A Richer Anti-Imperialism
Opponents of American empire need to dispute the moral foundations of today’s humanitarian imperialism.
Political opposition to American imperialism has grown in fits and starts—one step forward, two steps back—since the election of Barack Obama. The Trump administration’s America First foreign policy was undermined by hyper-hawkish appointees and insubordinate generals. President Biden’s cautious instincts abroad have been overridden by a desire to prosecute political enemies at home, a desperation to cover up family corruption, and a uniparty zeal for endless war: If we can’t have it in Afghanistan, then we’ll have to have it in Ukraine. Americans seeking to restrain our imperial overreach need all the help they can get, from tactical advice on how and how not to argue, to clearer first principles on which to base their arguments.
A recent article by Djene Rhys Bajalan at Compact, “The Poverty of Anti-Imperialism,” offers several valuable critiques of anti-imperial arguments, but is handicapped by the author’s own ideological blinders. Bajalan is right to critique the “dogmatic opposition to American empire” that casts the U.S. as “an irredeemable villain, a uniquely evil force upon the world stage” while carrying water for genuinely reprehensible regimes. Such an approach is intellectually inadequate and rhetorically ineffective. Anti-imperialists who simply dispute “the veracity of [specific] allegations of tyranny and abuse” that would justify this sanction or that invasion are, as Bajalan points out, “fighting their battles on their opponent’s terrain.” They are quibbling over minor premises—when and where the “moral case for intervention” obtains—without disputing the major premise: the vision of morality and politics undergirding contemporary imperialism.
But Bajalan himself fails to dispute the moral basis of humanitarian imperialism. Worse still, he assumes its validity. As a result, his own criticism of American empire is not only incomplete, but incoherent. As he tries to show the limits of certain anti-imperialist arguments even as he signals his opposition to American empire, he remains shackled to the flawed moralism that legitimates it.
Every empire deploys a moral argument, however crude, to legitimate its rule. A very old and rather blunt argument holds that nature itself sanctions the maximal extension of power by the powerful: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Today’s imperialists offer a more palatable argument: that, because in general the powerful are morally obliged to protect the powerless, so in international relations the most powerful nations ought to intervene to protect the victims or potential victims of violence and oppression.
To be sure, there are variations. Neoconservatives (or right-imperialists) favor unilateral action while asserting the coincidence of American interests with global interests, while liberal internationalists (or left-imperialists) emphasize cooperation with other nations and transnational organizations while vaguely signaling the selflessness or even self-renunciation entailed in American empire. But both camps accept the moral imperatives of Responsibility to Protect (R2P)—the commitment, unanimously adopted at the 2005 U.N. World Summit, that “seeks to ensure that the international community never again fails to halt the mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”
In the last decade, American imperialists have pushed beyond the essentially reactive vision of R2P to the proactive vision of the GAE (Globalist American empire). According to the GAE imperative, the most economically liberal and socially progressive nations not only must spread the free movement of people, goods, and capital, but must impose the full spectrum of expressive individualism worldwide. This is not only a project of liberal internationalism. Recent debates over Afghanistan and Ukraine have shown the right-imperialists in the GOP, in many cases the same men and women who gleefully cheered the democratic messianism of George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural, either willfully oblivious to or actively in favor of the GAE imperative.
Humanitarian imperialism retains its grip in part because its moral vision is plausible to contemporary Westerners. Its reactive R2P iteration has distant roots in the moral traditions of Christianity and the natural law, while its proactive GAE iteration embodies the radical distortion of those traditions that has come to dominate the American elite and which is explicitly affirmed by the Biden Administration. The maintenance and extension of empire certainly offers many material benefits to our ruling class. It is also the logical conclusion of the only moral framework most of them have ever known.
Bajalan himself is no exception. He affirms the moral basis for humanitarian imperialism, at least in its R2P iteration, when he cites atrocities committed by Assad in Syria, by Hussein in Iraq, by Gaddafi in Libya, or by Putin in Ukraine, as possible counterarguments to the “dogmatic” anti-imperialism he is criticizing—implying that in his own view, such atrocities are themselves legitimate grounds for American intervention.
