Empire, American Style

 

Americans have a hard time coming to grips with the notion that the United States is an empire. After all, the American people have always fancied themselves to be the vanguard of liberty and self determination and the ally of those who seek those things for themselves. It is a lofty notion indeed. However, beyond the platitudinous language of spreading “freedom and democracy throughout the world,” the true nature of what it means to be an empire is all to clear. This inherent nature of empire has been the cause of stripping freedoms away from citizens of those empires time and time again, and the United States is no less susceptible to such dangers. In fact, the United States has succumbed to those dangers during its transformation from decentralized republic into a centralized imperial bureaucratic state.

Professor Niall Ferguson stated in his book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power that “the British Empire is the most commonly cited precedent for the global power currently wielded by the United States. America is the heir to the Empire in both senses: offspring in the colonial era, successor today.” By Ferguson’s estimation, the British Empire, for all of its ills, birthed many benefits for the globe above and beyond those ills. It is no wonder that when examining post-colonial states, those that came out of the British Empire tend to be better off than those that came out of the French Empire. In many respects this is absolutely true, but the consequences of brining Anglo civilization to approximately one quarter of the world’s population was paid by the British people at a tremendous cost. There can be little doubt that the average Englishman of a hundred years ago would not recognize what the average Englishman of today has become and the conditions under which he lives.

Defining American Empire

Today, many so-called conservatives advocate that the United States mimic the days of the British Empire. Thinkers such as Thomas Donnelly, Max Boot, and William Kristol all make the forceful argument for constant U.S. intervention in the world. Professor Ferguson quotes Boot as saying that the United States should forcibly remake countries like Afghanistan into “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” This sentiment is not new to American pundits. Indeed in the German ambassador to the United States from 1908 to 1917 Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff noted that “the usual American policy of replacing hostile regimes with pliable ones through revolution without taking official responsibility for it” was vital to the spreading of American influence throughout much of South America. Professor of History at Rutgers University Jackson Lears put it bluntly in his book Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877 – 1920. “Those who advocated imperial policies denied any connection with European precedents, claiming instead that they were exporting American democracy and morality.” And that would be the essence of the American Empire up to the present day.

Prof. Lears defined exactly what is meant by American Empire. The basic principle as he sees it is that the guise of spreading American ideas to the impoverished parts of the globe was nothing more than a means of opening up new markets to capital penetration. Whether it was the use of American military might to create a sense of security to American firms wishing to open factories overseas or the extraction of resources from those lands to feed the consumer market that was exploding here in the States, the American principle of empire was never about holding territory so much as it was creating partner or even client governments in the advancement of U.S. interests. Lears writes, “The American empire would indeed be different from the older European model–but only in its form, not in its essence. Rather than acquiring territory overtly, United States policy-makers sought access to foreign resources, investment opportunities, and markets in less direct ways: installation of client regimes, intimidation of critics when client regimes failed, periodic military interventions, and occasionally prolonged occupation.” With that definition one can hardly be faulted for thinking that Lears might be talking about 2016 and not 1916.

The Republican Critique of Empire

The domestic side-effect of empire though is the loss of republicanism in terms of government. The coincidence between increased frequency with U.S. intervention abroad and increased centralization of governing authority at home cannot be missed by the observer. The march towards centralized federal authority took early strides toward destroying the relationship between the states and the general government, then centralized the money supply through the rebirth of Alexander Hamilton’s central bank in the Federal Reserve, then stripped the states of any direct role in the general government by changing the selection of U.S. Senators, and finally making the first assault upon private property with the income tax. Today’s American Empire has introduced much more sophisticated ways to exert its coercion through bulk collection of electronic activity of American citizens and unwarranted searches at airports or by declaring the very air that is exhaled as a pollutant deserving of mitigation. Keep in mind that even Bill Buckley Jr. claimed that for a successful interventionist foreign policy “we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

The idea that a republican government can exist and simultaneously be an empire is impossible. First and foremost, in order to commit to numerous interventions with no clear national interest more and more authority to deploy military forces must be vested in a singular authority. The 20th century has put on display time and again the president of the United States sending military forces into foreign countries without congressional authority and claiming a legitimate right to such usurpations. With each new erosion of constitutional principles comes a subordination of domestic policy to that of foreign policy. In 1966 Murray Rothbard examined this notion when he reviewed pamphlets written by a free-market thinker in the 1930s named Garet Garret, and during this review Rothbard noted that “The powers of the executive are aggrandized by delegation from Congress, by continual reinterpretation of the language of the Constitution, by the appearance of a large number of administrative bureaus within the executive, by usurpation, and as a natural corollary of the country’s intervening more and more into foreign affairs.” With the growing importance of foreign affairs, and the repeated necessity by those pushing the imperial state, an all or nothing sentiment is presented to the people. The notion that if action is not taken, even if there is no direct threat, then the country is finished, even if that action is taken at the expense of the people’s liberty.

There is a great tradition of U.S. statesmen arguing against the seductive nature of empire at the expense of freedom. When making his argument against the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, John C. Calhoun stated that:

Then no question of any magnitude came up, in which the first inquiry was not “is it constitutional” — “is it consistent with our free, popular institutions” — “how is it to affect our liberty.”  It is not so now.  Questions of the greatest magnitude are now discussed without reference or allusion to these vital considerations.  I have been often struck with the fact, that in the discussions of the great questions in which we are now engaged, relating to the origin and the conduct of this war, their effect on the free institutions and the liberty of the people have scarcely been alluded to, although their bearing in that respect is so direct and disastrous. (Emphasis added.)

Such calls to prudence are castigated today as willingly allowing barbarism to reign supreme throughout the globe. Such talk of weighing the price paid for an adventurous foreign policy is constantly pilloried for allowing the next Hitler to rise up. Let it be stated that the history of the American Empire has been more of a boost to tyrants at home and abroad than at any point prior to national imperialism. Sure the aftermath of World War II can be pointed to, but the examination of why there was a second World War is never explored. What of the Cold War and the pressure applied on the Soviet Union that eventually led to the liberation of half a continent. Arguably had the United States not entered into World War I, announcing itself as a global empire, there might not have been a Soviet Union to content with and, as an added bonus, there might not have been a second World War.

The decision to go to war is one that should be made after a very long and thoughtful debate about the aftermath of such an event. What will come of the liberties of the people? Will this decision open the general government up to a mutation away from its founding principles? In many respects, this horse has already left the barn. The near 150 year history of American Empire has left the people of the world disgusted at the sight of the American flag and created an opening for anti-American socialists at home to enter into and further corrupt the governing structure that once safeguarded individual liberty. Let it not be said that those who advocate a return to republican government and a cessation of constant war are heretics to the religion of the “Arsenal of Democracy.” After all, who was it who made the following statement: “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace comes to pass in an era of Righteousness — that is, national or ideological self-righteousness in which the public is persuaded that God is on our side,’ and that those who disagree should be brought here before the bar as war criminals.” Russel Kirk, the intellectual founder of American Conservatism.

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  1. Rosie Inactive
    Rosie
    @Nymeria

    I have often found it odd that Americans in general are uncomfortable with the concept of a pax americana and its relevant world economic/military empire. As a daughter of Mexican immigrants and raised with an imbued understanding of true power (free from any guilt associated with lefty mantras) it is shocking how the American public is in denial about their country’s true power. I’m very comfortable and have no qualms or guilt about American hegemony.

    • #1
  2. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Rosie:I have often found it odd that Americans in general are uncomfortable with the concept of a pax americana and its relevant world economic/military empire. As a daughter of Mexican immigrants and raised with an imbued understanding of true power (free from any guilt associated with lefty mantras) it is shocking how the American public is in denial about their country’s true power. I’m very comfortable and have no qualms or guilt about American hegemony.

    View comment in context.

    Yes, but at what cost? As I wrote, there cannot be both a limited government at home and a burgeoning empire abroad. To pursue empire is to strip liberties away from the citizens. I would rather have my liberties than some empty concept called pax americana.

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  3. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    An empire is, in its stripped down essentials, an exploitative thing – the colonies are run for the benefit of the mother country not their own.  I think that’s a concept that doesn’t sit easily with Americans, and frankly it reflects well on them that it doesn’t.

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  4. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    “The idea that a republican government can exist and simultaneously be an empire is impossible.”

    This is an extremely well-written article – and an important one. Some difficult truths are examined in the harsh light of history. Many nations come into being as empires and then move toward becoming republics as they evolve; in some critical ways, America seems to be following a reverse course.

    • #4
  5. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Robert McReynolds: Arguably had the United States not entered into World War I, announcing itself as a global empire, there might not have been a Soviet Union to content with and, as an added bonus, there might not have been a second World War.

