Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Imperialist Blinders?

Steven Meyer


August 26, 2002

The great foreign policy debate has now been joined. Is the United States an imperial power? Should the United States be an imperial power? The debate unfolds in the editorial pages of major newspapers and professional journals, at conferences, and most importantly in the decision-making circles of government. Indeed, this debate drives Washington's current power struggle that will determine how the U.S. approaches the most wrenching foreign policy challenges of the day.

Although the question of American imperialism did not surface often during the Cold War, it has been prominent through the broad sweep of American—and modern European—history. Throughout our history, the answer to the imperial question has almost always been settled in favor of imperial adventure. From the time we gained independence from Great Britain through the early 20th century, we played essentially the same imperial game as the Europeans, though our outward expansion has been driven by motives somewhat different than those of the Europeans.

While the Europeans felt themselves morally and religiously superior to the people they subjugated, they were driven more by a deep sense of cultural superiority. The U.S. shared this sense of cultural superiority to a degree, but the differentiating characteristic of American imperialism has been the conviction that we possess a God-given moral rectitude. As the U.S. pursued its righteous course, its people and leaders developed a sense of moral certainty unrivaled anywhere in the world. Underlying Manifest Destiny, for example, was the belief that God had destined the American people to take the continent.

This legacy, reinforced by a rebirth of Wilsonianism in the post-Cold War world, has, in my opinion, had a strong and overwhelmingly negative impact on current American foreign policy making. The legacy has bred a significant number of intolerant ideologues who tend to see issues in terms of black and white. They lack appreciation for conflicting interests. There is little room for nuance and intricacy. Complicated questions are made simple. Unself-critically, they seek U.S. dominance in parts of the world where in fact we have few vital interests and cannot adequately fulfill responsibilities of governance. Some of these leaders see military force as the primary means by which to engage the world, leading them to a sort of foreign policy by air strike.

Not only does this approach create or aggravate enormously dangerous situations in some parts of the world, it is also foreclosing opportunities to engage in more creative, innovative diplomacy in places such as Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and North Korea where the stakes are extremely high. The Bush administration's "axis-of-evil" chest-thumping has cost us dearly. Saddam Hussein and his forces are currently boxed in and he knows what his fate will be if he ever again uses weapons of mass destruction. So why should we unleash a war against him that would have highly uncertain and potentially very deadly and destabilizing consequences? Why push our preferred political outcome in Iran so hard and so publicly that we undermine exactly the people we want to see win in Teheran? And why maintain such a palpable double standard between Israelis and Palestinians that we actually encourage violence, when the role of a genuinely honest broker might just help resolve that vicious tragedy? Finally, why not actively encourage reconciliation and eventual reunion between North and South Korea rather than a more dangerous policy of isolation for Pyongyang?

The time has come in this debate to turn a critical eye toward the American sense of privileged moral rectitude that may be leading us astray.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    National Defense University
    (The views expressed are those of the author alone and not of the National Defense University or the U.S. Government.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”