Giving up the reality, the nostalgia, or the dream of empire is very difficult for those in political power, and even for those citizens who have bought into their government’s indoctrination and propaganda.
Historically, empire-builders and political leaders often seem to hold certain attitudes and ideas in common. First, they believe that they and their group or nation are on a “mission,” based on a religion or superiority of their nation or culture, for which history or destiny has chosen them to bring salvation, or justice, or “civilization,” to the rest of humanity.
Second, there is almost always some other nation or group or people that is their nemesis, a force opposing and hindering the achievement of the destiny or special role in history of the chosen group or nation. The opponent not only wishes to stop the virtuous nation or people and its leaders but for its own nefarious global purposes must attempt to destroy the virtuous nation and its leadership. Thus, the virtuous nation or people and their leaders are in a life-and-death struggle between good and evil.
Third, in warding off the “enemy” religion or nation or people or ideology, no sacrifice is too great to expect and demand from those who belong to the virtuous group or nation. A holy and just cause is at stake, which requires everything the chosen group or nation have to give, both to prevent their own nation’s or group’s destruction and so that the virtuous cause may triumph both for that nation or group and for the whole world.
Putin’s vision of making Russia great again
This is a useful way, I would suggest, to look at Russia, China, and the United States today. Let us start with Russia. A number of years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that in his view the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. This might not seem too surprising in Putin’s case. After all, before the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, he had served as a KGB officer in East Germany, enjoying the perks and privileges of being a representative of the Soviet imperial power that conquered and controlled the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe as part of Stalin’s victory over Hitler in the Second World War.
Besides, as the authoritarian leader of post-Soviet Russia, and like many Russian czars of the past, he considers “mother Russia” a unique and special nation in terms of religion, culture, and politics. He stands against the decadence, materialism, and immorality of a corrupt and inferior “West.” His task, as symbol and political instrument of “the Russian people,” is to preserve the country from the decay and destruction that will result from the influences of all things “Western.”
Matching this mindset, which goes back centuries among many in the Russian intelligentsia, is the paranoia that precisely because Russia represents the purist and best among all civilizations, “the West,” in particular, wishes to dismember and destroy the Russian nation as the only means of preserving its own decadent control and exploitation of many parts of the world. Seen through this psychological prism, everything that the United States and NATO do — real or imagined — in the formerly Soviet-dominated parts of Eastern Europe is “proof” that America and the rest of “the West” continue to pursue their long-term strategy of bringing Russia down. And why? In Putin’s mind, it is for no other reason than “who we are” as that unique and special Russian people.
In fact, Putin stated this explicitly in a new foreign-policy doctrine issued in March 2023 that the United States is the “existential threat” to the survival of Russia as a nation-state; politically and militarily, Russia has to resist this, not only for the country’s survival but because Russia is a “distinctive state-civilization,” possessing a “unique historical mission” against the West.
Unless and until “the West” accepts Russia and its “rightly deserved great power” status in the world and its “legitimate” sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, then Putin as the representative of Russia has every right to use even military force to protect it from its “enemies” knocking on its political door. If that means invading neighboring Ukraine — a place on the map that Putin does not even consider to be a separate nation regardless of how many, if not most, of the people living in that geographical area view themselves — then it will be done, regardless of how many Russian and Ukrainian lives it may take to make Russia “great again.”
Xi Jinping’s dream of China as a new middle kingdom
Let’s now turn to China. Xi Jinping has recently crowned himself president of China for a third term with, clearly, the intention of ruling for life, following in the footsteps of Chinese emperors of the past and Chairman Mao after the establishment of the communist regime on mainland China in 1949.
The Communist Party’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is a blend of authoritarian national socialism and economic fascism (private enterprises with government control and direction). Like in Putin’s Russia, President Xi brooks no criticism or challenges and is willing to use any needed force to maintain the Communist Party and himself in monopoly control of the country. If there is any Orwellian-like surveillance state in the world, the Chinese government does its best to epitomize it.
Xi Jinping sees himself as carrying the “shame” of China’s humiliation at the hands of the Western Powers in the nineteenth century. For centuries, the Chinese emperors viewed themselves as the absolute rulers of “the Middle Kingdom,” the center of the world around which all the lesser nations along China’s periphery revolved. China’s wars with, especially, Great Britain and France in the middle decades of the nineteenth century broke the myth of it being the center of the world when it was forced to open its ports to freedom of trade and concede coastal areas as colonies to Britain, France, and then Germany, Russia, and Japan. This included Western military gunboats, including American ones, patrolling the main rivers of China up to the Second World War.
