A Superb History Lesson
Jude Wanniski
June 9, 2003


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A philosophical gift from John Judis

Over the last several years I have come to have a special appreciation for John Judis, a veteran journalist who has been identified with liberal Democratic causes and who now writes for The New Republic. Why? Because he is a student of political philosophy and of political history, which compels him to keep an open mind on interesting ideas of political economy that are rejected out of hand by almost all other journalists in the “liberal” camp. (And conservative camp too.) Here is a long-headed piece he sent to me today which he wrote for the current issue of TNR, which you could not read otherwise unless you bought the hard-copy of the magazine. I thank John and his boss, Marty Peretz, for this gift. It is not an essay you want to begin right now unless you have a block of time staring you in the face and a taste for political philosophy. You should print it out and read it when you are in the mood. This is really a superb article, a four-star effort in my estimation:

A History Lesson by John B. Judis
The New Republic June 9

History is not physics. Studying the past does not yield objective laws that can unerringly predict the course of events. But peoples do draw lessons from history and change their behavior accordingly. Western European countries, for instance, took the experience of two world wars as reason to change radically their relations with one another. The United States took the experience of the Great Depression as reason to alter the relationship between government and the market.

Historical lessons can also be unlearned or forgotten. The New Left of the 1960s, for instance, forgot the lessons of an earlier "God that failed" and projected the same hopes for a communist utopia onto Castro's Cuba or Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam that earlier generations had projected onto the Soviet Union. And, today, the right is going through its own bout of historical amnesia. Conservatives, forgetting the lessons of the early twentieth century, are attempting to rehabilitate the long-discredited strategy of imperialism.

The revival is centered in East Coast journals and think tanks, from National Review and The Wall Street Journal editorial page in New York to the American Enterprise Institute, The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, and the Project for the New American Century in Washington. In an October 2001 Weekly Standard cover story, Max Boot called on the United States "unambiguously to embrace its imperial role." In Foreign Affairs last July, Thomas Donnelly, a former Lockheed official who is a senior fellow at the Project for the New American Century, wrote that "American imperialism can bring with it new hopes of liberty, security, and prosperity." In Policy Review last April, Stanley Kurtz called for a new "democratic imperialism."

Although the Bush administration's foreign policy is a mix of different ideologies, it has clearly been influenced by this new imperialism. Evidence can be found in the cultlike popularity of Theodore Roosevelt, the president many conservatives take as their guide to a neo-imperial strategy. (George W. Bush has declared Roosevelt his favorite president, and Donald Rumsfeld displays a plaque quoting TR on his Pentagon desk.) More important, it is evident in the administration's attitude toward international institutions, its arguments for invading and occupying Iraq, its case for preventive war, and even its international economic strategy.

This new imperialism differs in some respects from the older U.S. imperialism of Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge—the new imperialists don't assume, for instance, the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race or seek the spread of Christian civilization—but it is sufficiently similar to raise the question of whether these new imperialists are reviving a strategy that failed the United States 80 years ago. That failure was understood most clearly by Woodrow Wilson, who offered not only the most compelling critique of U.S. imperialism but also the most thoughtful alternative—a liberal internationalism that served the United States well in the second half of the twentieth century and could guide Americans again today.

There have been empires since the Greeks and Romans, but modern imperialism, and the term "imperialism" itself, appeared in the late nineteenth century. From 1870 to 1914, when World War I began, the great European powers and Japan carved up Asia and Africa into colonies, protectorates, and client regimes. The United States, still recovering from the Civil War and having not yet completed its continental expansion, initially forswore any imperial ambitions. But, by the 1890s, a powerful lobby led by Roosevelt (who would become assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration) and Lodge was calling for an "expansionist" foreign policy.

Like their European counterparts, the American imperialists were worried about ensuring national prosperity. They contended, particularly after the depression of the mid-1890s, that, if the United States failed to gain a foothold in Asia and Africa, it would be denied access to raw materials and important markets for the surplus of goods that its factories could now produce. But Roosevelt and Lodge also saw imperialism through the prism of geopolitics, social Darwinism, and evangelical Protestantism. Roosevelt regarded it as integral to a struggle for the "domination of the world" that the United States must either win or lose. If the United States failed to seize the Hawaiian Islands, Roosevelt warned in 1898, they could be "transformed into the most dangerous possible base of operations against our Pacific cities." Imperialism also offered a way to provide moral uplift to Americans—by fostering a spirit of what Roosevelt called "national greatness"—and to extend the benefits of American, and more broadly Anglo-Saxon and Christian, civilization to the "barbarous" peoples of Asia and Africa. Wrote Roosevelt in 1901, "It is our duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that they are freed from their chains."