Though he disavows the delusion that global affairs are “a morality tale of good and evil,” Bajalan nevertheless envies the “moral certainty” of fanatical anti-imperialists left and right. Hence, he concludes: “There can be no clean conscience in dogmatic opposition to American empire—especially when confronted by the scorn of those, like the Kurds, for whom American empire might be the only hope of salvation.” So long as it affirms the American empire as the source of salvation for the peoples of the world, impelled to the task by an undefined obligation to prevent human suffering wherever it occurs and anxious to avoid the moral “scorn” of unfortunate or oppressed peoples, Bajalan’s own anti-imperialism, too, must remain very impoverished indeed.
What would a richer anti-imperialism entail? It would have to offer a positive vision, not merely a series of discrete critiques; and it would have to dispute the major premise of today’s humanitarian imperialism, in both its reactive R2P and proactive GAE iterations. Luckily, we need not invent it whole-cloth. We can begin by returning to what Bajalan calls “the long tradition of homegrown opposition to the country’s foreign entanglements and expansionist ambitions.”
The greatest statement of that tradition is John Quincy Adams’s July 4, 1821, “Address on the Anniversary of Independence.” Adams’s oration followed a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and is itself structured as a commentary on the document. Beginning from the Declaration’s doctrines of national sovereignty, natural rights, and consent-based government, Adams draws an unwaveringly anti-imperialistic conclusion. Asking how America has benefited the world since her independence, Adams argues first that America has dealt justly with other nations, which is to say, she has refrained from infringing upon their rights; and second that she has offered them the example of her own well-ordered liberty, so that they might seek to imitate if they wish.
Then, in a chillingly prophetic passage, Adams warns Americans against giving into the imperial temptation, a temptation he knows will arise from our devotion to liberty and desire to spread it to other peoples.
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
We may now see how John Quincy Adams would answer Bajalan when he asks, “On what grounds should the exercise of U.S. military power overseas be opposed?” Adams would say: We cannot be dogmatically opposed to the exercise of American military power overseas; a just cause that serves the interests of the American people might require the use of force even on the other side of the world. But we must be wary of the siren song of humanitarian imperialism, which calls on us to intervene for the sake of the “freedom and independence” of other peoples.
Rightly understood, resisting this temptation is not a matter of cold indifference to the plight of others. Rather, it is our discharge of the duties found in the Preamble to the Constitution, above all, to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” This is the highest purpose of every free government, and one that Americans are fortunate enough to have realized and encoded at our Founding. And it is violated when our rulers send our dollars and soldiers to fight for another country’s good rather than their own.
To “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” is to jeopardize the security of the blessings of liberty—if not for ourselves, certainly for our descendants, whom we owe a good regime and a good life, passed on to them intact. First, we will be drawn into forever wars on behalf of any cause that manages to “assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom,” with manifold unintended consequences. Second, and because of the end-less nature of these endless wars, the “fundamental maxims of [our] policy,” both foreign and domestic, would “insensibly change from liberty to force.” Endless wars require endless expansion of the means employed in them.
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The predictable result is atrocities abroad and regime-decay at home. Thus, third, Adams predicts that an open-ended campaign to secure the rights and liberties of other peoples than our own will displace “the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence” in favor of “the murky radiance of dominion and power.” The power players in our imperial capital might enjoy some perks involved in America’s new-found status as “dictatress of the world”; the rest of us will suffer in an America that is “no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
America has spent the last century-and-a-quarter going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. The result is precisely what John Quincy Adams predicted. We have suffered an “insensible” change from liberty to force, from a hard and self-governing republic to a soft and despotically administered empire. The disease diagnosed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower midway through our transformation has metastasized far beyond his fears. In recent decades, our open-ended wars have crippled a generation of American servicemen while causing hundreds of thousands of foreign civilian casualties—to the benefit of neither us nor them, unless, perhaps, we count as “us” the legions of experts, lobbyists, and career imperialists whose livelihoods and lifestyles are defined by our empire—to say nothing of the untold trillions of dollars of debt we are passing to younger generations.
Above all, our humanitarian imperialism, whether conducted under its more modest reactive R2P iteration or under its flamboyant proactive GAE iteration, has corroded our own regime at home. John Quincy Adams teaches us that restraining our own imperial hubris is a matter of duty: an obligation of rulers to the ruled and of the present generation to the future.