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America’s Imperial Tradition

By Matthew Yglesias

"America’s Imperial Tradition"

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Robert Kagan’s cover story in The New Republic infuriated me to no end (shocking — an infuriating Robert Kagan article! An infuriating TNR foreign policy feature! both at once!) but one has to concede that, taken literalistically, he’s correct — George W. Bush hasn’t pulled the idea of imperialistic militarism out of his ass, this has long been an element of American political heritage and their are deep continuities between Bush’s policies and some policies other presidents have pursued in earlier times. Why Kagan thinks this observation has justificatory power, I couldn’t say. It’s also important to note that times really do change and Bush’s policies, though grounded in an authentic American tradition, are also genuinely novel. Let’s review.


Kagan starts out by looking at US policy toward Native Americans. The idea of citing the genocidal appropriation of land and natural resources as a precedent for anything is just baffling. Nobody’s crazy enough (well, maybe Kagan is) to actually advocate making this the basis for our policy vis-a-vis the Middle East. There’s just no usable history here.

Then we move on to a phase when the United States adopts an imperial posture vis-a-vis Latin America but not, as David Rieff crucially notes, the rest of the world. Simply put, since successfully seizing some very sparsely populated parts of Mexico in the 1830s and 40s, this hasn’t worked out very well for anyone. It’s not a coincidence that this is the part of the world where we saw lots of pro-Nazi domestic political movements succeeded by lots of pro-Soviet domestic political movements. What happens when everyone starts fearing and despising you is that they start embracing the geopolitical rival of the day. Today you see the burgeoning Chavismo movement, the endurance of Fidel Castro, the resurgence of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and it’s the same sad story playing out over again.

Latin America itself, meanwhile, has been in a semi-permanent economic funk for a century at least. This is (obviously) bad for Latin Americans. It’s also been quite bad for the United States which, like most countries, would be better off with prosperous neighbors. Less immigration pressure and domestic political dislocation. More beneficial trade relationships. Better imported products and better export markets. More political stability. Instead, it’s all fairly FUBAR.

But, as per Rieff’s point, we showed our liberal face rather than our imperial one to the rest of the world. We were, therefore, able to intervene effectively in two world wars in Europe. Following the second world war, we prosecuted the Cold War against Communism. This was largely done — in its main fronts — in a liberal manner. International institutions were created, we cooperated with allies rather than dominating them, and in the core areas of Western Europe and East Asia our presence was welcomed as helpful assistance rather than rejected.

There were, obviously, exceptions, especially in peripheral areas. The Arbenz and Mossadegh coups in the Eisenhower years stand as early examples. And, again, neither proved beneficial to the United States in the long run. The Cold War as imperialism reached its zenith in Vietnam where we intervened militarily against the successors to the French colonial regime against the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. Obviously, that worked out poorly. In the main areas, though, the Cold War as liberalism worked well — Europe, Japan, South Korea, the United States, etc. stood together and cooperated. Eventually, Jimmy Carter (tentatively) and Ronald Reagan (more aggressively) were able to successfully mobilize anti-imperialist sentiments against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. In retrospect, Nixon’s opening to China can also be seen from within this frame.

Reagan did, however, have his imperialist moments, notably in Central America and area around South Africa. Looking back, however, nothing of note was achieved by any of that except to attract opprobrium to the United States. Reagan’s policies had their successes elsewhere and, fortunately for all of us, the “elsewheres” in that era proved to be the crucial areas.

What Bush has done is take a strategic approach that’s historically been applied in areas of peripheral concern — and have failed — and tried to take them global. To treat the entire world as a playpen for American hegemony in the way Latin America has often been treated. This has merely had the consequence of globalizing failure. Resentment builds everywhere, cooperation tends to evaporate, disparate forces start aligning against us, and the limits to even massive power are exposed. That all of this is done under various ersatz Wilsonian banners is neither here nor there. As Kagan argues, the resonance here is not with Wilson and institution-building but with the empire-builders of yore. Bush has, at best, added additional bullshit to a very old strategic powder. But it’s not really something that’s ever worked previously except in the limiting case where we killed all the Indians. Going massive with a tradition of failure is a recipe for disaster.

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