History Lesson


History is not physics. Studying the past does not yield objective
laws that can unerringly predict the course of events. But peoples
do draw lessons from history and change their behavior accordingly.
Western European countries, for instance, took the experience of
two world wars as reason to change radically their relations with
one another. The United States took the experience of the Great
Depression as reason to alter the relationship between government
and the market.Historical lessons can also be unlearned or forgotten. The New Left
of the 1960s, for instance, forgot the lessons of an earlier "God
that failed" and projected the same hopes for a communist utopia
onto Castro's Cuba or Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam that earlier
generations had projected onto the Soviet Union. And, today, the
right is going through its own bout of historical amnesia.
Conservatives, forgetting the lessons of the early twentieth
century, are attempting to rehabilitate the long-discredited
strategy of imperialism.

The revival is centered in East Coast journals and think tanks, from
National Review and The Wall Street Journal editorial page in New
York to the American Enterprise Institute, The Weekly Standard,
Policy Review, and the Project for the New American Century in
Washington. In an October 2001 Weekly Standard cover story, Max
Boot called on the United States "unambiguously to embrace its
imperial role." In Foreign Affairs last July, Thomas Donnelly, a
former Lockheed official who is a senior fellow at the Project for
the New American Century, wrote that "American imperialism can
bring with it new hopes of liberty, security, and prosperity." In
Policy Review last April, Stanley Kurtz called for a new
"democratic imperialism."

Although the Bush administration's foreign policy is a mix of
different ideologies, it has clearly been influenced by this new
imperialism. Evidence can be found in the cultlike popularity of
Theodore Roosevelt, the president many conservatives take as their
guide to a neo-imperial strategy. (George W. Bush has declared
Roosevelt his favorite president, and Donald Rumsfeld displays a
plaque quoting TR on his Pentagon desk.) More important, it is
evident in the administration's attitude toward international
institutions, its arguments for invading and occupying Iraq, its
case for preventive war, and even its international economic

This new imperialism differs in some respects from the older U.S.
imperialism of Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodgethe new
imperialists don't assume, for instance, the superiority of the
Anglo-Saxon race or seek the spread of Christian civilizationbut it
is sufficiently similar to raise the question of whether these new
imperialists are reviving a strategy that failed the United States
80 years ago. That failure was understood most clearly by Woodrow
Wilson, who offered not only the most compelling critique of U.S.
imperialism but also the most thoughtful alternativea liberal
internationalism that served the United States well in the second
half of the twentieth century and could guide Americans again

There have been empires since the Greeks and Romans, but modern
imperialism, and the term "imperialism" itself, appeared in the
late nineteenth century. From 1870 to 1914, when World War I began,
the great European powers and Japan carved up Asia and Africa into
colonies, protectorates, and client regimes. The United States,
still recovering from the Civil War and having not yet completed
its continental expansion, initially forswore any imperial
ambitions. But, by the 1890s, a powerful lobby led by Roosevelt
(who would become assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley
administration) and Lodge was calling for an "expansionist" foreign

Like their European counterparts, the American imperialists were
worried about ensuring national prosperity. They contended,
particularly after the depression of the mid-1890s, that, if the
United States failed to gain a foothold in Asia and Africa, it
would be denied access to raw materials and important markets for
the surplus of goods that its factories could now produce. But
Roosevelt and Lodge also saw imperialism through the prism of
geopolitics, social Darwinism, and evangelical Protestantism.
Roosevelt regarded it as integral to a struggle for the "domination
of the world" that the United States must either win or lose. If
the United States failed to seize the Hawaiian Islands, Roosevelt
warned in 1898, they could be "transformed into the most dangerous
possible base of operations against our Pacific cities."
Imperialism also offered a way to provide moral uplift to
Americansby fostering a spirit of what Roosevelt called "national
greatness"and to extend the benefits of American, and more broadly
Anglo-Saxon and Christian, civilization to the "barbarous" peoples
of Asia and Africa. Wrote Roosevelt in 1901, "It is our duty toward
the people living in barbarism to see that they are freed from
their chains."

