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The Empire Has No Clothes
U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed
By Ivan Eland
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 2008 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
Introduction: History of the U.S. Empire
Americans don't think of their country as having an empire. U.S. presidents have often disclaimed imperial intent while engaging in what suspiciously appear to be imperial adventures. After going to war in 1898 to grab Caribbean and Pacific possessions from a weakened Spain — America's first imperial foray — President William McKinley disclaimed any imperial intent: "No imperial designs lurk in the American mind. They are alien to American sentiment, thought, and purpose. Our priceless principles undergo no change under a tropical sun. They go with the flag."
Such rhetoric is strikingly similar to that of President George W. Bush. During his campaign for president, Bush asserted flatly, "America has never been an empire." Similarly, when speaking about the U.S. invasion and occupation of the sovereign nation of Iraq, Bush stated, "Our country does not seek the expansion of territory" but rather "to enlarge the realm of liberty." In his 2004 State of the Union speech, the president declared, "We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire."
Even at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which advocates an expansive U.S. foreign policy, the audience — in a poll taken after a debate on the proposition "The United States is and should be an empire" — rejected the notion.
Yet an American overseas empire has existed since the turn of the last century and a global U.S. empire since the advent of the Cold War under both Democratic and Republican administrations. After George W. Bush became president and the neoconservatives gained ascendancy within his administration's national security apparatus, their jubilant brethren on the outside began to use openly, and even extol, the "E"-word when describing U.S. foreign policy. Writers such as Eliot Cohen, Max Boot, Ernest Lefever, Robert Kaplan, Lawrence Kaplan, Charles Krauthammer, and William Kristol have made discussion and debate about the American empire trendy in the foreign policy salons of Washington and New York. The "outsider" faction of the neoconservatives has done a great service to the post–Cold War and post–September 11 foreign-policy debate by imprudently broaching that taboo subject.
Even current and future high-level administration officials have openly used the terms empire and imperial to apply to the United States. In a 2003 vice-presidential Christmas card, Dick Cheney quoted Ben Franklin to imply that God was watching over and aiding the U.S. empire: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" Similarly, after the 2000 election, Richard Haass, future policy-planning director of the Bush II administration's State Department, urged Americans to "reconceive their global role from one of a traditional nation-state to an imperial power." Although Haass distinguished between an "imperial foreign policy" and "imperialism," the imperial foreign policy he championed would recognize the "informal" U.S. empire.
Neoconservatives and others from the right are not the only advocates of empire. For example, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and Sebastian Mallaby, a columnist for the Washington Post, are more liberal advocates of empire. Of course, while currently fashionable, all of those advocates of empire — both on the left and on the right — are more than a hundred years too late in discovering that the United States has had an overseas empire. Furthermore, a global empire, which, since the Korean War, has lasted through both Democratic and Republican administrations, will likely continue after President George W. Bush leaves office.
America's own Colonial subjugation at the hands of the British has bequeathed an anti-imperialist self-image — even as the United States engaged in blatant imperial behavior. How did this empire come about? Until recently, the anti-imperialist self-image held so much sway that anyone labeling U.S. foreign policy as "imperialist" was immediately thought to be a leftist or a communist. People from that camp were the only ones who regularly asserted that the United States had an empire. How times have changed! Niall Ferguson, a British historian and proponent of U.S. empire, noted that "The greatest empire of modern times has come into existence without the American people even noticing." Exiled German economist Moritz Bonn perceptively noted a paradox of World War II: "The United States have [sic] been the cradle of modern Anti-Imperialism, and at the same time the founding of a mighty Empire."
THE SEEDS OF EMPIRE
Most historians would agree that the first American imperial conflict was the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898. But some analysts would say that U.S. imperial behavior began as America expanded westward, pushing out other powers and Native American populations, and that U.S. overseas imperialism started when that continental expansion was complete. Although the latter argument is probably true and was reflected in the rhetoric at the turn of the last century, the former argument is not true.
The westward expansion should be labeled as nation- building, not empire-building. That classification is in no way designed to develop a euphemism for the grabbing of what is now the southwestern United States by provoking a war against Mexico or for the ethnic cleansing and brutal treatment of Native Americans in the westward push by white settlers. In fact, nation-building can be more brutal than the quest for empire. In an empire, conquered populations are left intact and dominated, at least partially, using local elites. They often keep their own language and laws. In nation-building, foreign populations are either "integrated" with conquering peoples through forced assimilation, or annihilated or driven from their land and forcibly resettled to make room for colonies of conquerors. Often, they are forced to speak the conquerors' languages and obey their laws.
