One of the contributions to The Short American Century that TAC readers will probably find most interesting is T.J. Jackson Lears’ essay, “Prgamatic Realists versus The American Century.” Lears describes the traditions of dissenters against U.S. imperialism and foreign intervention from the Spanish and Philippine Wars through the Cold War, and focuses in particular on those he defined as “pragmatic realists,” including Niebuhr and Lippmann in their pro-interventionist phases. The first of the pragmatic realists Lears discusses is William James, and he describes how James’ respect for pluralism informed his resistance to empire:
This combination of humility, curiosity, and empathy was the ethical corollary of James’s rejection of absolutism, the core of his conviction that we inhabit a pluralistic universe.
Pluralism, in turn, provided the foundation for James’s anti-imperial thought. As Robert Richardson writes, James’s opposition to empire “grew naturally from his advocacy of pluralism and individual self-determination and from his conviction that we are mostly blind to the vital centers of the lives of others–to the lives, for example, of Filipinos.” Imperialism was nothing if not an expression of blindness to others’ aspirations–a failure to consider the possibility of multiple perspectives on the world. Arguments for empire discounted the Filipino desire for independence and instead celebrated the uplifting mission of the American invaders. A pluralistic foreign policy, in contrasy, would sanction multiple vital centers, granting legitimacy to local desires even among “backward” peoples–as James and his anti-imperial contemporaries granted legitimacy to the Filipino yearning for independence. Imperial foreign policy denied those aspirations in the name of progress, a teleological creed that demanded the replacement of idiosyncratic traditions with universal modernity.
Contemporary hegemonism is characterized by many of the same flaws, and instead of a “failure to consider the possibility of multiple perspectives on the world” there is an acknowledgment of these perspectives combined with contempt for them. Hegemonists may be aware these perspectives exist, but they regard these other perspectives as inferior or illegitimate to the extent that they conflict with their own, and the aspirations of certain other nations are viewed simply as hostile ambitions.