The American Empire

Two things caught my eye the other day.

First was this post on social media from the respected American diplomat and commentator Richard Haas:

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My ‘world’ was, mostly, defined by those decades when US policy was, I thought, defined by the Truman Doctrine which endured, albeit often largely ignored, from the late 1940s until, I suppose, the Clinton era. I suspect that George HW Bush was the last president who had to ‘fight’ the Cold War and practice containment.

But there is an alternative view of post war American history and it is provided in an article in Horizons, the journal of the generally lefitish, progressive Center for jeffrey sachs SSInternational Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), by the distinguished but also progressive American scholar Jeffrey Sachs. Professor Sachs takes the view that “American imperialism has always existed hand-in-hand with American exceptionalism. Since the idea of manifest destiny took hold in the nineteenth century, the United States has looked to expand its presence and influence not just from shore to shore across North America, but to nations around the world. By viewing America as an empire—and by “empire” I mean a state that uses force to impose its direct or indirect rule over another country—we understand that America’s current conflicts in the Middle East are not wars of necessity, but imperial wars of choice.

Now, a lot ( I daresay most) of my American friends bristle when someone calls them imperialists and talks about the American Empire. Jeffrey Sachs is not alone; other distinguished academics, like Niall Ferguson, have made the same case and have been taken to task for it. But it is hard to deny the main points of Professor Sach’s thesis which is that American imperialism has been deeply flawed, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, in each case making a bad situation worse.

As a sideline thought, I think we, Canadians, must, first and foremost, recognize that there is an American Empire, and Canada is one of its major colonies … we were never conquered in any conventional sense but, by the end of our festivities in 1967 were found ourselves tired of paying the price for being truly independent and we decided, circa 1970, to withdraw from a global (at least regional in the North Atlantic – European region) leadership role and let the Americans do whatever they wished, pretty much as long as they didn’t actually raise the stars and stripes over Canadian territory. We went, as I have described it, From Colony to Nation, as Arthur Lower put it, and then back to colony, again. Being a colony was cheaper and easier in the 19th century than independence, and, in many respects, the Brits, being tired of paying for our defences, forced ‘independence’ upon us. One hundred years later most Canadians decided agreed with Pierre Trudeau that we didn’t want to and didn’t have to be in the expensive business of leadership and we could let Uncle Sam do it … we sort of volunteered for colonial status.

But the main point is: what is or, is there a “widely-shared intellectual compass” that guides most American when they consider policy?

I believe there is one and I think we need to look to the American political scientist Walter Russel Mead to understand it. Back in 2001 Professor Mead published Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. Professor Mead saw “four distinct historical patterns in foreign policy, each exemplified by a towering figure from [America’s] past … Wilsonians are moral missionaries, making the world safe for democracy by creating international watchdogs like the U.N. Hamiltonians likewise support international engagement, but their goal is to open foreign markets and expand the economy. Populist Jacksonians support a strong military, one that should be used rarely, but then with overwhelming force to bring the enemy to its knees. Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with liberty at home, are suspicious of both big military and large-scale international projects.” They are, usually, found in pairs: it would seems that Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and George HW Bush followed a mix of Wilsonian and Hamiltonian instincts while e.g. Ronal Reagan and George W Bush mixed Jacksonian and Jeffersonian ideas. Donald Trump might be an interesting mix of Jacksonian and Hamiltonian.

I do not think we need to debate the existence of an American Empire because a) that’s been done almost to death and b) it, like all the empires that came before and like those that will come after provides a mix of good and bad results for all those impacted by it.

What is, I think, debatable, is what Professor Sachs calls “relentless war” in which some (many?) Americans seem to “find divine purpose.” I think he has a case, going all the way back to the Indian Wars which went on from about 1620 until about 1920, and they continue today, especially in the Middle East. Jeffrey Sachs says that “While there are select examples of war ushering in peace—America’s shining nobility in World War II and its positive, though flawed, role in the Korean War—we should not let this obscure the more typical disastrous consequences of America’s many wars of choice, when the United States went to war for terrible reasons and ended up causing havoc at home and abroad.” Professor Sachs highlights the Vietnam War for particular criticism but he lays the blame at the feet of President Lyndon B Johnson which, I think, is a bit of a cop-out because Vietnam was, above all the legacy of President John F Kennedy. President Eisenhower, a believer, I think, in the ‘domino theory’ advocated strongly by his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, sent the embryonic US special forces to South Vietnam to train and advise the local forces. President Kennedy, apparently fascinated by the remarkable successes of British special forces in World War II rapidly and massively expanded America’s commitment to South Vietnam ~ the US military expanded from about 1,000 soldiers under Eisenhower to over 15,000 during Kennedy’s time in office and the role and functions of the CIA changed markedly, too …

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… because the British model that fascinated President Kennedy was not the vaunted MI5 and MI6 or the now famous team at Bletchley Park, it was, instead, the Special Operations Executive which was, without putting too fine a point on it, a terrorist organization, and that, again at the risk of over-generalizing, is what he turned the Central Intelligence Agency into.

