American Power and Empire by John Judis
American Power and Empire by John Judis

American Power and Empire

Oct 19, 2004

John Judis uncovers troubling parallels between America's foreign policy in the beginning of the 21st century and its imperialist experiments in the 1890s.

This event was cosponsored by Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida, and took place there.


DONALD EASTMAN, PRESIDENT OF ECKERD COLLEGE:Good evening. Tonight's lecture is the second in a four-part series entitled "America and the World: Ethical Dimensions of Power." It's made possible by a partnership between the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs and the International Relations and Global Affairs Department of Eckerd College. The series falls under the umbrella of this year's Presidential Events Series under the theme "The Responsibilities of Twenty-first Century Citizenship." We feature speakers who will explore critical issues affecting citizens living in our time—politics, race relations, religious diversity, women's rights, and global ethics—and performers presenting the best in music and theater.

Please visit our Web site for a complete listing of presidential events.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Judis has been a contributor to The New Republic since 1982. He received his B.A. in 1963 and his M.A. in 1965 from the University of California at Berkeley, where he later taught philosophy.

He moved to Washington in 1982 as the Washington correspondent for In These Times. Soon afterwards he began writing for The New Republic and GQ. His articles have also appeared in The American Prospect, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Washington Monthly, American Enterprise, Mother Jones, and Dissent.

He is the author of five books, including William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives and The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust. His latest book is The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Mr. Judis's lecture, "American Power and Empire," will delve into the ethical dimensions of empire and discuss how America's assertion of military and political power is viewed by the rest of the world.


JOHN B. JUDIS:When you write a book, you go around the country to talk about it. If you're a politician, you don't mind saying the same thing over and over again. But I get bored with what I have to say, so I want to introduce a new element tonight. It's not something that's missing from the book, but I would like to talk about another side to foreign policy that people don't often think about.

You remember the furor that existed a few years back when one of the leaders of the Christian Right—it was probably Pat Robertson, though it may have been Jerry Falwell—said that "America is a Christian nation."

Do many of you agree with that? Do you think America is a Christian nation?

I would like to talk about the respects in which our foreign policy reflects a set of traditional assumptions.

Let me quote something from George W. Bush in his address to the country last April summing up where we were in Iraq: "I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world, and that's the greatest power on the face of the earth. We have an obligation to help the spread of freedom. . . . That is what we have been called to do as far as I'm concerned."

I would emphasize the words "called to do." George Bush is often linked to the religious right, to conservative evangelical protestantism. I would argue, however, that his vision of the American role is not so unusual. On the contrary, this very same vision runs through American foreign policy from the beginning—even before America became its own country.

It dates to the émigrés who came to America from England and Holland in the 17th century. What were the assumptions of these early settlers and the first Americans, and how do these assumptions provide the overall framework for U.S. foreign policy today?

The first assumption is the millennium: that is, a period of 1,000 years during which the kingdom of God would prevail on earth. To the English Protestants of the 17th century, the millennium would be the product of a struggle between good and evil—Armageddon, tribulation. Out of this struggle between good and evil, a kingdom of God on earth would be born, and we would have 1,000 years of peace, prosperity, happiness, and virtue.

So how did this vision that originated in Europe apply to the United States? The English of the 17th century thought that they would establish the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth during their civil war—but they failed. Oliver Cromwell was defeated, and many of the followers of Cromwell emigrated to the United States. They brought with them the idea that this new country, which they called New England, would become the site for the new kingdom of God on earth. They sometimes called it "the new Israel."

The English poet George Herbert said: "Religion stands on tiptoe in our land, ready to pass to the American strand."

The Puritans of the 17th century saw themselves as the chosen people. They were selected by God to create this kingdom of God on earth and to endure the struggles necessary to do so.

Over the years, the idea of the millennium—that America was the chosen, and that in order to reach the millennium we would have to endure a struggle between good and evil—takes different forms.

