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The Exit Strategy of Empire

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The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization. Its good intentions were peace, law and order. The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man’s burden. We have added freedom and democracy.

— Garet Garrett, Rise of Empire

The first step in creating Empire is to morally justify the invasion and occupation of another nation even if it poses no credible or substantial threat. But if that’s the entering strategy, what is the exit one?

One approach to answering is to explore how Empire has arisen through history and whether the process can be reversed. Another is to conclude that no exit is possible; an Empire inevitably self-destructs under the increasing weight of what it is — a nation exercising ultimate authority over an array of satellite states. Empires are vulnerable to overreach, rebellion, war, domestic turmoil, financial exhaustion, and competition for dominance.

In his monograph Rise of Empire, the libertarian journalist Garet Garrett (1878–1954), lays out a blueprint for how Empire could possibly be reversed as well as the reason he believes reversal would not occur.  Garrett was in a unique position to comment insightfully on the American empire because he’d had a front-row seat to events that cemented its status: World War II and the Cold War. World War II America already had a history of conquest and occupation, of course, but, during the mid to late 20th century, the nation became a self-consciously and unapologetic empire with a self-granted mandate to spread its ideology around the world.

A path to reversing Empire

Garrett identifies the first five components of Empire:

  • the dominance of executive power: the White House reigns over Congress and the judiciary.
  • the subordination of domestic concerns to foreign policy: civil and economic liberties give way to military needs.
  • the rise of a military mentality: aggressive patriotism and obedience are exalted.
  • a system of satellite nations in the name of collective security;
  • and a zeitgeist of both zealous patriotism and fear: bellicosity is mixed with and sustained by panic.

These are not sequential stages of Empire but occur in conjunction with one another and reinforce each other. That means that an attempt to reverse Empire in the direction of a Republic can begin with weakening any of the five characteristics in any order.

Garrett did not directly address the strategy of undoing Empire but his description of its creation can be used to good advantage. The first step is to break down each component of Empire into more manageable chunks. For example, the executive branch accumulates power in various ways. They include:

By delegation — Congress transfers its constitutional powers to the president.

By reinterpretation of the Constitution by a sympathetic Supreme Court.

Through innovation by which the president assumes powers that are not constitutionally forbidden because the Framers never considered them.

By administrative agencies that issue regulations with the force of law.

Through usurpation — the president confronts Congress with a fait accompli that cannot easily be repudiated.

Entanglement in foreign affairs makes presidential power swell because, both by tradition and the Constitution, foreign affairs are his authority.

Deconstructing these executive props, one by one, weakens the Empire. When all five components are deconstructing, the process presents a possible path to dissolving Empire itself.

A sixth component of Empire

But in Rise of Empire, Garet Garrett offers a chilling assessment based on his sixth component of Empire. There is no path out. A judgment that renders prevention all the more essential.

That was why Garrett does not deal with how to reverse the process of Empire. Once an empire is established, he argues, it becomes a “prisoner of history” in a trap of its own making. He writes, “A Republic may change its course, or reverse it, and that will be its own business. But the history of Empire is a world history and belongs to many people. A Republic is not obliged to act upon the world, either to change it or instruct it. Empire, on the other hand, must put forth its power.”

In his book For A New Liberty, Murray Rothbard expands on Garrett’s point: “[The] United States, like previous empires, feel[s] itself to be ‘a prisoner of history.’ For beyond fear lies ‘collective security,’ and the playing of the supposedly destined American role upon the world stage.”

Collective security and fear are intimately connected concepts. It is no coincidence that the sixth component of Empire — imprisonment — comes directly after the two components of “a system of satellite nations” and, “a complex of vaunting and fear.”

Satellite nations

“We speak of our own satellites as allies and friends or as freedom loving nations,” Garrett wrote. “Nevertheless, satellite is the right word. The meaning of it is the hired guard.” Why hired? Although men of Empire speak of losing China [or] Europe … [how] could we lose China or Europe, since they never belonged to us? What they mean is that we … may lose a following of dependent people who act as an outer guard.”

An empire thinks that satellites are necessary for its collective security. Satellites think the empire is necessary for territorial and economic survival; but they are willing to defect if an empire with a better deal beckons. America knows this and scrambles to satisfy satellites that could become fickle. Garrett quotes Harry Truman, who created America’s modern system of satellites. “We must make sure that our friends and allies overseas continue to get the help they need to make their full contribution to security and progress for the whole free world. This means not only military aid — though that is vital — it also means real programs of economic and technical assistance.“

In contrast to a Republic, Empire is both a master and a servant because foreign pressure cements it into the military and economic support of satellite nations around the globe, all of which have their own agendas.

Garrett also emphasizes how domestic pressure imprisons Empire. One of the most powerful domestic pressures is fear. An atmosphere of fear  — real or created — drives public support of foreign policy and makes it more difficult for Empire to retreat from those policies. In his introduction to Garrett’s book Ex America, Bruce Ramsey addresses Garrett’s point. Ramsey writes, Empire has “‘less control over its own fate than a republic,’ he [Garrett] commented because it was a ‘prisoner of history’, ruled by fear. Fear of what? ‘Fear of the barbarian.’”

It does not matter whether the enemy is actually a barbarian. What matters is that citizens of Empire believe in the enemy’s savagery and support a military posture toward him. Domestic fear drives the constant politics of satellite nations, protective treaties, police actions, and war. Foreign entanglements lead to increased global involvement and deeper commitments. The two reinforce each other.

The fifth characteristic of Empire is not merely fear but also “vaunting.” Vaunting means boasting about or praising something excessively — for example, to laud and exaggerate America’s role in the world. Fear provides the emotional impetus for conquest; vaunting provides the moral justification for acting upon the fear. The moral duty is variously phrased: leadership, a balance of power, peace, democracy, the preservation of civilization, humanitarianism. From this point, it is a small leap to conclude that the ends sanctify the means. Garrett observes that “there is soon a point from which there is no turning back….The argument for going on is well known. As Woodrow Wilson once asked, ‘Shall we break the heart of the world?’ So now many are saying, ‘We cannot let the free world down’. Moral leadership of the world is not a role you step into and out of as you like.”

Conclusion

In this manner, Garrett believed, Empire imprisons itself in the trap of a perpetual war for peace and stability, which are always stated goals. Yet, as Garrett concluded, the reality is war and instability.

It is not clear whether he was correct that Empire could not be reversed. Whether or not he was, it is at its creation that Empire is best opposed.

This article was originally published in the July 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).