The End of Imperial America


“We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is criminal aggression.”

-Platform of the Anti-Imperialist League 17 October 1899 in Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, Frederic Bancroft, ed. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913), 6: 77-9.

There was a time in the history of this nation when a constant state of war in distant parts of the globe, and the activity of an enormously powerful standing army and security state would have been unthinkable to our leaders. Today it is the long-standing norm. The United States is not and has not been a traditional imperial power. We have held few colonies, and those with reluctance, but the world does not view us in the way we Americans view ourselves. We are increasingly seen as oppressors by an increasing number of people around the globe.

The United States spends over six times as much money on its military as any other power on Earth. We are the largest and deadliest arms exporter in the world. Our troops occupy hundreds of bases all over the globe from which to project American power. We have not sought to obtain great possessions but we have sought a form of hegemony over the globe that is an open rebuke to the nation’s founding principles. The lights on the “city upon a hill” have all been broken out by vandals intent on imposing our conception of how other peoples should live. We have resorted time and again to military force rather than peaceful interactions and patient diplomacy. Most importantly, this grab for world domination which began in 1898 with our war with Spain has only intensified since the end of the Second World War. This insistence on directing the affairs of the entire world via military power has deprived our nation of its inherent ability to employ the democratic principle as a weapon for peace and justice in our world.

Despite President Obama’s promise Monday that the United States will soon be leaving Iraq, the plans call for maintaining 50,000 troops there indefinitely. We are fighting a brutal war in Afghanistan with no indication that the Karzai government is worthy of the deaths of the Americans who have lost their lives there. After nine years, the original excuse, that of hunting down Osama Bin Laden, has worn thin as his trail has grown cold.

We must be able to envision a different kind of American power. One that springs from the American example prior to 1898. Our leaders would be wise to take the words of Daniel Webster into their compass and remember that “under our system there can be no dependencies”. I confess myself to being an old unreconstructed anti-imperialist. Yes, we can maintain a powerful military, but for our real defense needs and not for the ability to control and direct all the governments of the world we disagree with. Yes, in an age of terrorism, we must be vigilant. Our leaders do not have to violate the idea on which this nation was founded for all time in order to meet our security needs; for when we do we betray who we are and who we must become in order to recover our moral standing around the world.

The worst thing is that what we are doing around the world is enormously counterproductive of our well-being and security. Even leaders who lack the necessary vision to see what the United States can return to being for the world, and who shrink from taking responsibility for the immense harm our policies inflict on so many people, must see that the nation is being bankrupted by these two wars. It is simply not in the national interest. Let’s bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and concentrate on providing a better example of a healthy democracy to the world.

Let’s repair the lamps of freedom for our city upon that hill, and provide the kind of example that makes full use of our nation’s chief advantage in exerting its influence on a troubled world. It is time to rediscover the vision and hopes of the men who opposed our imperial ventures in 1899 and to re-establish what had been the norm for American behavior so long ago.

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