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Anti-Imperialism and Conservatives

Having recently discussed Grover Cleveland’s foreign policy record in an article for the print magazine, I was interested to see what James Pafford had to say about the same subject in his study of Cleveland, The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland. Pafford is mostly sympathetic to Cleveland’s conduct of foreign policy while in office, but curiously objects to Cleveland’s later opposition to the Spanish and Philippine Wars, and he is entirely silent on Cleveland’s membership in the Anti-Imperialist League. Pafford writes:

The results of 1898 were good for the people of these places. It would appear that Grover Cleveland was not at his best in foreign policy. With the exception of his strong stands in the Samoan and Venezuelan disputes, his preference for non-involvement would have led to less favorable results for the United States and the other parties.

This judgment seems almost entirely backwards to me. Whatever benefits may eventually have come to the Philippines because of the relationship with the U.S., I don’t understand how we can look back on the half-century of colonial rule over the islands and the violent suppression of their independence movement with anything but dismay. It’s important to remember here that Cleveland’s preference was not simply for neutrality and non-intervention, though he obviously wanted both, but he also wanted the U.S. to conduct itself justly in its dealings with other nations. There was no way to reconcile justice with the annexation of the Philippines or the earlier annexation of Hawaii, since these were brought about through force and fraud against the wishes of the inhabitants. Cleveland’s anti-imperialism was remarkably consistent, which led him to oppose perceived American colonial expansionist moves as well as European ones, and it was one of the more admirable aspects of his public career. His opposition to overseas imperial projects is one of the things that recommends Cleveland to us today as a conservative, and it is one of the most relevant parts of his career when we are debating contemporary foreign policy issues.

Pafford clearly admires Cleveland, and his book does a good job of reviewing his career in a flattering light, which is what makes the negative judgment of Cleveland’s foreign policy all the more puzzling. Cleveland is a leading example that there can be such a thing as conservative anti-imperialism, and that it is rooted in fidelity to American political values and traditions. This isn’t something to be minimized or explained away, but should be a guide for conservatives today.

Having said that, is the anti-imperialist label the right one to use now? In his recent discussion of foreign policy labels, Noah Millman agreed with Peter Beinart that non-interventionists should identify themselves as anti-imperialists. Millman goes further:

I think the “anti-imperialist” coalition is potentially larger than just Jeffersonians; why not include dovish Hamiltonians (like myself) and genuine believers in international law under the tent? Indeed, I think the term is potentially quite useful, in that it identifies a common enemy – the consensus Washington assumption that global American hegemony ought to be preserved, entrenched and where possible extended – rather than a common vantage point of attack. Genuine believers in a law-based international order could make common cause with libertarian-inclined non-interventionists – but not if they have to agree on what they are fighting for, rather than what they are fighting against. If they do that, they’ll have a falling out over national sovereignty. Similarly, war-skeptical Hamiltonians would reject either an overly intrusive supra-national infrastructure or an ideology that was strictly opposed to interventionism. But they might be eager to ally with people with such views against efforts to prosecute new wars, or entrench the assumption of American hegemony internationally.

The anti-imperialist label is appropriate for many (all?) of us here at TAC, but as a catch-all term to describe views as different as these I’m not sure that it would be all that useful. Many “believers in a law-based international order” take for granted that U.S. hegemony is essential to or at least extremely valuable in creating and sustaining that order, and I suspect even more “Hamiltonians” don’t see U.S. hegemony as something to oppose at all. If the anti-imperialists of the last century were bound together by their rejection of an “imperial policy,” one of the main things uniting antiwar conservatives, libertarians, realists, and others is our rejection of a perpetual war policy. We may not agree on many other things besides this, but I assume we do agree on that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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