Four American Anti-Imperialisms

A useful taxonomy from the introduction of David Mayers’ excellent Dissenting Voices in America’s Rise To Power:

Four strands of dissent are discernible amid the personalities, competing ideas, and rival interests that shaped debate on foreign affairs from Louisiana to Korea. These strands can be labeled as prophetic, republican, nationalist, and cosmopolitan. They interlaced even as they wove through the deeper fabrics of American society and polity: capitalist economy, technological change, population growth, racial-ethnic-religious diversity, class stratification, party competition, and regional tugging.

The prophetic is the most venerable of the four strands. It was nourished by the religious temper and puritan core of the colonial/early independence period. More precisely, this orientation originated in the outlook of seventeenth-century New England theocrats such as John Winthrop. Themselves dissenters — from Anglican ecclesiolatry — they feared God’s wrath at creatures who strayed from His edicts or purpose. Pronounced still in the nineteenth century, before the popular success of Charles Darwin’s biology, the prophetic strand stemmed from belief in God (often depicted in anthropomorphic terms) who judges nations no less than individual souls. A number of dissenters, mainly reared in Protestant tradition, accepted in earnest this idea once expressed by the religiously unconventional Jefferson. This deist said (referring to slavery): “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” From such anxiety, resolve could follow to put matters right, evident in voices opposed to enlarging the slave zone via the Louisiana acquisition, evicting Native Americans from their lands, or attacking Mexico in 1846. The idea that God reflexively enlisted on America’s side constituted theological error — blasphemy — for the prophetically minded recusant.

The republican strand sprang from the country’s democratic ethos and distrust of empire, inherited from the 1776 rebellion. This strand of dissent has manifested most frequently and vividly. It gained rhetorical power and influence from America’s being a self-conscious republic — fed by the idea, as self-evident, that representative institutions and liberal values were superior to, also incompatible with, overweening power. In this case, the United States should not substitute the sham of imperium for estimable virtues. Possession of immense power was thought to be disorienting, even disabling. Americans must not lose their way in hubris or worship of imperial idols, against which the 1776 generation had properly mutinied. Republican-minded dissenters thus objected to Louisiana empire, the 1848 Mexican cession, the buying of Alaska, Filipino occupation after the Spanish-American war, and subsequent bids for hegemony. This preference did not recommend national introversion and eschewed sulky isolationism; republican dissenters emphasized instead the power of US example — accountable government, domestic tranquility — as a guarantor of Washington’s influence abroad.

The nationalist strand, in tension with the first two, is related to the realpolitik school of thought and flows from colonial/pioneer anxieties about survival in a harsh environment, unforgiving of weakness and unrelieved by reliable allies. One should not explain or make excuses for the cultivation of power in this dangerous world. Therein feeble people perish. Energetic and fit ones survive in a ceaseless contest of all against all — Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature writ large. By this standard, one should take confident steps to tame the Indian west. One should not surrender vital parts of sovereignty to a League of Nations or other internationally pretentious organizations. One should not be passive before adversaries, whether in Axis or Sino-Soviet garb, but act boldly to preserve security and economic well-being. This nationalist approach, properly understood, eschewed jingoism and chauvinism while insisting on the dignity of US interests defined in terms of power. As realpolitik has dominated American practice, its adherents have only infrequently found themselves in a dissenting or minority position.

The cosmopolitan strand is connected to the extroverted and voluble quality of the citizenry, to the diversity of its religious-national origins, and to convictions (vaguely Kantian) about right international conduct. Moreover, this cosmopolitan strand — tending against the nationalist strand and sometimes reinforcing the prophetic and republican — arose from the notion that US power did not exist as an end in itself. Correctly conceived, American power in economic-military form should serve humanitarian aims on behalf, for instance, of persecuted minorities: Greeks and Armenians in the Ottoman empire, Polish subjects of czarist Russia in 1863, Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe. Such an attitude did not seek to justify eternal wars of intervention on behalf of humane causes. Yet the United States, Abraham Lincoln’s “best hope of earth,” was enjoined by ethical progress and universal principles to discharge duty whenever possible beyond political frontiers. Embedded in this notion is a rejection of unvarnished empire in favor of that viewpoint that discerns states and peoples existing in a maturing society of norms, laws, and reciprocal obligations.

(image via CyberPhoenix001)


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