Global Policy Forum

Adjusting to Empire


By Yiffat Susskind*

July 12, 2003

"America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world." -George Bush, September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, George Bush supplied the first official answer to the new quintessential American question: "Why do they hate us?" Abroad, the question resounds along a continuum of disbelief, impatience, and disgust, reinforcing a stereotype of Americans as an oblivious and fumbling people, visiting destruction on places they are unable to locate on a map. For Americans themselves, the question unlocks debate about the costs and consequences of what growing numbers of people within the US are calling an American Empire.

That many Americans are only now coming to see themselves as citizens of an empire reflects a historical aversion to the construct. The founding myth of America as an idealistic nation born of rebellion against the tyranny and foreign rule of King George underlies a prescribed American self-image as a country opposed to the greedy colonial empires of Europe and, later, to the "Evil Empire" of the Soviet Union. Like all national identities, this self-image is a composite of stories that Americans tell themselves about themselves. Perhaps the most central of these stories is the notion of America as what Thomas Jefferson called "an empire of liberty."

Jefferson's view is just one of several competing traditions. There has always been a tension in American political culture between the ideals of a democratic republic and the pursuit of foreign empire – but never more so than today. The Bush Administration, guided by a small group of neo-conservative ideologues, has dragged the US into blatant pursuit of empire, triggering a crisis in American identity. Historically, US presidents have invoked America's founding mythology to create a public perception of US foreign policy as a series of moral imperatives. Whether that mythology can be harnessed by the Bush Administration, or turned on its head by a growing anti-war movement, may impact the course of US foreign policy.

City on a Hill or Empire of the World?

In the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, much of the world came to see the US as a global empire. With US military bases in 40 countries, Washington's stranglehold on international trade and financial institutions, and American popular culture and language encircling the globe, comparisons to Rome became plentiful. But Americans shied away from the label of "empire," preferring the ahistorical designation "super-power" and euphemisms like "globalization" to describe US dominance. Lawrence Summers, a reigning intellectual of the Clinton Administration, liked to say that the US is history's only non-imperialist superpower.

Although Americans are accustomed to wielding power abroad, they see themselves not as an empire but as "a nation of universal values" with a mission to export those values to the world. As George Bush puts it, "There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise. And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others, not in a way to impose because these are God-given values. These aren't United States-created values. These are the values of freedom and the human condition and mothers loving their children."1 Bush's tortured speech blends the moralistic Protestant messianism of America's religious founders with Enlightenment principles such as freedom and humanism that so influenced the country's early leaders. These twin ideologies continue to shape Americans' self image and enable Americans to see altruism where others see empire.

Historically, Americans have viewed their country as "a city on a hill" and "the beacon of hope and decency," envisioned in 1630 by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. By 1776, the American project had become much grander. "We have it in our power to begin the world all over again," Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense. Over the next 100 years, the US seized the territory of the region's Indigenous Peoples, swallowed half of Mexico, and tried twice to conquer Canada in a series of wars that politicians defined as "missions" to extend "civilization" and "Anglo-Saxon democracy." So obvious was it to nineteenth-century US leaders that they were chosen by God himself to rule the continent that they named their privileged condition "Manifest Destiny."

The American anti-empire first ventured overseas in 1898, killing 600,000 Filipinos in the "Benevolent Assimilation." That year, US Secretary of War Elihu Root said, "the American soldier is different from all soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, law and order, peace and happiness." Except for the flawless grammar, Root's pronouncement could have been issued today by George Bush. Since 1898, the US has conducted over 170 military interventions in every region of the world. Each has been presented domestically as a mission to redeem the targeted country, and indeed the world, for freedom and democracy. Even today's takeover of Iraq, understood by most of the world as a naked grab for power, was presented to Americans as a mission to democratize Iraq and save its people from the "Butcher of Baghdad." The bogus security imperative to disarm Iraq spoke to the American mind, but the mission to bring freedom and salvation spoke to the American soul.

