The U.S. Government Is In No Position To Lecture Russia About Imperialism by smonebkyn


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									The U.S. Government Is In No Position To
Lecture Russia About Imperialism
Sheldon Richman
March 16, 2014

The conflict in Ukraine has prompted
several level-headed commentators to
point out that, of all governments, the
U.S. government is in no position to
lecture Russia about respecting other
nations’ borders. When Secretary of
State John Kerry said on Meet the Press,
“This is an act of aggression that is
completely trumped up in terms of its
pretext … You just don’t invade another
country on phony pretext in order to
assert your interests,” one of those
commentators, Ivan Eland, responded,
      Hmmm. What about the George
      W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq after
      exaggerating threats from Iraqi
      “weapons of mass destruction”
      and dreaming up a nonexistent operational link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin
      Laden and the 9/11 attacks. And what about Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983
      to save U.S. medical students in no danger and George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama
      because its leader, Manuel Noriega, was associated with the narcotics trade?… More
      generally, Latin America has been a US sphere of influence and playground for US
      invasions since the early 1900s — Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of the Dominican Republic
      in 1965 and Bill Clinton’s threatened invasion of Haiti in 1994 being two recent examples.

Indeed, Russia isn’t the only country that has brutally regarded its “backyard” as its sphere of influence
and playground. This doesn’t make it okay for the Russian government to behave as it has, but as Adam
Gopnik observes,

      Russia, as ugly, provocative, and deserving of condemnation as its acts [in Crimea] may be,
      seems to be behaving as Russia has always behaved, even long before the Bolsheviks
      arrived. Indeed, Russia is behaving as every regional power in the history of human regions
      has always behaved, maximizing its influence over its neighbors—in this case, a neighbor
      with a large chunk of its ethnic countrymen.

Eland of course only scratches the surface in mentioning the U.S. government’s unceasing program to
control events in its sphere of influence. Some people understand that this program preceded the 20th
century; it did not begin with the Cold War. The Spanish-American War, 1898, may come to mind, but
I’m thinking further back than that. How far back? Roughly 1776.
Even the government’s schools
teach, or at least taught during
my 12-year sentence in them,
that America’s Founders had—
let us say—an expansive vision
for the country they were
establishing. Historian William
Appleman Williams’s extended
essay, Empire as a Way of Life,
provides many details. Clearly,
these men had empire on their
minds. Before he became an
evangelical for independence
from Great Britain, Benjamin
Franklin proposed a partnership
between England and the
American colonists to help
spread the enlightened empire
throughout the Americas. His
proposal was rejected as
impractical, so he embraced
independence—without giving
up the dream of empire in the
New World. George Washington spoke of the “rising American empire” and described himself as living
in an “infant empire.”
Thomas Jefferson—“the most expansion-minded president in American history” (writes Gordon S.
Wood)—set out a vision of an “Empire of Liberty,” later revised as an “Empire for Liberty,” and left
the presidency believing that “no constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extensive
empire and self-government.” As Jefferson wrote James Monroe in 1801, Jefferson’s first year as
      However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to
      look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those
      limits, & cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the
      same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws.