Start in the 17th century. Cotton Mather sees New England as the spot on earth which God chose as the center of the future kingdom of heaven on earth.

By the mid-18th century, people are starting to perceive the germ of this idea in the founding of the new American nation. John Adams wrote in 1765, "I have always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scheme and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."

In the late-19th century, Albert Beveridge, a senator, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, a proponent of what we will see as an American brand of imperialism, said on the Senate floor: "We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. . . . God has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world."

Woodrow Wilson in 1912: "I believe that God planted in us the vision of liberty that we are chosen, prominently chosen, to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty."

These statements all reflect the language of religion. But if you listen carefully, you will recognize things that people have continued to say during our era.

John Kennedy: "Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." Those famous words of Kennedy's from his inaugural address echo the same tradition.

Fast-forward to the Clinton years. Madeleine Albright said, "America is the indispensable nation." Or again, George Bush in the State of the Union in 2003: "As our nation moves troops and builds alliances to make our world safer, we must also remember our calling as a blessed country to make this world better."

Clearly, the definitions of what is the millennium, of who are the forces of evil, and of how America will go about achieving the kingdom of God on earth have changed over the years.

Just think for a moment about our changing conceptions of evil. In the 17th century it was the pagans. If we go up to the late 18th century, it was the English monarchy: we fought against tyranny in the world. The 19th century, against savages, barbarians—and again, Indians; the 20th century, against fascists, communists, and now radical Islam. There is a certain framework in which we think of evil: we see good struggling against evil, a process that leads towards the millennium.

The key differences exist in the way various people have put these ideas together and in how they think America will be able to accomplish these goals, how we will create the kingdom of God on earth—this is where all the foreign policy debates in our history come from.

In the beginning, in 1630, when John Winthrop emigrated to New England on the Arabella, he said "We're going to create a city on the hill." By that he meant that America itself, this new land, would become an example to the rest of the world. It wouldn't itself try to actively transform the world. The New Englanders weren't going to send troops out to Italy; they were going to set a visible moral example.

America was a country born out of an anti-imperialist revolution—we got the English off our backs, we kicked them out of our lands. We weren't a country that prided ourselves on overseas conquest. On the contrary, we saw that as antithetical to our national ideals. So the second idea was that we were not going to recreate or retransform the world by conquering it but by serving as a moral example.

What happened at the end of the 19th century? Starting in about the 1870s, the countries of Europe—and Japan also gets into the act—set out to divide up the Asian continent into colonies. Plus they take an interest in Latin America and the Caribbean as well. The idea then was that the nation that is best off is the one that controls most of the world, the most people. Thus England was the leading nation, and Germany and France and Japan aspired to be England's competitors. You had a rash of imperial conquest beginning in the 1870s. By the 1890s, about a quarter of the world had been divided up.

Americans initially looked upon this with disdain, as something that we weren't going to get involved in. But there was a group of people in the United States in the 1890s who began to agitate for America, too, to get involved in the struggle for empire.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of them: he called for the United States to get involved in this struggle for the "domination of the world." For TR, it was no longer the idea of America serving as an example; rather, we would actively transform the world. TR's ideas were seconded by missionaries of the time. In the early 20th century, such people were not viewed as conservatives; rather, they were seen as progressives.

The third alternative was liberal or progressive internationalism, which came from Woodrow Wilson. It's not enough to be an example; we have to actively intervene in the world. We want to create the kingdom of God; we can't simply do it by staying here and not paying attention to what goes on in the world. But if we have to intervene, we can't do it by ourselves. If we want to transform the world to create world democracy, we have to do it with other countries.

Why did the United States go from one strategy to the other? Why did we abandon leading by example and undertake in the 1890s this idea that we should ourselves become an imperial power?

There were two dimensions to this shift in strategy. When we think of Iraq today, this should ring a bell.

First, there was a dimension of interest. Americans at the time were worried about being shut out of foreign markets. All these other countries were dividing up the world; they would put tariffs up and where were we going to sell our goods? We had to get into the action.