As the United States moved west, it bought and annexed territories of other powers, eliminated peripheral Spanish and Native American elites, attempted to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into the white way of life, extended U.S. legal, military and administrative systems, and populated the new territories with nonnative settlers. The western territories of the United States were never meant to be ruled as colonies but to enter the union as states. (In a more benign example of an empire turning into a state, the Roman empire technically came to an end in 212 CE — long before it physically expired — when the Emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all the empire's free peoples. Such full integration of subjects should really be called a multinational state.)
In 1897, the inauguration of William McKinley ended the era of congressional domination. It was the culmination of a redistribution of power from the Congress to the executive branch in the late 1800s. A strengthening executive branch and the expansion of federal bureaucracy had allowed a naval buildup that permitted America's first imperial adventure — the Spanish-American War. When the ship U.S.S. Maine, on a show-of-force mission to Cuba, blew up in Havana Bay, hawks in the United States used the event — now believed by most historians to have been an accident — as a pretext to grab a declining Spanish empire's possessions.
In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States — now a world power — tried for the first time to rule a foreign people using brutal force without eventually annexing their territory and integrating their citizens into the American nation. Although the seeds of war began in the Caribbean, the outcome helped the United States compete with other imperial powers that were carving up China. Already in 1900, as part of the multilateral mercantilist effort to force China to trade with the west, President McKinley, without getting congressional approval, sent five thousand troops to help the other imperialist powers repress a rebellion by the Chinese "Boxers." Ironically, the American overseas empire began around the beginning of the last century and spanned the globe after the Korean War because American policymakers essentially bought into now-discredited theories by Vladimir Lenin and others. Lenin's theory of imperialism was that capitalist nations were intrinsically prone to industrial overproduction, and thus underconsumption (as well as oversaving and underinvestment), and needed to develop overseas markets for their products to avoid domestic unemployment and accompanying social unrest. After the American frontier was closed in the 1890s, some observers bought into this fallacy. But many countries did not have open (free) trade policies, so the neomercantilist policy of opening markets at gunpoint was adopted by the United States. Yet, in reality, any American overproduction was caused by excessive domestic prices maintained by America's failure to observe the principles of free trade through the enactment of high tariffs.
After drubbing a weak Spanish empire in the Spanish-American War, the United States obtained Guam and the Philippines and also annexed Hawaii, all of which would be used as naval bases in the competition for China. With the addition of Wake Island and a strategic deepwater port in Samoa in 1899, the United States had obtained a chain of naval coaling stations across the Pacific, including California, Hawaii, Midway, Samoa, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines. Hawaii and the Philippines were America's first true colonies. Hawaii was eventually integrated into the United States.
The naval buildup and war also allowed America to dominate the Western Hemisphere and bring Cuba under U.S. military rule. That "strategic" island guarded the Caribbean approaches of the planned canal through the Central American isthmus — the building of which would allow U.S. naval vessels to pass into the Pacific without making the long southern trip around the tip of South America. Thus, the canal would also facilitate American participation in the great power competition for China. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt began the quest for the trans-isthmus waterway by assisting Panamanian guerrillas in a revolt and separation from the uncooperative parent Colombian government. The United States subsequently signed a one-sided treaty to dig the canal with the much more cooperative Panamanians.
Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy before he became president, was also one of the chief architects of the naval buildup, the Spanish-American War, and U.S. overseas imperialism — the last of which he euphemistically had to dub "Americanism" because of American aversion to the concept. During and after the conflict, an anti-imperialist backlash served up harsh criticism of the American empire for, among other reasons, violating constitutional principles and draining the Treasury.
Because of such popular sentiment, American imperialism was sporadic during the first half of the twentieth century. Up until the beginning of World War II, the platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties opposed U.S. involvement in wars overseas. The post–Spanish-American War presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson restricted the new imperial policy to small interventions in Latin America. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, formulated a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (the United States would stay out of Europe's wars and European powers were to stay out of the Western Hemisphere) that promised U.S. intervention in the Western Hemisphere to ensure internal stability. Woodrow Wilson sent forces to Latin America in an ineffectual attempt to teach them to "elect good men." And during the interwar period, despite the horrors of World War I, the U.S. Marines upheld the new tradition of meddling in Latin American affairs by periodically occupying Caribbean and Central American nations. In all, during the first decades of the twentieth century, the United States intervened militarily in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Colombia.
