Is America an Empire?

October 17, 2017 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: AmericaHistoryWarFreedomRevolution

Is America an Empire?

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


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.”