Choose a news category:

Adjusting to Empire

Posted on: Sunday, June 1, 2003

Keywords: US Foreign Policy

Adjusting to Empire

By Yifat Susskind, Associate Director, MADRE
June 2003

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world.”
– George Bush, September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, George Bush supplied the first official answer to the new quintessential American question: “Why do they hate us?” Abroad, the question resounds along a continuum of disbelief, impatience and disgust, reinforcing a stereotype of Americans as an oblivious and fumbling people, visiting destruction on places they are unable to locate on a map. For Americans themselves, the question unlocks debate about the costs and consequences of what growing numbers of people within the US are calling an American Empire.
That many Americans are only now coming to see themselves as citizens of an empire reflects an historical aversion to the construct. The founding myth of America as an idealistic nation born of rebellion against the tyranny and foreign rule of King George underlies a prescribed American self-image as a country opposed to the greedy colonial empires of Europe and, later, to the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. Like all national identities, this self-image is a composite of stories that Americans tell themselves about themselves. Perhaps the most central of these stories is the notion that America is what Thomas Jefferson called “an empire of liberty.”
Jefferson’s view is just one of several competing traditions. In fact, there has always been a tension in American political culture between the ideals of a democratic republic and the pursuit of foreign empire. But that tension has never been more palpable than it is today. The Bush Administration, guided by a small group of neo-conservative ideologues, has dragged the US into blatant pursuit of empire, triggering a crisis in American self-perception. Historically, US presidents have invoked America’s founding mythology to create a public perception of US foreign policy as a series of moral imperatives. Whether that mythology can be harnessed by the Bush Administration, or turned on its head by a growing opposition movement, will impact the course of US foreign policy.

City on a Hill or Empire of the World?

