Hilights from The Ideology of American Empire
by Claes G. Ryn

Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and chairman of the National Humanities Institute. He is editor of Humanitas and author of numerous books, including Unity Through Diversity: On Cultivating Humanity's Higher Ground (Beijing University, 2000) and Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality (2nd ed., Transaction, 1997). This article [ ] is adapted from a chapter in his America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (forthcoming, Transaction 2003).

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           The most conspicuous and salient feature of the neo-Jacobin approach to international affairs is its universalistic and monopolistic claims. The University of Chicago's Allan Bloom (1930-92) argued in his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind that what he called ``the American project'' was not just for Americans. ``When we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.'' World War II was for Bloom not simply a struggle to defeat a dangerous enemy. It was ``really an educational project undertaken to force those who did not accept these principles to do so.''
[4] If America is the instrument of universal right, the cause of all humanity, it is only proper that it should be diligent and insistent in imposing its will. [ and ]

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[ . . . ] The purpose here is not to classify particular persons but to elucidate an ideological pattern, showing how certain ideas form a coherent, if ethically and philosophically questionable, ideology. [ ]

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         Similarly, foreign policy expert Robert Kagan writes of his fellow Americans: ``As good children of the Enlightenment, Americans believe in human perfectibility. But
Americans . . . also believe . . . that global security and a liberal order depend on the United States--that `indispensable nation'--wielding its power.''[7] [ ]

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        This view of America's role can hardly be called patriotic in the old sense of that word. Neo-Jacobinism is not characterized by devotion to America's concrete historical identity with its origins in Greek, Roman, Christian, European, and English civilization. Neo-Jacobins are attached in the end to ahistorical, supranational principles that they believe should supplant the traditions of particular societies. The new Jacobins see themselves as on the side of right and fighting evil and are not prone to respecting or looking for common ground with countries that do not share their democratic preferences. [ and]

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The New Democratism

        Democratism has long had more than a foothold in American government. A look back in modern history is appropriate. [ ]  President Woodrow Wilson, with his belief in America's special role and his missionary zeal, gave it a strong push. Harvard professor Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) [ ], perhaps America's most incisive and prescient student of modern Western and American culture, commented in the early years of the twentieth century on the imperialistic trend in U.S. foreign policy. Babbitt, the founder of what has been called the New Humanism or American Humanism, was formally a professor of French and comparative literature, but he was also a highly perceptive as well as prophetic observer of social and political developments. He noted that the United States was setting itself up as the great guardian and beneficiary of mankind. ``We are rapidly becoming a nation of humanitarian crusaders,'' Babbitt wrote in 1924. [ like Wilson viewed America as abjuring selfish motives and as being, therefore, above all other nations. Babbitt commented:

    We are willing to admit that all other nations are self-seeking, but as for ourselves, we hold that we act only on the most disinterested motives. We have not as yet set up, like revolutionary France, as the Christ of Nations, but during the late war we liked to look on ourselves as at least the Sir Galahad of Nations. If the American thus regards himself as an idealist at the same time that the foreigner looks on him as a dollar-chaser, the explanation may be due partly to the fact that the American judges himself by the way he feels, whereas the foreigner judges him by what he does.[14]

         By the time of President Wilson the idea had long been common in America that in old Europe conceited and callous elites oppressed the common man. [ ]  There and elsewhere things needed to be set right. Thomas Jefferson had been a pioneer for this outlook. But from the time of George Washington's warning of the danger of entangling alliances, a desire for heavy American involvement abroad had for the most part been held in check. By the time of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, it was clear that the wish for American prominence and activism in international affairs had thrown off earlier restraints. Woodrow Wilson reinforced the interventionist impulse[ ], not, of course, to advance selfish American national motives but, as he said, to ``serve mankind.'' Because America has a special moral status, Wilson proclaimed, it is called to do good in the world. In 1914, even before the outbreak of the European war, Wilson stated in a Fourth of July address that America's role was to serve ``the rights of humanity.'' The flag of the United States, he declared, is ``the flag, not only of America, but of humanity.''[15] [ ]

         Babbitt pointed out that those who would not go along with Wilson's ``humanitarian crusading'' were warned that they would ``break the heart of the world.'' Babbitt retorted: ``If the tough old world had ever had a heart in the Wilsonian sense, it would have been broken long ago.'' He added that Wilson's rhetoric, which was at the same time abstract and sentimental, revealed ``a temper at the opposite pole from that of the genuine statesman.'' Wilson's humanitarian idealism made him ``inflexible and uncompromising.''
[16] [ ]

The Post-Cold War Imperative

         The notion that America had a mandate to help rid the world, not least Europe, of the bad old ways of traditional societies with their undemocratic political arrangements has remained a strong influence on American foreign policy. In World War II, FDR's sense of American mission may have been as strong as Wilson's. [ ]

             For a long time during the Cold War, most policy makers and commentators saw that war as a defensive struggle to protect freedom or liberty against totalitarian tyranny. But some of the most dedicated cold warriors were also democratists. They had a vision for remaking the world that differed in substance from that of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes but that was equally universalistic. With the disintegration and collapse of the Soviet Union, these cold warriors did not argue for substantially reducing the American military or the United States' involvement in international affairs. On the contrary, they believed that America should continue to play a large and, in some respects, expanded role in the world [ ]; that, as the only remaining superpower, America had a historic opportunity to advance the cause of democracy and human rights. This language had long been gaining currency in the centers of public debate and political power, and soon government officials and politicians in both of the major parties spoke routinely of the need to promote democracy. Many did so in just the manner here associated with neo- Jacobinism. It seemed to them that the American ideology had not only survived the challenge from the other universalist ideology, but had prevailed in a contest that validated the American ideal as applicable in all societies.

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A New Kind of War

        The foreign policy of George W. Bush's immediate two predecessors, Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, had a strong Wilsonian tilt. But neither president followed any sustained, consistent strategy. By contrast, the Bush Doctrine as set forth in the National Security Strategy and other places commits the United States to a bold, comprehensive, and elaborate foreign policy. The publicly and formally stated U.S. goal, in sum, is to establish global supremacy. The United States would set itself up as the arbiter of good and evil in the world and, if necessary, enforce its judgments unilaterally.

        Reservations expressed in Europe and elsewhere about American unilateralism and global aspirations have been scorned and dismissed by proponents of empire as a failure to recognize the need to combat evil in the world. [ ]  Kenneth Adelman, a former deputy ambassador to the UN and a highly placed advisor on defense to the U.S. government, couched his advocacy of imperial designs in terms of fighting terrorism. ``I don't think Europeans should cooperate with the United States as a favor to the United States. They should be very grateful to the United States and cooperate because we have a common enemy--terrorism. In my mind, it's a decisive moment in the conflict between civilization and barbarism.''[29]

        Since America is at war it is, in a way, not surprising that some of its leaders should be portraying America as being on the side of good and those not eager to follow America's lead as aiding and abetting evil. Stark rhetoric has been used before to get Americans to support or sustain war, but the war aims spoken of today are derived from a consciously universalistic and imperialistic ideology. Therein lies an important difference, and a great danger.

        The belief in American moral superiority knows no party lines. [ ]  In an article critical of the George W. Bush administration's way of preparing for war against Iraq, Richard C. Holbrooke, ambassador to the UN under President Clinton, expressed a view ubiquitous in the American foreign policy establishment: ``Over the past 60 years, the United States has consistently combined its military superiority with moral and political leadership.''[30] The word ``consistently'' is telling. The notion that, unlike other nations, America is above moral suspicion, provides the best possible justification for the desire to exercise American power. [ ]

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         The new Jacobins are trying to clear away obstacles to the triumph of their ideology and of their own will to power. They exhibit a revolutionary mindset that will inexorably lead to disaster. [ ] Alongside what President Bush called ``history's unmarked graves of discarded lies''[32] lie the graves of the self-righteous, the people whose moralism concealed, even from themselves, their importunate will to power. [ ]  As Ronald Reagan preached, the idealistic utopians and the well meaning are responsible for some of the world's worst evils. Self-righteousness blinds one to one's own sins.

        Even if the opinions examined in this article are assessed in the most generous and charitable spirit, their element of political-ideological imperialism is hard to miss. A philosophically and historically inclined observer is reminded of the terrible and large-scale suffering that has been inflicted on mankind by power-seeking sanctioned or inspired by one or another kind of Jacobin moral and intellectual conceit. Communism, one of the most radical and pernicious manifestations of the Jacobin spirit, has disintegrated, at least as a major political force. But another panacea for the world is taking its place. The neo-Jacobin vision for how to redeem humanity may be less obviously utopian than that of communism. It may strike some as admirably idealistic, as did communism. But the spirit of the two movements is similar, and utopian thinking is utopian thinking, fairly innocuous perhaps if restricted to isolated dreamers and theoreticians but dangerous to the extent that it inspires action in the real world. The concern voiced here is that neo-Jacobinism has come to permeate American public debate and is finally within reach of controlling the military might of the United States. [ ]

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Copyleft © 2003 Leif Erlingsson or author.

Updated  9 November 2003