Is the US an Empire? Should it be?
Long before the US could even fathom being the sole world superpower, Thomas Jefferson coined the term “Empire of Liberty” to describe his vision for the United States.
I have attempted to understand Jefferson’s motivations for this. Considering the way power functions in human civilization, it seems that imperialism was nearly unavoidable, and perhaps Jefferson recognized this in a very sober fashion.
He noticed the great potential for a more free and peaceful world under representative democracy. Now this form of government has become the most prevalent in the world, and much of the credit is due to the United States. The US involvement in World War 1 and 2 could be construed as defending representative democracy, even if economic and security reasons were the biggest motivator.
Yet, the imperial urge persists, as it has, for millennia. World conquest is not a new idea. Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Lenin, and Hitler have all tried it. This disregard for the sovereignty of others tends to extend inward as well, towards ever greater percentages of the domestic population. Yet, populations are not always passive observers, but at the right moment, with the proper communication and organizational techniques, they can become a revolutionary force. Such a force formed in the American colonies in the late 18th century.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson recognized the foolishness of jumping to revolution too hastily.
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”
However, he also knew how quickly a government could become corrupted, and that is why he spoke of revolution as a duty whenever the government strays too far from its principles.
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Yet, that same revolutionary force can easily become corrupted as well. Indeed, when Jefferson became President, he said the following:
“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
This clearly proves that he understood that centralization of power is the root of most political problems.
I think he also understood that the way the constitution was set up made it harder to corrupt than previous systems. The checks and balances conceived by Montesquieu really are somewhat effective.
So how does contemporary US imperialism fit into this? Now that the US is the world’s only superpower, and it spends more on its military than nearly every other country on earth combined, I think it is time once more to reassess our motivations.
One of the rationales for building this empire was to make things better for the world, and I would argue this has indeed happened. If one looks at death tolls, it seems apparent that the true heirs to centralized holders of power such as Genghis Khan and Napoleon were the Nazis and Soviets who were probably responsible for over 100 million deaths each.
Technology has vastly increased the capacity for killing, yet the US has not killed comparable numbers of people to those other empires. When the US death toll is added up (Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, proxy wars, WW1, WW2 war crimes, etc) it is still significantly less.
Does this mean we should be satisfied that the US only killed tens of millions? Should we just sit back and be content with this? Only eggheads care about multi-syllabic words like decentralization, right? Truly believing in things like democracy and freedom is for children, right?
I recently came across an article from the Hoover Institution titled “the Intellectual Roots of America-Bashing,” which was the most serious conservative attempt which I have found to refute Hardt & Negri, Wallerstein, and Chomsky.
This article does not actually refute these scholars, it refutes an interpretation of them which is easy to succumb to: that the US is categorically worse than other nations.
When one reads a book like Chomsky’s Failed States, it tends to make principled people infuriated at the government. It certainly had that effect on me when I checked it out from my public library.
The real reason it is so infuriating is the hypocrisy of the government more than anything else.
Often when one reads history, one hears about horrible things that happen while the population remains blissfully ignorant. Rarely does one experience feeling like one of the deluded themselves.
That is what is so shocking about the book, and although it mostly focuses on the United States, I never got the impression that Chomsky felt the US was categorically worse than other empires, just way more similar than one would like.
“…the United States is very much like other powerful states, pursuing the strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its exceptional dedication to the highest values” (Chomsky, Failed States pg 203)
At the same time, there are virtues of the US, as Chomsky agrees. One of the main virtues is evidenced simply by the existence of books like Failed States. Free speech really does exist. If feeling like one of the deluded is rare, having books that spell it out for you easily accessible from government-run libraries is nearly unheard of.
“After all, the United States was the first modern (more or less) democratic society and has been a model for others ever since. And in many dimensions crucial for authentic democracy – protection of freedom of speech, for example – it has become a leader among the societies of the world.” (Chomsky, Failed States pg 205)
That is what is extra frustrating about recurring attempts to repeal civil liberties and the derision toward international law (the creation of which, catalyzed by the US, was one of the greatest accomplishments in world history)
If one takes a sober Jeffersonian perspective, things like US nationalism and militarism are necessary to promote when the time calls for it. I would argue though that there have been no serious threats to US hegemony since World War 2. As scholars such as Wallerstein and Hardt & Negri have shown, the main motivation behind post-WW2 American foreign policy has been to protect the transnational economic system which has created the current elite class.
Even if one does think that it is sound policy to overthrow democracies and prop up dictators whenever it suits short term interests, those who support the US’s need to remain powerful usually support it because of the principles that the US supposedly stands for or at least to achieve outcomes which are superior to the alternatives.
I would argue that some have become so wrapped up in the short term empire-building that they completely forget the Liberty part of it. Power becomes an end in and of itself, rather than a means to improve the world.
Thus, I call on all supporters of the American Empire to shed politically correct dialogue. Without mincing words, defend why you support the empire.