truth, bad as it may be, has more to do with the ideas
and interests prevalent in the state whose leaders decide
to go in for empire than with "causes" like
capitalism and racism, so large that they prove everything
and nothing. This, of course, does not mean that no
one ever made a buck on empire, nor does it mean that
past imperialists were racially enlightened, although
Alexander the Great often gets points for his "universalism."
It doesn't even mean that theory is useless to students
of empire. Without ruling out comparison with other
imperial situations, where appropriate, I think the
place to begin is with a review of the specifically
American context of the American empire.
HUNDRED YEARS AGO
McKinley, a deadly-dull conventional Republican, was
an extraordinarily self-effacing politician and manager;
but it was McKinley who put himself in the forefront
of those late 19th-century statesmen and thinkers who
believed politically-driven expansion of American goods
and capital into foreign markets to be essential to
US prosperity and "greatness." This resulted
from his acceptance of the "overproduction/ underconsumption"
view of the US economy. That analysis held that US businesses
were somehow producing more goods than the home market
could ever absorb. Ever-expanding overseas markets were
sorely needed to solve this problem. This led McKinley
to favor flexible tariffs and reciprocity treaties to
pave the way for US penetration of overseas markets.
The fabled markets of China loomed large in this scheme.
knew that, down the road, military force might be needed
to sustain a neo-mercantilist push into foreign markets.
Usually portrayed as a likeable but intellectually fossilized
laissez-faireist and a weak executive, McKinley shrewdly
exploited Spain's inability to suppress popular revolution
in Cuba. He put escalating demands on Spain that made
war unavoidable. Once he had his war, the President
deployed the range of supposed Presidential "war
powers" to seize insular real estate from Spain
in the Caribbean and, more importantly, the Pacific,
and to maneuver Congress and public into support for
his measures. In a short time, the United States acquired
Puerto Rico, Guam, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Philippines,
as well as a Cuban protectorate. With the Philippines,
the United States now had coaling stations and forward
military positions looking toward the Chinese and other
expanding the scope of American foreign policy through
formal colonial empire (in the Philippines) and informal
empire elsewhere (Latin America), McKinley greatly expanded
the opportunities of the American federal government
and his own office, which began their trajectory towards
their present dimensions. He felt awkward at first about
his power to alter the lives of distant subjects at
the stroke of a pen, but rose to the occasion. Few Presidents
since have shown like misgivings.
and his Secretary of State, John Hay, popularized the
phrase "Open Door " as the short description
of their program, and deployed the notion in an effort
to hold China together as one potential market in the
face of Western and Japanese encroachments into parts
of it. Later Presidents like Wilson and FDR acted on
the same analysis. The fact that the original economic
thinking behind the Open Door strategy was unconvincing
never seemed to lessen its popularity with policy makers.
Left historian William Appleman Williams claimed that
by the end of World War II, American leaders had so
"internalized" the Open Door viewpoint that
it underwent a partial transformation from strategy
to ideology. Thus the Inner Doctrine, as I have called
it, became operationally indistinct from the Outer Doctrine,
which is all about the Golden Rule, international law,
and doing good deeds. One of the Americans' critics,
General Charles DeGaulle, marveled at US leaders' ability
to combine noble abstractions and sordid mercantilist
goals into unified policies they found entirely believable.
These leaders are always shocked and indignant that
anyone doubts their good intentions or opposes their
concrete material aims.
the policy described above and the leaders associated
with it took a bit of a beating in the Vietnam War.
For a little while, it seemed we might get an open discussion
of the grounds and purposes of an American foreign policy.
But the Indo-Chinese setback did not discourage the
foreign policy types from claiming they had mostly been
right and merely in error in the details of the war.
The spectacular Soviet implosion likewise led them to
no rethinking of their goals and methods.