In the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, much of the world came to see the US as a global empire. With US military bases in 40 countries, Washington’s stranglehold on international trade and financial institutions and American popular culture and language encircling the globe, comparisons to Rome became plentiful. But Americans shied away from the label of “empire,” preferring the ahistorical designation “superpower” and euphemisms like “globalization” to describe US dominance. Lawrence Summers, a reigning intellectual of the Clinton Administration, liked to say that the US is history’s only non-imperialist superpower.
Although Americans are accustomed to wielding power in the international arena, they see themselves not as an empire but as “a nation of universal values” with a mission to export those values to the world. As George Bush puts it, “There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise. And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others, not in a way to impose because these are God-given values. These aren’t United States-created values. These are the values of freedom and the human condition and mothers loving their children.”1 Bush’s tortured speech blends the moralistic Protestant messianism of America’s religious founders with Enlightenment principles such as freedom and humanism that so influenced the country’s early leaders. These twin ideologies continue to shape the national self-image, enabling Americans to see altruism where others see empire.
Historically, Americans have viewed their country as “a city on a hill” and “the beacon of hope and decency,” as envisioned in 1630 by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. By 1776, the American project had become much grander. “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again,” Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense. Over the next 100 years, the US seized the territory of the region’s Indigenous Peoples, swallowed half of Mexico and tried twice to conquer Canada in a series of wars that politicians defined as “missions” to extend “civilization” and “Anglo-Saxon democracy.” So obvious was it to nineteenth-century US leaders that they were chosen by God himself to rule the continent that they named their privileged condition “Manifest Destiny.” Political cartoons of the day are replete with images of a youthful and virtuous America contrasted with the decaying and decadent empires of Britain and Spain.
The American anti-empire first ventured overseas in 1898, killing 600,000 Filipinos in the “Benevolent Assimilation.” That year, US Secretary of War Elihu Root pronounced that, “the American soldier is different from all soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order and of peace and happiness.”2 Except for the flawless grammar, Root’s pronouncement could have been issued today by George Bush.
In fact, between the “Benevolent Assimilation” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the US has conducted over 170 military interventions in every region of the world. Each has been presented domestically as a mission to redeem the targeted country, and indeed the world, for freedom and democracy. Even the Bush Team’s plan to invade and occupy Iraq, understood by most of the world as a naked grab for power, was presented to Americans as a mission to democratize Iraq and save its people from the “Butcher of Baghdad,” Saddam Hussein. The bogus security imperative to disarm Iraq spoke to the American mind, but the mission to bring freedom and salvation spoke to the American soul.
The deeply religious nature of American political culture is sometimes obscured by the notion of the US as the country that invented separation of church and state. In fact, every US president (including Kennedy, the lone non-Protestant, and Clinton, who has emerged in public consciousness as Bush’s liberal foil) has traded on his religious credentials and talked openly of his devotion to God. But Bush, with his White House prayer breakfasts and fundamentalist language, is fast becoming known as the most fanatically religious president in US history. His periodic references to “crusade” and “a biblical struggle of good versus evil” have been alternately baffling and alarming to many people abroad. One reason is that Bush’s brand of evangelicalism is a strictly American creed alien to most of the world.*
As a “born-again” Christian, Bush believes that God communicates directly with him and that he is guaranteed a spot in heaven regardless of his actions on earth. Several journalists who have interviewed Bush extensively say that the President seems to believe that he was placed in the White House by God to carry out a divine mission.
Bush’s fundamentalism is far afield of mainstream US Christianity, but his evangelical overtones resonate with a long tradition of American messianism. In fact, what many people abroad characterize as American arrogance is, in part, a distorted religious impulse, expressed in the secularized language of “values.” So when Americans hear Bush saying that he will “lead the world to peace,” as he did after September 11, they may agree or disagree, but most do not laugh. They hear Bush’s words as an echo of Woodrow Wilson, who declared the US entry into World War I as a mission to “make the world safe for democracy.” (Wilson’s ambassador to England, W.H. Page, explained the move as “the only way to maintain our pre-eminent trade status,” but it is Wilson’s loftier rationale that endures in the national psyche.)
It’s not that Americans can’t understand the imperial machinations at work in foreign policy, but because US interests are portrayed as overlapping with “American values,” they can choose to view any US action as a pursuit of principle rather than empire. Consider the words of US trade representative Robert Zoellick, extolling the virtues of free trade as an antidote to terrorism: “Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle.”3 Democrats are no less enamored of the interests/values shell game. Clinton was a master of the technique. Remember his “humanitarian bombing” of Kosovo? “If we’re going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world,” Clinton said, “Europe has got to be a key . . . that’s what this Kosovo thing is all about . . . it’s about our values.”4

A New Imperial Moment

Since September 11, 2001, the American taboo against empire has crumbled under the strain of current events. Debate about the meaning of US power in the world has emerged from the shadows of neo-conservative think tanks and been taken up on popular call-in radio shows and the editorial pages of local papers. A database search by MADRE of US newspapers found that use of the term “empire” more than doubled in the year following the September 11 attacks. As the historian Michael Ignatieff explained, “We’re living in a world that looks a lot like the late Roman Empire. The barbarians have just got through the gates, and they’ve sacked Rome. And the effect is to make everybody suddenly aware that we live in an empire.”5 Then, during the three months preceding the US invasion of Iraq, prominent US magazines on the Right (The Weekly Standard, The National Review), Left (The Nation, The Progressive) and Center (The New York Times Magazine, US News & World Report) all ran cover stories or major articles on empire.
September 11, 2001 stands in the American mind as the day that “changed everything,” but the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 marks a more significant turning point for US Empire. The invasion — with its three-pronged goal of testing Bush’s “preventive war” doctrine, controlling Iraqi oil and using occupied Baghdad as a springboard to overhaul the entire Middle East — is the most blatantly imperialist war in US history. In fact, the concept of empire has begun to resonate so loudly that the President has been compelled to issue repeated denials. In June 2002, Bush delivered a speech at West Point military academy in which he laid out his doctrine of preventive war. Bush told graduating cadets that, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” Five months later, he told a group of veterans in Washington, “We don’t seek an empire.” Bush made an identical claim in March 2003, while announcing the bombing of Baghdad.
While Bush sought to reassure the public that war is peace and freedom is slavery, the neo-conservative architects of his foreign policy have confronted the American taboo against empire head-on, proudly declaring themselves to be “liberal imperialists.” This disarming tack helped shift the terms of public debate about empire. The question is no longer whether the United States is an empire but, to quote National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, “Does empire have to be a dirty word?”
The neo-conservative answer is a resounding “No,” issued with a call to embrace US power, à la Bush and Rumsfeld, in all its macho unilateralism. From the Center comes a more restrained response, echoing the tradition of apologists for US Empire. Ignatieff, for example, reassures us that “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden,” but rather “an empire lite, whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy.”6
On the Left are those — represented by parts of the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition — who cite the excesses of US Empire as an understandable, if not justifiable, cause of September 11. Others, represented by the United for Peace and Justice coalition, have been more adept at reaching out to those in the political mainstream, in part by appealing to people on the basis of their ingrained American antipathy toward empire.

