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imperialismBecause of its sober and realistic assumptions about human nature and the human condition, the American republic of the Constitution of 1789 is not designed to do the big things typical of empires. It is especially not designed to do that which has most characterized empire: conquer. When America does pursue empire, it undermines the very fabric of its constitutional government. Imperial expansion pulls at the threads of constitutionalism, ripping away the supports of limited government: separated powers, federalism, and checks and balances. More impor­tantly, the quest for empire, even in the modern ideological form of spreading democracy, liberty, and equality around the globe, diverts the American imagination from the center of constitutional politics and life. The unwritten constitution, the cultural foundation for constitutional government, ceases to concentrate its attention on what is primary to a modest republic: the soul, the family, the neighborhood, the school, the church, the community. It directs the imagination to a distant abstract world in which virtue becomes synonymous with global humanitarian crusading. It makes a spectacle of politics. The place of modest republicanism, by contrast, is local; its scale is proportionate to its modest objec­tives; it is threatened by the vulgarity of empire, which poisons the sensibilities of those who struggle to possess republican virtue.

To follow the path of empire is to transform American identity and self-understanding; it is to transform the constitutional regime itself. To borrow the language of Walter McDougall, in doing so, America ceases to be a promised land and becomes a crusader state.[1]

American crusaders like Wood­row Wilson and Herbert Croly recog­nized the inadequacy of the Framers’ constitutional system for the work of political religion. They insisted that the cumbersome American con­stitutional system be reformed to empower government for the chal­lenge of social and global transfor­mation. Ironically, the more success­ful the Progressives have been in centralizing power, the less great by traditional standards America has become. The Framers did not design the American republic for imperial greatness, but when it functions as intended, it produces something even greater than empire: a free so­ciety with limited government and the rule of law.

But there is more to the special kind of American greatness be­queathed by the Framers. Due in large part to their variegated cir­cumstances, Americans have been sensitive to the value of human diversity, appreciating that it may play a part in pursuing universal­ity. The American motto, e pluribus unum, and the federal and decen­tralized character of American po­litical institutions testify to this aspect of the American genealogy and character. In America, local communities and groups have been free, within limits, to find their own way to the good life. The kind of uniformity that stifles diversity, more common to unitary systems of government, is incompatible with America’s historical past. Unity is found through diversity, because there is more than one road to the common human ground.[2]

From the early days of America’s formation, a contrary tendency has been present in the American imagi­nation, one that looks disparagingly upon decentralized power and a multiplicity of communities. This view pushes toward uniformity as represented in Rousseau’s notion of the general will. It insists on a mo­nistic, allegedly virtuous uniformity that divides society and world into stark categories of good and evil. According to this view, Americanism is the best possible way of life for all people.[3] A recent form of this creed is reflected in the idea of Francis Fuku­yama that history has “ended” in the sense that it is inconceivable that any society could surpass the American/Western achievement.[4] This ideology asks: Who wouldn’t welcome Ameri­can democracy, liberty, and equality? Isn’t it obvious that so many people in the world live lives that are infe­rior to those of Americans? Why not spread the virtues of America? Why not globalize America? If we were not tone-deaf to the vulgarity of em­pire, we should hear the hubris that animates questions like these. We should hear it as well in statements by David Frum and Richard Perle in their book An End to Evil:

“A world at peace; a world governed by law; a world in which all peoples are free to find their own destinies: That dream has not yet come true, it will not come true soon, but if ever it does come true, it will be brought into be­ing by American armed might and defended by American might too.”[5]

Alexander Hamilton knew that the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 had done something rare in the annals of history; it had produced, as he noted in Federalist 1, “good government from reflection and choice.” Such governments have been rare because they require the presence of mod­est men and women who can keep their desires within constitutional limits. Hamilton and other Framers noted the historical and international significance of their work. Did this boast imply an American mission to govern the world, an empire of some sort? No, Hamilton made it clear that it would be American “conduct and example,” not force, that con­vinced the world that governments could be established from reflection and choice. It would undermine that very point to suggest that America, once she had established her own government by reflection and choice, should then impose by force simi­lar governments on others. Nor did Hamilton and the Framers suggest, as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson might have done, that reflection and choice always lead to the same form of government. The Framers understood, as Orestes Brownson would put it much later, that “Forms of government are like the forms of shoes─those are best which best fit the feet that are to wear them.”[6]

