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Republic or Empire: Which Path for America in the 21st Century?


IN THE FIRST ISSUE of Modern Age, a conservative journal of opinion, published in 1957, there appeared an article by the classical-liberal journalist and author Felix Morley on the question of whether America was still a republic or becoming an empire. He later developed this theme in his 1959 volume, Freedom and Federalism.

Morley’s point was that the United States was founded on the conception of limited government and self-rule. This implied nonintervention in the private and peaceful affairs of the American citizenry as well as nonintervention in the domestic affairs of foreign nations. Either type of intervention represented an “imperial” policy, in the sense of a government that lords over other people’s lives and rules them.

He said that a nation’s principles often come out most clearly in the arena of foreign policy, precisely because it is not restrained by the same constitutional limits and rule of law that restrict its conduct at home. A government in its foreign affairs, so to speak, shows its true ideological colors. It either respects the rights and freedoms of others in other lands, or it does not. It either respects the right of other peoples in other countries to sort out their own affairs and future, or it does not.

At the same time, once America entered upon an interventionist policy abroad, Morley feared, it would be increasingly difficult to maintain individual liberty, the market economy, and decentralized political authority at home. Power would have to be centralized in the hands of the executive branch of the government. Huge sums of money would have to be siphoned off from the domestic private sector to fund and finance the foreign adventures undertaken by the government. A united front of support in the foreign arena would require a growing government domination and influence over the thoughts and beliefs of the people in order to prevent any weakening of the “national purpose.”

The republican form of government, with its constitutional restraints, with its respect for and protection of the liberty of the people, its securing of individual private property and accumulated wealth, and its decentralized structure of checks and balances would all have to go by the wayside. In its place would arise the institutions of empire.

Power would be concentrated and more discretionary; the property and wealth of the people would be increasingly at the disposal of the government; and various personal, civil, and economic freedoms would have to be reduced or even taken away. State authority would grow and individual autonomy would decline.

Morley feared that this was the path America was following in the post World War II era. He was not alone in these concerns. The classical-liberal historian Arthur Ekirch analyzed the same process and dangers in his 1955 volume, The Decline of American Liberalism. He feared the permanent “garrison state,” as the United States took on more and more responsibilities as global policeman in the pursuit of “national security.” As part of this shift in American foreign policy, Ekirch warned of and bemoaned the growth of paranoia about “national loyalty” and litmus tests about what designated someone as a “real” American.

A welfare empire

The events of September 11, 2001, once more raise the issue of what course America will follow in the coming years, in both its domestic and foreign policies. America continued its path toward empire throughout the decade following the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, with its foreign adventures in “nation building” in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (See the review of Fool’s Errands, by Gary T. Dempsey and Roger W. Fontaine in this issue of Freedom Daily.


But during the last 10 years most of the appeals for these foreign interventions in behalf of making a new and better world according to an American design came from the “liberal” side of the political spectrum in the United States. Many of those on the “conservative” end of this spectrum, though certainly far from all, were often more cautious and critical of foreign expeditions to make the world over in America’s image.

The threat of global communism was gone, so America now could once more go about tending its own gardens at home and not get entangled in centuries-old tribal and ethnic conflicts in faraway lands.

True, many of these conservative critics were wary about the possible future “menace” of a still-communist China and were willing to rally around the flag to defend Taiwan and other American “interests” from the threat of Chinese influence in Asia.

But through most of the 1990s, it was Clintonesque “liberals” who ideologically were in search of dragons to slay in foreign lands. As one critic described it, they were determined to do a lot of “social work” through foreign military intervention.

What the events of September 11 have brought to the surface are those elements in the American conservative movement who, like their liberal cousins, hanker after an American imperial order for the world and who are willing to use foreign intervention to attain it. A very clear representation of this conservative vision can be found in the fall 2001 issue of the neoconservative quarterly The National Interest. The author, James Kurth, is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. The article was written before September 11, but it presents a clear statement of the world according to this branch of conservatism. Entitled “The Next Nato,” Kurth subtitled his piece “Building an American Commonwealth of Nations.”

Americanizing the world

Kurth argues that the trend toward “globalization” has little to do with an international free-market order involving a depoliticization of economic and social relationships between private individuals around the world. Rather, globalization should be viewed as an extension of the “American way” upon certain parts of the world. Globalization, he says, is and should be considered as merely the latest label for U.S. foreign policy. To call America’s expanded and reinforced political domination and leadership of various parts of the world an “American Commonwealth would seem too close to the idea of an American empire, and it would be unacceptable to both Europeans and Americans.” So instead he proposes to achieve the same goal under the cover of NATO.