The Anti-Empire Movement

The largest sector of the anti-war movement is a composite of traditional US peace and justice organizations, the misnamed anti-globalization movement and progressive Democrats. This new configuration is best understood as a movement against US Empire. Indeed, some of its elements have been concerned about empire for some time. MADRE, which is part of United for Peace and Justice, has worked since 1983 in Central America and the Caribbean, where US unilateralism, invasion, occupation and “regime change” are familiar horrors. As many of you know, MADRE began with a women’s initiative to forge partnerships between day-care centers in Nicaragua that were bombed by US-backed Contra fighters and day-care centers in the US that were de-funded by the Reagan Administration. Twenty years later, MADRE continues to challenge destructive policies that appropriate domestic resources, such as wages and social programs, in the pursuit of empire. These critical services are utilized mainly by women, who constitute the majority of people living in poverty and are primarily responsible for meeting the needs of most of the population.
Like others in the anti-war movement, MADRE critiques empire from a human rights framework that draws on many of the same Enlightenment principles that inform “American” values, such as democracy, equality, pluralism and respect for civil rights. The overlap provides a platform from which to appeal to mainstream Americans through convictions they already hold. For while neo-conservatives may be thrilled about the new idea of America as Empire, most people in the US are not. Echoing a rising sentiment in the country, an article published on the eve of the Iraq invasion — entitled, “Is It Too Late To Save America?” — declares, “The America I know is not an empire. It’s a small comfortable place where my grandpa took me fishing when I was little...”.7
Channeling collective angst into coherent, progressive political positions is a central challenge of the anti-war movement. It may also be one of the best strategies available to the movement, precisely because of the ways in which the Bush Administration violates some of America’s more democratic traditions, including: majority rule (Bush came to power by violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution); respect for civil liberties (the Patriot Acts constitute the most severe roll-back of civil liberties in US history); separation of church and state (the theocratic agenda of Attorney General John Ashcroft and Bush’s marginalization of public programs in favor of “faith-based” initiatives is unprecedented); and multilateralism (since taking office, Bush has scrapped more international treaties and violated more UN Conventions than any other US president). Adopting the language of “American” values such as freedom and democracy gives the anti-war movement a powerful vernacular to articulate opposition to empire in a way that resonates with large numbers of Americans.
Indeed, parts of the movement are already speaking this language with slogans like “Peace is Patriotic.” In fact, the practice of mobilizing dissent on the basis of traditional national values has a rich history. It includes the Abraham Lincoln Brigades who fought Spanish fascism, the flag-waving civil rights marchers who demanded that America make good on its promise of equality and the pacifists who re-channeled American messianism into the Central America Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s.
But galvanizing that tradition will require more than red-white-and-blue graphics. To be effective against empire, the anti-war movement needs to maximize the radical potential of “American” values like democracy and freedom. We can start by redefining language that has been pressed into the service of empire. Examples include rejecting the notion that democracy means the overthrow of governments elected by a majority of voters (as the US did in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, Haiti in 1990 and the US in 2000) and rejecting the notion that freedom means only a chance to provide markets, labor and raw materials to US corporations.
In 1896, African-American women founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to mobilize mass opposition to segregation and lynching. Their motto, “lifting as we climb,” offers a good model for a relationship between an anti-empire movement and mainstream America. To grow, the movement needs to meet people where they are. And to be effective, it needs to enable people to come to a more radical understanding of themselves and their society. “Peace is Patriotic” may be a tactical starting point, but ultimately, patriotism needs to be critiqued, redefined and perhaps rejected outright.