Second, there was the evangelical dimension. At the time people did not think about democracy; they thought about civilization. In the Philippines, our goal was to "civilize and Christianize" the people.

The intellectuals who were advocating an American imperialism were active for most of the 1890s. Theodore Roosevelt, when William McKinley became President in 1897, was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy; he wasn't appointed Secretary of State.

What was important about these early imperialists was their ideas—also their connections. They had connections to what we would now call the media. And they had a coherent—if unpopular—idea of what America should do.

Then what happened? We got involved in the Spanish-American War, which was initially seen and supported as a war of liberation. We weren't out to colonize Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Philippines; we were out to liberate these countries from foreign rule. And these movements were supported by people who would later become anti-imperialists, people like William Jennings Bryan.

The incident finally comes, though, when the battleship USS Maine gets blown up in the harbor. This gets blamed upon the Spanish, and we go to war. In the space of months, we drive the Spanish out of the Caribbean and the Philippines. And this is from a country that previously had never won a foreign war. We had driven the English out of our country, but we had never, like other countries, engaged in foreign wars. Suddenly we found ourselves on the world stage.

It created what one British journalist called "an illusion of omnipotence," an idea that we could do anything, including taking over a country, transforming it in our image, and making it part of the future kingdom of God on earth.

Again, it was summed up best by Beveridge, here talking about why we should undertake the invasion of the Philippines: "God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic people for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this, the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world."

This was how Americans of that time saw the imperial project and the conquest of the Philippines and the Caribbean. We didn't absorb those countries as states and their people as citizens; instead we colonized them, just as the English, Spanish and Germans had been colonizing other countries.

How did this experiment in the Philippines work out? Very badly. We had been assured by Manila businessmen beforehand—think of the Iraqi exiles in this context—that there would be no resistance if we decided to take over the islands, that the forces we had encouraged to defeat the Spanish, the native army, would join us and cooperate with us.

But when we said that we were not interested in granting the Philippines its independence but in annexing it, these forces turned against us, and we had a war on our hands. If CNN had existed, we would have seen a major scandal in the United States; as it was, the facts were largely unknown to most Americans for another twenty-to-forty years, until historians did their work.

The heart of the war lasted three years. It really went on in some ways until 1914—and continues even today in those islands to the south of the Philippines where al-Qaeda is strong.

In the first three-to-five years of the war, we lost 4,000 men. We sent 70,000 troops there, which, given our population at the time, was the equivalent of a Vietnam-style engagement. And we had to kill over 200,000 Filipinos. There were also widespread incidences of torture.

By 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, who had promoted this idea of American empire, became disillusioned. He described the Philippines as "our heel of Achilles," giving up on the idea of an American imperialism. He didn't give up on the idea for other countries—it was okay for Britain, France, and Germany to have colonies; simply, he wanted the United States to play the role of mediator among these powers rather than standing up to them as a rival. Now that was a big advance.

But he didn't take it as far as Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, too, learned from this experiment with imperialism, and what he learned took the nation from the second to the third step, from imperialism to liberal internationalism.

When Wilson took office, he agreed it would be a good idea for America to civilize and Christianize the rest of the world, though Wilson was the first of our presidents who put that mission in secular terms—in terms of spreading democracy. He said he wanted to teach the Latin American republics to elect good men.

Wilson soon got a chance in Mexico, where there had been a revolution, and they now had a democratically elected leader, Madero, who was then assassinated by Huerta, a kind of Saddam Hussein figure. Huerta assassinated Madero and assumed power. A civil war broke out. Wilson believed that he had a solemn obligation, that it was our calling as Americans to get rid of Huerta and to re-instate democracy in Mexico.

He said to Congress: "We are bound by every obligation of honor, by the compulsion of sacredness, to constitute ourselves the champions of unsuitable governments and of the integrity and independence of states throughout the Americas."

