America: An Empire?

A Republic, Not an Empire is a splendid work by Mr. Pat Buchanan bemoaning the “€œImperial”€ tendencies of recent administrations. It boasts a well argued thesis, but is dependent upon two givens: that Empires are inherently bad, and that the “€œOld Republic”€ was inherently good. It seems to me that neither of these are actually proved; so what I would like to do here is to examine four questions:

1) are Empires invariably evil, ala Star Wars?
2) is the acquisition of an Empire an inherent betrayal of American principles?
3) what we would be required to do to make a go of it?
4) are we, as a people, suited to the job?

To begin with, we really do need to define our terms. Empire can have two meanings: either a country ruled by an Emperor, or else one that dominates other countries. Obviously, a great many polities have been both, and there is a single historical origin for the two concepts. In the Western experience, the ancestor of all Empires was surely the Persian (559-330 B.C.). Fans of the recent film 300, when they think of the phrase “€œPersian Emperor”€ will immediately think of the strange combination of Sauron and a transvestite that bore the title in that movie. Put it out of your mind.

“€œSacred Kingship,”€ the notion that the Sovereign is either a god, a descendant of a god, or at least in a special relationship with a god (whether as chief of the national cult or simply as receiving special graces), is a well-nigh universal motif. The Persians, having conquered the area from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Greece (and Egypt as well) were faced with a tremendous challenge. Part of dealing with this was to portray their Emperor in terms of whatever the Sacred Kingship of the given province had been—heir of the pharaohs in Egypt, chief priest of Marduk in Babylon, or whatever. The Empire was divided into 20 satrapies: the governors or “€œsatraps”€ were often natives of the region they ruled, but bound to the Emperor directly, one way or the other. Under the terms of the “€œCylinder of Cyrus,”€ the set of laws enacted by the first Emperor (and often touted as the first charter of rights in the world) the rights, duties, and freedoms of the subject were laid out. Royal roads made travel easy and secure, and relatively free trade built prosperity. For all the bad press our Greek predecessors gave them, apparently life for subjects of the Persian Emperor was no worse for the average individual than in many places, and far better than in most.

Persia could not defeat Greece, nor Greece Persia: but in the end, both fell to a young barbarian king, Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Upon the foundation of the Persian Empire which he conquered, Alexander added elements that would be incorporated into the general practice of Empire in the West. While keeping the notion of local liberties, he tightened connections with the disparate province of his realm by both encouraging his soldiers to marry local women, and by settling colonies of his veterans at strategic points. Alexander made a point of wearing the Persian Imperial regalia, and, while retaining his worship of the Greek deities, similarly resorted to those of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia—actions which placed the priesthoods of those countries firmly on his side. By way of contrast, he also exported the Greek language and customs throughout his Empire, thus creating the culture scholars call “€œHellenistic.”€ While his unified realm did not long survive him, the successor states—Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Antigonid Macedonia “€“ all employed Alexander’s methods of governance.

They also served as a foundation for Roman rule of their areas (well, at least the western sector, in the case of the Seleucids). The territories acquired by the Roman Republic were turned into a Near Eastern style Empire by Augustus Caesar, who himself acquired divine honors. His successors gradually acquired more of the same, culminating in Diocletian, who completely orientalized Imperial court ritual. At the same time, the Emperors while encouraging Romanization of the overseas provinces (hence the eventual rise of the Romance languages) also continued the notion of rendering honors to the gods of their subjects—in return for being worshipped themselves. The one fast-growing cult that threatened the state by refusing Emperor worship was the Christian Church, which eluded all attempts to drown it in blood; indeed, as its writers suggested, the blood of the martyrs was its seed.

Ironically, the adoption of that religion by Constantine would in the end allow the Empire to survive its political death. Theodosius the Great made baptism the entry into citizenship: henceforth, membership in the Church was automatically citizenship in the Empire. The monotheistic nature of the new religion was such as to concentrate its communicants”€™ loyalties: thus, even when the barbarian kingdoms had swallowed up the West politically, they refused to accept that the Empire was dead; rather they continued to regard themselves as somehow subjects of the remaining Emperor in Constantinople. Thus was justified Justinian’s partial recapture of the West.