    I think you are stealing one too many bases here. I’ll ride with you this far: No US entry into the Great War likely leads to an armistice validating the status quo of 1917. The Soviet revolution was already in the cards. Beyond that, who knows?

     

    • #5
  6. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Steve C.:

    Robert McReynolds: Arguably had the United States not entered into World War I, announcing itself as a global empire, there might not have been a Soviet Union to content with and, as an added bonus, there might not have been a second World War.

    I think you are stealing one too many bases here. I’ll ride with you this far: No US entry into the Great War likely leads to an armistice validating the status quo of 1917. The Soviet revolution was already in the cards. Beyond that, who knows?

    View comment in context.

    That too is a possibility. My point is that alternate histories could have played out much to the benefit of humanity had the United States not pursued empire.

    • #6
  7. NCforSCFC Member
    NCforSCFC
    @NCforSCFC

    Robert McReynolds:

    Steve C.:

    Robert McReynolds: Arguably had the United States not entered into World War I, announcing itself as a global empire, there might not have been a Soviet Union to content with and, as an added bonus, there might not have been a second World War.

    I think you are stealing one too many bases here. I’ll ride with you this far: No US entry into the Great War likely leads to an armistice validating the status quo of 1917. The Soviet revolution was already in the cards. Beyond that, who knows?

    View comment in context.

    That too is a possibility. My point is that alternate histories could have played out much to the benefit of humanity had the United States not pursued empire.

    View comment in context.

    I got caught up at that same line.  But I enjoy a good What-If and will likely spend some time pondering scenarios, at least until football.

    Great essay.

    • #7
  8. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Blah blah blah America’s fault blah blah blah America’s fault blah blah blah.

    Great presentation, faulty ideology.  We’re getting rid of that on Jan 20, no need to adopt another one.

    I don’t think I’ll play any further on this thread.

    • #8
  9. Muleskinner Member
    Muleskinner
    @Muleskinner

    I wouldn’t use Murray Rothbard as a serious source, at least on this issue. He always seemed to imply the the US’s efforts to defend itself and the west were greater threats to liberty than the Soviet Union. It might have been based on a dogmatic belief that socialism was so inefficient that it was nothing to fear in the long run.

    • #9
  10. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Phil Turmel:Blah blah blah America’s fault blah blah blah America’s fault blah blah blah.

    Great presentation, faulty ideology. We’re getting rid of that on Jan 20, no need to adopt another one.

    I don’t think I’ll play any further on this thread.

    View comment in context.

    Wow how very intelligent. Thanks for setting me straight. Why you could possibly stand in for Kevin Williams over at NeverTrump Review.

    • #10
  11. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    A debate featuring VDH arguing the United States is not an empire.  Relevant here.

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  12. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Look I like VDH, I find him to be very interesting. But a debate against A Huff? I think I will pass.

    • #12
  13. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Muleskinner:I wouldn’t use Murray Rothbard as a serious source, at least on this issue. He always seemed to imply the the US’s efforts to defend itself and the west were greater threats to liberty than the Soviet Union. It might have been based on a dogmatic belief that socialism was so inefficient that it was nothing to fear in the long run.

    View comment in context.

    So in what way were any of our Cold War military excursions self defense?

    • #13
  14. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Robert McReynolds:Look I like VDH, I find him to be very interesting. But a debate against A Huff? I think I will pass.

    View comment in context.

    His arguments on the point are what is relevant.

    • #14
  15. Muleskinner Member
    Muleskinner
    @Muleskinner

    Every time we opposed the expansion of communism by the Soviet Union, either by itself, or through its client states, we bled their economy a little more.  I don’t see Korea or Vietnam as a signs of an American empire. It’s always seemed to me that America’s only flirtations with Empire was when Progressives were in power. Our hearts were never in it, we like to think of ourselves as liberators, and most of our history, at least in terms of our great efforts, prove that out.

    If we combine Progressivism with an unsustainable national debt, we might get there. The sign of an Empire to me is treating foreign engagements as a profit center for the federal government.

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  16. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Muleskinner:Every time we opposed the expansion of communism by the Soviet Union, either by itself, or through its client states, we bled their economy a little more. I don’t see Korea or Vietnam as a signs of an American empire. It’s always seemed to me that America’s only flirtations with Empire was when Progressives were in power. Our hearts were never in it, we like to think of ourselves as liberators, and most of our history, at least in terms of our great efforts, prove that out.

    If we combine Progressivism with an unsustainable national debt, we might get there. The sign of an Empire to me is treating foreign engagements as a profit center for the federal government.