Wilson didn't want to do that by "a city on the hill." He did not want simply to erect a perfect government; rather, he thought we should do it actively. What happened? Can you guess from our future history and our experiences eighty years later? Instead of uniting with the United States, the Mexicans united against us. Kids in Mexico spat at us and shouted, "Death to the gringos!" We became bogged down in border towns in a war. Wilson eventually had to bring in the Argentinians, the Brazilians, and the Chileans to get us out of Mexico. But bad blood lasts for a long time. In fact, it contributed to our going to war in the 1970s.

Wilson draws even more radical conclusions from this experience—conclusions that lie at the heart of the modern ideal of liberal internationalism:

1) The United States cannot impose democracy unilaterally on other countries by sending in troops. Democracy has to grow organically. There have to be preconditions: there has to be a civil society, there have to be businesses, there has to be independent press , and the people have to feel that it is their country and not something that is controlled by the United States.

If we were to attempt to impose our system on another country, even with the best of intentions, it would spark a nationalist reaction that will trump any attempts on our part to create a democracy.

So Wilson said "no way" to imposing democracy on other nations—and he followed that to some extent, although, again, Wilson is a figure like Thomas Jefferson, who was better in his ideals than necessarily in his practice. He was first and foremost a visionary.

2) Wilson didn't give up on the idea that it was the role of the United States to create a kingdom of God on earth, to create global democracy—but he thought that in order to achieve this end, we would have to work with other countries outside the context of imperial domination. Instead, we would have to work with other countries in order to ensure that our help would be seen as benign.

And particularly we have to work through international institutions. So many of the institutions that are now familiar, like the World Bank, come out of this Wilsonian insight about the best way to foster economic development and democracy in other countries.

3) Wilson saw a contrast between a world based on democracy and a world based on imperialism. He thought that America could project the principles of the Declaration of Independence onto the whole world—the idea that all individuals are created equal.

This was another lesson that Wilson had learned from World War I. Theodore Roosevelt and the intellectuals of the 1890s and of the early 20th century not only thought that imperialism was a good thing, but they actually thought that it would create a more peaceful world. They knew that there was this struggle with the barbarians to establish it, but they thought that the world itself would become so integrated economically that countries wouldn't want to fight with each other. They just couldn't imagine something like wars between other imperial powers. For Roosevelt, the war that broke out between Japan and Russia in 1904 was a jolt to his ideal.

In Wilson's time, there were people in the United States, and especially in Europe, who said, "World War I was started by the Germans"—which it was—and that the cause was something in the German character, the Huns.

But Wilson's view was that the basic reason for World War I was structural, it was an imperial conflict among nations, and the drive among nations to dominate lesser nations and to keep those markets for themselves had created the basis for war. Germany started it, but then England itself had set the stage. Wilson said, "England owned the sun and Germany wanted part of it."

So Wilson took out of that experience the idea that America had an absolute duty as part of creating a millennium and the kingdom of God on earth to dismantle world imperialists, to do whatever we could to get the British and French to give up their empires. He wasn't very good at this. He didn't even see it in practical terms.

Arguing that all states are created equal didn't mean that one state isn't more powerful than another, that one state isn't richer than another, but that no state has the right to subjugate the other. What Wilson tried to do with the League of Nations was to set up an international structure that would discourage exactly that kind of dominance. You can't allow bigger nations to dominate smaller nations. He tried to dismantle imperialism.

He failed. We had the rise of fascism and World War II, and then we had the growth of Soviet communism, which in essence was an extension of the old Russian czarist empire into Eastern Europe.

But even though imperialism continued, Franklin Roosevelt and his successors used Wilsonian principles when crafting a vision of what was possible after two world wars. After World War II we saw the creation of the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and GATT. People don't think of Wilson when they think of the Bretton Woods institutions, but in fact Wilson thought it essential to try to create a world with free trade and to try to prevent regional economic blocs from arising, which he thought would inevitably lead to war.