The proponents of ideological Em­pire measure the success or greatness of their own regime by the extent to which the universal values of the state ideology are spread. The mis­sionary zeal of this endeavor is pres­ent, for example, in David Gelernter’s argument for Americanism as the fourth great Western religion.[7] Gelernter argues that World War I illustrates America’s “democratic chivalry” and “the worldwide re­alization of the American Creed”— liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind. This globalization of the American Way required a “global statement of faith and hope.” And what is this statement? “I believe in America.” This notion of the savior nation emerged in earnest with the Civil War and Lincoln’s reshaping of the American identity. Gelernter adds, “America’s participation in World War I was her attempt to act like the new chosen people, to set forth on a chivalrous quest to perfect the world; to spread liberty, equal­ity, and democracy to all mankind.” America is a global humanitarian cause. According to Gelernter, Amer­ica is a world religion “for the op­pressed, the persecuted, and the sim­ply idealistic all over the globe.”[8]

It is difficult to imagine a more romantic, utopian, and ideologically imperial conception of America than this one. The objective of American­izing the world is closely connected with modern war, and its mass de­struction of human life, property, and humanity is telling. Gelernter states that the U.S. “must use the evil of war to spread the good of liberty, equality, democracy.”[9] His ideologi­cal passion “to perfect the world” blinds him to the reality of war and its failure to perfect so much as one human being, never mind the world. America, in this conception of its role, is the new messiah with the ability to do what the Christian sav­ior did not attempt, transform the order of being in history. This vision, permeated by nationalistic vanity, is repugnant to moral realists who understand the limits of politics and human nature.

Frum, Perle, and Gelernter repre­sent a way of thinking that clashes with the American Framers’ clas­sical and Christian realism. Unlike the Framers, they believe that evil can be eradicated. James Madison reminds us in Federalist 10 that some evils are “sown into the nature of man.” Rather than eliminating them, the best we can hope to do is control their effects.

An ideological aspiration to Empire results from an obsession with politics, an attempt to subordinate all things to the political. There is more than a hint of imperial obsession in Walter Berns’s book Making Patriots. Berns argues that the American Founders, following Locke, created a regime in which “we are first of all citizens, and only secondarily Chris­tians, Jews, Muslims, or any other re­ligious persuasion.”[10] If this be true, then in America the ethical ground for civil disobedience or moral op­position to the state has been lost. That Berns is intent on placing the things of Caesar above the things of God is odd given the enormous suf­fering produced by similar efforts in the twentieth century. But this is a project typical of the Enlightenment mind: Devotion to God runs the risk of creating irrational spiritedness that engenders social and political conflict. Defuse religion, remove it from political life, and toleration and peace will follow. The work of Eric Voegelin suggests, however, that despiritualizing political and social life does not lead to toleration and peace but to the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Berns and Gelernter are confident that ideologi­cal devotion to abstract principles like democracy, equality, and liberty can only have a civilizing effect on America and the world. Yet in this effort to eliminate political violence they inspire just what they claim to be combating by suggesting that world peace is gained by the forc­ible spread of American ideology. Moreover, the transformed world that they envision does not require spiritual work; it requires the cre­ation of the right political institu­tions animated by the right political ideology. This notion brings to mind T. S. Eliot’s refrain in Choruses from the Rock:

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Eliot’s insight is followed by the ad­monishing line:

But the man that is shall shadow
The man that pretends to be.