When the Byzantine Emperor was unable any longer to protect Rome, the Pope turned to a new protector; thus was born the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. Although often unrecognized by the Byzantine Emperor, this new organization—whose effective power was limited to whatever its Emperor actually controlled at the time—was conceived as encompassing all of Western Christendom (and the Crusader States in the East, so long as they lasted). Heavily damaged by the Protestant revolt, this idea nevertheless survived until 1806, when the last crowned Holy Roman Emperor abdicated. Having already proclaimed himself Emperor of Austria, he thus ensured that something survived in the Habsburg Monarchy. Its last ghost was not banished until the deposition of Bl. Charles I in 1918.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the eastern version of the Imperial idea was taken up by the Russian Tsars. Like their Habsburg colleagues, the Russian Emperors employed the Double Eagle of late Imperial Rome (as did the Knights of Malta, the Albanians, and the Serbs—all to show that in some way they were guarding the frontiers of the by now VERY nebulous Empire). Of all the Russian Sovereigns, however, the one who most closely fulfilled the notion of a universal Christian Emperor was Alexander I, with his Holy Alliance. In any case, this variant too came to an end in 1917, with the murder of Nicholas II.

There were, of course, other uses of the term. For one thing, as Europeans explored the world they discovered a number of other countries whose organization (a divinely-sanctioned ruler presiding over a number of subordinate nations) seemed analogous to the Roman, they used the word—thus we have “€œEmperors”€ of Ethiopia (which was in fact a more or less conscious imitation of Rome), China, Japan, and Mughal India; the Persian Shahs and Ottoman Sultans were likewise accorded the title of “€œImperial Majesty.”€ Napoleon conceived of his Emperorship as a revival of that of Charlemagne, as did his nephew, Napoleon III. In a nod to the Holy Roman Empire (though not to Byzantium or Constantine) the state founded by Bismarck was headed by a German Emperor. In the 19th century, the Imperial mania was not dead: to show their independence from their motherlands, Brazil, Mexico, and even Haiti had Emperors at various times.

Nor is the mystique gone entirely today. Conservative advocates of the European Union such as the Paneuropa Union and Identita Europea look to the idea of the Empire to “€œensoul”€ the Frankenstein-like EU: as Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. says, “€œThe articulation of the foundational natural and Judaeo-Christian norms of a really united Europe, for instance, would most appropriately be made by such a crown, whose legal and customary relations with the national peoples would be modelled on the best aspects of historic practice in the (Western) Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine “€œCommonwealth”€”€”to use the term popularised by Professor Dimitri Obolensky.”€ Many in Putin’s Russia wish to return to the country’s role as the Third Rome. Whether or not “€œEmpire”€ in this sense is a good thing may be debated, but certainly millions around the globe have thought so.

But essential as knowledge of all this is to understanding Western history and even current events, it is obvious that this definition of “€œEmpire”€ is irrelevant to the United States. Other than Norton I, the United States have never had a resident Emperor, for all that various presidents have been accused of hankering for the job.

This leaves the other version, in the sense of a colonial empire, a concept which (despite such ventures as the Venetian territories in Greece) essentially owes its origins to the 16th and 17th centuries, when France, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden decided to burst the boundaries of Europe. Although all of these nations were initially Monarchies, and the figure of the Sovereign and his representatives was very important in maintaining colonial rule; several of these countries became republics and were quite capable of maintaining their Empires. It was a great question in the early 20th century as to whether the British Empire, which had such a myriad of institutions and peoples, should even be called an Empire, given its many differences from the Roman and those which preceded it. The author of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article on “€œEmpire”€ concluded that it should: “€œThe British Empire is, in a sense, an aspiration rather than a reality, a thought rather than a fact; but, just for that reason, it is like the old Empire of which we have spoken; and though it be neither Roman nor Holy, yet it has, like its prototype, one law, if not the law of Rome—one faith, if not in matters of religion, at any rate in the field of political and social ideals.”€ Of course he was doubtless thinking of the already self-governing Dominions, like Canada. In most of the Empire, Imperial rule was quite direct at that time, and would be for some while—as the Mau-Mau would discover.