The deeply religious nature of American political culture is sometimes obscured by the notion of the US as the country that invented separation of church and state. In fact, every US president has traded on his religious credentials and talked openly of his devotion to God. But Bush, with his White House prayer breakfasts and fundamentalist language, is becoming known as the most fanatically religious president in US history. His periodic references to "crusade" and "a biblical struggle of good versus evil" have been alternately baffling and alarming to many people abroad. One reason is that Bush's brand of evangelicalism is a strictly American creed alien to most of the world. As a "born again" Christian, Bush believes that God communicates directly with him and that he is guaranteed a spot in heaven regardless of his actions on earth. Several journalists who have interviewed Bush extensively say that the president seems to believe that he was placed in the White House by God to carry out a divine mission.

Bush's fundamentalism is far afield of mainstream US Christianity, but his evangelical overtones resonate with a long tradition of American messianism. So when Bush says that he will "lead the world to peace," as he did after September 11, Americans hear an echo of Woodrow Wilson, who declared the US entry into World War I as a mission to "make the world safe for democracy." (Wilson's ambassador to England, W.H. Page, explained the move as "the only way to maintain our pre-eminent trade status," but it is Wilson's loftier rationale that endures in the national psyche.) It's not that Americans can't understand the imperial machinations at work in foreign policy, but because US interests are portrayed as overlapping with "American values," they can choose to view any US action as a pursuit of principle rather than empire. Consider the words of US trade representative Robert Zoellick, extolling the virtues of free trade as an antidote to terrorism: "Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle."2 Democrats are no less enamored of the interests/values shell game. Clinton was a master of the technique. Remember his "humanitarian bombing" of Kosovo? "If we're going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world," Clinton said, "Europe has got to be a key . . . that's what this Kosovo thing is all about . . . it's about our values."3

A New Imperial Moment

September 11, 2001 stands in the American mind as the day that "changed everything," but the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 marks a more significant turning point for US Empire. The invasion – with its triple goal of testing Bush's "preventive war" doctrine, controlling Iraqi oil, and using occupied Baghdad as a springboard to overhaul the entire Middle East – is the most blatantly imperialist war in US history. In fact, the concept of empire has begun to resonate so loudly that the president has been compelled to issue repeated denials. In June 2002, Bush delivered a speech at West Point in which he laid out his doctrine of preventive war. Bush told graduating cadets that, "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish." Five months later, he told a group of veterans in Washington that, "We don't seek an empire." Bush made an identical claim in March 2003, while announcing the bombing of Baghdad.

While Bush sought to reassure the public that war is peace and freedom is slavery, the neo-conservative architects of his foreign policy have confronted the American taboo against empire head-on, proudly declaring themselves to be "liberal imperialists." Their disarming tack has succeeded in shifting the terms of an increasingly vibrant public debate about empire. The question today is no longer whether the US is an empire, but, to quote National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," (September 10, 2002) "Does empire have to be a dirty word?"

The neo-conservative answer is a resounding "No," issued with a call to embrace US power, í la Bush and Rumsfeld, in all its macho unilateralism. From the Center comes a more restrained response, echoing the tradition of apologists for US Empire. Michael Ignatieff, for example, reassures us that "America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest, and the white man's burden," but rather "an empire lite, whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and democracy."4 On the Left are those – represented by parts of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition – who cite the excesses of US Empire as an understandable, if not justifiable, cause of September 11. Others, represented by the United for Peace and Justice Coalition, have been more adept at reaching out to those in the political mainstream, in part by appealing to people on the basis of their ingrained American antipathy toward empire.

The Anti-Empire Movement

The largest sector of the anti-war movement is a composite of traditional US peace and justice organizations, the misnamed anti-globalization movement, and progressive Democrats. This new configuration is best understood as a movement against US Empire. Indeed, some of its elements have been concerned about empire for some time. MADRE, an international women's human rights organization and a member of United for Peace and Justice, has worked since the 1980s in Central America and the Caribbean, where US unilateralism, invasion, occupation, and "regime change" are familiar horrors.