The American imperialists first got their chance in 1898. Accusing the Spanish of blowing up the battleship Maine in the Havana harbor (the explosion later turned out to be from a defective boiler), the United States declared war on Spain and seized its possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, including Cuba and the Philippines. The United States, it seemed, had enthusiastically entered the imperial fray.

Yet, in less than a decade, the United States would abandon its imperial mission and, five years after that, explicitly repudiate it. The abandonment of imperialism began, ironically, with Roosevelt. While publicly continuing to support an imperialist foreign policy, Roosevelt actually allowed U.S. possessions to shrink during his two terms as president (1901-1908) and resisted pleas to establish new U.S. bases in China and the Caribbean. In 1902, he wrote to prominent New York lawyer Frederick Coudert, "Barring the possible necessity of fortifying the Isthmian canal or getting a naval station, I hope it will not become our duty to take a foot of soil south of us."

Like Roosevelt, Wilson was an early advocate of imperialism—for example, arguing in 1902 that the "impulse to expansion is the natural and wholesome impulse, which comes from a consciousness of matured strength"—but refrained from endorsing it once he ascended to the presidency. In 1913, his first year in office, Wilson withdrew America's support for a bank consortium in China that the United States, along with Britain and other occupying powers, had established to parcel out China's economy. "I will not help any man buy a power which he ought not to exercise over fellow beings," he commented. He also pressured Congress to grant early independence to the Philippines and citizenship to Puerto Ricans.

Most important, Wilson made self-determination and an end to colonialism the hallmarks of his plan for ending World War I and preventing future wars. During the Senate debate in 1920 over the League of Nations, Wilson argued that Americans had "a choice between ... the ideal of democracy, which represents the rights of free peoples everywhere to govern themselves, and ... the ideal of imperialism, which seeks to dominate by force and unjust power." Imperialism, to Wilson, was not an instrument of democracy but an obstacle to it.

What initially turned Roosevelt privately and Wilson publicly against imperialism were the nationalist backlashes that America's imperialist policies provoked. Roosevelt and other American imperialists had believed they could impose U.S. civilization upon conquered peoples as readily as they had transformed the continental frontier. But, in the first decades of the twentieth century, they were to discover that imperial intervention inspired anti-imperial nationalist movements that frustrated U.S. objectives. Roosevelt had promised to "civilize" the Filipinos, but, soon after the United States took power in 1898, it faced a succession of violent national rebellions. By 1902, at least 4,000 Americans and 200,000 Filipinos had been killed. When World War I began, Roosevelt finally urged U.S. withdrawal from the Philippines.

Wilson experienced similar frustration in Mexico. The Mexican Revolution had begun in 1910, and the next year liberal constitutionalist Francisco Madero overthrew dictator Porfirio Diaz. In 1913, Madero was murdered and replaced by General Victoriano Huerta. With Mexico on the verge of civil war, Wilson landed troops in Veracruz to depose the unpopular Huerta. "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men," Wilson declared. But Huerta used Wilson's intervention to rally support against Yankee imperialism. And Huerta's successor, the revolutionary Venustiano Carranza, fearful of being identified with the Yankee invaders, rebuffed Wilson's diplomatic overtures. Wilson, biographer Kendrick A. Clements writes, was "stunned by the fury with which the invasion was greeted by Mexicans of all political persuasions." Although Roosevelt and others urged him to impose a pliant regime on Mexico by force, Wilson instead withdrew the troops and recognized Carranza. "There are in my judgment no conceivable circumstances which would make it right for us to direct by force or threat of force the internal processes of what is a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France," Wilson wrote to his secretary of war in August 1914.

Wilson's opposition to imperialism was hardened by World War I.

Proponents of empire had previously argued that imperial expansion would reduce the chances of global war by eliminating unstable regimes in Africa and Asia. "Peace cannot be had until the civilized nations have expanded in some shape over the barbarous nations," wrote Roosevelt in 1894. But, by making the struggle for imperial domination integral to a nation's power and prosperity, imperialism instead led to a succession of conflicts culminating in world war: the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-1905 over Manchuria and Korea; the clashes between Germany and France over French North Africa in 1906 and in 1911; the Anglo-German naval arms race for control of the seas and the world's commerce; the growing tensions in the Middle East, where oil had been discovered; and, finally, the outbreak of war in 1914 between Austria and Russia over Turkey's former possessions in the Balkans, a conflict that quickly pulled in all of Europe's great powers. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Wilson would publicly blame it on German militarism. But, when it came to making proposals to prevent future wars, Wilson showed that he believed imperial rivalry lay at the root of the conflagration. "For my own part," he told the Senate in 1920, "I am as intolerant of imperialistic designs on the part of other nations as I was of such designs on the part of Germany."