The American imperialists first got their chance in 1898. Accusing
the Spanish of blowing up the battleship Maine in the Havana harbor
(the explosion later turned out to be from a defective boiler), the
United States declared war on Spain and seized its possessions in
the Caribbean and the Pacific, including Cuba and the Philippines.
The United States, it seemed, had enthusiastically entered the
imperial fray.

Yet, in less than a decade, the United States would abandon its
imperial mission and, five years after that, explicitly repudiate
it. The abandonment of imperialism began, ironically, with
Roosevelt. While publicly continuing to support an imperialist
foreign policy, Roosevelt actually allowed U.S. possessions to
shrink during his two terms as president (1901-1908) and resisted
pleas to establish new U.S. bases in China and the Caribbean. In
1902, he wrote to prominent New York lawyer Frederick Coudert,
"Barring the possible necessity of fortifying the Isthmian canal or
getting a naval station, I hope it will not become our duty to take
a foot of soil south of us."

Like Roosevelt, Wilson was an early advocate of imperialismfor
example, arguing in 1902 that the "impulse to expansion is the
natural and wholesome impulse, which comes from a consciousness of
matured strength"but refrained from endorsing it once he ascended
to the presidency. In 1913, his first year in office, Wilson
withdrew America's support for a bank consortium in China that the
United States, along with Britain and other occupying powers, had
established to parcel out China's economy. "I will not help any man
buy a power which he ought not to exercise over fellow beings," he
commented. He also pressured Congress to grant early independence
to the Philippines and citizenship to Puerto Ricans.

Most important, Wilson made self-determination and an end to
colonialism the hallmarks of his plan for ending World War I and
preventing future wars. During the Senate debate in 1920 over the
League of Nations, Wilson argued that Americans had "a choice
between ... the ideal of democracy, which represents the rights of
free peoples everywhere to govern themselves, and ... the ideal of
imperialism, which seeks to dominate by force and unjust power."
Imperialism, to Wilson, was not an instrument of democracy but an
obstacle to it.

What initially turned Roosevelt privately and Wilson publicly
against imperialism were the nationalist backlashes that America's
imperialist policies provoked. Roosevelt and other American
imperialists had believed they could impose U.S. civilization upon
conquered peoples as readily as they had transformed the
continental frontier. But, in the first decades of the twentieth
century, they were to discover that imperial intervention inspired
anti-imperial nationalist movements that frustrated U.S. objectives.
Roosevelt had promised to "civilize" the Filipinos, but, soon after
the United States took power in 1898, it faced a succession of
violent national rebellions. By 1902, at least 4,000 Americans and
200,000 Filipinos had been killed. When World War I began,
Roosevelt finally urged U.S. withdrawal from the Philippines.

Wilson experienced similar frustration in Mexico. The Mexican
Revolution had begun in 1910, and the next year liberal
constitutionalist Francisco Madero overthrew dictator Porfirio
Diaz. In 1913, Madero was murdered and replaced by General
Victoriano Huerta. With Mexico on the verge of civil war, Wilson
landed troops in Veracruz to depose the unpopular Huerta. "I am
going to teach the South American republics to elect good men,"
Wilson declared. But Huerta used Wilson's intervention to rally
support against Yankee imperialism. And Huerta's successor, the
revolutionary Venustiano Carranza, fearful of being identified with
the Yankee invaders, rebuffed Wilson's diplomatic overtures.
Wilson, biographer Kendrick A. Clements writes, was "stunned by the
fury with which the invasion was greeted by Mexicans of all
political persuasions." Although Roosevelt and others urged him to
impose a pliant regime on Mexico by force, Wilson instead withdrew
the troops and recognized Carranza. "There are in my judgment no
conceivable circumstances which would make it right for us to
direct by force or threat of force the internal processes of what is
a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France," Wilson
wrote to his secretary of war in August 1914.