The Achilles Heel of Empire

The US invasion of Iraq opened a gulf between public opinion and government policy that reflects the incompatibility of democracy and empire. Bush was called “unflappable” in his response to public protest against the war. But while the Administration did not reverse its policy, neither did it ignore the protests. A look at Bush’s speeches in the weeks leading up to the invasion shows that his moralistic appeals about American “responsibility” to overthrow Saddam Hussein and rescue the Iraqi people rose steadily in proportion to public opposition to the war.
The potential power of citizen opposition is well understood by policy makers, who have launched concerted propaganda campaigns on the eve of every US war since World War I. Particularly since Vietnam, US presidents have walked a tightrope between building empire and thwarting citizen opposition to their wars. To achieve this balance abroad, the US has relied increasingly on proxy armies, such as the Nicaraguan Contras, the Kosovo Liberation Army and Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. At home, the Pentagon spends millions annually on its “public relations” programs.
These policies betray the Administration’s vulnerability to public opposition and underscore the potential power of the anti-war movement.8 The national mythology from which Americans’ self-image as defenders of freedom and democracy derives is deeply at odds with Bush’s decision to overthrow a sovereign (albeit brutal) government, install direct US military rule over another country and violate US citizens’ civil liberties. The contradiction provides an opportunity for a new anti-empire movement to stake a claim to America’s founding myths. To do this, we must generate public conversation about what kind of nation Americans want to be and what values we want to see reflected in our foreign policy. The Bush Administration will remain in a strong ideological position to wage its “endless war against endless enemies” if it can convince the public that it is acting in the tradition of “American values.” But if the anti-war movement continues to refine its capacity to appeal to mainstream Americans on the basis of those same values, it may garner the political power necessary to produce foreign policy that reflects the country’s truly democratic potential.


1 Interview with Bob Woodward, Crawford, Texas, August 20, 2002.
2 The Financial Times, January 1, 2003.
3 The Washington Post, October 3, 2001.
4 Televised address, March 23, 1999.
5 Maclean’s, February 4, 2002.
6 The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003.
7, March 19, 2003.
8 The same can be said of openly coercive tactics such as the current “blacklisting”
of anti-war academics, journalists and artists and the outright criminalization of
non-violent dissent (a US wartime tradition dating back to the Alien and Sedition Act of 1789).

« Back to "Press Room" Next Article »

Article Tools
Increase Font Decrease Font Reset Font Print Page Email Page


"Press Room" Home November 2014 October 2014 September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008 November 2008 October 2008 September 2008 August 2008 July 2008 June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 July 2006 June 2006 April 2006 March 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 April 2005 March 2005 November 2004 October 2004 April 2004 March 2004 January 2004 December 2003 October 2003 September 2003 June 2003 April 2003 January 2003 September 2002 June 2002 January 2002 November 2001 October 2001 September 2001 August 2001 January 2001


Kat Noel, Website & Media Coordinator
PHONE: +1 212 627 0444

To sign up to receive MADRE media alerts, click here.

Bring MADRE to You

MADRE & Our Partners Make News