Imperial Exceptionalism

Library of Congress
Theodore Roosevelt, center, during construction of the Panama Canal, 1906

It is hard to give up something you claim you never had. That is the difficulty Americans face with respect to their country’s empire. Since the era of Theodore Roosevelt, politicians, journalists, and even some historians have deployed euphemisms—“expansionism,” “the large policy,” “internationalism,” “global leadership”—to disguise America’s imperial ambitions. According to the exceptionalist creed embraced by both political parties and most of the press, imperialism was a European venture that involved seizing territories, extracting their resources, and dominating their (invariably dark-skinned) populations. Americans, we have been told, do things differently: they bestow self-determination on backward peoples who yearn for it. The refusal to acknowledge that Americans have pursued their own version of empire—with the same self-deceiving hubris as Europeans—makes it hard to see that the US empire might (like the others) have a limited lifespan. All empires eventually end, but maybe an exceptional force for global good could last forever—or so its champions seem to believe.

The refusal to contemplate the scaling back of empire shuts down what ought to be our most urgent foreign policy debate before it has even begun. That is why these two new books are so necessary, and so welcome: they are the most serious efforts since Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback series (2004–2010) to reopen the question of American empire by taking for granted that it exists. Victor Bulmer-Thomas’s Empire in Retreat maintains that America has harbored imperial ambitions since its founding, and argues that its focus shifted in the twentieth century, from acquiring territory to penetrating foreign countries and influencing their governments to support US strategic and economic interests. David Hendrickson’s Republic in Peril sees that shift as the result of a decisive embrace of interventionism, aimed at extending US power throughout the world.

Both authors think withdrawal from overextended military commitments could strengthen America. Bulmer-Thomas, a British diplomat and scholar, recommends it as a pragmatic adjustment to shrinking support for US empire at home and abroad. Hendrickson, a political scientist at Colorado College, provides a theoretical rationale for it, exploring the possibility of what he calls a new internationalism, based on respect for the sovereignty of other nations. Yet even as they catalog the many signs of imperial decline (economic, political, cultural), neither is sanguine that American policymakers can manage a graceful retreat.

Bulmer-Thomas begins by recounting the rise of the US territorial empire. He shows that America’s relationship with the land it acquired during westward expansion resembled the relationship between European countries and their colonies abroad. The United States, like European colonial powers, subjugated (and nearly exterminated) aboriginal populations; used military occupation as a buffer between white settlers and rebellious natives; and established only limited representative governments in their occupied territories. One resident of America’s territories complained that they were treated like “mere colonies, occupying much the…

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