Thoughts on the American Empire
“The world has been made worse by having the Americans try to rule it, and it will be made even worse once they give up and walk away.” (Sean Gabb)
That’s an interesting perspective, and one with which it’s difficult to argue. While it is technically correct in pointing out that America long ago made the conscious decision not to build an empire, I think it’s incorrect to conclude that this decision has remained in force up to the present time. The evidence certainly indicates otherwise.
At any rate, at no point does that conscious decision seem to have been based in consensus. As America grew stronger, so too did the will to power of at least a segment of the elite. Moreover, I think it was mostly the result of a realistic assessment of America’s strength relative to other powers at the time. When there did exist a general acquiescence amongst the majority of the ruling elite that America would do well to stick to its own hemisphere rather than try to join in the building of empires common at the time – it was a moot point of discussion, because an empire couldn’t be had at that time, anyway.
Regardless, after the Civil War America became, at the very least, a continental empire. The old constitution having, to say the very least, been degraded by the annihilation of the Southern aristocracy and the inversion of the balance of power vis-a-vis state and federal tiers of government. It didn’t end there. Colonies were taken after the Spanish American War. After the First World War there was a segment of the elite that saw an opportunity to take its seat on the world stage, although that opportunity was lost – the result of strong internal opposition. However, that opposition was effectively neutered by the time the Second World War concluded. Afterwards, it seems to have been the determined will of the elite not to allow that opportunity to slip away a second time.
The only impediment, following the Second World War, was the Soviet Union and by the end of 1991 that impediment was gone. There were plenty of gaffes and lots of fumbling about before that time, but after 1991 the American elite, armed with all the tools of power accumulated during the Cold War, felt that their time had finally come. This is clear from their own words and from the history of American foreign policy from that time down to the present.
I studied National Security, Middle Eastern, & Russian studies at university from 2008 to 2014. In that time, from all the books I was asked to read and all the discussions had with professors, a clear, logical, and achievable strategy or even a coherent guiding ideology for America’s role was strangely absent. Perhaps incomplete would be a more appropriate term. Anyone who has read the Lexus & the Olive Tree, Clash of Civilizations, The End of History and the Last Man, and The Pentagon’s New Map and compared them can see the intellectual chaos and the lack of an informed view of history (perhaps even a refusal to acknowledge its relevance, in some instances).
So America has its empire. It fell into her lap more or less unexpectedly. She didn’t and still doesn’t know quite what to do with it. There is certainly disagreement. But the realities of empire do not wait for intellectuals and statesmen to hash everything out on paper before real problems arise, which demand real solutions delivered in real time. And so America has inserted herself into the midst of nearly every international (and sometimes internal, domestic) dispute and has done so with an eclectic set of goals and varying degrees of understanding of what she was getting herself into, what the ramifications would be, and how it fit in to the pattern of her previous and future actions.
Nonetheless, she provides some stability for the current economic order and has created certain geopolitical balances which, but for her intervention, would tip one way or the other. When she packs her bags and goes home, she will leave in her wake a million accumulated scores, left unsettled and in some cases frozen in time for decades, which will not only thaw and emerge as fresh as they were the day America first intervened, but many will certainly set ablaze. And what of the current economic order? What kind of transition can we look forward to and where will it lead? And what of all the regimes in Europe that have modeled themselves in America’s image and subordinated much of their policies to America’s will? What will they be replaced with and what political turmoil will accompany the transitions? I don’t have any answers.
Sean Gabb recalled an old saying about Augustus – shame he was born; shame he had to die. This is indeed very appropriate here. It certainly matches my sentiments on the matter.