There are many reasons for part­ing company with the pretentious advocates of American empire, but, first and foremost, one must object to their romantic dreaming of a world in which Jacobin or quasi-Jeffersonian notions of equality, liberty, and democracy are realized. In short, they are not moral realists. They en­vision a world in which individuals and governments will do all that is necessary to uphold natural rights without persons’ needing to pay much attention to their own ethical life. They fail to take account of the depravity that is never absent from the human condition. They assume the possibility of a world without evil.

What is at issue is the meaning of greatness. According to one view, of which the Framers were representa­tive, personal moral character is an essential attribute of a certain kind of greatness. Dictators may be great in the sense that they have attained great power. But power for its own sake is not the proper measure of greatness. Plato’s Republic makes this clear: Thrasymachus is not a phi­losopher; he is a philodoxer. Using power to promote the common good and lead men to virtue makes it con­sistent with true greatness. George Washington is a great man because he, unlike most rulers, did not lust for power as an end in itself and was willing to share it and use it for the common good. George III is said to have called Washington “the greatest man in the world” because he put down the Newburgh Conspiracy; he refused great power because he knew it would be destructive to re­publicanism in America.[11] He chose the modest path, a different kind of greatness, the greatness of Cicero and Cato and other men who risked their lives in efforts to save the re­public from empire.

Greatness in this sense does not require that one live in a powerful regime that occupies center stage in world politics. In fact, such greatness is not the monopoly of any one na­tion, race, or epoch. Greatness is the product of conquering the self rather than nations, their armies, or nature.

Subduing totalitarian regimes does not in itself constitute greatness. Stalin not only helped to subdue Hitler, but, if John Lukacs is correct, Nazi Germany would not have been defeated without the contribution of the Soviet Union. If Hitler had won the war, that would not have made Nazi Germany a great nation. Neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union were great nations in any meaningful sense of greatness. They may have been colossal, but they were not great. Thrasymachus and Protagoras would have us believe that human success and power in themselves are the measure of great­ness, but Plato and Aristotle knew better. Greatness is measured by conquering and knowing oneself. Buddha’s Dhammapada captures the essence of greatness in the succinct statement that, “If one man conquer in battle a thousand times a thou­sand men, and if another conquers himself, he is the greatest of con­querors.”

America’s primary challenge of greatness in the twentieth century was not that of winning the world wars or the Cold War but of main­taining fidelity to the spirit of mod­est republicanism out of which she was born, this at a time when she was tempted by her economic and military strength to reach for empire and dominate the world. America’s challenge in the post-Cold War era is not to subdue the world and spread her values. The challenge is rather to subdue the will to empire, a de­sire that, if gratified, will mean the end of American republican govern­ment.

Fortunately, there is growing intellectual opposition, much of it philosophically and historically grounded, to the imperial trend in American politics and culture. It is reinforcing doubts in the American public regarding the tendency to see the world as America’s busi­ness and America as the model for changing the world. Most generally, this intellectual opposition is expos­ing the romantic understanding of democracy and human nature and the nationalistic hubris that animate the desire to have America dominate the world.

Whatever may be new in what has been argued here, its moral and phil­osophical substance is old. The mod­est republic is inspired by thinkers as diverse in time and place as Ar­istotle, who defined and counseled moderation in his conception of both politics and personal life, and C. S. Lewis, who understood that pride is the undoing of individuals as well as nations.

The American Constitution, to re­iterate, was not made for empire but for modest republicanism. In fact, the United States were born in op­position to empire. As Robert Nisbet has noted, “the American Constitu­tion was designed for a people more interested in governing itself than in helping to govern the rest of the world.”[12] To argue for American em­pire is to argue against the American constitutional heritage; it is to import a pedigree of thinking, politics, and government that is alien to and de­structive of America’s constitutional order.

Empire is also contrary to Ameri­can interests. Empire means con­quest, and conquest means tensions, violence, and war. International con­flict becomes more likely with each step toward empire. It is not surprising that in the wake of late nine­teenth and early twentieth century calls for global crusades for democ­racy the U.S. was engaged in war for nearly seventy-five continuous years. Empire breeds the war state, and the war state is ultimately incompatible with constitutional government.

