to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith.” As long as England did this, the more friends among the colonists it would have.
*** “The more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain; they may have it from Prussia; but, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you.” ***
Burke’s grand solution to the colonial crisis—keeping Parliament’s sovereignty but conceding the particular issues in the dispute, in the name of peace—fell on deaf ears in 1775, but something of its spirit lived on in the “union of the empire” Americans built for themselves. George Washington spoke with pride of the “stubendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire” created by the American Revolution, one that would be an asylum for the oppressed peoples of Europe. Jefferson wrote of an “empire of liberty” and an “empire for liberty,” neither of them having in their minds’ eye a system of domination. These expressions evoke themes that stubbornly resonate to this day.
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.
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
*** “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.”
A CONSCIOUSNESS of the collision between liberalism and force, felt so acutely by these early twentieth century liberals, is no longer characteristic of American sensibilities. It has been displaced by a heroic narrative emphasizing the indispensability of force, even massive force, to achieve the supreme goods, not simply compatible with but a requirement of liberty. These new lessons, which arose out of the Second World War, repudiated the disenchanted outlook of the previous generation and inculcated the idea that liberalism must lie down with force, though in the name of peace and freedom. As a new and better Europe arose from the ashes of World War II, that lesson was validated (then called into question by the experience of Vietnam). America’s mobilization of the warfare state also coincided with other remarkable advances in human liberty. It played, for instance, a significant role in the U.S. civil rights movement, as acute embarrassment arose in successive postwar administrations over the impossibility of reconciling America’s treatment of its segregated African Americans with its newfound world position. We can acknowledge these accomplishments without forgetting the older lesson, once held with passionate intensity, that liberalism would be in danger of losing its soul if its embrace of force became too close.
There is much in contemporary practice that bears out the historic warning. The logic by which, in order to be more safe, people are willing to be less free continues to exert its historic pull, as shown in the excesses of the war on terror and in the government’s avid efforts to create a surveillance state of universal reach and penetration. That the United States has quintupled its prison population over the last several decades, as it prosecuted its wars on drugs and crime, shows a propensity to solve social ills by coercive means that is of a piece with the militarization of its foreign policy. These developments are adverse to liberty (and also decidedly adverse to the freedom and equality of African Americans, cancelling out the earlier benefits inadvertently bestowed by the warfare state). In both domestic and foreign policy, a set of cultural codes for punishing wrongdoing, combined with the stout destructive and carceral capacities of the modern state, have proved very consequential. May we not see in these various developments a change in maxims from liberty to force?
Internationalism is invariably presented as a set of ideas that constitute a restraint on the exercise of the power impulse, but we should not exclude the possibility that it has often functioned over the last fifty years as a mask disguising it. Such would be the less charitable interpretation. More charitable is to see this as a tragic outcome, in which the very attempt to abridge the anarchy of the international system ended by enmeshing the United States within that anarchy, communicating its diseases through prolonged contact. Enemies learn one another’s weapons; the battle against evil left its expected residue. What was intended to make America more secure ended by instilling more insecurity, and with it collateral damage to liberty. For early-twentieth-century internationalists, the choice, as Daniel Deudney expresses it, was “either to transform the system or be transformed by it.” In the event, the attempt to transform the international system has transformed America, producing a concentration within its own institutions of the very ills it was intended to escape. Ridding the world of militarism meant ingurgitating 50 percent of it ourselves.
Even as the empire has threatened liberal ideals and republican values at home, it has presented an illiberal face to America’s adversaries, depriving them of national rights that we would surely claim if in their shoes. Its legitimating doctrines have repudiated central aspects of the pluralist or Westphalian tradition, among them nonintervention, the balance of power and the idea of concert, all of which suggest the need for limitation and restraint. Its formula of ideological antagonism and regime overthrow has been war provoking, not peace inducing. It badly needs a renovation in its basic architecture, one that recurs to first principles about the role of military power in a liberal republican regime. Madison’s precept regarding a standing military establishment is one such principle: “On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale its consequences may be fatal. On any scale it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution.”
David C. Hendrickson is Professor of Political Science at Colorado College. This essay is adapted from Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, to be published December 1, 2017, by Oxford University Press.