True, NATO technically has been a purely military alliance that originally had the purpose of containing the Soviet Union in Europe. But NATO, Kurth says, had many layers to it, and it can serve as the tool to see that America guides the European continent in the “right” direction. To undermine the resistance of, say, the French to America’s control of Europe’s political and economic destiny, he advocates incorporating a wide variety of the former Soviet-bloc nations within NATO, including the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

By adding these new members to the organization — all of these Eastern European countries, he reasons, desiring strong American presence and leadership in this part of the world — the “votes” would be there to neutralize any opposition by the Western European members of NATO. And if adding the Baltic states were to create any tension with Russia, well that’s just too bad for Moscow; the Russians will have to learn to live with it.

Within this American Commonwealth of Nations, we are told, would also be many parts of South America, East Asia, and Australia and New Zealand.

Why should America follow this foreign policy course? Kurth states,

In reality, what is at stake … is not just American interests or American ideals. It is American identity, in particular the reinvention of American identity by American political, business, and cultural elites to make it fit the new era of globalization. While America is by far the strongest power and the largest economy on the globe, these elites think that it no longer suffices for America to be located only on the North American continent and to be composed only of American citizens; that definition of America is obsolete….
It is not yet possible for America to be located equally on every continent and to be equally of every people on the globe; that definition of America is premature. The definition of America that best fits the contemporary era … is one that includes Europe, the continent that is most advanced along the American way, as part of the new and expanded American identity.
When American business elites define America as the free market and the open society, and American cultural elites define America as liberal democracy and the rule of law, then they are drawn to define Europe as being, in all important respects, America.

With the establishment of Europe as the first full extension of “America” on the way to a world-encompassing American Commonwealth of Nations, this will represent a milestone “of an American calling, of a 225-year project of spreading American values and recreating Western civilization in the American image,” Kurth hails at the end of his essay.

Here is the vision and conception of America on a messianic mission of global redemption. First Europe and then the world will be transformed into “real” Americans, all believing in “real” American values and all living in the “real” American way.

What Kurth never asks or even seems to consider is whether many of the Europeans or other peoples in different parts of the world wish to be molded and recreated in the image of “real” Americans as understood and defined by these political and cultural elites in Washington, D.C. If some in Europe try to put up a fight, then Washington will enlarge NATO’s membership and gerrymander the political process to get its way by bringing into the organization those who long to be redesigned along American lines.

The events of September 11 have pushed the American government into immediately extending this American Commonwealth of Nations outside the narrow bounds of “western civilization.” Afghanistan has been “cleansed” of a terrorist network that the U.S. government said ruled the country, and the process of rebuilding the Afghan nation has now begun. But can “American values” and the “American way” so easily be transplanted to such a foreign soil?

Americanizing Afghanistan and the Arab Middle East through political and military intervention may turn out to be far more difficult than gerrymandering votes against France in NATO. The dangers that await the American government are discussed in another recent article entitled “The Sentry’s Solitude” in Foreign Affairs (November-December 2001), by Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The high point of the American “imperium” in the Middle East was in 1991, when the United States led the coalition against Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait.

But over the last 10 years, many of both the people and the political leaders in the region have intensified their anger and desire to distance themselves from American domination and power in this part of the world.

Even in Egypt, the country that besides Israel receives the largest amount of American financial aid, Ajami says,

On September 11, 2001, there was an unmistakable sense of glee and little sorrow among upper-class Egyptians for the distant power — only satisfaction that America had gotten its comeuppance.

Throughout the region there is political anger and religious dreams for a reborn Islamic world, cleansed of the infidel’s influence and presence that is blamed for the tyranny and poverty that so many in these countries suffer from. Ajami states that Pax Americana may be determined to stay “in the oil lands and in Israel-Palestinian matters,” but “so, too, the resistance to it.” America faces

friends and sympathizers of terror [who] will pass themselves off as constitutionalists and men and women of “civil society.” They will shelter behind pluralist norms while aiding and abetting the forces of terror. There will be chameleons good at posing as America’s friends but never turning up when needed. There will be one way of speaking to Americans, and another of letting one’s population know that words are merely a pretense. There will step forth informers and hustlers of every shade, offering to guide the foreign power through the minefields and alleyways.

And all the while America will be drawn further and further into abandoning its own founding principles. Resistant and restless people in foreign lands will have to be coerced into learning and living in the “American way.” Blood may have to be shed over and over again in the name of making those who wish to be left alone to design their own destinies buckle under to membership in the tacit American Commonwealth of Nations.

And at home, the United States government will have to see to it that every “real American” remains loyal and supportive in word and deed — even if this requires the weakening or abolition of long recognized and protected personal and civil liberties. American empire may well cost in the 21st century the further loss of the actual “American way” of individual freedom, limited government, and economic liberty.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).