Empire is destructive to the very self-restraint that makes republican government possible. It is inspired by the pride that animates C. S. Lewis’s “man-moulders” in their efforts to remake human nature and the world. But it might be asked: Is it not the work of great men and wom­en to mold the citizenry—and of great nations to mold the world? Are they not, like Plato’s philosopher-kings, aware of universal forms of good and beauty that should shape the souls of malleable masses at home and abroad? These are not the aspirations of the advocates of re­publican virtue. Even the more sub­tle sound of imperialism grates on republican sensibilities. The world is not the plaything of Americans.

In view of the constant talk today of the virtue of greatness, who can possibly be against it? But greatness can mean radically different things. The greatness that sends Ameri­cans across the globe crusading for democracy is the Trojan horse of America’s constitutional regime. The allure of a powerful state seduces many into believing that it has only altruistic motives. The sweet sound of spreading liberty, democracy, and equality is in reality the mask for the will to power.

The emergence of the American constitutional order cannot be un­derstood apart from its growing out of opposition to empire. The American republic brought to life a system of government with modest ends. A central part and purpose of the constitutional structure was de­centralized power, something that is anathema to empire and its vortex of centralizing power.

Empire undermines the autonomy of sectional interests and local com­munities, putting it at loggerheads with the very core of the American political and social order. Those who argue for American empire push centralized power far beyond the scale of what was intended by the Framers and of what is prudent giv­en American interests in the twenty-first century.

What, then, drives the quest for American empire? On the surface it is first and foremost the belief that American values are universal and appropriate to all historical and cultural circumstances. Given the outcome of the Cold War, the United States has it within its power to re­shape the world in accordance with its values of democracy, equality, and freedom. But are these Jacobin-sounding principles universal, or even American? And do they not in their desire to remake human nature and the world merely mask a will to power?

The American Framers intended a modest republic that would allow individuals and communities to en­joy the fruits of liberty. For liberty to flourish it was necessary that power remain limited and decentralized. By contrast, the consolidation and centralization of power that comes with the movement toward Ameri­can empire means the demise of republican government and the local communities that are its foundation. Those who favor the promised land must oppose the crusader state.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore Reprinted with the gracious permission of Humanitas (2007). 


1. Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997).
2. See Claes G. Ryn, A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003).
3. For an early example of the tendency, which exists in tension with the spirit of constitutionalism, to view America as the “favor­ite land of heaven,” see Richard M. Gamble, “‘The Last and Brightest Empire of Time’: Timothy Dwight and America as Voegelin’s ‘Authoritative Present,’ 1771–1787,” Humanitas 20:1&2 (2007), 13-35.
4. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
5. David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2003), 239.
6. Orestes Brownson, “Constitutional Quarantees,” in The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, ed. Henry F. Brownson (Detroit: H. F. Brownson, Publisher, 1905), vol. XVIII, 260.
7. David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
8. Ibid., 147 (emphasis added), 156.
9. Ibid., 156.
10. Walter Berns, Making Patriots (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 31.
11. See Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Kopf, 2004), 139.
12. Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (Harper & Row, 1988), 1

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7 replies to this post
  1. The originalist conception of American republicanism died with Abraham Lincoln, but somehow the writers associated with this website seem to ignore this past history in their overriding eagerness to tear down the modern Pax Americana by taking the inevitable cheap shots at Woodrow Wilson, John Yoo, and current neoconservatives.

    If America is a crusader state, however, then I don't see how anyone can look at the history of the third world following 1945 and see this as a bad development for humanity. What you call "moral realists who understand the limits of politics and human nature," I call blackhearted isolationists who feel that no foreigner's freedom is worth putting a strain on America's domestic politics–and then pat themselves on the backs for being so high-minded about recognizing the necessity of evil!!! This seems gross and disgusting to me, especially in light of global GDP growth rates for developing nations in the post-war era. Does foreign intervention put a strain on America's domestic politics? Yes. Is it worth the strain? YES!!!