Wilson saw imperialism not simply as a strategy or policy but as a system of international relations that had to be thoroughly uprooted. It was characterized by a hierarchy of power in which the larger, more powerful nations competed violently with each other to dominate the smaller, less powerful ones. To the extent it didn't immediately lead to war, it was because of a coincidental and transient balance of power among the larger powers. The system itself, he believed, was inherently unstable as well as unjust.

Wilson didn't believe he could eliminate hierarchies of power, but he contrived to create a mediating system of international law and organizations that would protect the sovereignty and independence of smaller, weaker nations. Within this realm, all nations would become equal, just as all citizens were legally equal, regardless of their strength or wealth, within a democracy. In his Fourteen Points, which he announced to Congress in January 1918, and in the draft charter of a new League of Nations that he wrote and introduced the next year, Wilson called for phasing out colonialism, eliminating protectionist trade barriers, and establishing a worldwide system of free trade. "There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power," he explained, "not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace."

Like Roosevelt, Wilson believed that Americans were chosen to transform the backward nations of the world. He thought of the United States "as the light of the world as created to lead the world in the assertion of the rights of peoples and the rights of free nations." Citing this commitment to global democracy, some of today's neoconservatives, including my colleague Lawrence F. Kaplan, have argued that they are the true heirs of Wilsonianism. But, unlike the turn-of-the-century imperialists or today's neoconservatives, Wilson did not believe the world's great powers, acting individually, should impose their political beliefs or economic systems on former colonies or protectorates. Instead, Wilson believed the great nations had to act together within an organization such as the League of Nations. He proposed a "mandate system" by which the transition to self-government in Africa or Asia would be overseen by smaller, non-imperial nations, such as Sweden. Wilson believed in spreading democracy and Christian civilization, but he believed the United States had to do it through international organizations and outside the framework of imperial power.

At Versailles, America's allies rejected Wilson's proposals for free trade and an end to imperialism. They insisted that German aggression was the sole cause of World War I and sought to curb it through reparations and a divvying up of German colonies. Back home, Lodge and conservative Republicans rejected even the weakened League of Nations because they feared it put America's foreign policy at the mercy of an international organization.

Wilson's internationalism was shelved for two decades, but the outbreak of World War II, precipitated by Germany, Italy, and Japan's efforts to conquer Europe, Africa, and Asia, confirmed Wilson's warnings that the system of imperialism, if not uprooted, would again lead to war. And so the Franklin Roosevelt and Truman administrations adopted the outlines of Wilson's approach. They made ending imperialism and dismantling trade and currency blocs one of their principal war aims; and, rejecting Wilson's reliance on a single organization, they built many international organizations — including the United Nations, NATO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank—that attempted to create a "community of power" without ignoring existing disparities of power.

The events of the last 50 years have confirmed the correctness of this neo-Wilsonian strategy. The second half of the twentieth century, when compared with the first, was prosperous and pacific. The international institutions the United States built helped to win the cold war against the Soviet Union, which under Stalin became heir to czarist Russia's imperial ambitions. The British, French, Germans, Italians, and Dutch abandoned their empires and subordinated their national ambitions to a new, supranational organization, the European Union. Under the IMF, gatt, and now the World Trade Organization, the world has tempered the older cycle of boom and extreme bust.

In addition, the World Bank—along with the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO—has, to a considerable extent, taken over the civilizing and stabilizing functions that the imperial nations once claimed for themselves. Some of these efforts have been less than successful, but, in Africa and Asia, these organizations have helped guide former colonies toward self-government. As a last resort, the United Nations and NATO have sanctioned the use of force to protect or expand the community of power—in 1991, the United Nations backed the coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, defending the sovereignty of a smaller, weaker nation, and, in 1995 and 1999, NATO took action against Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia.

Republican conservatives embraced this Wilsonian approach grudgingly during the cold war, backing NATO, if not the United Nations, as a means to defeat communism. But, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, conservatives divided into two camps. Some, led by former Reagan official Pat Buchanan and House Republicans, reverted to the isolationism and protectionism of 1920s Republicans. Others, led by neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Richard Perle, and Robert Kagan, continued to advocate the transformation of the world in America's image, but they repudiated Wilson's internationalist methods in favor of Roosevelt's imperial strategy. As Kristol explained in Commentary in January 2000, "[T]here is a fundamental difference between us and the true Wilsonians—between, that is, the muscular patriotism of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and the utopian multilateralism of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton."

