Monday, September 1, 2008

Is the U.S. an Empire?

Well, Ahmed, you don’t have everything quite the way I would describe it. I would hardly call Cold War battles Imperialism. Our Communist adversaries did, but of course they would, wouldn’t they. Also, there is a sense in which everything the 13 colonies did would parallel something an Empire might do, but the actions of the Colonies and later the fledgling nation hardly qualify as Empire. It cheapens the term “empire” to apply it to most of what America has done. Andrew Jackson took Florida from Spain and was then backed up by his government. Was that an imperial act? When we look at the circumstances we see that the British were using Florida to stir up trouble. The trouble stopped after Jackson’s act.

Someone could (and I believe that Niall Ferguson did) argue that the nation’s movement across the continent was an act of Imperialism, but here again when we look at the settlers looking for land, Imperialism can hardly be applied to their efforts. Analysts used the term “Manifest Destiny” to describe what was happening. It was considered the nation’s Manifest Destiny that it would stretch from sea to shining sea. Whatever it was (with apologies to Ferguson) it wasn’t Empire.

The Monroe Doctrine has been described as an Imperial act, but this strikes me as silly. At the time we issued the doctrine we didn’t possess the power to back it up. It served the nation that did have the power, Britain. Britain’s was interested in supporting the Monroe doctrine. It served Britain’s interests to keep their competitors out of the Western Hemisphere as much as possible. Our motivation was one of timidity not Empire. We wanted the warlike Europeans to leave us alone.

And in looking at your list, Cuba and the Philippines were acquired as a result of a war that Spain declared upon the U.S. We were opposing the Spanish Empire. And, as has been discussed, after considerable congressional debate we annexed the Philippines to prevent Japan from getting it. Was it an Empirical act? Yes, but as has been said, our heart wasn’t in it. We did the act to prevent the Japanese Empire (and their heart was definitely in it) from acquiring the Philippines.

Korea wasn’t an Empirical act. South Korea was an ally and we went to its defense after North Korea invaded it. This was done as a United Nations war. I was there and am entitled (if I should ever have occasion to get back into uniform) to wear a U.N. ribbon.

Vietnam was messier than Korea. France (De Gaul) wanted to reacquire the French Colonies and while we weren’t supportive of that idea, we didn’t want Vietnam to fall into the hands of the Communists. The “domino theory” was widely believed at the time. While I wouldn’t want to be described as anti-war, I did study Vietnam enough to doubt the domino theory. The Vietnamese had a history of trouble with China; so I couldn’t see Vietnam as enduring “puppet status” for very long. Nevertheless the war was conducted in accordance with the Kennan principle of containment (though Kennan opposed going into Vietnam as I recall. He, like Fukuyama, didn’t approve of the way his thesis was carried out).

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars were fought in an attempt to take the war to Militant Islam. We cannot at this point prove to everyone’s satisfaction that there is such an entity – any more than we could prove in 1899 that Japan was a potential enemy and needed to be opposed. After their defeat of the Russians in 1905 they were taken a bit more seriously but not enough so. One can now plausibly argue that there is no such thing as militant Islam, just a few blustering petty warlords who can be sufficiently cowed to keep them from causing too much trouble. And of course there are the “Jihadists” who are causing considerable trouble, but there aren’t that many of them – so goes the arguments of Roy, Kepel and Fukuyama. I don’t agree with their argument, but I think it a serious and interesting one. So about these wars we conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “Nation Building” afterward, we can say they were prudent (if the many who view Islamism as a threat are correct in their assessment, as I believe they are) or a mistake (if Fukuyama, Roy & Kepel are correct), but we cannot with plausibility (in my opinion) argue that we are engaged wars of empire.

Lawrence Helm

No comments: