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The Sun Never Sets....Building an Empire, American Style

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 4, 2002
Weekly Standard


First Great Triumph
How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power

by Warren Zimmermann
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 544 pp., $30

American Empire
The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy

by Andrew J. Bacevich
Harvard University Press, 320 pp., $29.95

IN THE PAST YEAR, the United States has installed a new regime in Afghanistan. We are likely to do the same before long in Iraq. Skeptics suggest that we Americans are not very good at this sort of thing, that imperialism goes against our national grain, and that we should resist the siren call of "nation-building."

Thus John Quincy Adams famously warned that we should not go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy," words that have been quoted by isolationists ever since.

The truth is somewhat more complicated. As Henry Cabot Lodge noted in 1895, "We have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion (Westward— as Washington taught!) unequalled by any people in the nineteenth century." Even the aforementioned John Quincy Adams got in on the act. As president in 1819 he bought the Floridas from Spain, and in 1823 he propounded what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which turned Latin America into a "sphere of influence" of the United States and became the justification for numerous military interventions.

If this is the record of one of America's leading anti-imperialists, it is not surprising that such avowedly expansionist presidents as Thomas Jefferson and James Polk added millions of acres more. True, most of these acquisitions were subsequently settled and incorporated into the American union on equal terms with the original states. But much of this territory underwent some period of quasi-colonial existence when its people did not exer-cise full sovereignty. Puerto Rico, Guam, and a few other scattered islands remain in this constitutional netherland today.

Of course when people speak of "American Empire" these days, they do not mean the formal process of acquiring territory abroad, something the United States has not done in a century. Imperialism also includes, as the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan pointed out, "the extension of national authority over alien communities."

By this standard, the United States has extended its authority over quite a large portion of the world— despite the fact that we preside over few outright dependencies. Mostly we head an alliance of states looking to America for direction and protection. Western Europe has been drifting out of the American orbit since the end of the Cold War, but we have added several other regions over which we exercise a good deal of oversight: the Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe and, most recently, Central Asia. This may not be the formal imperialism of old, but as a description of America's unique role in the world no more apt word has yet been coined.

To find the origins of America's current role abroad one must go back a century. Warren Zimmermann, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia, has done just that. In "First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power," he has produced an enjoyable and expertly written account of five men who together helped make America a great power: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., John Hay, Elihu Root, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Well educated and well traveled, these five give lie to the myth that American political leaders have been bumbling boors. All but Root were prolific authors. Lodge wrote twenty-seven books and Roosevelt thirty-eight, mainly works of history. Hay had a wider range, turning out not only a leading biography of Lincoln but also popular poems and novels. Only two, Lodge and Roosevelt, were born to privilege; the others sprang from the sturdy middle class. They were ambitious not only for themselves, but for their country.

John Hay had no experience in politics, yet, through the help of a school friend, he became at twenty-two a private secretary to President Lincoln, a post he kept throughout the Civil War. After Lincoln's death, Hay went through brief stints as a diplomat and editorial writer before marrying an heiress and moving to her hometown of Cleveland, where he became a wealthy businessman. A major supporter of William McKinley's campaign in 1896, Hay was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to London, followed not long after by elevation to secretary of state. He was not a complete enthusiast for empire, and he wasn't a particularly energetic secretary of state. But he left two important legacies: He helped turn Anglo-American relations from enmity to amity, and he issued the "Open Door" notes that established free trade as a bedrock principle of U.S. policy.

Alfred Thayer Mahan was a more committed imperialist. A dour naval officer, he was such a misfit that in 1885 the Navy shunted him aside into the new Naval War College in Newport. It was there that he put together the lectures that formed the basis of his famous 1890 book, "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History." His thesis— that naval power was the key to a nation's being a great power, and the way to acquire that power was to build a fleet of capital ships— instantly became orthodoxy in ministries from Tokyo to London. A corollary, in the age of steam, was that any great naval power needed access to coal stockpiles around the world, and that this in turn required colonial possessions. (The worldwide success of his writing did nothing to endear Mahan to his superiors, one of whom stated sourly, "It is not the business of a naval officer to write books.")

Elihu Root enjoyed a much more effortless climb to the top. He was the sort of person who, upon joining an exclusive bass fishing club on Martha's Vineyard, caught the fish of the season in his first year as a member. By profession, Root was a corporate lawyer, one of the best in New York. He was also the first of the "wise men" who shuttled between lucrative private-sector employment and influential government jobs. Despite his lack of experience in military matters, Root was appointed secretary of war by William McKinley, and he carried out his duties with great energy and efficiency. He largely succeeded in building humane and effective governments in the territories acquired in 1898— thanks in part to the help he received from such capable proconsuls as William Howard Taft and Leonard Wood. Upon Hay's death, President Theodore Roosevelt moved Root over to run the State Department, where he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote international law.

Henry Cabot Lodge, by contrast, became famous for his opposition to the leading international treaty of his day: the Treaty of Versailles, which created the League of Nations. It is unfortunate that he has gone down in the popular imagination as an isolationist. As a freshman senator in the 1890s he was one of the primary advocates of a large navy and a significant American role in the world, positions from which he never deviated over the course of his long Senate career. Lodge was a unilateralist, not an isolationist, an important distinction that multilateralists deliberately elide.

Lodge was also by nature bookish, irascible, and arrogant. He knew his limits and realized that the presidency was not in his future. As if in compensation, he pushed his fellow Brahmin and close friend Theodore Roosevelt toward the White House. "He saw in Roosevelt the battering ram he needed to achieve a powerful navy and a muscular policy of expansion," writes Zimmermann. Lodge was not disappointed. First as assistant secretary of the Navy, then as vice president and president, Roosevelt pointed America firmly toward the ranks of the great powers, brushing away all obstacles, notably pacifists and anti-imperialists (whom he privately denounced as "unhung traitors").

Along the way Roosevelt lost his enchantment with formal colonies. The Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other lands seized in the war with Spain could not be comfortably incorporated into the United States, as earlier territories had been. But though Roosevelt refused to annex any more foreign lands, he did send U.S. troops to occupy Cuba for three years and restore constitutional government. This became the model for many such interventions over the years, from Woodrow Wilson's forays into Haiti and the Dominican Republic to the recent campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Roosevelt also set another American pattern by negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Subsequent presidents have tried to emulate his feat, perhaps hoping, like Roosevelt, to win a Nobel Peace Prize. As Bill Clinton learned at Camp David in 2000, however, peacemaking is harder than it looks.

SOME HAVE TRIED to portray the turn-of-the-century imperialism of Roosevelt and his friends as an aberration in American history that was soon abandoned— in proof of which, they point to the fact that America acquired no more colonies. Zimmermann, however, argues for continuity: "The imperial initiation at the end of the nineteenth century had prepared Americans for the great power role that, in the twentieth century, only they could play."

Andrew Bacevich, a former Army officer who now teaches international relations at Boston University, also believes in continuity. In his new "American Empire," he picks up the story eight decades later, in the 1990s, when the United States held a hegemonic position around the globe that it had previously enjoyed only in the Caribbean.

Bacevich has no time for the prevailing wisdom that American foreign policy is scattershot and episodic, lacking a central direction. "Since the end of the Cold War," he writes, "the United States has in fact adhered to a well-defined grand strategy" to "expand an American imperium" by "removing barriers that inhibit the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people." America's purpose is "the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms."

As evidence for his continuity thesis, Bacevich points to the foreign policies of the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration. Both promoted free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO. Both used the armed forces freely, whether in Bosnia or Somalia. And both made compromises with the "Butchers of Beijing" in order to preserve a lucrative economic relationship.

There are obvious differences between the overwhelming force of Bush's Gulf War and Clinton's pinprick airstrikes. But Bacevich is persuasive in arguing that the American presidency has been for a decade pursuing a policy of military hegemony on the cheap. American commitments around the world, and the American readiness to use force in defense of those commitments, have steadily grown since the end of the Cold War, regardless of who occupied the White House.

Bacevich's description of American empire is compelling and a major contribution, but his analysis of how it came about is more open to question. He gives a surprisingly respectful hearing to Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, two Marxist historians who could put a nefarious spin on any American foreign policy. Beard opposed entry into World War II, even after Pearl Harbor, mocking those who called for "another preposterous crusade for democracy on the battle-fields of Europe." Williams, for his part, thought the United States, not Russia, was the aggressor in the Cold War.

Bacevich disassociates himself from these views, but in describing U.S. interventions of the past decade he occasionally sounds like Beard or Williams. Thus, he is contemptuous of the claim that America entered Kosovo for largely idealistic reasons. "Military intervention was simply part of the inevitable price of doing business," he writes. "The essence of that strategy was business and American political clout."

By this he means that America intervened in Kosovo to maintain American predominance in Europe and lucrative economic ties. There is perhaps a bit of truth to this, but the assertion that humanitarian considerations— the primary justification cited by United States policymakers— played no role seems unreal. Neither Kissingerian realpolitik nor a Hamiltonian desire to promote commerce can fully explain the military effort the United States unleashed in such an inconsequential place as Kosovo.

BACEVICH'S VIEW regarding Kosovo is no inadvertent lapse. He believes that materialism, multiculturalism, and libertine social attitudes have fundamentally corrupted America. By the 1990s, he writes, "the American people no longer held in common any higher purpose." The only thing uniting citizens together was "a fetish for shopping, professional sports, and celebrities, along with a ravenous appetite for pop culture." Thus, he finds it impossible to believe that any American president could rally the people behind an intervention on moral grounds.

It is hard to square this jaundiced view of America with the heroism and patriotism evident after September 11. What Bacevich fails to note is that America has always been defined by a combination of materialism and idealism, low striving and high ideals, avarice and altruism. European visitors of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens among them, made dyspeptic observations on American life similar to Bacevich's. But this did not prevent Americans from rising to the challenge of the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. In many instances, America acted with great generosity. Those who always seek low motives for American interventions— such as the leftists who insist that President Bush wants to invade Iraq "for the oil"— are likely to be left scratching their heads in incomprehension at American actions. How much oil is there in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, or Afghanistan?

This is not to claim that the American empire has been entirely selfless or free of abuses and mistakes. Nor is to suggest that the path of empire will be smooth and easy; Bacevich is right to warn of "hazards, political, strategic and, above all, moral." The case for empire is not that it is risk-free; it is that the hazards of inaction are greater. If someone does not step in and play the role of globo-cop, predatory states like Iraq, Iran, and Syria will continue sponsoring murderous terrorist groups.

It is by no means certain that a Bush administration which once disdained "nation building," and which still refuses to do enough in Afghanistan, will meet this monumental challenge. If the administration does not, it will miss a historic chance to make the world a safer place. But if it does, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice may one day be remembered alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and Alfred Thayer Mahan as architects of American greatness.

Frequent contributor Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

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