Wilson's opposition to imperialism was hardened by World War I.
Proponents of empire had previously argued that imperial expansion
would reduce the chances of global war by eliminating unstable
regimes in Africa and Asia. "Peace cannot be had until the
civilized nations have expanded in some shape over the barbarous
nations," wrote Roosevelt in 1894. But, by making the struggle for
imperial domination integral to a nation's power and prosperity,
imperialism instead led to a succession of conflicts culminating in
world war: the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-1905 over Manchuria and
Korea; the clashes between Germany and France over French North
Africa in 1906 and in 1911; the Anglo-German naval arms race for
control of the seas and the world's commerce; the growing tensions
in the Middle East, where oil had been discovered; and, finally,
the outbreak of war in 1914 between Austria and Russia over
Turkey's former possessions in the Balkans, a conflict that quickly
pulled in all of Europe's great powers. When the United States
entered the war in 1917, Wilson would publicly blame it on German
militarism. But, when it came to making proposals to prevent future
wars, Wilson showed that he believed imperial rivalry lay at the
root of the conflagration. "For my own part," he told the Senate in
1920, "I am as intolerant of imperialistic designs on the part of
other nations as I was of such designs on the part of Germany."

Wilson saw imperialism not simply as a strategy or policy but as a
system of international relations that had to be thoroughly
uprooted. It was characterized by a hierarchy of power in which the
larger, more powerful nations competed violently with each other to
dominate the smaller, less powerful ones. To the extent it didn't
immediately lead to war, it was because of a coincidental and
transient balance of power among the larger powers. The system
itself, he believed, was inherently unstable as well as unjust.

Wilson didn't believe he could eliminate hierarchies of power, but
he contrived to create a mediating system of international law and
organizations that would protect the sovereignty and independence
of smaller, weaker nations. Within this realm, all nations would
become equal, just as all citizens were legally equal, regardless
of their strength or wealth, within a democracy. In his Fourteen
Points, which he announced to Congress in January 1918, and in the
draft charter of a new League of Nations that he wrote and
introduced the next year, Wilson called for phasing out
colonialism, eliminating protectionist trade barriers, and
establishing a worldwide system of free trade. "There must be, not
a balance of power, but a community of power," he explained, "not
organized rivalries, but an organized common peace."

Like Roosevelt, Wilson believed that Americans were chosen to
transform the backward nations of the world. He thought of the
United States "as the light of the world as created to lead the
world in the assertion of the rights of peoples and the rights of
free nations." Citing this commitment to global democracy, some of
today's neoconservatives, including my colleague Lawrence F.
Kaplan, have argued that they are the true heirs of Wilsonianism.
But, unlike the turn-of-the-century imperialists or today's
neoconservatives, Wilson did not believe the world's great powers,
acting individually, should impose their political beliefs or
economic systems on former colonies or protectorates. Instead,
Wilson believed the great nations had to act together within an
organization such as the League of Nations. He proposed a "mandate
system" by which the transition to self-government in Africa or
Asia would be overseen by smaller, non-imperial nations, such as
Sweden. Wilson believed in spreading democracy and Christian
civilization, but he believed the United States had to do it
through international organizations and outside the framework of
imperial power.

At Versailles, America's allies rejected Wilson's proposals for free
trade and an end to imperialism. They insisted that German
aggression was the sole cause of World War I and sought to curb it
through reparations and a divvying up of German colonies. Back
home, Lodge and conservative Republicans rejected even the weakened
League of Nations because they feared it put America's foreign
policy at the mercy of an international organization.

Wilson's internationalism was shelved for two decades, but the
outbreak of World War II, precipitated by Germany, Italy, and
Japan's efforts to conquer Europe, Africa, and Asia, confirmed
Wilson's warnings that the system of imperialism, if not uprooted,
would again lead to war. And so the Franklin Roosevelt and Truman
administrations adopted the outlines of Wilson's approach. They
made ending imperialism and dismantling trade and currency blocs one
of their principal war aims; and, rejecting Wilson's reliance on a
single organization, they built many international
organizationsincluding the United Nations, NATO, the International
Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bankthat attempted to create a
"community of power" without ignoring existing disparities of
power.; "But, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,
conservatives divided into two camps...."