Like Roosevelt and the late-nineteenth-century expansionists, the new imperialists want to transform the politics and allegiances of countries and regions, and they are willing to use force unilaterally to do so. Like the old imperialists, the new ones see overseas intervention in evangelical, although secular, terms. They believe in what the Hoover Institution's Dinesh d'Souza has called "America's evident moral superiority" and see the United States as having a special responsibility to transform the world in its image. "[I]mperialism as the midwife of democratic self-rule is an undeniable good," Kurtz writes. And, like Roosevelt, they see the politics of this new imperialism as an expression of patriotism and of support for "national greatness."

The new imperialists are even less equivocal than the old in rejecting multilateral institutions. Now that the United States has become the premier world power, they argue, it has no need for international organizations except on an ad hoc basis. Unlike Wilson, or contemporary Wilsonians such as Bill Clinton, they actually prefer for the United States to act alone or in ad hoc coalitions that the United States dominates. And they despise the United Nations, which Perle has described as the "chatterbox on the Hudson" and columnist Charles Krauthammer has opined should "sink ... into irrelevance."

Wilson wanted a world in which the community of power would eventually overshadow the balance of power. The new imperialists regard that as a dangerous illusion. They think the United States will always have to depend on superior military power for its security; employing it, if necessary, to eliminate or intimidate potential competitors and adversaries. Wilson wanted a mediating realm of equal, independent nations governed by Kantian moral universality, in which what is justifiable for one country must be justifiable for all. The new imperialists invoke America's global mission to limit the prerogatives of other nations but not the United States. They support sustained violations of other nations' sovereignty, for instance, in the name of nonproliferation and human rights, but reject virtually any infringements on U.S. sovereignty at all. As Stephen Peter Rosen wrote in The National Interest, "The organizing principle of empire rests ... on the existence of an overarching power that creates and enforces the principle of hierarchy, but is not itself bound by such rules."

During Bush's presidency, the primary goal of the new imperialists has been winning support for an invasion of Iraq that would overthrow Saddam's regime and transform the entire region. By democratizing Iraq and pulling its oil industry out of the Saudi-dominated opec, they believed they could bring the region into America's orbit in much the way the older imperialists had imagined turning the western Pacific into an American sphere of influence.

Colin Powell and the State Department, by contrast, advocated conditioning the invasion on U.N. support. But, even after Bush acceded to Powell's arguments and went to the United Nations in September 2002, it was clear that the United States was committed to an invasion with or without U.N. support. After Baghdad fell, Powell once again advocated a Wilsonian approach, but once again he appears to have lost the debate to the neo-imperialists in the Pentagon. The United States has taken control of Iraq's oil industry (hinting already it will not honor opec quotas) and shunned international supervision of Iraq's transition to self-rule.

If the Bush administration continues its present course, Iraq will be a good test of whether America's new imperial strategy can escape the pitfalls that doomed the last one. Indeed, there are already warning signs that the United States could encounter the same anti-imperial nationalism in Iraq that bedeviled it in the Philippines in the early 1900s and in Mexico in 1914. Since Saddam's statue fell on April 9, there have been continual demonstrations calling for the United States to leave Iraq. (By contrast, there have been very few organized expressions of support for the U.S. occupation.) On May 20, in Baghdad, 10,000 marched from a Sunni mosque to a Shia shrine bearing signs that read, no, no, no u.s.a. The two major Shia clerics currently vying for leadership—Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr Al Hakim and Moktada Al Sadr—have both called for the United States to leave Iraq. Even the generally pro-American Kurdish leaders have turned truculent since the U.S. decision to postpone the creation of an interim Iraqi government.

The U.S. show of force in Iraq may have cowed neighboring regimes, but it does not seem to have intimidated Islamic radicals, who have resumed and even stepped up terrorist attacks in the region. Writing in the British Guardian, Saad Al Fagih, a leading Saudi dissident, warned that the U.S. invasion and occupation in Iraq could strengthen Islamic radicalism: "The invasion and occupation of Iraq will never be seen as a liberation. The sight of U.S. tanks in Baghdad has been regarded as the most humiliating event for Arabs and Muslims since 1967. ... [Osama] Bin Laden and his supporters can now be expected to see his war as more justified than ever because of the occupation of Iraq." Many European intelligence agencies seem to agree.

