We Were Warned About the Rise of Empire

The warning is all the more relevant today with Iraq being consumed by sectarian violence and calls for renewed U.S. intervention growing louder.


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American critics of U.S. foreign policy (as well as some neoconservative supporters) often refer to the United States as an empire. This is not an emotional outburst but a substantive description of the national government's role in the world. But what exactly is an empire? This question is all the more relevant today with Iraq being consumed by sectarian violence and calls for renewed U.S. intervention there growing increasingly louder.

In 1952 the journalist and novelist Garet Garrett (1878–1954) took up this question in contemplating post-World War II America. The resulting essay, "The Rise of Empire," is included in his anthology, The People's Pottage (PDF). It bears close study today.

Garrett was an important figure in what has come to be known as the "Old Right," an eclectic group of writers and politicians (mostly Republican) who emerged in the 1930s to oppose militarism and the centralization of power under the New Deal. (For a history of the Old Right, see my "New Deal Nemesis: The 'Old Right' Jeffersonians" [PDF].)

Garrett began with this somber message:

We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: "You now are entering Imperium." Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: "Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible." And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: "No U-turns."

If you say there were no frightening omens, that is true. The political foundations did not quake, the graves of the fathers did not fly open, the Constitution did not tear itself up. If you say people did not will it, that also is true. But if you say therefore it has not happened, then you have been so long bemused by words that your mind does not believe what the eye can see, even as in the jungle the terrified primitive, on meeting the lion, importunes magic by saying to himself, "He is not there."

(For evidence that the American empire is older than Garrett thought, see my "Empire on Their Minds.")

The country's institutions may look the same, Garrett wrote, but a "revolution within the form" has occurred:

There is no comfort in history for those who put their faith in forms; who think there is safeguard in words inscribed on parchment, preserved in a glass case, reproduced in facsimile and hauled to and fro on a Freedom Train.

Garrett next proceeded to carefully isolate the characteristics of empire. After examining Rome's transition from republic to empire, he wondered,

If you may have Empire with or without a constitution, even within the form of a republican constitution, and if also you may have Empire with or without an emperor, then how may the true marks of Empire be distinguished with certainty? What are they?

Republics, he said, can make war, conquer territory, and even acquire colonies, depending on how one defines the term, so "let us regard the things that belong only to empire, and set them down. Then we shall see."

He came up with five traits:

(1) Rise of the executive principle of government to a position of dominant power,

(2) Accommodation of domestic policy to foreign policy,

(3) Ascendancy of the military mind,

(4) A system of satellite nations for a purpose called collective security, and,

(5) An emotional complex of vaunting and fear.

It's easy to see how closely this fits the United States today. For a long time, the executive branch has been the dominant branch of government. For example, as Garrett noted, the war power has moved entirely into the hands of the president, despite the Constitution's language and Congress's half-hearted attempt to hold on to some power with the War Powers Resolution. Since the Korean War, it's the president who decides when the country goes to war. (Even when Barack Obama tossed the question of bombing Syria to Congress last year, he and others maintained that he had the unilateral power to act if he wanted to.) During the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, lawyers inside and outside the government spun broad theories of autocratic executive authority over national security based entirely on the apparently thin Article II of the Constitution.

Garrett wrote that the "aggrandizement of the executive principle of government" occurred by congressional delegation, reinterpretation of the language of the Constitution, innovation, the appearance of administrative agencies, usurpation, and increasing involvement in foreign affairs. This last is especially relevant, because the executive can always assert that foreign policy cannot be made by 535 members of Congress.

The subordination of domestic policy to foreign policy is accomplished by claiming that without national security, nothing else matters. So domestic concerns must take a back seat to foreign affairs. The national-security establishment's sheer demand for goods and services—which produces the military-industrial complex—diverts the economy from serving consumers to serving the state. As long as the president can keep the people in fear of foreign enemies, he can justify the transfer of resources from the private sector to the government sector. It is too easy for the executive to answer any challenge by playing the "I know things that you don't know" card. As Garrett wrote,

It needs hardly to be argued that as we convert the nation into a garrison state to build the most terrible war machine that has ever been imagined on earth, every domestic policy is bound to be conditioned by our foreign policy.

One need only look around to see evidence of the "ascendancy of the military mind." Not even a looming fiscal crisis prompts a serious reconsideration of America's far-flung military presence or its putative "interests" everywhere. Reverence for the military intrudes on everyday life; one cannot watch a ballgame or even a televised cooking competition without being subjected to sappy expressions of gratitude for supposed "service to our country." Americans did not always have a worshipful disposition toward the military.

As in Garrett's time, satellite nations are today called "allies." Americans are not only obliged to cough up billions of dollars each year in armaments and cash to support those alliances, they also must be prepared to go to war to defend countries throughout the world. In his recent speech at West Point, Obama included the defense of allies in his definition of America's "core interests." Thus the American people are on call should most of Europe up to the Russian border, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and other nations find themselves threatened—even if  their own conduct provoked the alleged threat.

Garrett's phrase "an emotional complex of vaunting and fear" couldn't better apply to today's America. Government officials beat their chests in describing how powerful, exceptional, and indispensable America is for the world. No one, they say, can challenge America's dominance and leadership in the world. Yet at the same time they advise Americans to fear Islamic terrorism, China, Russia, Latin American drug lords, and sundry other threats. That's vaunting and fear.

Finally, Garrett made a point that is entirely relevant today: "a time comes when Empire finds itself—a prisoner of history." A republic, Garrett wrote, can determine its own history. "But the history of Empire is world history and belongs to many people."

We've all heard presidents say that America's responsibilities to the world have been thrust upon it and cannot be avoided. It is not a matter of choice. That's the doctrine which Garrett had in mind:

What is it that now obliges the American people to act upon the world?

As you ask that question the fear theme plays itself down and the one that takes its place is magnifical. It is not only our security we are thinking of — our security in a frame of collective security. Beyond that lies a greater thought.

It is our turn.

Our turn to do what? Garrett nails the political establishment's reply, which is calculated to awe Americans into blind compliance:

Our turn to assume the responsibilities or moral leadership in the world.

Our turn to maintain a balance of power against the forces of evil everywhere — in Europe and Asia and Africa, in the Atlantic and in the Pacific, by air and by sea — evil in this case being the Russian barbarian. [This is especially pertinent now.]

Our turn to keep the peace of the world.

Our turn to save civilization.

Our turn to serve mankind.

But this is the language of Empire.

We're told, however, that American empire is unique because it is dedicated to freedom and peace. This claim cannot withstand scrutiny: look at the regimes American administrations have supported and support today. But Garrett said that even if this claim were granted, the case for empire would be self-defeating because its price is bankruptcy.

So even if "this is Imperialism of the Good Intent," he wrote, it would also have to be the "Empire of the Bottomless Purse."

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.