    View comment in context.

    You might want to read how I have defined American Empire again. We have modified how empires are constructed so as to mollify our sensitivities as a people. Empire building has been accomplished by Progressives, but sometimes those progressives have been Republicans.

    • #16
  17. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Muleskinner:Every time we opposed the expansion of communism by the Soviet Union, either by itself, or through its client states, we bled their economy a little more. I don’t see Korea or Vietnam as a signs of an American empire. It’s always seemed to me that America’s only flirtations with Empire was when Progressives were in power. Our hearts were never in it, we like to think of ourselves as liberators, and most of our history, at least in terms of our great efforts, prove that out.

    If we combine Progressivism with an unsustainable national debt, we might get there. The sign of an Empire to me is treating foreign engagements as a profit center for the federal government.

    View comment in context.

    Also none of your Cold War examples show a time of immediate self defense. Rather it has been an expedition to prop up our client regimes.

    • #17
  18. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Muleskinner:

    The sign of an Empire to me is treating foreign engagements as a profit center for the federal government.

    Imperial Governments generally don’t turn a profit.  Private corporations from the home country do that.  National elites run the first with taxpayer funds and own the second entirely.

    Empires are a way of nationalising or exporting costs while privatising profits.

    I would say that the American Empire is morphing into something else because the elites that benefit from it are no longer just American citizens but elites from across the sphere of influence – official citizenship matters less and less and access to capital more and more.

    That’s one reason Trump was elected, imho.

    • #18
  19. Muleskinner Member
    Muleskinner
    @Muleskinner

    Robert McReynolds: Also none of your Cold War examples show a time of immediate self defense. Rather it has been an expedition to prop up our client regimes.

    View comment in context.

    What is important about “immediate”? Immediate defense in the Cold War almost certainly involved launching the big nukes, or threatening to. Not an optimal outcome.

    • #19
  20. Rosie Inactive
    Rosie
    @Nymeria

    Robert McReynoldsYes, but at what cost? As I wrote, there cannot be both a limited government at home and a burgeoning empire abroad. To pursue empire is to strip liberties away from the citizens. I would rather have my liberties than some empty concept called pax americana.

    View comment in context.

    That is definitely something that could be debated and adjusted.  I understand that my current level of material comfort, accesible economic/social abilities, and security are the result of American hegemony.  I know people in places such as Mexico don’t share the same opportunities.  I would rather live with the more powerful nation than not.

    • #20
  21. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Muleskinner:

    Robert McReynolds: Also none of your Cold War examples show a time of immediate self defense. Rather it has been an expedition to prop up our client regimes.

    View comment in context.

    What is important about “immediate”? Immediate defense in the Cold War almost certainly involved launching the big nukes, or threatening to. Not an optimal outcome.

    View comment in context.

    Well it speaks to the decision to use the foil of war to extract resources from the states and specifically the people. There is a world of difference between fighting a war of self defense and fighting one that is nothing more than an attempt to protect a client state.

    • #21
  22. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Great post, Robert. I don’t know if I agree entirely with your thesis but there is a lot of steak here to chew on.

    By the way, you sped past me so quickly on the road to Libertarianism that I completely missed you.

    • #22
  23. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Robert,

    If this be empire, make the most of it.

    We can’t go back to being a Jeffersonian Agrarian Republic unless we are willing to bow and scrape before the next tyrant that comes along.  A weakling government can’t actually defend us or the interests of US investors.  (if you think corporations don’t matter, ask where everyone will work in your ideal state)  Your completely decentralized government would be less of a factor in global politics than Canada, and be unable to actually accomplish its constitutional prerogatives in a modern state.  Whoever has the most power will dictate terms to the rest of the world.  Who else is going to

    Money will flow to where it can be protected.  If we aren’t willing to crush people who are stealing American property, the value of being an American corporation will diminish.  The idea of acting to protect economic interests being the same as imperialism is straight out of the Left’s playbook, as it equates rule of law capitalism with imperialism.  That’s over and above the fact that we are fighting evil ideologies and the tyrants that adhere to them.  Sure, we can’t fix the entire world, but we can be a force for good.

    Better get your wife in a burka, because the Islamic Supremacists want to bring us to heel, and your vision of the United States could not defeat the Islamic State.

    This is why I will never be a libertarian.

    • #23
  24. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    I think you pose a good question — What does the projection of American power abroad cost us in the way of liberty at home? One of the relative unknowns is, what would it cost us (and the rest of the world) to forfeit our hegemony? I’d like to ask, which nation or union would you prefer to be dominant? Russia? China? Germany? The EU? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as we know.