Americans generally interpret this growing Islamic radicalism as a new phenomenon. And to some extent it is. But it is also a particularly ugly manifestation of a Third World nationalism that has frustrated imperialist efforts since China's Boxer Rebellion of 1900. In neighboring Iran, for instance, the Islamic radicals of the late '70s saw themselves as the successors to nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, whom the United States had helped overthrow in 1953. Olivier Roy, an authority on and critic of radical Islam, wrote in The New York Times this month, "The United States cannot stand alone when dealing with the driving force in the Middle East. This is neither Islamism nor the appetite for democracy, but simply nationalism—whether it comes in the guise of democracy, secular totalitarianism or Islamic fervor.”

Nor has the Bush administration's imperialist approach been limited to Iraq. It has been evident in its dismissive attitude toward European allies that have worked closely with the United States in the Balkans and Afghanistan and in its rejection of international treaties. The administration has even adopted the rudiments of a protectionist economic strategy. While mouthing support for free trade, it has slapped tariffs on imported steel and, instead of allowing the dollar's value to reflect impersonal currency markets, has driven down its price by actively encouraging speculation against it. Reducing the dollar's value against other countries' currencies makes U.S. exports cheaper and their imports more expensive. It is equivalent to putting a tariff on imports and is likely to elicit reprisals from abroad.

The Bush administration's rejection of international institutions, its readiness to wage aggressive, preventive wars to dominate a vital region, and its protectionist trade strategy have already aroused considerable popular opposition—not just in surrounding Arab nations, but in Europe and Asia as well. In recent elections in countries as diverse as Belgium, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and Pakistan, the parties most identified with opposition to U.S. foreign policy emerged victorious. This popular opposition is already sparking a challenge to U.S. hegemony. Initially, such a challenge is taking the form of terrorism by Islamic radicals—asymmetric military challenges, in the current jargon—and of what political scientists call "soft balancing." These latter tactics focus on economic policy and on diplomacy in the United Nations, NATO, and other international organizations. In response to U.S. steel tariffs, the European Union has convinced the World Trade Organization to rule against their legality and has refused to remove its ban on genetically modified food imports. EU hostility to the United States also contributed to the failure of last February's World Trade Organization negotiations in Tokyo. Also, according to Cox News, "Many Muslim clerics [have begun] demanding that Arab countries sell oil for euros, not dollars"—and the Russian and Iranian parliaments are considering doing exactly that. If a significant percentage of oil sales were in euros rather than dollars, the price of oil imports would rise in the United States. More important, the United States would lose the freedom it now has to run large budget deficits financed by oil exporters using their surplus dollars to buy Treasury notes.

There is also growing discussion in Europe of expanding the European Union to meet the challenge of U.S. hegemony. In a recent report on Europe's economic future, France's leading think tank, the Institut Français des Rélations Internationales, warned that, if Europe doesn't want to be dominated by the United States, it must create an economic bloc that would stretch to Russia in the east and to Arab North Africa in the south. Such a bloc would enjoy natural resources and a pool of well-educated professionals and low-wage service workers.

Eventually, attempts to balance America's imperial efforts may even take "hard," military forms. The U.S. war in Iraq pushed the EU countries closer to developing an independent military, with Germany, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg meeting in April to plan a new, multinational force. The war also brought France, Germany, and Russia closer together. A military, as well as economic, alliance between Western Europe and nuclear-armed Russia could one day pose a real threat to U.S. dominance. Together with the inevitable growth of China as an economic and military power, it could lead to a world divided into hostile U.S., Euro-Russian, and Chinese power blocs. That's highly speculative, of course, but this disaggregation of a "unipolar" world dominated by a single imperial power into hostile alliances has happened once before—during the last era of British-dominated great-power imperialism.

The new American imperialists, who view the world as a hierarchy governed by military power, would argue that the development of such blocs is inevitable—unless the United States actively discourages its allies as well as rogue states from competing against it. But Wilsonians see the world and the future differently. They would argue that, by encouraging supranational institutions and agreements, and by exercising its authority benignly, the United States stands a far better chance of preventing the older imperial rivalries from reemerging. Realists, such as University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, concur. Writes Pape, "Aside from the Soviet Union, major powers have never made serious efforts to balance against the United States. The reason is not American weakness. The United States has been the world's strongest state throughout the 20th century and a sole superpower since the end of the Cold War. ... Rather, the key reason is America's unparalleled reputation for nonaggressive intentions."

The best way for the United States to retain its superiority, in other words, is to repudiate the very strategy that the new imperialists have devised to perpetuate it. An imperial strategy is inherently self-defeating. Wilson understood that paradox in 1919, and it was borne out by America's experience in the last half of the twentieth century. But it is a historical lesson being ignored by the conservatives who now shape foreign policy in Washington. They believe the United States has entered a new world in which the lessons of the old no longer apply. That is almost certainly wrong. History is not physics. But we ignore its lessons at our peril.

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John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.