Like others in the anti-war movement, MADRE critiques Empire from a human rights framework that draws on many of the same Enlightenment principles that inform "American values," such as democracy, equality, pluralism, and respect for civil rights. The overlap provides a platform from which to appeal to mainstream Americans through convictions they already hold. For while neo-conservatives may be thrilled about the new idea of America as Empire, most people in the US are not. Echoing a rising sentiment in the country, an article published on the eve of the Iraq invasion, entitled, "Is it too late to save America?" declares, "The America I know is not an empire. It's a small comfortable place where my grandpa took me fishing when I was little…"5.

Channeling mainstream anxiety about US power into coherent, progressive politics is a central challenge of the anti-war movement. It may also be one of the best strategies available to the movement, precisely because of the ways in which the Bush Administration violates some of America's more democratic traditions: majority rule, respect for civil liberties, separation of church and state, and multilateralism. Adopting the language of "American" values such as freedom and democracy gives the anti-war movement a powerful vernacular to articulate opposition to empire in a way that resonates with large numbers of Americans.

Parts of the movement are already speaking this language with slogans like "peace is patriotic." In fact, the practice of mobilizing dissent on the basis of traditional national values has a rich history that includes the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, flag-waving civil rights marchers, and the activists who rechanneled American messianism into the Central America Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. But to effectively challenge empire, today's movement must do more than "reclaim" American values. It needs to enable people to maximize the radical potential of those values, first, by redefining language that has been pressed into the service of empire. As MADRE declared recently, "We don't agree that democracy means overthrowing governments elected by a majority of voters (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1972, Haiti 1990, and the US 2000).... We don't agree that freedom means providing markets, labor, and raw materials to US corporations." "Peace is Patriotic" is a tactical starting point, but ultimately, patriotism needs to be critiqued, redefined, and perhaps rejected outright.

The Achilles Heel of Empire

Bush's invasion of Iraq opened a gulf between public opinion and government policy that highlights the incompatibility of democracy and empire. Bush was called "unflappable" in his response to public protest against the war. But while the administration did not reverse its policy, neither did it ignore the protests. A look at Bush's speeches in the weeks leading up to the invasion shows that his moralistic appeals about American "responsibility" to rescue Iraqis from Saddam Hussein rose steadily in proportion to public opposition to the war.

The potential power of citizen opposition is well understood by policy makers, who have launched propaganda campaigns on the eve of every US war since World War I. Particularly since Vietnam, US presidents have walked a tightrope between building empire and thwarting citizen opposition to their wars. To achieve this balance abroad, the US has relied increasingly on proxy armies, such as the Nicaraguan Contras, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. At home, the Pentagon spends millions annually on its "public relations" initiatives.

These policies betray the administration's vulnerability to public opposition and underscore the potential power of the anti-war movement. The national mythology from which Americans' self-image as defenders of freedom and democracy derives is deeply at odds with Bush's decision to overthrow a sovereign (albeit, brutal) government, install direct US military rule over another country, and curtail US citizens' civil liberties. The contradiction provides an opportunity for a new anti-empire movement to stake its own claim to America's founding myths. To do this, it must generate public conversations about what kind of nation Americans want to be and what values they want to see reflected in their foreign policy. The Bush Administration will be in a strong ideological position to wage its "endless war against endless enemies" if it succeeds in convincing the public that it is acting in the tradition of "American values." But if the anti-war movement continues to refine its capacity to appeal to mainstream Americans on the basis of those same values, it may garner the political power necessary to produce foreign policy that reflects the country's truly democratic potential.

* Yifat Susskind is the Associate Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization based in New York. 1Interview with Bob Woodward, Crawford, Texas, August 20, 2002.

2The Washington Post, October 3, 2001.

3March 23, 1999, televised address.

4The New York Times Magazine,January 5, 2003.

5Alternet, March 19, 2003.

More Information on US Empire and Unilateralism
More General Analysis on Empire

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.