Professor Sachs says, and I agree generally, that “The United States is trapped in the Middle East by its own pseudo-intellectual constructions. During the Vietnam War, the “domino theory” claimed that if America withdrew from Vietnam, communism would sweep Asia. The new domino theory is that if the United States were to stop fighting in the Middle East, Islamic terrorists such as ISIS would soon be at our doorstep … [but] … The truth is almost the opposite. ISIS is a ragtag army of perhaps 30,000 troops in a region in which the large nations—including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey—have standing armies that are vastly larger and better equipped … [and] … the regional powers could easily drive ISIS out of the territories it held in Syria and Iraq if they chose to do so. Indeed, this proved to be the case in 2017, when both Iraq and Syria re-took ISIS territory. The American military presence in the Middle East is actually the main recruiting tool for ISIS and other terrorist groups: young people stream into Syria and Iraq to fight the imperial enemy.” Why don’t the regional powers drive Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS out? Why should they … they have America to do some of their dirty work while they focus on one another.

Jeffrey Sachs says, and again I agree broadly, that “Terrorism is a frequent consequence of imperial wars and imperial rule. Local populations are unable to defeat the imperial powers, so they instead impose high costs through terror. Consider the terrorism used by Jewish settlers against the British Empire and local Palestinians in their fight for Israel’s independence and territory; or Vietnamese terrorism used against the French and United States in Vietnam’s long war for independence; or American terrorism, for that matter, that independence fighters used against the British in America’s war of independence.” He’s not, he explains, condoning terrorism, just explaining how and why it develops.

“There are actions the United States should undertake to prevent new wars and covert engagements,” Professor Sachs says:

  • As a first step, the CIA should be drastically restructured, to be solely an intelligence agency rather than an unaccountable secret army of the president. When the CIA was created in 1947, it was given the two very different roles of intelligence and covert operations. U.S. President Harry S. Truman was alarmed about this dual role, and time has proved him right;’
  • Second, it is vital for the U.S. Congress to reestablish decisionmaking over war and peace. That is its constitutional role, indeed perhaps its most important constitutional role as a bulwark of democratic government. Yet Congress has almost completely abandoned this responsibility;”
  • Third, it is essential to break the secrecy over American foreign policymaking. Most urgently at this stage, we need an independent inquest into America’s involvement in Syria, in order for the public to understand how we arrived at the current morass. Since Congress is unlikely to undertake this, and since the executive branch would of course never do so, the responsibility lies with civil society, especially academia and other policy experts, to coalesce around an information gathering and reporting function;”
  • Fourth, we need to return urgently to global diplomacy within the UN Security Council. Trump’s recent abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran is just the latest American abuse of the UN Security Council. The JCPOA is not a bilateral treaty that Donald Trump can willfully abrogate. It was endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231, making the JCPOA part of international law backed by the UN Charter;” and
  • Finally, the United States must also get out of those conflicts in which it is already involved. This means an immediate end to its fighting across the Middle East and a turn to UN-based diplomacy for real solutions and security. The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together for around 2,500 years, and as organized states for a millennium or more. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for a mere 65 years. America’s unhelpful military interventions have failed badly and are sure to continue failing. It is time to let the locals sort out their own problems, without them being inflamed by external powers, and supported by the good offices of the United Nations, including peace­keeping and peace-building efforts.

I really cannot make informed comments on the first three; I doubt there is much merit in the fourth and while I do agree that “America’s unhelpful military interventions have failed badly and are sure to continue failing,” I doubt that the “good offices of the United Nations” can be of any use at all.

I think that isolating the parts of North Africa, most of the Middle East and a lot of South West Asia might be the better course of action. I remain convinced that ONLY the peoples of those regions can make peace and progress … if they want them. I do not believe, not even for a µsecond that we, the US led West, can export liberal democracy to them. I think they need decades, generations, perhaps centuries of war and talk and more wars and more talking amongst themselves to address their own socio-cultural (including religious) and political (including religious0 issues and decide, finally, for themselves what sorts of societies they want and how they want to interact with the world … if they decide, finally, that they want to impose their will on us then we will need to utterly destroy them in one final, massive war aimed at the destruction of an entire civilization. Bit I doubt that it will come to that … I certainly hope it will not.

America will still have an empire for another century or so, I suspect, even longer … after all, Britain still has 14 ‘Overseas Territories (colonies) even after its empire was dissolved. I guess that China and, perhaps, India, will become imperial powers … perhaps another Muslim empire will emerge, too, uniting much of the Islamic Crescent.

4 thoughts on “The American Empire”

  1. As to your American friends being being horrified. Explain to them all it took was an ex RCAF LAC living amongst them for about 6 months to a year during the lead up to the Viet Nam war to figure out that they were imperialists and that I wanted no part of it and that perhaps Canada wasn’t that bad after all, as an LAC (same as a private) who’s major political ambitions was more beer and the sweety next door to come to that realization, that quickly meant the thread of imperialism had to be blatant. It was interesting I was offered a tech sergeant position in the American Army based on my experience and NATO service, so if I had wanted to I could have joined up and watched first hand the Americans fight the same battles that the French had and lost. Thanks any way Mr. recruiting sergeant. Oh as another side note when I got back to Canada after 2-2 1/2 years I have in always resisted colony status and pushed for us to stand up and be independent we are many things we Canadians but never forget that we are not imperialists or for that matter good colonials.

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