I recently saw a statement that said “900 (military) bases in 153 countries is not fighting for your freedom. It is an empire.” While most Americans wouldn’t think of the United States as such, the evidence is hard to dispute. In 2012, the U.S. spent $646 billion on “defense”, 41% of the combined defense spending of every country in the entire world. To put that in perspective, the U.S. spent nearly seven times as much as the next closest country, China.
What does the U.S. gain by spending so much on its military? Well, there are those those 900 bases in 153 countries. We also get decade-long ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We get constant military intervention and preparation for intervention in countries like Libya, Syria and Iran. We get a drone program that indiscriminately bombs other countries and spies on its own citizens at home. We get a heightened surveillance state. We get incessant meddling in revolutions and counterrevolutions across the globe.
If this is not empire, then what is? Would we hesitate to condemn these as the actions of an empire if they were taken by Russia, China or Iran? That question answers itself. It must be admitted, then, that if this kind of foreign policy is imperial for other countries, it doesn’t magically transform into benevolent leadership just because the U.S. does it.
Despite this, many Americans, especially on the right, not only defend empire, but vehemently attack anti-imperialism an un-American. These defenses notwithstanding, the truth is that there is little that is more antithetical to the principles of the American Revolution than empire, of which America’s founders were extremely critical along with its concomitant institutions, continual war and standing armies.
James Madison made the marquee argument against empire when he said,
“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too…all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people.”
He concluded, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Madison was under no delusions about the root of politicians’ desires for war. He observed, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”
Historian Kevin Gutzman, a prominent Madison biographer has stated that Madison and many of his contemporaries
“…warned that standing armies led to endless wars, and that endless war meant more authority in the central government, more power in the Executive Branch, more government secrecy, more government borrowing, higher taxes, more concentration of wealth, dead soldiers, and, in short, the distortion of republican government into something very different.”
The founding generation had a very different vision for the country’s foreign relations. In his farewell address, George Washington advised his countrymen about what a truly American foreign policy should be:
“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and…great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”
In other words, eschew empire, mind our own business and display an example of peace and freedom to the rest of the world. The failure of nations to do this has had dire consequences throughout history. As Patrick Henry cautioned, “Those nations who have gone in search of grandeur, power and splendor, have…been the victims of their own folly. While they acquired those visionary blessings, they lost their freedom.”
Some Americans respond to these points by saying that a strong, militarily active United States is needed by the world to “make it safe for democracy,” as one prominent progressive put it, or to advance human rights. Of course, the people who called the Iraq War a humanitarian war to advance democracy must deal with the fact that Iraq is now a political mess and that the United States’ war in that country led to the rapidly accelerating persecution of hundreds of thousands Iraqi Christians who had been tolerated by the former government.
These facts are hardly a ringing endorsement of humanitarian interventions, which typically end up harming just as many innocent people as do the regimes they overthrow. This is one reason why early Americans rejected the notions about interventionism that have since become fashionable. A generation after the American Revolution, John Quincy Adams articulated a different role that America should play in bringing freedom to the world. Adams said,
(America) has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings…. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
Adams noted that, in attempting to militarily bring freedom to the world, America would risk its own. He believed that if the United States were to become embroiled in international battles for freedom, “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….”
America’s founders understood that the rejection what modern interventionists incorrectly label isolationism would lead to the destruction of liberty. This same understanding led journalist Felix Morley to conclude,
“As problems of every sort increase at home we realize that what happens to Israel or Ethiopia is not our first concern. And this is not to be called a rebirth of ‘isolationism,’ but rather a recognition that federalism…is not adapted or adaptable to the path of empire.”