    Now, that matter being clarified, does the righteousness of foreign intervention imply that we should surrender ourselves to anti-republican impulses at home? No, of course not! But why then take aim at our noble military endeavors? Why not take aim instead at the true sources of moral rot in our constitutional history? The Civil War, the 14th Amendment, the incorporation of the Bill of Rights as invented in the 20th century, the illegitimate nature of Supreme Court jurisprudence and modern constitutional interpretation, the Wagner Act, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the EPA, etc., etc., etc.

    I mean, have you met the average American voter lately? He can't stand foreign intervention. I know it's trendy these days to jump on the populist bandwagon, kick America while it's down, and wring your hands about how awful American "imperialism" is, but if you truly wanted to be bold, then perhaps it would make more sense to actually take bold stances … especially on issues where republican liberty is actually threatened. Because for all your writing here, you haven't identified a SINGLE connection relating America's self-conception in global affairs with America's domestic recklessness in building up an unsustainable entitlement state, along with an illegitimate federal court system that feeds modern moral vanities concerning race and gender. Was it not George W. Bush himself who warned us about entitlements and championed local and individual choice more so than any other president since Calvin Coolidge? Yes, it was, and thus I fail to see what connection you are trying to make between neoconservatism and the death of republican virtue.

    I must ask you: Would you have preferred America to have erected steep barriers to free trade in the 50's & 60's, letting foreigners starve in order to prevent the easy post-war prosperity that led to entitlement state recklessness at home? Because as far as I can tell, that's the only coherent argument I can think of that would actually support your main theme.

    I advise you to stop taking cheap shots at unpopular developments and start thinking more carefully about cause and effect. You might learn something in the process.

  2. Talk about cheap shots! A "blackhearted isolationist," am I? And every decent American who has understood from the beginning that the "thirst for empire" is the surest way to destroy the republic? In your deep sentimental desire to ennoble the chicken hawks who have slaughtered well over 100,000 Americans since Korea, and at least 20 times that many citizens of other countries, in the name of the abstraction you call freedom. I would like you to go to the Vietnam War Memorial and start making checkmarks by the names of the men and women you think deserved to die for your noble ideas. I also suspect that it is the "isolationists" who give the most to truly noble enterprises, like the Wounded Warrior project; and you also may take the time to notice that of all military contributions to this electoral campaign season, more went to Ron Paul than to all the other candidates combined. Furthermore, that thing you denigrate by name-calling, "blackhearted isolationism," is not an "originalist" position. There is an iron law of politics, that FOREIGN POLICY ALWAYS REFLECTS DOMESTIC POLICY. To think that one can ask for limited government at home while crusading around the world is simply without historical or moral foundations. Cause and effect? Is that really how you think history operates? And right now let's get specific. Who has been hurt the most by our adventurism in the middle east? The answer is simple: Christians. Is it surprising to you that every Syrian Christian is on the side of the supposedly evil Assad regime? Is the "Arab Spring" we have helped to create in Egypt going to make life better for the Copts? Ah, I guess Christians must be collateral damage in the greater glory of democratic capitalism. And by the way, I have yet to find a neocon who cares one whit about localism. They are as vigorous a bunch of nationalists as any liberal Democrats, which is exactly what they are, only a generation older.

  3. So all those Americans since Korea merely died for an abstraction I call freedom? Does global order mean nothing to the billions of people rising from poverty today? Is it totally unrelated to the spread of Christianity in foreign countries? Is it all just pie-in-the-sky ideology used as a pretext to promote plundering other people's wealth, as the Noam Chomskys and Ron Pauls of the world would have us believe? For my part, I'll stick with the abstract principle of freedom, and keep supporting the application of it on a case-by-case basis where it is both reasonable and charitable to do so.

    I call isolationists blackhearted because they are blackhearted, and I know that anyone who has to qualify Assad's regime as "supposedly" evil, and moreover who is reduced to defending it with reference to the identity politics of religious affiliation, is likely losing the argument. Do the Muslims of the region actually count for anything as well? Wasn't burying our heads in the sand while petty rulers grew wealthy with trade from developed nations how such unnatural conditions of modern tyranny were created in the first place? Don't we have an obligation to rectify the injustice that Western trade aggravates if it's reasonable for us to do so? I say yes, yes, and yes.