The events of the last 50 years have confirmed the correctness of
this neo- Wilsonian strategy. The second half of the twentieth
century, when compared with the first, was prosperous and pacific.
The international institutions the United States built helped to
win the cold war against the Soviet Union, which under Stalin
became heir to czarist Russia's imperial ambitions. The British,
French, Germans, Italians, and Dutch abandoned their empires and
subordinated their national ambitions to a new, supranational
organization, the European Union. Under the IMF, GATT, and now the
World Trade Organization, the world has tempered the older cycle of
boom and extreme bust.

In addition, the World Bankalong with the United Nations, the
European Union, and NATOhas, to a considerable extent, taken over
the civilizing and stabilizing functions that the imperial nations
once claimed for themselves. Some of these efforts have been less
than successful, but, in Africa and Asia, these organizations have
helped guide former colonies toward self-government. As a last
resort, the United Nations and NATO have sanctioned the use of
force to protect or expand the community of powerin 1991, the
United Nations backed the coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out
of Kuwait, defending the sovereignty of a smaller, weaker nation,
and, in 1995 and 1999, NATO took action against Slobodan Milosevic
in the former Yugoslavia.

Republican conservatives embraced this Wilsonian approach grudgingly
during the cold war, backing NATO, if not the United Nations, as a
means to defeat communism. But, after the fall of the Berlin Wall
in 1989, conservatives divided into two camps. Some, led by former
Reagan official Pat Buchanan and House Republicans, reverted to the
isolationism and protectionism of 1920s Republicans. Others, led by
neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Richard
Perle, and Robert Kagan, continued to advocate the transformation
of the world in America's image, but they repudiated Wilson's
internationalist methods in favor of Roosevelt's imperial strategy.
As Kristol explained in Commentary in January 2000, "[T]here is a
fundamental difference between us and the true Wilsoniansbetween,
that is, the muscular patriotism of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald
Reagan and the utopian multilateralism of Woodrow Wilson and Bill

Like Roosevelt and the late-nineteenth-century expansionists, the
new imperialists want to transform the politics and allegiances of
countries and regions, and they are willing to use force
unilaterally to do so. Like the old imperialists, the new ones see
overseas intervention in evangelical, although secular, terms. They
believe in what the Hoover Institution's Dinesh d'Souza has called
"America's evident moral superiority" and see the United States as
having a special responsibility to transform the world in its
image. "[I]mperialism as the midwife of democratic self-rule is an
undeniable good," Kurtz writes. And, like Roosevelt, they see the
politics of this new imperialism as an expression of patriotism and
of support for "national greatness."

The new imperialists are even less equivocal than the old in
rejecting multilateral institutions. Now that the United States has
become the premier world power, they argue, it has no need for
international organizations except on an ad hoc basis. Unlike
Wilson, or contemporary Wilsonians such as Bill Clinton, they
actually prefer for the United States to act alone or in ad hoc
coalitions that the United States dominates. And they despise the
United Nations, which Perle has described as the "chatterbox on the
Hudson" and columnist Charles Krauthammer has opined should "sink
... into irrelevance."

Wilson wanted a world in which the community of power would
eventually overshadow the balance of power. The new imperialists
regard that as a dangerous illusion. They think the United States
will always have to depend on superior military power for its
security; employing it, if necessary, to eliminate or intimidate
potential competitors and adversaries. Wilson wanted a mediating
realm of equal, independent nations governed by Kantian moral
universality, in which what is justifiable for one country must be
justifiable for all. The new imperialists invoke America's global
mission to limit the prerogatives of other nations but not the
United States. They support sustained violations of other nations'
sovereignty, for instance, in the name of nonproliferation and
human rights, but reject virtually any infringements on U. S.
sovereignty at all. As Stephen Peter Rosen wrote in The National
Interest, "The organizing principle of empire rests ... on the
existence of an overarching power that creates and enforces the
principle of hierarchy, but is not itself bound by such rules."