As we consider this issue, it is wise to remember that all of us are beneficiaries of colonialism. The United States have been such a successful colony that they have not only become independent, but actually dominate their former metropoles. Canadians and Australians who whine that their Monarchy is “€œcolonial”€ and “€œforeign”€ should remember that so is every other aspect of their public life—Prime Ministers, Parliaments, Courts, churches, universities—all must be tarred with the same brush. For that matter, so are the majority of their population. True liberation from the colonial past can only occur in such countries when every one of their citizens of European descent emigrate to the Mother Continent, leaving aborigines or Indians to enjoy their new freedom in peace. A good example of what would happen, were this possible, is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe, having decimated the agricultural sector of the economy, is now happily destroying the industrial. Considering the part they played in putting him in, the American and British governments, rather then condemning the man, should trumpet their achievement, or at least maintain a noble silence.

Before we ask ourselves if colonial imperialism is good or bad, we need to determine how it works. There are four ways to go about it:

1)The native population may be entirely destroyed, or at least much reduced, and replaced with settlers. This was done in most of North America, and Australia, New Zealand, and republican Argentina. Obviously, these have been the most successful colonies in terms of profits and development. The one downside is that genocide may lead to bouts of conscience on the part of one’s descendants, and that the settlers may lose any sense of gratitude to their original sponsors. A sort of self-delusional independence may occur.
2) Large numbers of settlers are brought in, essentially alongside still-viable native groups: this was the pattern in South Africa, Namibia, Algeria, Israel, Rhodesia, the Crusader States, and Kenya. While certainly more ethical, it nevertheless presents a problem: in order to keep the settlers secure in the face of hostile indigenes, continuing military support from the metropole is essential. Without it, the settlers will either be forced to leave or come under the political control of their former subjects.
3) Political and economic control is asserted, and raw materials are exploited for the benefit of the colonial power; but there is no major group of settlers sent. This was the pattern in most of Africa and Southeast Asia. The plus-side is that the metropole can feel good about itself, and save lots of money on settlers. The downside is the creation of a technocratic class, bereft of its own traditions and without whatever virtues its conquerors had. Should independence occur, this class will monopolize power and rule most irresponsibly. Ethnic cleansing and other annoyances can result.
4) Relatively few settlers are sent, but much time, money, and energy is spent on converting the locals to the religion and culture of the new rulers. This was the pattern with Rome, most of Latin America and the Philippines, the Portuguese enclaves in Asia, and those areas colonized by the French under the Ancien Regime. The plus side is that even after independence the colonized areas will still identify closely with the Mother Country. The downside is that after independence they will be little economic help, and may well clamor for economic and even military assistance.
5) The colonized country is ruled indirectly, through native institutions: foreign policy and defence are left up to the colonizer, who may exert sufficient strength to stamp out local customs it finds annoying. This pattern was used extensively in the Islamic World, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and parts of Latin America and Africa. Unless these native states are transferred to the control of technocrats in national governments established under pattern 4, this is usually the easiest and cheapest way of doing things, and provides the least mess after withdrawal. 

Looking at colonialism in this manner, if it is not an outright good, once established it is at least better than anything that results from independence, with the exception of category 1 countries; however, while these may be politically independent they cannot ever really be so culturally, no matter how they may delude themselves.

Having said all of this, I think that we may answer the question of whether Empires in either sense are inherently evil; it seems obvious the answer is no—although of course any particular one may be started or maintained in an evil way, similar to all other regimes. Certainly, if one thinks of the security and welfare of the governed as a positive good, on the whole colonial regimes have much to be said for them, when compared to their successors.