    And you are correct about one thing–foreign policy does reflect domestic policy–only not in the way that you suppose. Socialism, for example, always attempts to erect walls and barriers in the name of preserving the stability of stifling local economic arrangements. For example, anti-immigrant animus in the name of preserving decadent and immoral welfare, education, and entitlement benefits is quite typical. The same walls that socialism tends to erect, global capitalism usually attempts to tear down. Now, do I realize that such razing of barriers can be problematic for localism and community authority? Yes. Nobody has found a formula for striking the perfect balance between local community autonomy and freedom of economic movement for individual men. Free market capitalism is not the answer to every problem, and certainly it is true that republican virtue is harmed when the imperatives of global capital markets run roughshod over community morals and the ability of parents to educate and raise their children in traditional ways.

    It is equally true, however, that it is right and just to fight certain wars of choice in order to more fully connect foreigners to the markets we enjoy with the rest of the developed world. For when people are forced to live in hellish slums and dictatorships that lack dignity, while we in turn feed off their misery via global market mechanisms that inexorably feed the power and profits of third world tormentors, then there is no need to think ideologically about any of it. It is simply sufficient to act in a practical way so as to make those people more self-sufficient than they were before, and when prudent, to do so through the use of military force. The world becomes a more stable and peaceful place as a result, and over the long haul, we gain more friends than enemies.

    For a republican who is not willing to volunteer to fight for the defense of liberty against aggressively expanding menace is not a true republican in the sense of honoring the compacts of blood by which republics were originally born. He is merely a free rider laying claim to an inheritance of stored wealth that he did not merit and does not deserve.

  4. First, you who hide behind anonymity to call other people names, you know nothing about American History if you claim there was ever, now or in the past, an "isolationist" position in foreign policy that was organized in any meaningful way. There were a lot more American communists in the service of the Soviet Union than there ever were any true isolationists. Read the literature and the sources before you spout off.
    Second, strut around and proclaim your version of "World Order." Think up a new salute while you do it, and maybe some more creative names like "blackhearted." And please, remain anonymous, so you can be even more courageous.
    Third, I suspect that since the beginning of the Cold War more members of my own family have volunteered to go into harm's way than the total of all the families of the chicken hawks who have sent them there.
    Fourth, have you ever heard of Just War? Tell me which one in the middle east qualifies. And if you think that a desire to protect the ancient home of Christianity and the descendants of those who have already suffered over 1500 years of travail at the hands of the people you want to bring down the Mubaraks and Assads because you have some utopian notion of bringing the "third world" (just what is that?) out of "poverty" is something noble, then I commend you to the task.
    Fifth, it is exactly the aggression of "global markets" that helps drive the rest of what you think of as noble. You should read, sometime, "Little Brown Brothers," by Leon Wolff, and then tell me about the progressive nonsense that has taken us to the ends of the earth. Or at least read something.

  5. As I commented in NYT today, “We’ll never get rid of Empire (nor blow-back terrorism) until we admit that the supposedly last Empire on earth, “The End of History”, ‘free-market capitalist democracies’, and
    Tommy Friedman’s happy-talk of “globalization” didn’t actually give birth to some magical unicorn between 1989 and 1992.”

    Let’s not leave it to the Empire to bomb to death all who are oppressed by Empire ‘abroad’ — but to we Americans, who are the only people in the world who can fire a loud, public, sustained, but peaceful “Shout (not shot) heard round the world” and ignite a Second American “Political/economic/social Revolution against EMPIRE”. After all, no other people on earth can accomplish this responsibility without being slaughtered in unlimited numbers and with complete impunity.

    As the late great Jewish intellectual and academic ‘student/professor of Empires’, Hannah Arendt presciently warned her own German people:
    “Empire abroad entails tyranny at home”

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