A Republic, AND an Empire

Disclaimer: I hold no neoconservative tendencies, and view that faction within our nation as more dangerous to liberty and order than any foe our nation has ever faced.

The motifs and symbols of American imperialism represented below are not, in my case, triumphant accolades glorifying and deeming righteous the cause of American dominion, but icons which ought to be adopted when a nation takes a certain undeniable role in the world- and, in America’s situation in 2013, that role is undeniably the role of an empire.

Rather, I hold it to be true that certain realities ought to be admitted by a democratic public, if that public is to go on driving policies as our public does. The United States should be seen for what it is, not what it is not. We are not a declining great power. We are not just another member of the world community. We are not a republic free to isolate itself behind the walls of the sea. We are an empire, in every sense of the term, and until we acknowledge that and bear that truth in mind in the formation of policy and strategy, fortune shall ever abandon our side.

I write in the hope that our future leaders will be neither cowardly nor brash, neither too weak nor too strong, but prudent, just, enduring, and moderate, pursuing without reserve our interests as a nation, observing without question those principles which define us as a nation, and dedicating their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to that political experiment upon which the happiness of all our posterity depends.

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I doubt there are many who would dispute that the United States is, at least in principle and theory, if skewed in practice, a constitutional republic. 

I think more would dispute the notion that the United States is an empire. I will discuss this more in a later essay; but it is sufficient, for now, to argue that because the United States has the capacity to exert her influence in all regions of the globe, and because her economic and military power exceeds that of any nation on Earth, and because she is the undisputed leader of the existing international system, she is a de facto empire, even though she is not a formal one. Though her power appears to recede as other powers rise elsewhere, it is neither strongly challenged nor fundamentally undermined by this new development.

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Although America has only enjoyed this position of global preeminence since 1991, she has clearly held lesser, but still quite powerful positions, in other periods of her history. For the duration of the Cold War, she was a superpower; in the First and Second World Wars, and their interbellum, she was a great power; from the last decade of the 19th Century up to the outbreak of the First World War she was at the very least, an up and coming great power. Even before this time, she sought imperial dominion over the North American continent, and expanded her commerce and navigation to all the ports of the Earth, beginning with her first days as an independent nation.

Thus I believe it would not be inaccurate to say that the United States has held a dual imperial-republican heritage for her lifetime as a nation, and, Godwilling, will maintain that heritage til she is cracked into squabbling polities or absorbed by greater powers. 

It is interesting, then, that the American myth of foreign policy maintains a steadfast innocence up to the World Wars, followed by a dutiful assumption of the burdens of global leadership during the Cold War. Most actual reviews of the history of American foreign policy discover its true imperial nature* and present American history in terms of its international relations- an unorthodox approach, but one which begets important questions for students of American politics. 

Republics have Senators. Empires have Emperors. As a brief observation of Antiquity reveals, the two systems do not seem to mix well. Yet, in the case of America, it is arguable that they have found something of a happy marriage.

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As our constitution was founded upon a principle of checks and balances, it is invariable that American history should appear to be, by many interpretations, a struggle between the various branches of government and factions of the nation for power over national policy. And in both such a conception and the constitution itself, it is clear that the Presidency reigns supreme in issues of foreign policy. This is necessary, for the state of constant crisis which characterizes international systems across time and space necessitates, in the nations which must exist within it, a prudent and potent management of any nation’s affairs with its neighbors. Only a strong and hierarchical department can provide this- elected assemblies, having, as they do, multiple poles of power, tend to stagnate in debates and gridlock, fatal to a nation in crisis. The Romans elected a dictator when such times came; modern democratic states have entrusted the reigns of power in the foreign policy sphere to national leaders much less accountable to the public than their representatives in the legislature. 

We come, then, to Arthur M. Schlesinger’s conception of the Imperial Presidency.

It is obvious that throughout American history, Presidents have exerted immense levels of power over foreign policy, oftentimes unchecked by Congress or the Supreme Court. But that is not necessarily threatening to the integrity or values of a Republic.

What is, however, is that oftentimes, Presidents have exerted imperial levels of power in the domestic sphere, sometimes as part of a larger foreign policy program, sometimes simply for the sake of domestic programs. While today, pundits across the political aisles indict George W. Bush as a power-seeking imperialist for his dramatic expansion of the War on Terror or his institution of the privacy-eroding Patriot Act, or condemn Barack Obama as a subversive despot for ordering thousands of semi-legal drone strikes in the Muslim world and authorizing Orwellian methods of intelligence collection into media and cyberspace, such tainted uses and abuses of power are not new to the Presidency. Obama and Bush have broken no golden standard of conduct of Presidents, the order of which must never be broken lest the United States dissolve into unbridled tyranny. A brief look at certain Presidencies illustrates this point.

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Ronald Reagan was, first, a strong and principled statesman, and an enchantingly charismatic leader. But he was also a good politician who knew how to get out of dangerous situations- witness Iran-Contra. No truly objective biographies of the Gipper have yet been written which do full justice to his tact, or highlight the political scandals and overreaches of power he undoubtedly authorized. In any case he was certainly one of the more powerful Presidents of American history, certainly among the most inspiring, though in the 20th Century he lies in the shadow of greater men.

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Richard Nixon was not so lucky. Here, too, was a great politician, a charismatic man, a skilled deal-breaker. His Presidency was wildly more successful than Johnson’s before him, in part due to fortune, in part due to those excesses of his power which he deftly managed to manipulate toward the national interest and the public satisfaction. But because he was unable to deflect the firestorm of Watergate, that shocking imposition of Presidential power into domestic life, he will forever be remembered a crook, regardless of the cunning statesmanship he had earlier exhibited.

