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Imperial Contradictions

State of the Union: “Imperialism” would actually be an improvement on current American foreign policy.

EU-US Energy Council Ministerial Meeting
(Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

“The US, Germany and Hungary are resisting efforts from countries such as Poland and the Baltic states to offer Kyiv deeper ties with NATO,” according to the latest scoop in the Financial Times

“The divisions were made clear at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels this week,” the daily reports, adding that the “negotiations come amid warnings from Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he will only attend the summit if presented with tangible steps towards NATO membership, such as postwar security guarantees from its members or deeper collaboration with the alliance.”


One hesitates to point out the irony of the Biden administration finding itself in an unlikely alignment with Viktor Orban’s Hungary, after excluding her from the vaunted “democracy summit.” Ignore, also, the audacity of the president of a country that would cease to exist in its current shape or form for a day without the generosity of the West, particularly without unlimited American arms and treasure.

The fundamental contradiction is one of rhetorical maximalism from a great power unsure of its global role. Do we “support Ukraine for as long as it takes”? Or do we tell them to beat it, now that we have used them to decimate Russian fighting forces and essentially ended the Russian hegemonic threat to the continent in a conflict from which Moscow might need decades to recover?

We often see the word “imperial” used as a pejorative to describe American foreign policy. Historically, however, empires were smarter than revolutionary great powers exporting their ideology. A true empire, one ruled by a set of realist elites uninfluenced by ethnocentric lobbies in the imperial capital, would warn Far Eastern protectorates not to push too much for expanding an alliance that would dilute the core interest of the group, and increase the risk of dragging the hegemon into a great power war. 

A true empire would understand when it is being taken advantage of by satellites for their petty and historic tribalistic grievances. A smart empire would warn the arrogant tribal leader of the foederati not to throw a hissy fit, and to come to the negotiation table or else lose all the patronage that keeps its fragile administration running. An empire can make protectorates pay for their upkeep instead of letting them leech. An empire would, above all, learn to prioritize theaters and focus on the far greater threat slowly rising in the East. 

Europe was never whole or free, and the modern European Union is an artificial construct only preserved by American muscle. There is no E.U. without America. If Europe needs independent foreign policy, it must come from independent nation-states and once-mighty former great powers. Consider the rift between East Europe and the West on China, Russia, and the idea of “strategic autonomy.” If anything, the war in Ukraine has shown just how powerless the European Union is as an actor. NATO, meanwhile, is now a bureaucratic behemoth that is not only sustained by its own growth but is also increasingly out of the power of any one country to control, including the United States. 

America is increasingly acting not as an empire—detached, platonic, and rational—but as a revolutionary power, perma-hysteric and crusading in temperament. Revolutionary powers are Manichean actors. Their identities rely on the validation of their ideologies, which is dependent on promoting constant revolutions abroad. Any opposition to that is considered heretical. They cannot coexist. They often get trapped by their own rhetoric to the point where they are unable to say out loud things that are common-sensical because they stand opposed to their revolutionary ideologies. Revolutionary powers are often influenced by various ethnic lobbies buying influence in the capitals of their new republics, and are often incompetent to balance the various pulls due to the absence of a detached nationalist elite. Revolutionary powers are often ill-fated to eventually overstretch militarily to the point of insolvency or collapse. 

Revealed preferences, well, reveal. America is clearly reluctant to expand NATO further, especially in regions that are beset by tribal warfare, led by people influenced by historic ethnic and regional rivalries, do not influence the American way of life, and with whom average Americans have nothing in common—despite the much-revered bonds of lofty and abstract ideals. 

But America is also unable to say that out loud. Because that would lead to the whole idea of a “Europe whole and free,” an “ever-closer” European Union, or a NATO where every country can decide for herself collapsing on its face.


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