The economic reforms introduced after Mao’s death in 1976 demonstrated that even limited private enterprise and individual initiative go a long way in bringing about prosperity after the collectivist disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Now, on the basis of those impressive improvements in the standard of living of hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese, Xi Jinping dreams of himself as the great emperor who restores China to its rightful and deserving place as the political and economic Great Power of the world.
Like Western imperialist powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China proceeds to gain economic concession areas in foreign lands, open military bases in other countries, and “colonize” artificial islands that it creates in the South China Sea. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is meant to tie more countries to China’s global sphere of influence through subsidized infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and cheap loans to the governments in developing counties with explicit or tacit political strings attached are meant to further China’s new place under the global sun. If Britain, France, and America could play gunboat diplomacy in the past, why not China as she asserts her place as the reborn “Middle Kingdom” of the twenty-first century?
Making subject peoples loyal Chinese
The Chinese people are a “great people,” Xi tells the world, one mighty nation. Those who are not ethnically Chinese within the borders of China must be made Chinese in thought, action, and culture. Thus, people of the “autonomous” regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, for instance, must be absorbed into the greater Chinese nation. Their languages, religions, and senses of distinct ethnic or cultural identity must be indoctrinated away by “reeducation,” if possible, but by cultural and ethnic genocide, if necessary. The power of the state will see to it.
Any area once part of or claimed by China must be kept part of China or reabsorbed by force, if required. This belief is behind Xi’s insistence that Taiwan is “irrevocably” part of China. That in opinion polls 70 to 80 percent of the people living in Taiwan view themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese — and that similar majorities in those surveys make it clear that they do not want to be “reunited” with mainland China under its communist government — count for nothing with Xi and the government in Beijing.
The vision of collective national identity takes precedence over all the wishes and desires and self-identification of actual individual human beings. If those living on Taiwan refuse voluntarily to be reabsorbed within the Chinese motherland, then they will be compelled to by conquest and forced reeducation, for the greater good and destiny of the collective Chinese people as defined and dictated by Xi Jinping.
The beginning of America’s empire mindset
And, finally, what of America today? Most Americans do not think of their country as a global empire. Many consider the United States to be an innocent babe on the international scene who, for some inexplicable reason, is hated or disliked or even violently attacked just because of “who we are.” Many others view their country as a benevolent force around the globe fighting for freedom and democracy against international and regional enemies and threats to a good and peaceful world.
It takes an effort to step out of the mindset of one’s own country and to look at it instead with the same dispassionate and detached eyes with which one tries to understand other countries and governments around the globe. The fact is that since the end of the Second World War, the United States has taken on and pursued the role of political and military master of the world.
America’s first call to overseas empire came out of the Spanish-American war of 1898, the result of which was the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, along with Cuba as a semiprotectorate. The Philippine Islands were also seized and made an American territory in East Asia.
America’s first real leading role on the international stage was with Woodrow Wilson’s call for the United States to “make the world safe for democracy” through participation in the First World War, but it was Franklin Roosevelt’s determination to lead America into the Second World War through the attack on Pearl Harbor that made America an empire in the postwar era up to the present.
America as global policeman after World War II
Free from invasion and unscathed by the destruction of land warfare in the way so much of Europe and Asia had suffered, the United States came out of the conflict with its manufacturing and industrial base untouched by combat. America’s army, navy, and air force were present in nearly every corner of the world where fighting had been going on. While the finances of many other major nations were in shambles, America seemed awash with wealth to invest, lend, or simply give away via the government.
A military-industrial complex that America had never had before emerged out of the war. The symbol of the military arm of America’s “imperial” presence was the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., constructed between 1941 and 1943. Such a fortress of military command and control implied that the United States was not returning to a traditional small peacetime defense force. No, the Pentagon represented a giant headquarters for all the new permanent military garrisons around the globe.
Just as domestic interventionist and welfare statist programs created a huge financial trough from which special interests fed, along with a never-ending incentive to lobby for more, so, too, America’s accepted and growing role as the policeman of the world created networks of special-interest groups hungry to live off the large military contracts required to supply all the materials needed for the country’s global armed forces presence.
As the world was becoming the beat for which America’s global policemen were responsible, there needed to be a matching intelligence arm to be sniffing out and surveilling threats and potential enemies. Thus were born the National Security Agency and the CIA. But bureaucracies, whether concerned with domestic or foreign affairs, take on self-interested lives of their own. They jockey for budgets, power, and influence within the network of government departments and agencies. They pursue rationales and justifications for more money, greater authority, and enlarged staffs.