Now we must look at whether acquisition of an Empire would be a violation of American principles.  As a settlement colony that took its independence from the Mother Country by force, our knee-jerk reaction might well be “€œyes!”€ But this would be something of an oversimplification. One of the causes of the colonial elite’s discontents with George III was his reversal (due to the treaty of 1763 with Louis XV) of the traditional Indian policy of “€œkill “€˜em or move “€˜em out, and take their land.”€ This was epitomized by the Proclamation of 1763, which rendered Indian lands west of the Appalachians virtually sacrosanct—to these worthies this was almost as bad as the Quebec Act of 1774, which gave the French in Canada and the Old Northwest freedom for their religion and language. In return, when Quebec failed to join the revolution, it was invaded by the rebels; despite their initial success, they were chased back over the border.

From the moment of independence in 1783, America’s leaders—at least of the Jeffersonian variety—were looking to expand over the frontiers. Many held that Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was unconstitutional. Whether or not it was, his successor, James Madison (principal author of that document), was even more of an expansionist than Jefferson, and immediately began angling to annex both Spanish Florida and Canada, with the help of the congressional faction dubbed “€œthe War Hawks.”€ While, despite some missteps, the former attempt was successful, the latter led to the disastrous War of 1812. Nevertheless, by 1819 and the purchase of East Florida from Spain, the course of “€œManifest Destiny”€ was set. The Oregon Treaty and the Texas and Mexican Wars expelled Britain and Mexico from the remainder of what became the 48 States, and subsequent Indian conflicts eliminated the original inhabitants of these territories as political factors.

While Jefferson and Madison (to say nothing of their successors) certainly believed in American colonialism, others took Mr. Buchanan’s view—and that, early on. If one visits the New York Historical Society Museum, he will see Thomas Cole’s monumental five piece series of paintings, The Course of Empire. Conceived by the artist in 1833, it was seen as an allegory of the inevitable course of growth and decay that imperial civilizations will take.

Such thoughtful voices were relatively few, however, and most writers of the day, such as Washington Irving, praised America’s expansion. But, in 1867, when our first acquisition overseas (Alaska) was purchased, voices in protest were numerous, if unsuccessful. The 1890s saw the United States explode upon the World scene, as we gobbled up Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines via the Spanish-American War, Hawaii via chicanery, and American Samoa through international agreement. World War I brought us no gain (though we did buy the Virgin Islands from Denmark), but World War II did net us Micronesia—though we gave independence to the Philippines in 1946. These adventures and the rise of Communism gave us reason or pretext to line the World with our bases and client states, a state of affairs much bemoaned by Mr. Buchanan.

Lest anyone think, however, that the latter development was purely a result of the World Wars, remember that ever since President Monroe sent Joel Poinsett to Mexico, successive American administrations did their best to dominate our neighbors to the South. At one time or another, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama have all been occupied by American forces. Our relationship with Mexico has ever been characterized by intervention, and the murder of Ecuador’s sterling president Garcia Moreno was planned in the U.S. embassy in Quito.

Latin America aside, the 19th and early 20th centuries saw the American intervene to a greater or lesser degree in Japan, China, Morocco, Korea, and on and on. One of Jefferson’s most notable actions was his dispatch of a small party of Marines to Tripoli in North Africa, immortalized in the Marine Hymn (that song’s pre-World War I assertion that “€œwe have fought in every clime and place”€ is no mere metaphor).

Now, I will not argue that the actions in this long catalogue were right or wrong; it were better to examine each case on its own merits. But what I will assert is that, from before its inception, this nation has striven to be an imperial power, its ability to do so limited not by ideology but by its means. As they have grown, so have America’s imperial aspirations: but this is growth, not change. In a word, the role in which we are currently cast is not inherently a betrayal of American principles.

