Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

The American Empire and Existential Enemies

This isn’t a bad overview of the history of US imperialism, although this author obviously has a very limited, caricatured understanding of Carl Schmitt.

By Daniel Bessner, Substack

For most of US history, the majority of Americans considered it inconceivable that their nation would attempt to become militarily dominant in Europe and Asia. In his Farewell Address of 1796, for example, retiring President George Washington advised his fellow Americans to have “as little political connection as possible” with foreign nations, whose “primary interests” have “a very remote relation” to the interests of the United States. Indeed, Washington insisted that his new nation “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” This, he avowed, was the only way the United States could “pursue a different course,” charting a new, Enlightened path for world history distinct from the vicious politics of the Old World.

Of course, when Washington warned against foreign entanglements, he meant avoiding participation in European politics. It was just fine for the United States to expand westward and eradicate the indigenous peoples—conceived of as individual “nations”—whose land Americans would continue to steal.

Throughout the 19th century, it continued to be an American ideal to remain aloof from European affairs. Even when the United States began trying to dominate the Western Hemisphere, elite Americans like Secretary of State John Quincy Adams argued that the nation was unique because “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Instead of changing the world through conquest and coercion, Americans like Adams claimed, the United States would transform geopolitics by acting as a “shining city upon a hill” that lighted the beacon of reason, liberty, and justice all over the world.

And this was the ideal that remained dominant until World War II. Though the United States indubitably engaged in imperialist behavior throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries— committing genocide against indigenous peoples; seizing the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico during the War of 1898; manipulating the politics of Latin America through direct interference or “dollar diplomacy”; participating in World War I as an Associated Power of Britain and France—the nation did not appear interested in dominating the entire world. There were no attempts to construct a global system of bases; the military remained quite small; and Americans were staunch supporters of efforts, like the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, that sought to attenuate the damage caused by war.


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