Empire central planners and special-interest groups
In the arena of foreign affairs, there is always the search for new or greater threats and new or more powerful enemies. The foreign-policy bureaucratic rice bowls lose their reason for existing if the world is safer, less threatening, and more benignly peaceful.
For over half a century following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Cold War communist threat was the “hook” upon which the national-security state and the political and military empire associated with it justified its existence. For five decades, the masterminds and managers of this American empire spent hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars overthrowing foreign governments either directly or, more frequently, through proxies financed by those intelligence agencies; they bribed and bought off foreign rulers, including Third-World dictators to be on the side of “the free world.” They also trained and armed the military and secret police forces of these dictatorships, often with the tools used to oppress and brutalize their own citizens in the name of fighting for freedom against totalitarianism.
Those social engineering masterminds and central-planning managers of foreign policy threw America into two “hot wars” in Korea and Vietnam, which cost the lives of well over 100,000 Americans in just those two conflicts, not to mention the far greater number of those killed among the local populations. The first ended in a draw that still leaves an American military presence in Korea 70 years after a cease-fire ended the fighting. The second ended in a humiliating defeat for the United States and the overthrow of its client government in South Vietnam.
With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War was viewed as having ended. America had won, the communists had lost, and Americans could experience a “peace dividend” of less defense spending on the military. “The boys” could come home, and Americans could once again mind their own business in a less hostile world.
Preserving and pursuing empire after the Cold War
But the foreign-policy establishment in Washington, D.C., made up of both Republicans and Democrats, could not imagine a world without their leadership and guidance. How would they then justify their government and think tank positions and salaries? What role would there be for them in a world not needing their management of global affairs? To keep their power, the foreign policy establishment went abroad once again looking for new (and some old) monsters to slay. The end of the Cold War did not mean an end to the NATO alliance. A post-Soviet Russia that would not fully conform to America’s wishes justified expanding NATO east to the Russian border, they said.
Containing Iran required a continued and heightened American diplomatic and military presence in the Middle East. When this led to Saudi Islamic fundamentalists carrying out the 9-11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., this, in turn, resulted in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, where the suspected perpetrators were taking refuge. Twenty years later, after untold destruction and deaths in that faraway land, America experienced another humiliating military retreat and diplomatic disaster. Those the United States overthrew in 2001 were back in power in 2021 as the last American planes left Kabul airport.
The invasion of Afghanistan was soon followed in 2003, with America’s second war on Iraq. One of the Iraqi war rationales was the existence of claimed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), of either the nuclear or chemical type. The other justification was to overthrow a tyrant (who the United States had supported not many years earlier as a friend in the “just cause” of containing Iran) and the establishment of American-style democracy as the stepping stone of transforming all of the Arab and Islamic Middle East into the Western notion of free societies.
Intense searches through the desert sands of Iraq revealed no WMDs after the conquest of the country and showed the fallacy and fantasy of America’s rationale for occupying a country that posed no threat in any way to the United States.
As for the second justification, the toppling of the government in Baghdad resulted in sectarian warfare, economic breakdown, and the rise of other Islamic fanatics that brought even more death and destruction. From around every corner and among almost all of the conflicting factions in Iraq, Americans were the common targets. The Washington foreign-policy elite’s vision of a new democratic Iraq in America’s image ended up as illusionary as a desert mirage.
Doing it better next time
In the post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq eras, what lessons have the American political elite and empire managers learned? That trying to centrally plan the global order is as impossible as trying to centrally plan a country’s economy? That while many around the world may want American movies, fast food, and streaming music, most people do not want a foreign government thousands of miles away telling them how to live, or arrange their political affairs, or kowtow to that foreign government’s whims and wishes, often at the expense of their own betterment and desires.
No, reading the postmortems 20 years after Afghanistan and Iraq, the Washington global social engineers and foreign policy central planners conclude only that they will learn the lessons of their mistakes and then do it better and get it right “next time.” They still fundamentally believe that they know what’s better for everyone in the world than the other eight billion people on the planet. Remember that their own financial and power position rice bowls depend on keeping up the charade that they paternalistically know best.
The ancient Greeks believed that those who the gods would destroy, they first made crazy with madness. With an almost fanatical hysteria, the empire masters in Washington have rushed head long into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine under the certainty that the fate of the entire American world order depends on stopping Russia, even if it takes the last Ukrainian to do so. This is matched only by Putin’s ruthless willingness to sacrifice many more thousands of Russians’ lives in the meat grinder of war in the name of Russia’s own geopolitical power greatness.