Having said that, the next question is, how can we best achieve that role? Well, our task is somewhat simplified by the fact that, of the types of colonization earlier mentioned, we no longer aspire to the first four. Being the result of the first, we would be ashamed to commit the necessary genocide today. Although we bankroll the second sort in Israel (as we did once in Liberia, albeit with another of our exported minority groups), it is highly unlikely that we shall attempt this again; after all, we were keen in ending it in Algeria and Rhodesia (and suitably indifferent to the fate of the 1,000,000 French and 250,000 pro-French Arabs forced to emigrate thereby). The third manner has never interested us. We have had limited success with the fourth, however. In the Philippines, although we were able to de-Hispanicize the country, we could not de-Catholicize it (despite the attempts of Governor-General Taft to endow a schismatic church with all the Church’s properties); Puerto Rico and Hawaii also maintain something of an alien identity. But it is the fifth mode of colonialism, indirect rule, which we are trying to pursue.

As mentioned, this is the simplest and cheapest method of running other nations.  Moreover, it is one with which American policy-makers are not unfamiliar. In Latin America it has been done in various places with some success since the late 19th century. But perhaps the most successful American efforts in this regard concern West Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, the French Fourth Republic, and the Benelux countries from the end of World War II to the mid-60s (save in France, where our influence dwindled with the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958). In every case, local politicians who conformed to American values were placed at the top. In the case of Germany and Japan, of course, this was because of their status as defeated combatants; for the remainder, it was due to being dependent (and devastated) allies. In each case, potentially anti-American rightist elements were removed from influence either because of their role in or alliance with the Axis; having been destroyed by the Axis (as with Stauffenberg and his friends, or elements of the French and Polish Conservatives); or else their connection with failed attempts to hold on to their own colonial empires in the post-war world. Left-wing anti-American groups were discredited through possible association with Communism until the mid-60s. In any case, the post-War European Christian Democrats and Japanese Liberal Democrats were far more “€œAmerican,”€ politically, than they are generally given credit for.

This heritage has continued to a great degree in Western Europe, although the fact that many modern European politicos are professedly anti-American does not detract from the reality that they are often our most slavish imitators in many respects. Former premiers Jospin of France, Verhofstadt of Belgium, Schroeder of Germany, Blair of Great Britain, and the still kicking Zapatero of Spain, regardless of their views of U.S. policy, were forthright in their aping of American religious, educational, social, and cultural policies, and their attempts to alter their countries in a more American mode.

But this success, both in Latin America and in Europe (Japan and Korea were special cases, the former to be examined a little bit more closely momentarily) was in large part because both the Colonial Power and its client states were closely related. Possessing similar basic values to the United States, Western Europe and Latin America were far more amenable to alteration than more foreign models would be. Japan was quite different; but in this lone exception, the Americans maintained the institution of the Emperor, and used the people’s unquestioning allegiance to it to transform Japanese society radically.

This latter occurrence has really been the most successful American effort at indirect rule of an entirely foreign culture through its own institutions. It is a useful example because most of the areas of the world the American leadership wish to dominate are as alien to us culturally as are the Japanese. At the same time, however, it is an almost perfect parallel to the methods used so successfully by the British in India and elsewhere; the French in Indo-China, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Spanish in Indian America. If we are to be a successful empire, this ability to rule subject populations through their own institutions is crucial. As the world now stands, it is the only way our leadership can reign safely and peacefully (eventually) over their subjects.

Which brings us to the last question: are we suited to doing this, as a people? Let us remember that the key to successful indirect rule over an alien people is the ability to allow their own institutions to function according to their own methods while serving your ends. This requires, therefore, a certain tolerance toward political and religious arrangements that one might find odious if one had to live under them. So it was that the Maharajahs of India, the Sultans of the Dutch East Indies, the Emperor of Annam, and many other such folk continued to rule their peoples, albeit under the watchful eye of colonial residents and commissioners. Oh, to be sure, things like suttee might be prohibited; but by and large, life went on as it had—uneven, backward, inefficient, superstitious, and even corrupt. But so long as the native ruler met his obligations to the colonial power, he was secure.

Now, the United States have taken on three Near Eastern clients: Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The first in once sense was the easiest: its endless civil war had wakened a thirst for peace and cooperation in its people; its large Christian population and Europeanized culture predisposed it toward America and the West (as did the huge Lebanese-American population); and the United States were willing to accept its governmental structure as is, despite that structure being sectarian-based. Thus, with the Cedar Revolution of 2005, Lebanon shook off Syrian influence and stepped into the American camp. All of this collapsed, however, with the July War of 2006.

