When the Thirteen Colonies rebelled against George III in 1775, Great Britain was the world’s most powerful empire, although China had not yet heard of it. The French, Spanish and Dutch empires were also substantial, and by the end of the nineteenth century, European empires ruled the world. Their competition for imperial supremacy led to two suicidal world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, and to the complete collapse of European hegemony only twenty years later.
There’s a moral in we ought to look into. It’s one that at least some of the Founding Fathers gave thought to. George Washington, in his farewell address to the presidency, warned our new country against what he called “entangling alliances”—in plain English, other people’s wars. A generation later, John Quincy Adams, the son of Washington’s successor who would later become president himself, said that America should not go abroad in search of “monsters to destroy.”
It was already too late. America had embarked on a continent-wide expansion, and would soon proclaim dominion over the Western Hemisphere through the Monroe Doctrine. Less than 40 later, the Republic was nearly destroyed by a civil war that, in geopolitical terms, was a competition between it’s North and South for hemispheric control. The victorious North had already turned itself toward domination of the Pacific Ocean as well, which led to war with Japan eighty years later. Not long after came war with China in the Korean War.
By that time, we had already embarked on a worldwide conflict with the then-Soviet Union, whose immediate target was Europe. This was the Cold War, which held the world hostage to the threat of nuclear destruction.
Empires are dangerous things to play with.
We are now more entangled abroad than ever before, with 200,000 troops spread over more than 100 bases and flotillas around the world. Some 80,000 soldiers are based in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, where we are fighting wars or protracted military engagements in more than half a dozen countries. None of these wars, indeed no war we have fought since World War II, has been declared by Congress as mandated by the Constitution. In short, they have been lawless, despite Congress’ efforts to hide the abdication of its power.
No state has declared war on us since the Axis powers did in December 1941. In short, no one has been entangling us. It is we who have imposed ourselves on others, whether by military interventions or through elaborate “alliances”. In short, as the phrase goes, we have met the enemy, and it is us.
America has justified its empire on various grounds. We claim to be defending our legitimate interests or protecting free trade. We claim to be promoting democracy and affirming human rights. We say we are defending others who would impose their will or rule on others by force, conveniently forgetting that we reserve the unqualified right to do so ourselves.
The result of this is that the United States has either initiated or been part of almost every major war since World War II. Millions have died as a consequence. The world is neither a better nor a safer place for these wars, nor are we.
We cannot credibly assert to be defending ourselves. With an annual military budget the size of the next seven world powers combined, we are hardly at risk of attack except by the terrorists our own wars have spawned. We promote democratic rule when it aligns with our interests. We quash it, as in Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile, where it does not. We do not promote human rights by attacking wedding parties and funerals with drone attacks. Nor do we do so by bragging when our military operations have killed children.
After World War II, we took it upon ourselves to save the world from the evils of Communism. The policy we devised for this was called “containment,” and the result of it was the Cold War. When that war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we spoke of retrenchment, and of a peace created by reducing our forces abroad. Instead, we expanded our presence around the world exponentially. We aren’t just the world’s policemen now. We aspire to be its lawgiver as well. No country has ever sought such a role for itself. No country, as we are bound to learn, can achieve it.
As the powers of the American presidency have expanded, our presidents have increasingly come to resemble not merely kings, but emperors. Oddly enough, though, we have one now in Donald Trump. He has promised to end what he calls our “endless wars” and to unilaterally pull out of conflicts we are entangled in, whether it is to our advantage or not. As Peter Baker noted in a New York Times article last week, in Trump’s view, “decades of overseas military adventurism has [sic] only cost the country enormous blood and treasure, and waiting for deals would prolong a national disaster.”
Hey, sounds like my kind of guy.
The problem with Trump is that he only understands how to dig new holes, not get out of old ones. He wants to denuclearize North Korea, a worthy diplomatic goal, but threatens to blow it off the map if it doesn’t do so. He wants to get out of Afghanistan, but suggests he could win the war by killing half the country’s population. He pulls troops from one place to put them in another with little more sense of what he’s doing than a kid playing with food in his high chair.
The Romans had a plan for an empire based on conquest plotted over generations. They also had a system of government designed to keep any single individual or group from exercising unaccountable power. Their constitution failed, and power consolidated itself in the hands of one man. Such men, soon enough, proved deranged or incompetent.
We seem to have arrived at that point, rather suddenly. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess. However, we could start by coming home and, once we’ve put our own house in order, reengaging with the world in a way that helps a true global community emerge. If that sounds like a fantasy, perhaps it is. But we have only one planet to come home to, and if we don’t stop trashing it soon neither empires nor anything else will much matter.