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Franklin Roosevelt might justly be remembered as the most powerful President in American history to date. He is a favorite punching-bag for strict constructionists, as his dramatic expansion of the Executive Branch’s economic powers and his sidelining Congressional and Supreme Court decisions (getting around the opposition of the latter body by literally changing its nature) certainly revealed a greater concern in him for the state of society than for its alignment with constitutional precepts. His management of American foreign policy and war policy during the Second World War was more single-handed than that of any other Commander-in-Chief since Lincoln. And in his lifetime, he was decried for his home imperialism more viciously than any of our statesmen today. His successor, Harry Truman, oversaw an expansion of the national security state; but it was more a corollary to Roosevelt’s alterations than a development independent of it.

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Preceding FDR’s expansion of the state were the great progressives: FDR’s cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, and the arch-nemesis of Teddy, Woodrow Wilson. While Wilson is mostly remembered among strategists for his idealism and his vision which contributed to today’s world order, in his Presidency he pushed through a great many reforms, most notably the Federal Reserve Act, and was the first President to commit the United States explicitly to a European War. Teddy was perhaps more imperialistic, truly inaugurating the era of Progressive reform and expanding at will American foreign policy interests. While Progressive leanings in themselves do not make an imperial President, the will to expand Progressive reforms has been a typical characteristic of Presidents willing to exert power in the domestic sphere.

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Turning to the 19th Century, we find that Christ of the American pantheon, the only Statesman who, not being of the Founding Generation, is revered almost as a member of it- Abraham Lincoln. All things considered, it seems that Lincoln could easily be termed the most powerful President of his century, for in waging a brutal war for the preservation of the Union, he literally expanded the Presidency’s power to levels unfathomed by any preceding American generation. Evil and unconstitutional ends were wrought on his behalf, and it is no surprise that he might also be thought of as the most divisive President in our history, for in saving the Union he transformed America to a degree not done before, and which has not been repeated since.

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James Polk might be another candidate for his inauguration of the Mexican War, but looking just a few Presidencies before him we find Andrew Jackson, the People’s Man. Old Hickory was if anything a populist, and if he accomplished anything in his Presidency, it was the elevation of ‘the people’ in American politics through the avenue of the Presidency, at the expense of the other branches of government and other vested interests. The veto of the National Bank, the Indian Removal, the preservation of Union in the Nullification Crisis, all point to dramatic examples of expanded executive power, and Jackson’s titanic feuds with other statesmen such as Calhoun and Clay likely did not inspire him to aspire for only limited power in his Presidency.

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Finally, we arrive at a President of the generation which knew the troubles of war and of statecraft, and not only a member of it, but the member of it who contributed the most to the American national character, for he defined America’s values themselves in penning the Declaration of Independence! Thomas Jefferson, ideologically, is the classic example of those small-town democratic traditions purported to make America unique. Yet it must always be remembered that he, the unequalled champion of limited government, overstepped the bounds of his Presidency quite a bit. He built up the American navy, from the fleet of gunboats it once was to a slightly more formidable oceangoing force capable of defending American shipping, and he deployed it at his pleasure. But perhaps more shockingly, in purchasing the Louisiana territory from France, he circumvented the constitutional system entirely, executing what was at its time the greatest overstepping of federal power in American history, by some measures a move less constitutional than the imposition of the Bank of the United States.

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I hope to demonstrate, then, that the dramas of American political competition are not as new as some pundits would have us believe- that Presidents have always exerted more power than they have been entitled- and that the American system has been evolving due to other historical factors this whole time, while still preserving the fundamental essence of a Republic. All this, while our Republic has displayed, in foreign affairs, the characteristics of Empire.

However, I would only cautiously indulge in the idle supposition that all is well in the House of Washington. In the first place, the state of constant crisis aforementioned pertains not only to foreign affairs, but, it seems, to domestic affairs also. Thus the statesmen, as well as their advisors and servants, and the thousands of bureaucrats and contractors engaged in our political experiment, must always be on their guard, maintaining and developing the system, advancing and balancing interests, and perpetuating the liberty, security, and order of the Republic and the Empire.

But in the second place, more ominously, it must be noted that history is not solely a gradual and peaceful evolution of things, but also a series of violent revolutions and transformations of things. The ancient Chinese said “That which is long united must soon divide, and that which is long divided must soon unite.” As institutions survive, they become top-heavy and crumble, or otherwise grow outdated and useless as their situations change, when the wisdom of the past is too literally applied to the problems of the present. Nowhere is this more evident than in the silent, imperceptible, and crushingly real historical developments always at work among the polities of men, which no man however strong can change, to which all men however strong must bow, and with which every man who knows the interest of his state must align.

And the present situation of the United States appears as tenuous as ever. I have utmost faith that my countrymen will soon enter into a great era of political creativity, and there is no doubt in my mind that when next our world is in crisis, a team of competent and diligent men will be at the helm of America, striving to preserve both Republic and Empire. While the natural currents and balancing forces of our democracy will undoubtedly create a new balance which will serve our national interests, it will not be a deterministic process. Sweat and ink must be shed, ideas tried and tried again, careers made and destroyed, fortunes gained and spent in the process. 

But we will succeed. And the felicity of all Americans succeeding us will depend upon our dedicated service in the years of hardship that lie before us. And one day, decades from now, when a new generation awakes to a new America, and encounters problems unique to their era and circumstance, they will look to the long tapestry of American history for inspiration and guidance, and see US at the head of that prestigious column. We must not let them down.

 

*See Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation and Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence

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