During Bush's presidency, the primary goal of the new imperialists
has been winning support for an invasion of Iraq that would
overthrow Saddam's regime and transform the entire region. By
democratizing Iraq and pulling its oil industry out of the
Saudi-dominated OPEC, they believed they could bring the region
into America's orbit in much the way the older imperialists had
imagined turning the western Pacific into an American sphere of

Colin Powell and the State Department, by contrast, advocated
conditioning the invasion on U.N. support. But, even after Bush
acceded to Powell's arguments and went to the United Nations in
September 2002, it was clear that the United States was committed
to an invasion with or without U.N. support. After Baghdad fell,
Powell once again advocated a Wilsonian approach, but once again he
appears to have lost the debate to the neo-imperialists in the
Pentagon. The United States has taken control of Iraq's oil industry
(hinting already it will not honor OPEC quotas) and shunned
international supervision of Iraq's transition to self-rule.

If the Bush administration continues its present course, Iraq will
be a good test of whether America's new imperial strategy can
escape the pitfalls that doomed the last one. Indeed, there are
already warning signs that the United States could encounter the
same anti-imperial nationalism in Iraq that bedeviled it in the
Philippines in the early 1900s and in Mexico in 1914. Since
Saddam's statue fell on April 9, there have been continual
demonstrations calling for the United States to leave Iraq. (By
contrast, there have been very few organized expressions of support
for the U.S. occupation.) On May 20, in Baghdad, 10,000 marched
from a Sunni mosque to a Shia shrine bearing signs that read, NO,
NO, NO U.S.A. The two major Shia clerics currently vying for
leadershipAyatollah Muhammad Bakr Al Hakim and Moktada Al Sadrhave
both called for the United States to leave Iraq. Even the generally
pro-American Kurdish leaders have turned truculent since the U.S.
decision to postpone the creation of an interim Iraqi government.

The U.S. show of force in Iraq may have cowed neighboring regimes,
but it does not seem to have intimidated Islamic radicals, who have
resumed and even stepped up terrorist attacks in the region.
Writing in the British Guardian, Saad Al Fagih, a leading Saudi
dissident, warned that the U.S. invasion and occupation in Iraq
could strengthen Islamic radicalism: "The invasion and occupation
of Iraq will never be seen as a liberation. The sight of U.S. tanks
in Baghdad has been regarded as the most humiliating event for Arabs
and Muslims since 1967. ... [Osama] Bin Laden and his supporters
can now be expected to see his war as more justified than ever
because of the occupation of Iraq." Many European intelligence
agencies seem to agree.

Americans generally interpret this growing Islamic radicalism as a
new phenomenon. And to some extent it is. But it is also a
particularly ugly manifestation of a Third World nationalism that
has frustrated imperialist efforts since China's Boxer Rebellion of
1900. In neighboring Iran, for instance, the Islamic radicals of
the late '70s saw themselves as the successors to nationalist Prime
Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, whom the United States had helped
overthrow in 1953. Olivier Roy, an authority on and critic of
radical Islam, wrote in The New York Times this month, "The United
States cannot stand alone when dealing with the driving force in
the Middle East. This is neither Islamism nor the appetite for
democracy, but simply nationalismwhether it comes in the guise of
democracy, secular totalitarianism or Islamic fervor."

Nor has the Bush administration's imperialist approach been limited
to Iraq. It has been evident in its dismissive attitude toward
European allies that have worked closely with the United States in
the Balkans and Afghanistan and in its rejection of international
treaties. The administration has even adopted the rudiments of a
protectionist economic strategy. While mouthing support for free
trade, it has slapped tariffs on imported steel and, instead of
allowing the dollar's value to reflect impersonal currency markets,
has driven down its price by actively encouraging speculation
against it. Reducing the dollar's value against other countries'
currencies makes U.S. exports cheaper and their imports more
expensive. It is equivalent to putting a tariff on imports and is
likely to elicit reprisals from abroad.

