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The Folly of Empire What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson
By John B. Judis
Scribner Copyright © 2004 John B. Judis
All right reserved.
Introduction At noon, October 18, 2003, President George W. Bush landed in Manila as part of a six-nation Asian tour. Because officials were concerned about a terrorist attack on the embattled islands, the presidential airplane, Air Force One, was shepherded into Philippine air space by F-15s. Bush's speech to the Philippine Congress was delayed by what one reporter described as "undulating throngs of demonstrators who lined his motorcade route past rows of shacks." Outside the Philippine House of Representatives, several thousand more demonstrators greeted Bush, and several Philippine legislators staged a walkout during his twenty-minute speech.
In his speech, Bush took credit for America transforming the Philippines into "the first democratic nation in Asia." Said Bush, "America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation." And he drew an analogy between America's attempt to create democracy in the Philippines and its attempt to create a democratic Middle East through invading and occupying Iraq in the spring of 2003: "Democracy alwayshas skeptics. Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy. The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of Asia. These doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago, when the Republic of the Philippines became the first democratic nation in Asia."
After a state dinner, Bush and his party were bundled back onto Air Force One and shunted off to the president's next stop, Thailand. The Secret Service had warned Bush that it was not safe for him to remain overnight in the "first Democratic nation in Asia."
As many Philippine commentators remarked afterward, Bush's rendition of Philippine-American history bore very little relation to fact. True, the United States Navy under Admiral George Dewey had ousted Spain from the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898. But instead of creating a Philippine democracy, President William McKinley annexed the country and installed a colonial administrator. The United States then fought a brutal war against the same Philippine independence movement it had encouraged to fight Spain. The war dragged on for fourteen years. Before it was over, about 120,000 American troops were deployed and more than 4,000 died; more than 200,000 Filipino civilians and soldiers were killed. And the resentment against American policy was still evident a century later during George W. Bush's visit.
The Filipinos were not the only ones to rue the American occupation. Before he was assassinated in September 1901, McKinley himself had come to have doubts about it. He told a friend, "If old Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us." By 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, who had earlier championed the war and occupation, recognized the United States had made a mistake in annexing the Philippines. After Woodrow Wilson became president, he and the Democrats backed Philippine independence, but were thwarted by Republicans who still nurtured dreams of American empire. Only in 1946, after reconquering the Philippines from Japan, did the United States finally grant independence - and even then it retained military bases and special privileges for American corporations.
As for the Philippines' democracy, the United States can take little credit for what exists, and some blame for what doesn't. The Philippines were not the first Asian country to hold elections. And the electoral machinery the U.S. designed in 1946 provided a veneer of democratic process beneath which a handful of families, allied to American investors and addicted to payoffs and kickbacks, controlled Philippine land, economy, and society. The tenuous system broke down in 1973 when Ferdinand Marcos had himself declared president for life. Marcos was finally overthrown in 1986, but even today Philippine democracy is more dream than reality. Three months before Bush's visit, beleaguered Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had survived a military coup; and with Islamic radicals and communists roaming the countryside, the Philippines are perhaps the least stable of Asian nations. If the analogy between America's "liberation" of the Philippines and of Iraq were to hold true, the United States can look forward to four decades of occupation, culminating in an outcome that is still far from satisfactory. Such an outcome would not redound to the credit of the Bush administration, but instead to the "skeptics" who charged that the Bush administration had undertaken the invasion of Baghdad with its eyes wide shut.
Politicians often rewrite history to their own purposes, but, as Bush's analogy to Iraq suggested, there was more than passing significance to his revision of the history of the Spanish-American War. It reflected not just a distorted picture of a critical episode in American foreign policy but a seeming ignorance of the important lessons that Americans drew from this brief and unhappy experiment in creating an overseas empire. If Bush had applied these lessons to the American plans for invading Iraq and transforming the Middle East, he might have proceeded far more cautiously. But as his rendition of history showed, he was either unaware of them or had chosen to ignore them.
The Spanish-American War and its aftermath represented a turning point in American foreign policy. Until the 1890s, the United States had adhered to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson's advice to stay out of "foreign entanglements." America had expanded over the continent and sought to prevent new foreign incursions into the hemisphere, but it had avoided Europe's growing struggle for empire in Asia and Africa. Now, by going to war against Spain in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and by establishing what it thought of as a stepping-stone to the China market, the United States had abandoned its own splendid isolation and thrown itself into the worldwide struggle.
To take this momentous step, the United States had discarded its historic opposition to imperialism. Founded as a result of an anti-colonial war against the British, the United States had sought to expand westward by adding new states and citizens that enjoyed equal rights with those that existed. Americans had stood firmly against acquiring overseas people and territories that would be ruled from afar. But by taking over the Spanish empire, America had become the kind of imperial power it had once denounced. It was now vying with Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan for what Theodore Roosevelt called "the domination of the world."
American proponents of imperialism argued that the country needed colonies to bolster its military power and to find markets for its capital, but they also believed that by expanding overseas, the United States was fulfilling its historic mission to transform the world in its image. The United States had been founded by descendants of emigrants from Protestant Britain and Holland who viewed their new land as a "city on a hill" that would initiate the "new Israel" and the Kingdom of God on Earth. Well after the glow of Puritan conviction dimmed, Americans still believed that they had a unique or special millennial role in transforming the world - not necessarily into a replica of early Christian communities, but into states and countries that shared America's commitment to liberty and democracy.