ASSUMPTIONS IN A CHANGING WORLD
why should it? The Cold War, as I tried to suggest last
week, was never especially "about" the Soviet
Union. That "ramshackle empire" as
Louis Bromfield called it was a stumbling block
for US policy for forty some years, but the policy itself
had defined the situation, as it still does. The famous
NSC 68, which stated in 1950 the fundamentals of US
policy, gave the ballgame away by saying that "attempting
to develop a healthy international community" was
"a policy which we would probably pursue even
if there was no Soviet threat" (my emphasis).
The "healthy international community" was
an Outer Doctrine formula for a world made safe for
US mercantilist penetration of markets everywhere. Further,
as Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz point out,
during the Cold War the US kept Japan and Germany from
having independent foreign and economic policies by
taking over their defense in the name of containing
the Soviet Union. The Cold War thus made possible a
"double containment" of friend and foe alike.1
In this light, US policy in Asia, which the Indo-China
War was supposed to sustain, amounted to the Greater
East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, with Japan as the junior
all their talk of "free trade," US leaders
pursued something very different. The classic Manchester
School doctrine held that free trade simply involves
trading with people. The freer world trade becomes,
the more likely it is that there will be peace, as nations
become economically interdependent. Richard Cobden,
John Bright, and their school never suggested that you
first create an international new world order presided
over by One Good Power in order then to have free trade.
The neo-mercantilist strategy favored in the US state
and defense departments amounts to what the late Murray
Rothbard referred to as "inverted" or "right-wing"
Leninism, which accepts the Leninist analysis of the
relation between politics and economics but draws the
conclusion that imperial shaping of economic life is
necessary and good.
BRIEF MEDITATION ON THE INCONVENIENCES OF EMPIRE
leaders call a new empire into being, under whatever
slogans and for whatever concrete reasons, a larger
logic comes into play. Coercing distant subjects into
accepting foreign rule means that empires meet with
much the same problems financial, institutional,
moral, etc. Here comparison is indeed valid and useful.
Here the functionaries of our empire find themselves
learning again what the Romans, the British, and other
practitioners of these applied arts learned long ago.
Ludwig von Mises was right to say that sociology looks
for universal lessons of history, I wish to claim J.M.
for the Barbarians (1980) as a contribution
to that field. Actually, the book is a rather surreal
novel about events on the frontiers of an unnamed empire.
It may well be eaten up with postmodernism, for all
I know, and give comfort to the theories of empire rejected
above. It is a meditation on empire, whatever else it
key point is the identity of the barbarians. We are
not long in finding out. Clearly, they are the gung-ho,
can-do, failure-is-not-an-option types, who elbow aside,
jail, and torture the central character of the novel,
an easygoing, old-school colonial administrator. These
newly minted graduates, half secret police and half
social-climbers, show up with their Yankee know-how
(so to speak), their ancient Roman efficiency, and a
bit of French republican fanaticism, to set right what
the lax old bureaucrat has led slide. They "understand
these things" and know how to deal with those cursed
frontier nomads (the putative barbarians) and their
ethnic kin within the empire. They quickly precipitate
a frontier war, which existed at first entirely in their
own minds, and are then unable successfully to complete
it. They are very good, however, at terrorizing and
looting the people they are supposed to be protecting
down to the hour of their withdrawal from the frontier.
BOOK AND A MOVIE
recommend reading Coetzee and then settling down to
that film about John Paul Vance in Vietnam. They aren't
the same story and they don't even deal with exactly
the same kinds of people. They do, however, treat the
sorts of problems in which imperial operatives get bogged
down, when they decide to establish, create, or restore
order in somebody else's country. One more thing: even
if you don't much care how foreign subject peoples are
handled, try to remember that the Foreign Legionnaires
come home, at last, and take up jobs bringing the joys
of order to their own countrymen. They tend to apply
the methods they learned elsewhere. Richard Cobden and
Carl Oglesby, among others have pointed this out. I
think it goes part of the way toward explaining some
recent events at home, but I suppose we should wait
for the Official Report.
have asserted the claims of history and comparative
studies of empire. In a future column I plan to say
a little about the kinds of theory which can help our
understanding of these things.
 Christopher Layne
and Benjamin Schwarz, "American Hegemony
Without an Enemy," Foreign Policy, 92 (Fall
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