Despite interventions in the traditional U.S. sphere of influence in the Americas, however, the U.S. military demobilized after each of the world wars to its traditional small size and was not used to build a more expansive empire. In short, despite the fact that the United States had become a world-class economy by 1830, a potential great power by 1850, the largest economy on the planet by the 1880s, and a great naval power by 1907, the American popular aversion to imperialism constrained U.S. imperialists from creating a large peacetime army and a global empire until the advent of the Cold War. Prior to the Pax Americana of the Cold War period, even U.S. military interventions in the Philippines, Latin America, and World Wars I and II were done either unilaterally or with an ad hoc coalition of allies in the founding tradition of avoiding the obligation of permanent, entangling alliances.
A GLOBAL U.S. EMPIRE RISES
After the massive destruction inflicted on all of the other great powers by World War II, the United States, geographically removed from the conflict, came to dominate the world because all of its competitors had been crippled. During the early Cold War years, the United States had 50 percent of the world's remaining Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and began to remake the world essentially because it could, not because it needed to for reasons of security.
The perceived lessons of World War II, the power vacuum created by the debilitation of other powers, the slow rise out of the war's ashes of a second-class Soviet competitor, and the desire to use American power to open the world to trade and investment from dominant U.S. companies (that goal had existed since the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century) led to the creation of a truly global American empire. Although the Bush II administration has blatantly emphasized preemptive actions (really preventative actions to keep future threats from coalescing) and neoconservatives outside and inside the administration have openly talked about a global American empire, the United States has pursued both policies since the beginning of the Cold War. For example, the United States ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Jacob Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala in 1954 because of fears that they were taking those countries down the wrong road for U.S. economic interests. The United States also intervened militarily or covertly in many countries during the Cold War and created an empire by forming alliances, establishing bases around the world, and dumping large amounts of military and economic aid into many countries to pay for access to those bases.
Learn Lessons from World War I, Not World War II
The perceived lessons from British appeasement of Adolf Hitler during a summit in Munich in 1938 have influenced U.S. postwar foreign policy for decades. Almost sixty years later, Madeleine Albright, President Clinton's Secretary of State, was still invoking this event to warn against appeasing the Serbs in the Balkans. The general premise in U.S. foreign-policy circles is that appeasing a foe — and hawks can easily label any negotiations as appeasement — might appear as weakness and cause the opponent and other observing nations to commit aggression. Also, any sign of aggression, direct or indirect, or instability must be nipped in the bud early and in remote locations overseas before it snowballs or spreads closer to home.
There are logical and historical problems with putting too much weight on this historical example to drive policy, but the U.S. government nevertheless has given excessive emphasis to the event during the Cold War and thereafter. First, every potential opponent is not a jingoistic, rich, and well-armed Germany that has the potential to overrun a region of high economic and technological output — that is, Europe. Second, in World War II, Central Europe was much more strategically important to Britain and France than most of the world is to the United States today. Third, today's high-technology weapons take at least twenty years to research, develop, produce, and field — making the rapid rise of a peer competitor, such as Hitler's Germany from 1933 to 1939, much less likely. Fourth, meaningful negotiations can and should be undertaken with a potential foe before military action is taken. Fifth, Neville Chamberlain may have had little choice but to negotiate with Hitler. The British and their French allies were so overstretched policing global empires that they could not deal with a potentially much bigger threat closer to home — a lesson that the U.S. empire should learn in the wake of the September 11 attacks and with the potential for China or India to eventually rise as a great power. In addition, in response to the German threat, Chamberlain had ordered military improvements, but in 1938 his armed forces were not yet up to the task of taking on a Germany that was ahead on the rearming curve. He had to stall for time. The world's first integrated air defense system — including new radar technology that Winston Churchill scorned while in opposition to the British government but later, as Prime Minister, used in the decisive Battle of Britain — was made possible by the governments of Chamberlain and his predecessor.
Excerpted from The Empire Has No Clothes by Ivan Eland. Copyright © 2008 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Introduction: History of the U.S. Empire,
Chapter 2 Does the United States Really Have an Empire?,
Chapter 3 Why Conservatives Should Be Against Empire,
Chapter 4 Why Liberals Should Be Against Empire,
Chapter 5 Why All Americans Should Be Against Empire,
Chapter 6 An Appropriate U.S. Foreign Policy for the Modern Age,
Chapter 7 Conclusion,
About the Author,
In Praise of The Empire Has No Clothes,
About the Independent Institute,
Independent Studies in Political Economy,