    Like most intellectual exercises, I think you get carried away with your thesis when you say, “The near 150 year history of American Empire has left the people of the world disgusted at the sight of the American flag…” Which people are we talking about here? Would they have a preference for another flag coming over the horizon at them? And which of the Cold War conflicts have provided us with client states and resources to exploit? What did we extract from Vietnam? Korea? Hyundai and Kia make decent cars, I guess… But, isn’t that mutually beneficial to both peoples?

    I’m also not clear on how we got to the 17th Amendment through foreign interventionism, but I’m excused because I received a public education. Please explain.

    • #24
  25. Chris Brower Member
    Chris Brower
    @ChrisBrower

    Perhaps I’m putting too much weight on the title and first sentence of the post and you are not really interested in whether America is an empire under a proper understanding of the word.  But I fail to see a coherent argument that America is an empire.

    You said a lot in the post, but never addressed how empire should be defined and how America fits that definition.

    Simply put, an empire is a group of states or countries under a single supreme governing authority.  I’m interested to know which states (outside of our 50) fall under the governing authority of the United States of America.

    There is clearly a difference between an empire and a a hegemon.  There is no doubt that America is interventionist.  Perhaps it is a hegemon, as it exerts vast influence in many parts of the world.

    As a non-interventionist myself, I don’t see the point of accusing America of being an empire, unless it is to use the word as an insult rather than a descriptor.

    The near 150 year history of American Empire has left the people of the world disgusted at the sight of the American flag and created an opening for anti-American socialists at home to enter into and further corrupt the governing structure that once safeguarded individual liberty.

    Really?  I don’t see it.

    I’d be interested to see a map of America’s empire.  Again, over which states does it exercise governing authority?

    • #25
  26. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Robert McReynolds:Look I like VDH, I find him to be very interesting. But a debate against A Huff? I think I will pass.

    View comment in context.

    Victor also argued that America is not like the empires of old in a recent Classicist podcast. You must admit there is a qualitative difference between forcing regime change (then granting more than nominal independence) in hope of economic partnership and permanently occupying a territory with veto power over every law.

    When the US fought redskins, European powers, and Mexico to annex territories, this was an empire in the usual sense. But if 20th-century America is an empire, it is a new variety. The label is akin to equating a congress and a parliament.

    • #26
  27. Viruscop Member
    Viruscop
    @Viruscop

    OmegaPaladin

    Better get your wife in a burka, because the Islamic Supremacists want to bring us to heel, and your vision of the United States could not defeat the Islamic State.

    This is why I will never be a libertarian.

    View comment in context.

    I don’t think you have to worry about Islamists. You should be more concerned with China becoming the largest economy on Earth, and then using their supreme power over all life on Earth to turn the US into a giant Westworld for their citizens.

    But I like the tenor of your comment.

    • #27
  28. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Viruscop:

    OmegaPaladin:

    Better get your wife in a burka, because the Islamic Supremacists want to bring us to heel, and your vision of the United States could not defeat the Islamic State.

    This is why I will never be a libertarian.

    View comment in context.

    I don’t think you have to worry about Islamists. You should be more concerned with China becoming the largest economy on Earth, and then using their supreme power over all life on Earth to turn the US into a giant Westworld for their citizens.

    But I like the tenor of your comment.

    View comment in context.

    China has a lot of structural and organizational challenges. Plus corruption entangled with their political system. Those defects will hold them back until they are addressed.

     

    • #28
  29. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    The United States is the most benign empire in history, but it IS an empire. Permanent bases in Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, and Korea are abundant evidence. Call ’em whatever you like, but they’re imperial outposts. The rest is just semantics.

    • #29
  30. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Steve C.: China has a lot of structural and organizational challenges. Plus corruption entangled with their political system.

    View comment in context.

    So did the Soviet Union. So did Mao’s China.

    Communism survives by conquest and cannibalism. It steals the resources of its vassals and devours its own people. It’s not a recipe for proud and happy peoples. But it has provided sufficient strength to empower conquerors and meddlers before.

    We ignore dictators of these clumsy states at our own peril. As Victor Hanson recently noted, the Falklands War should remind us how bold weaker powers can be when they think the strong powers lack the will to defend allied territories. If Obama was in place of JFK, would we have stopped the Soviets from parking missiles in Cuba?

    • #30

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