The Bush administration's rejection of international institutions,
its readiness to wage aggressive, preventive wars to dominate a
vital region, and its protectionist trade strategy have already
aroused considerable popular oppositionnot just in surrounding Arab
nations, but in Europe and Asia as well. In recent elections in
countries as diverse as Belgium, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and
Pakistan, the parties most identified with opposition to U.S.
foreign policy emerged victorious. This popular opposition is
already sparking a challenge to U.S. hegemony. Initially, such a
challenge is taking the form of terrorism by Islamic
radicalsasymmetric military challenges, in the current jargonand of
what political scientists call "soft balancing." These latter
tactics focus on economic policy and on diplomacy in the United
Nations, NATO, and other international organizations. In response
to U.S. steel tariffs, the European Union has convinced the World
Trade Organization to rule against their legality and has refused
to remove its ban on genetically modified food imports. EU
hostility to the United States also contributed to the failure of
last February's World Trade Organization negotiations in Tokyo.
Also, according to Cox News, "Many Muslim clerics [have begun]
demanding that Arab countries sell oil for euros, not dollars"and
the Russian and Iranian parliaments are considering doing exactly
that. If a significant percentage of oil sales were in euros rather
than dollars, the price of oil imports would rise in the United
States. More important, the United States would lose the freedom it
now has to run large budget deficits financed by oil exporters
using their surplus dollars to buy Treasury notes.

There is also growing discussion in Europe of expanding the European
Union to meet the challenge of U.S. hegemony. In a recent report on
Europe's economic future, France's leading think tank, the Institut
Franais des Rlations Internationales, warned that, if Europe
doesn't want to be dominated by the United States, it must create
an economic bloc that would stretch to Russia in the east and to
Arab North Africa in the south. Such a bloc would enjoy natural
resources and a pool of well-educated professionals and low-wage
service workers.

Eventually, attempts to balance America's imperial efforts may even
take "hard," military forms. The U.S. war in Iraq pushed the EU
countries closer to developing an independent military, with
Germany, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg meeting in April to plan a
new, multinational force. The war also brought France, Germany, and
Russia closer together. A military, as well as economic, alliance
between Western Europe and nuclear-armed Russia could one day pose
a real threat to U.S. dominance. Together with the inevitable
growth of China as an economic and military power, it could lead to
a world divided into hostile U.S., Euro-Russian, and Chinese power
blocs. That's highly speculative, of course, but this
disaggregation of a "unipolar" world dominated by a single imperial
power into hostile alliances has happened once beforeduring the
last era of British-dominated great-power imperialism.

The new American imperialists, who view the world as a hierarchy
governed by military power, would argue that the development of
such blocs is inevitableunless the United States actively
discourages its allies as well as rogue states from competing
against it. But Wilsonians see the world and the future
differently. They would argue that, by encouraging supranational
institutions and agreements, and by exercising its authority
benignly, the United States stands a far better chance of
preventing the older imperial rivalries from reemerging. Realists,
such as University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape,
concur. Writes Pape, "Aside from the Soviet Union, major powers
have never made serious efforts to balance against the United
States. The reason is not American weakness. The United States has
been the world's strongest state throughout the 20th century and a
sole superpower since the end of the Cold War. ... Rather, the key
reason is America's unparalleled reputation for nonaggressive

The best way for the United States to retain its superiority, in
other words, is to repudiate the very strategy that the new
imperialists have devised to perpetuate it. An imperial strategy is
inherently self-defeating. Wilson understood that paradox in 1919,
and it was borne out by America's experience in the last half of
the twentieth century. But it is a historical lesson being ignored
by the conservatives who now shape foreign policy in Washington.
They believe the United States has entered a new world in which the
lessons of the old no longer apply. That is almost certainly wrong.
History is not physics. But we ignore its lessons at our peril.

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