People talk about September 11th as being the date that changed the world. But the real date was some time in the fall of 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. That marked the end of the last major world empire, the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become possible to realize Wilsonian principles in a way that wasn't quite possible before. There are two good examples of that.

We get the first Gulf War in 1991, which was fought by a coalition organized by the first Bush administration with the United Nations. People said, "Oh, the Kuwaitis, these sheiks, why should we protect them?" —but the basic principle was that a big nation had no right to invade a small nation. It went right back to World War I. By invading and getting Iraq to leave Kuwait, we were enforcing our Wilsonian principles. By cooperating with other nations, we avoided being branded an imperialist power. We were able to rescue Kuwait without bringing all hell upon ourselves.

The second was the Balkans. You have to think about what it would have meant had the Clinton administration intervened in the Balkans unilaterally in 1994-1995 and tried to install "democracy", as well as enforcing the independence of Serbia's neighboring countries. It would be like Iraq now. Instead, we worked through NATO. Again, we were good Wilsonians—trying to transform the world and turn it into a global democracy, but working in concert with others.

All this builds up to the present because some time after September 11th, we abandoned liberal internationalism and returned to a foreign policy that resembles that of the 1890s and the early American experiences with imperialism.

There is an eerie resemblance between the 1890s and the early 21st century that helps to explain why we ended up going to war in Iraq.

First, there is a counterpart in the United States to the imperialist causes of the 1890s, the neo-conservatives: a group of intellectuals who themselves are not necessarily powerful but who constitute a powerful network. This time, we don't have The New York Herald; we have Fox News; we have The Wall Street Journal; and we have talk radio. We have a group of people who, while they don't have national power, have a tremendous amount of influence. They form a network that influences policy.

The neo-cons are also intellectuals who lionize the nation's imperial potential, and who have a particular idea of what should go on in the Middle East. They are interested in China and other parts of the world, but many of their ideas are focused on the Middle East— on the transformation of that region into an ideal democracy.

Secondly, we also have the same kind of a provocative event—September 11th as contrasted with the battleship Maine blowing up.

And you have the same kind of sense that we can do everything. In the months following 9/11, we won an amazingly easy victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan. People did not think we would be able to do this within just a few months; they thought we might be there for a year—we'd have to suffer through one of those awful winters. Then, by the time the sentences were out of their mouths, the Taliban had been ousted with minimal casualties on the American side.

This victory, this success, has inspired the illusion of omnipotence. As in the 1890s, we today have the sense that America can do anything it wants—which convinced people like George W. Bush, who are not internationalist by nature, that the neo-conservative dream of transforming the Middle East by conquering Iraq and turning it into a model democracy could come true. (By about December of 2002, any fair-minded person knew that WMD were not a serious threat as we'd had the inspectors back, and it was clear that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons.)

Finally, the evangelical element was again very important. The ICF had the idea that the Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators. The idea was partly sold by the Iraqi exiles, the counterpart for the Manila businessmen of the 1890s. If you have been reading the papers lately, you'll see that people are going back and studying the war and finding that the Bush administration pledged that we would have all the troops out by December of 2003.

What happened in Iraq was inevitable. I thought it might take five years, ten years. It took more like five days. Those people that we expected would support us ended up opposing us. They didn't want their country taken over. What we face in Iraq now is very similar to what happened in Mexico.

It's worth reflecting that the Middle East is the one region of the world that has not fully recovered from the Asian empire. Iraq itself is the creation of the British and French. It was carved up out of this empire that was originally created by the French and then was taken over by the British. What we found throughout history is that people might be docile for a time, but they will eventually try to get rid of the occupiers.

The Philippines was a big mistake because America was not a major world power. The Iraq war is much different—also because Iraq is in the center of the most important region in the world. The American invasion has provoked a backlash, and Iraq is now aligned with al-Qaeda, the center of terrorist activity. We have created a living nightmare.

From now, the best way forward would be to return to the model of liberal internationalism.

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