On the other side of the world, the American empire masters see the United States in the midst of a growing and inescapable political and military confront with Xi Jinping’s China. The problem is that a number of computer simulations of a war between the United States and China over Taiwan show American naval and air forces in East Asia being devastated in the opening phase of the conflict, with no certainty that America would prevail when the smoke of battle has cleared.
What is the response of the Washington foreign-policy planners? All they seem to see is the need to increase defense spending to a new high at taxpayer’s expense, with even larger budget deficits to make up the difference. There must be a reinforcement of alliances with existing and new allies along the periphery of Asia to “contain” China’s own dream of empire. The American defense contractors will have to bear the burden of even more taxpayer money to fund the increased weaponry for the Pentagon and our “friends” in the fight to hold back the Chinese threat to America’s world order in Asia.
America’s empire also will finally fall
If history teaches anything, it is that all empires eventually come to an end. Sometimes it is through defeat and collapse following a war, such as happened to the Russian, German, Austrian, and Turkish empires in the wake of World War I. In other cases, they whither and withdraw from their far-flung foreign domains under the pressures of changing political and financial circumstances, as happened to the British and French empires after World War II.
And so, too, will America’s empire finally pass away. It will happen at some point, but not due to any imaginary “laws of history.” Its primary causes will be a paternalistic ideology and perverse institutional incentives. All collectivisms are based on some form of group identity and presumed conflicts between groups. The classification may be based on “race,” or religion, or “social class,” or nationality, or a big idea, for instance. .
In America’s case, it revolves around the idea of “American exceptionalism.” In the years following the Declaration of Independence and the new U.S. Constitution, the notion of exceptionalism was taken to mean that America was a new and different country, one not founded on monarchical absolutism or regulatory economic oppression. Here was a land that was exceptional because it was based on the freedom and dignity of the individual; people guided and planned their own lives; government recognized and secured every person’s right to their individual life, liberty and honestly acquired property. The individual human being was large, and the government was to be small.
However, there also emerged an idea of continental imperialism, referred to as Manifest Destiny, mostly referring to the nationalistic notion of a great American “empire” from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But however bombastic and misplaced this idea may have been, most Americans agreed with president John Quincey Adam’s famous speech that the United States did not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
But out of a Manifest Destiny to conquer and settle a continent, there emerged in the late nineteenth century, and certainly by Woodrow Wilson’s time, the vision that this “special” America had a duty, a “destiny,” to set the world right. America would go forth and slay the tyrannies and corruptions of the “old world.” The world needed to be made over in the American image. Just as Wilson believed in domestic government paternalism, he called for extending that benevolent American paternalism to the entire world.
Franklin Roosevelt, who served as an undersecretary of the Navy in World War I, took on Wilson’s mantle into making that America’s purpose during World War II and in the planning of the postwar era. This dream and implemented vision of America as protector and planner of the world order — for the good of the world — has been behind and guided a century of U.S. foreign policy.
Pursuing the goal of foreign policy paternalism has created and embedded within the entire institutional structure of the government a spider’s web of bureaucratic and private-sector interests whose very reason for existing and having the positions and privileges they have depends on the continuation of the welfare-warfare state. They cannot imagine a world without them. Besides, how would they earn a living, if not for the government trough from which they all eat?
The shear cost of the U.S. welfare-warfare state — the annual budgetary expenditures and the accompanying growing national debt — is threatening the financial stability of the country. Plus, the more the U. S. government intrudes itself in this competition for empire with Russia and China, plus its periodic military adventures in lesser parts of the world, the more the danger grows for not only financial disaster but also a calamity of possible horrific war with another nuclear weapons power.
There is only one way out of the cul-de-sac of disaster into which the pursuit of empire is leading the United States. That is a return to the ideas and ideals on which America was founded. Not dreams of empire or collective global destinies for which all Americans are to pay and sacrifice but rather to the vision of a country in which government’s purpose is to leave the citizens secure in their individual liberty to pursue their personal and private affairs in peaceful and voluntary association with all others. Maybe it will take a great financial or military cataclysm for Americans to rethink what their country should and could be all about. Regardless of what may lie ahead, the friend of freedom has one task, and that is to try to make his fellow citizens see and understand the wrong turn that the United State has made in foreign affairs. And, hopefully, before it is too late.
This article was originally published in the July 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.
The post The Dangerous Pursuit of Empire: Russia, China, and the United States appeared first on The Future of Freedom Foundation.
The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded in 1989 by FFF president Jacob Hornberger with the aim of establishing an educational foundation that would advance an uncompromising case for libertarianism in the context of both foreign and domestic policy. The mission of The Future of Freedom Foundation is to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government. Visit https://www.fff.org