Roosevelt, McKinley, and the other proponents of an American imperialism insisted that by annexing other countries, Americans would, in McKinley's words, "civilize and Christianize" them. Said McKinley of the Philippines in October 1900, "Territory sometimes comes to us when we go to war in a holy cause, and whenever it does the banner of liberty will float over it and bring, I trust, blessings and benefits to all people." Their convictions were echoed by a prominent historian who had recently become president of Princeton. In 1901, Woodrow Wilson wrote in defense of the annexation of the Philippines:
The East is to be opened and transformed, whether we will it or not; the standards of the West are to be imposed upon it; nations and peoples who have stood still the centuries through are to be quickened and to be made part of the universal world of commerce and of ideas which has so steadily been a-making by the advance of European power from age to age.
America, the proponents of imperialism argued, would acquire an overseas empire of its own, and through careful administration and the defeat of backward, or "savage," resistance movements, lay the basis for the spread of liberty and democracy throughout the world. "God's hand," Indiana senator Albert Beveridge declared in 1900, "is in ... the movement of the American people toward the mastery of the world."
The two presidents who figured out that America's experiment with imperialism wasn't working were, ironically, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter not only of the Spanish-American War, in which he enlisted, but of the subsequent American takeover of the Spanish empire. Said Roosevelt in April 1899, "If we do our duty aright in the Philippines, we will add to that national renown which is the highest and finest part of national life, and will greatly benefit the people of the Philippine islands, and above all, we will play our part well in the great work of uplifting mankind." Yet after he became president in September 1901, his enthusiasm for overseas expansion noticeably waned. Urged to take over the Dominican Republic, he quipped, "As for annexing the island, I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to." Under Roosevelt, America's colonial holdings actually shrunk. And after the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Roosevelt changed America's diplomatic posture from competitor with the other imperialist powers in dominating the world to mediator in their growing conflicts.
Woodrow Wilson had initially cheered the American takeover of the Spanish empire, although not as lustily as Roosevelt and McKinley. When he became president in 1913, he boasted that he could transform Latin America, if not the rest of the world, into constitutional democracies in America's image. Proclaiming his opposition to Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta, Wilson promised that he was "going to teach the South American republics to elect good men." But Wilson discovered in Mexico that attempts to instill American-style constitutional democracy and capitalism through force were destined to fail. And not just to fail, but to spark a nationalist, anti-American backlash that would threaten American security during World War I. In Mexico, Wilson came to understand in practice what he had written in his theories of government - that "self-government is not a thing that can be 'given' to any people."
Like Roosevelt, and many European leaders, Wilson had also believed that imperialism was contributing to a higher, more pacific civilization by bringing not only capitalist industry but also higher standards of morality and education to what had been barbarous regions. Wars would be fought, but primarily between uncivilized nations, or between them and civilized countries. Eventually, war would disappear. But as Wilson learned from the outbreak of World War I, the struggle for colonies had precipitated a savage and destructive war between the imperial powers themselves.
World War I turned Wilson not only against German militarism but against the structure of world politics and economics that the imperial struggle for colonies had sustained. The only way to prevent future war, he concluded, was to dismantle the structure itself. During the war and in the peace negotiations that followed, Wilson attempted to put America and the world on a new footing - one that would prevent future wars. Wilson's plan included self-determination for former colonies, an open trading system to discourage economic imperialism, international arms reduction, and a commitment to collective security through international organizations - what is now sometimes referred to as "multilateralism." Wilson continued to believe that the United States had a special role to play in the world. But he now believed that it could best play that role by getting other nations to work with it to effect a global transformation.
Wilson failed to get either the other victors from World War I or the Republican-controlled Senate in the United States to agree to his plan for a new world order. His Republican successors organized international disarmament conferences but ignored the structure of imperialism that was fueling a new arms race. They called for an "open door" in world markets, but protected America's prosperity behind high tariff walls. They played a small, but real, part in fulfilling the prediction of a new world war that Wilson had made in Pueblo, Colorado, in September 1919, on the eve of the vote on the League of Nations.
Franklin Roosevelt, who had served under Wilson, saw the onset of World War II as a vindication of Wilson's approach. Roosevelt and Harry Truman attempted to craft a new "community of power" based upon Wilsonian principles. It was embodied in organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund and in treaties such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. This approach helped prevent a new world war and depression, but it did not succeed exactly as Wilson, Roosevelt, or Truman initially envisaged. After the war, the British and French refused to give up their colonies without a fight, and the Soviet Union fueled a Cold War by attempting to restore, and build upon, the older czarist empire in eastern Europe and southern and western Asia.
During the Cold War, the United States used Wilson's approach to create a "community of power" against the Soviet Union - chiefly through the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a new type of alliance that encouraged the defense and spread of democratic principles. That aspect of American foreign policy proved to be remarkably successful. But outside of western Europe and Japan, American policy-makers often believed that they had to choose between maintaining America's opposition to imperialism and colonialism and opposing the Soviet Union in the Cold War. They opposed anti-imperialist movements in southeast Asia, the Mideast, and Latin America because they believed that their victory would aid the Soviet Union. That led to the catastrophic war in Vietnam and to serious setbacks in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Mideast.
Excerpted from The Folly of Empire by John B. Judis Copyright © 2004 by John B. Judis. Excerpted by permission.
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