On empires, reluctant or otherwise

My piece on Pompeo’s November 18 declaration on Israeli settlements went up on Lobelog today, here.

In the piece, I used some of the ideas from Andrew Bacevich’s 2002 book American Empire: The realities and consequences of U.S. diplomacy. This article is part of a broader project I’m pursuing to explore the phenomenon of imperial decline, as previewed a little in my essay in Chuck Fager’s book, Passing the Torch. (Scroll on down for a relevant excerpt from that essay.)

I find Bacevich’s book (and its author) interesting for a number of reasons. Regarding the book, it provides a lot of evidence for the way that Washington’s creation and championing of an “open” world order after 1945 really masked the degree to which it was building a global empire.

My experience is that many or most Americans feel perplexed when told their country is running a global “empire.” They like to see their country as being on the “progressive”, “anti-imperialist” side of historical developments. Part of that, I suppose, goes back to some of the rhetoric of the leaders of the U.S. independence struggle against London and part to the posture U.S. diplomacy adopted in the 1950s and 1960s when Washington  was trying (often successfully) to move in to play the role of international backer/”ally” of countries in the global south that were throwing off the yoke of older, more recognized European empires. JFK in Algeria (when he was still a Senator), and so on.

I grew up in a Britain that was rapidly decolonizing. There, we openly recognized that what was being dismantled was an “empire”. (It was being replaced by a “commonwealth” that never really amounted to much.)

So British and U.S. views on the existence– or previous existence– of an empire have long been very different. (Just as British and U.S. understandings of the meaning of political “liberalism” are very different… )

British and U.S. understandings of the concept of colonialism/colonies/colonization are also pretty different. I was amazed when I first came to the United States to live, back in 1982, to discover all kinds of architectural, decorative, or town-planning features were proudly described as “colonial”. It was a valued marker of something elegant or historic: a subdivision called “Colonial Heights”, a kitchen decor scheme described as “evocatively Colonial”, or whatever.


When I was a teen in England in the 1960s, no-one would have dreamed of using that word to try to sell anything! We would have shrieked with laughter. “Colonial” was a slur we would use for aging retirees like my Aunty Hetty and her husband Uncle Cyril who after a lifetime in Hong Kong, Aden, or wherever would come “home” to live out the rest of their lives in genteel communities strung all along the country’s southern coast.

I guess for Americans, the term “colonial” harks back to a valued past with which many/most of them still claim some continuity/ affinity… Um, the history of this country’s earliest origins as a series of colonial settlements built on somebody else’s land. (Which also brings us to Israel.)

So, back to Bacevich’s book. The second chapter is titled “The myth of the reluctant superpower.” In it he relies heavily on the work of two historians, Charles A. Beard and William Appleton Williams. He lists (pp.30-31) four key ways he finds Williams’s legacy valuable. The first was Williams’s recognition that the role the United States came to play in the twentieth century “cannot be understood except as a variant of empire.”  The second was “to render untenable claims that this informal empire ‘just grew like like Topsy,’ coming into existence as an accident of nature or an unintended consequence pf events beyond American control.”

This widespread (but debunked by Williams and Bacevich) view of America as an “accidental” or even “reluctant” superpower notably echoed the view that the influential British historian J. R. Seeley expressed in 1883 about the origins of the British empire, namely:

We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.

Seeley disagreed with that view, as he argued in the rest of his essay. But that diagnosis became abbreviated by many popular historians in England to the simple nostrum that the British had acquired their empire “in a fit of absent-mindedness”– and that nostrum played a significant role in absolving many British people from any feeling that maybe they should take some responsibility for the harms their (our) empire had caused around the world.

Probably, the view that the American empire was somehow “accidental” or had been acquired “reluctantly” plays a similarly exculpatory role here…

So here’s the promised excerpt from my essay “Journeying”, as included in Chuck Fager’s Passing the Torch.

To be honest, when I left Britain for Lebanon in 1974, and then came to the United States in 1982, I was really glad to escape the suffocatingly classist and racist atmosphere of the British social system… But now, I find myself living in, and a citizen of, another settler-colonial state (the USA) whose settlers, nearly 200 years before Ian Smith, had made their own Unilateral Declaration of Independence against the colonial metropole, in large part because they wanted to have more freedom to grab the lands and resources of those around them while dispossessing, on some occasions genociding, and always oppressing the indigenes who lived here. And this country, too, has constructed a globe-girdling empire that seeks to control the lives and destinies of peoples in as many other parts of the world as possible.