Indeed, in the eyes of the Founders, the American Revolution was largely a war between a mature
empire and a nascent one. (Many—but assuredly not all—Americans of the time would have cheerily
agreed.) Their goal was to bring civilization (which was still identified with England and many of its
institutions) to the New World’s benighted.
As Jefferson indicated, this vision was more than continental, because South America was never
regarded as permanently off limits. If expansion required conflict with the French and Spanish also, so
be it.
The Indian Wars were among the first steps in empire building. The unspeakable brutality and duplicity
— the acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as we say today—were crimes, not merely against
individuals, but also against whole societies and nations. “Imperialism” was not yet a word in use, but
that’s what this was, as were the designs and moves on Canada (one of the objects of James Madison’s
War of 1812), Mexico, Cuba, Florida, the Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana, the Northwest, and
the Pacific coast (the gateway to Asia). The wishes of the inhabitants—who were “as yet incapable of
self-government as children,” as Jefferson said of Louisiana’s residents—didn’t count. (Lincoln’s war
is thus understood as an exercise in empire preservation.)
A good deal of this progr am was tied up with trade. For libertarians, trade far and wide is a good thing,
but one must keep in mind that the expansion of trade in those days (as in these) depended on how
strong the government was. By hook and crook, a constitution that denied the national government the
powers to regulate trade and to tax—t he Articles of Confederation—had been exchanged for one—the
U.S. Constitution—that authorized both powers. (The libertarian Albert Jay Nock called the federal
convention in Philadelphia a coup d’état. See my video lecture.) Trade meant trade policy, and that
meant government activism, which included selective embargoes, such as those imposed by Jefferson’s
program of “peaceful coercion.”
The Articles of Confederation were a poor platform for empire building; not so the Constitution. “Both
in the mind of Madison and in its nature,” Williams wrote, “the Constitution was an instrument of
imperial government at home and abroad.” (See my “That Mercantilist Commerce Clause.”)
I don’t mean to say that the liberty of Americans was of no concern to their rulers. I do mean, however,
that liberty was to be subordinated (only to the extent necessary, of course) to national greatness, which
was America’s destiny. (I first heard the words “Manifest Destiny” in a government school. Do kids
hear it today?)
Americans sensed that something exceptional was happening. And indeed it was, as Gordon Wood
explains in his masterful The Radicalism of the American Revolution. To the dismay of the dominant
Federalists, average Americans, exemplified by those whom Wood calls “plebeian Anti-Federalists,”
saw the revolution as having overturned hierarchical and aristocratic colonial society in favor of a
democracy that facilitated personal and commercial self-interest. (This did not sit well with those who
wanted America to be, per Wood, “either a hierarchy of ranks or a homogeneous republican whole.”)
But even well-grounded exceptionalism can quickly turn
dark by the perceived duty to enlighten—or , if
necessary, exterminate—the benighted. And that’s what
happened. The Indian Wars were popular; so were the other
imperial exploits. (This is not to say there were no
Williams notes that exceptionalism came with a feeling of
aloneness. Thus, the quest for security and tranquility for
the new nation—invoked in precisely those words—fueled
these imperial exploits. The national-security state is
nothing new; only the technology has changed.
Some American figures glimpsed that empire and liberty
might not so easily fit together. (The unabashed empire
builders were convinced that freedom at home required
empire.) The problem was that even many who opposed
empire, sometimes quite eloquently, wanted ends that only
an empire could procure. Williams puts John Quincy
Adams in this small camp. Secretary of State Adams’s July
4, 1821, speech, declaring that America “goes not abroad in
search of monsters to destroy,” was “thoughtful, powerful,
and subversive,” Williams writes. “But for the time Adams
remained enfolded in the spirit of empire and was unable to
control the urge to extend America’s power and influence.”
(As secretary of state, he supported Maj. Gen. Andrew
Jackson’s seizure of Florida from the Spanish.)
Adams was the main author of the Monroe Doctrine, which
announced not only that the United States would stand
aloof from Europe’s quarrels, but also that the Western Hemisphere was exclusively the U.S.
government’s sphere of influence: “The American continents, by the free and independent condition
which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future
colonization by any European powers,” for any such extension would be taken as “dangerous to our
peace and safety [i.e., our national security].”
So keep out of our backyard, Europe, and we’ll keep out of yours. Except, Williams adds, that
President Monroe “then asserted the right of the United States to support Greek revolutionaries.”
This history doesn’t excuse Russia, but it does put Putin’s actions in perspective. It also accounts for
the less-than-awed reception for President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s sanctimonious utterances. To
the extent that Obama and Kerry imply that Russia threatens our “peace and safety,” they look like
fools. “The worst pretense of empire,” Adam Gopnik writes, “is that every rattle on the edges is a death
knell to the center.”
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