The American Empire

Shadia B. Drury

Generally speaking, there are two approaches to foreign policy: realism and liberalism. The realist view is generally associated with Thucydides (d. 400 BC), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Despite considerable variation, the realists believe that the domain of international relations is a lawless, violent, and unpredictable contest for power. The liberal view rejects this pessimistic prognosis in favor of the Enlightenment ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” Kant argued that the source of war was the cupidity of monarchs. However, as humanity progresses, Kant surmised that monarchy will give way to republican government. He thought that republics are not inclined to war because republicanism is government by the people who bear the brunt of war. Unlike monarchies, they will not regard war as a means of either wealth- or self-aggrandizement. They will realize that war can only bring death and destruction for them and their children; so, they will turn to commerce as a means of acquiring wealth. In this way, perpetual peace and prosperity will replace the slaughter-bench of history. Kant assumed that Europe would lead the world toward this happy prospect where economics would replace politics in the domain of international relations.

The birth of the United States was contemporaneous with the heady ideas of the Enlightenment. So, it is not surprising that the nation has always been partial to the Kantian view. Far from being at odds with the religious faith of the English Puritans who settled the new world, the Kantian view is a secularized version of Christianity with its singular view of the good and its messianic conception of history. American Exceptionalism is a secular version of the notion of the “chosen people of God” who were led to the “promised land” to create a “city on a hill” that would be a Zion to light up the world. Americans believed, and continue to believe, that spreading their republican form of government around the world is the key to global peace and prosperity.

The United States emerged on the global scene as a liberator and an anti-colonial power promoting self-government. Accordingly, it supported Mexico when it rose up against Spanish colonialism. But no sooner did the Mexicans liberate themselves from Spanish rule than they found themselves fighting the Americans in the Mexican War of 1846 and losing large swaths of territory, which were annexed by the American juggernaut to make up Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, and California. The same thing happened to the Filipinos. No sooner did they win their independence in the Spanish-American War of 1898 than they found themselves fighting a bloody war against American occupation.

During the Cold War, America’s interventions had to become more clandestine to avoid Soviet reaction. The CIA was busy fomenting revolutions, orchestrating coups, ousting governments, meddling in elections, and assassinating leaders, nuclear scientists, and anyone else who aroused American displeasure. They orchestrated a coup in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Honduras (1963), and Chili (1973). American troops arrived in Korea in 1948 and Vietnam in 1965. There was also CIA involvement in political upheavals in Indonesia, Brazil, and the Congo. Those who need more examples can read Stephen Kinzer, Overthrown: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2006).

In the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, the United States invaded Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The CIA has created a collection of secret prisons around the world known as “black sites” beyond the reach of American or international law, where people are interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial. Anyone on the planet can be transferred to these prisons by “extraordinary rendition,” more accurately described as abduction. Meanwhile, undeclared drone warfare continues to kill unsuspecting people, including children, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Were all these interventions nefarious and unwarranted? That is debatable. Do these events prove that the United States is the most evil empire in history? It is too early to tell.

What is clear is that the United States is the most powerful empire ever to straddle the planet—and, except for the Soviet Union, the most deluded. It is deluded about being an empire in the first place. It is deluded about being exceptional and destined to play a messianic role in human history. It is deluded in thinking that democracy is a magical elixir that makes societies just and free. It is deluded about being a Kantian republic with an aversion to war. In reality, it is an oligarchy governed by an entrenched political elite, whose children do not bear the brunt of their proclivity for war—the children of the underprivileged enlist in the army. Most of all, the United States is deluded about the “rule-based international order” over which it has presided since World War II. The latter amounts to rewriting the Golden Rule: Those who have the gold make the rules. But the rules are intended for others, not for the United States.

Contrary to Kant’s claims, replacing politics with economics has not created a sweeter, gentler world. Far from being a recipe for peace, Kant’s utopian vision is a justification for conquest, political meddling, and economic imperialism. Peace, insofar as it exists at all in the domain of international affairs, requires acceptance of plurality and diversity. One model cannot fit all nations under the different circumstances in which human beings find themselves. And when that model is viewed as a recipe for global bliss, then all manner of atrocities will appear inconsequential in comparison to the noble goal at hand.

The bipartisan fury over Donald Trump within the foreign-policy establishment has its source in the fact that he is totally oblivious to the “rule-based international order” that the United States has created in light of its Manifest Destiny. Trump has turned his back on liberal internationalism—not because he objects to its delusions but because realism comes naturally to bullies. In my next article, I will endorse political realism, while showing that not all realist theories are born equal.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


Generally speaking, there are two approaches to foreign policy: realism and liberalism. The realist view is generally associated with Thucydides (d. 400 BC), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Despite considerable variation, the realists believe that the domain of international relations is a lawless, violent, and unpredictable contest for power. The liberal view rejects …

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