Members of the U.S. political elite are nowhere near as explicit in proclaiming the existence (and civilizing mission) of their “empire” as members of the British elite were, back in the day. Instead, and especially since the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, members of the U.S. political elite have talked and acted as if somehow Washington “represents” the peoples of all the world, even though the U.S. population makes up much less than 5% of the global total of humankind. For example, U.S. leaders, politicians, and corporate-media pundits frequently claim that “the international community” is behind a policy of X, Y, or Z, when what they are referring to is the U.S. government and whatever makeshift coalition it can cobble together to support this policy. That way, members of this elite and all the U.S. Americans they are able to influence can feel good that whenever Washington takes any actions overseas, it is doing so “on behalf of” all humanity—and this is the case even when the governments representing the vast majority of the world’s people clearly oppose Washington’s policies.

Thus, a large number of U.S. citizens still feel that their country– and by extension, they themselves– have been “specially anointed” in some way to take a whole range of actions around the world when what has really happened is that they (we) are “specially privileged” to be part of a citizenry that enjoys such power at the global level. And with that privilege come, in my view, some special responsibilities: to understand the many harms that U.S. policy has inflicted on numerous peoples around the world and to work to end those harms; to understand the institutional roots of U.S. privilege and to seek to dismantle it; and to lift up the voices of everybody around the world who has been treated as “less than” by U.S. policymakers. And since Quakers who happen to be U.S. citizens share in the special privileges afforded by U.S. citizenhood, these Quakers, I believe, have special responsibilities– not shared by Quakers who happen to have other passports, or none– to work on these issues of dismantling U.S. privilege on the world stage. (Having the passport of a stable, wealthy country is a great, and often unacknowledged boon. Personally, I have the right to two such passports. But I have many Palestinian friends who have no passports at all and have suffered the insecurities and vulnerability of statelessness continuously since 1948. What can we do to end that situation?)

Another special responsibility that those of us who are Quakers or other faith-led pacifists who are citizens of rich stable countries have, I believe, is a responsibility not to “preach” nonviolence or any other doctrine to various oppressed people around the world who are fighting for their rights. I am someone who tries not to use physical violence in any part of my life and to dissociate myself from the structures of institutional violence. Moreover, as just noted, we U.S. citizens all have a massive task to perform, in trying to wean our own government—the one for whose actions we, as citizens of democracy, are directly responsible– from its longheld addiction to the use of violence on a massive scale. But if Vietnamese, or Iraqi, or Algerian, South African, Kenyan, or Palestinian people choose to use violence as a means to end the oppression they have suffered at the hands of rich, exploitative (and always super-violent) “Western” powers, then it is not my place to criticize them for that choice. If asked, I might point out to such people that in my experience, the use of violence may (or may not) win some worthwhile political goal—but it always also leaves troublesome legacies within the community that uses it… If asked, I might point out that there are numerous fundamentally non-violent tasks that need to be carried out if a nation or people is ever to achieve self-determination or self-emancipation… But why would I expect to be asked? Any expectation that Westerners would have any “special knowledge” about how an oppressed people can best achieve its liberation would be an act of extreme hubris.

Being an anti-imperialist in the bosom of the powerful Western empire that is the United States sometimes feels especially hard since this “empire” does not (as the British Empire did) clearly announce itself as such; indeed, it can be hard for many people to see any “empire” at work here, at all. But we U.S. Quakers are very lucky to have the example of John Woolman to learn from. Woolman, a British-heritage Quaker who lived in a community of mainly-Quaker colonial settlers near Philadelphia, is best known for the strong leading he had, and acted on, to learn at firsthand about and bear witness to the situation of enslaved persons in the U.S. South– in particular, those who were held in bondage by Quakers. But in his journal, he also told of the work he had done to act on his leading to understand and bear witness to the situation of indigenous, native Americans some ninety years, as he noted, after European settlers who were Quakers started implanting their colonies on those Indians’ native lands and hunting grounds, in “Penn”sylvania and other regions.