In that conflict, our more closely tied State of Israel, deciding, in response to the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers, to destroy their Hezbollah foes at one blow, bombed and invaded Lebanon. While they succeeded in neither rescuing the soldiers nor smashing their foes, the IDF did manage to shatter Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and destroy most of the progress achieved since the Civil War. Worst of all, from our point of view, is that American silence in the face of this gave the Lebanese the impression that being a client of the United States does one little good. The war also dealt a rather devastating blow to the IDF’s prestige, essential in maintaining the myth of invincibility colonial armies require.

But it is in Iraq and Afghanistan that our essential flaw as indirect colonialists was exposed. As observed earlier, to indirectly rule a very alien population, it is necessary to do so through their own institutions, however repugnant they may be to the colonial power in themselves. Thus, while redesigning Japan, General MacArthur was even able to legalize abortion in the 1949 law code, promulgating it with the Emperor’s authority. But this was a unique experiment in American history. There is a messianic element in the national psyche. As we have become ever more secular, the desire to spread Christianity to the heathen has been progressively replaced with a need to make them “€œdemocratic.”€ In that sense, we have become less like the Empire builders of the 19th century, and—in this respect—more like the Caliphate of 7th century (though in time later Caliphs and Sultans would figure out the usefulness of indirect rule). Whatever was non-Islamic was simply evil, as that which is non-democratic appears to us. Moreover, we cite the example of Germany as proof that it can be done—forgetting that they were already close to us in culture, and that were a number of Germans who wanted for their country what we wanted. We are no longer flexible enough to use MacArthur’s Japan as a model.

So it was that instead of using local faction and apparatus to guide our new subjects in Iraq and Lebanon, we dismantled the Iraqi State (while refusing to countenance restoration of the country’s monarchical constitution of 1925—historically, its only legitimate, non-violent regime), and dismissed the Afghan King as he was on the verge of being restored. Worse still, in the latter case, this dismissal was done by an American envoy very publicly, thus delivering the Barzai regime a blow to its legitimacy from which it may never recover.

Further complicating events in Iraq is the fact that the only organized group that wanted a secular, unified, Iraq as we did was the Ba”€™ath Party. Rather than attempting to use its least objectionable parts, we tried to treat it as we did the Nazis in 1945-50. Moreover the secularism of our leadership makes it difficult for them to understand our foes or to make use of their internal divisions. The Crusaders could understand Saladin, for they were as willing to die for their faith as he was for his. But this is a mindset entirely foreign to the rulership of America. Moreover, a lack of care and understanding in this area makes it difficult for us to exploit the rift between the Sunni el Qaeda and the Shiites, or between the pro- and anti-Iranian Shiites. These are precisely the areas where colonial powers of the past would have shone, and we do not. We lack either the finesse or the empathy for the role. The attempt to remake the Near East, and the World as a whole, into peace-loving democratic states, is a chimera that has coast us dearly and will cost us more.
So, to answer the questions posed earlier:

1) Empires are not invariably evil, ala Star Wars
2) the acquisition of an Empire is not an inherent betrayal of American principles
3) the ability to rule a people through its own institutions is required to make a go of the imperial game; and
4) we, as a people, are not suited to the job.

I believe that, the latter being true, our attempt at conversion to democracy through force is doomed. Unless the leadership adopt a more realistic technique, our efforts there will fail. The most tangible result of this will be the likelihood that Israel will one day follow in the path of French Algeria and Rhodesia. One would much prefer a peaceful evacuation of the Israeli population to the United States rather than a bloodbath; but a far happier solution would be a policy that recognizes current realities, and manipulates them for the ultimate benefit of all concerned. That was ever the goal of “€œenlightened”€ imperialism, and it should be ours.

Charles A. Coulombe is a papal knight and freelance writer residing in Los Angeles.



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