When asked upon leaving the Constitutional Convention what kind of government he and his fellow delegates had delivered to the American people, Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have answered, "a republic, if you can keep it." Franklin's famous reply echoed a sentiment shared by most of the other founders, whose view of the world was informed by the cautionary history of ancient Rome, a republic that degenerated over time into a despotic, all-powerful empire.
The founders visualized a different scenario for the fledgling United States of America; it would be and remain a true republic -- a representative democracy -- and avoid the pitfalls of empire. It would not engage in foreign adventures or conquests; it would serve instead as a model to the world of peaceful self-government by an enlightened people with, as Jefferson put it, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." It would lead idealistically by example.
Considerable water has passed under the bridge of America's pure republican ideals in the past 200 years, and many of the supports have washed away. In the 1840s, this country did undertake a war of conquest, annexing northern Mexico on the flimsiest of pretexts -- over the fervent objections of a young Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln. At the end of the 19th century, America expanded its ambitions beyond the North American continent, acquiring colonies for the first time -- in the Caribbean and the Far East -- when it took Puerto Rico and the Philippines, this time over the objections of (among others), the nation's leading literary figure and democratic icon, Mark Twain.
Such imperial moments were thankfully few and short-lived. Upon reflection, the American people concluded that they didn't care to manage an empire, and they recoiled from foreign intervention. But the imperial genie remained in the bottle, available to be summoned again when national ambition, economic interest, and the darker side of the American character coalesced, as they did intermittently over the course of the 20th century. Regrettably, that time has come again. Under George W. Bush, the US is once more embarked on one of its periodic flirtations with imperialism, aimed in this instance not at territorial aggrandizement, but political, cultural, and commercial dominance.
Empire building is part of the Bush inheritance. "New World Order" is the foreign-policy initiative most identified with the current president's father, George H. W. Bush. That concept of projected American power has been refined by the son and expanded into "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America." Both are part of a continuous thread (broken temporarily during the Clinton years) extending back to the end of the Cold War. Their common message: America, the globe's only remaining superpower, is in charge; it will shape the world to suit its values and interests, and police that world as it sees fit.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, provide the ongoing justification for this policy, the perception being that the US is surrounded by real or potential enemies and must therefore lash out preemptively in self-defense, creating in the process a Pax Americana beneficial to the entire world -- whether the world recognizes it or not. The Bush Pax Americana would have certain ancillary benefits: it would provide a protective umbrella for the expansion of economic globalization, which is taken (both here and abroad) to be synonymous with Americanization, since a plurality of the world's multinational business corporations are based in the US; it would also spread "market democracy" -- laissez-faire capitalism within an electoral framework of government -- the only feasible and permissible form of democracy according to its advocates. (Social democrats need not apply.)
Although America's peculiar brand of imperialism is regularly celebrated as an exercise in bringing freedom and the rule of law to lesser countries or peoples in need of them, its more ignoble economic component (the imposition of market values and the defense of US corporate interests) is something most Americans would rather not contemplate. Nevertheless, if we are to properly evaluate the new imperialist blueprint foisted upon the country by the Bush regime, that aspect of it must be clearly understood.
The Bush doctrine of preemptive unilateralism and continual war in the name of American moral superiority, which functions at least partly as cover for the activities of our multinationals and, to a lesser extent, those of the West in general, is not really new; it has antecedents in the Cold War era, when the imperial impulse masqueraded as anticommunism. The CIA, our advance guard of empire, was then active in numerous countries on behalf of US business interests; it engineered coups in Iran in 1953 (for American and British oil companies), in Guatemala in 1954 (for the United Fruit Company), and in Chilé in 1973 (for communications giant ITT), each time overthrowing governments that were democratic, but insufficiently sensitive to the needs of corporate capitalism.
What's different now is that the mini-imperialism of the late 20th century, which functioned in fits and starts and without popular endorsement, has been openly set forth as a comprehensive national policy that no longer needs to skulk about in the dark alleyways of government. Leading political figures, including the president, enunciate it frankly and proudly, without embarrassment. The public, for its part, has been invited to follow the flag to all corners of the earth, regardless of the cost, in order to make the world safe for freedom, democracy, and (incidentally) the international corporate agenda. The very same multinationals that have exploited the American people for years (via free-trade agreements, tax loopholes, deregulation, and the like) now want those very same people to underwrite their exploitation of the developing world through the Bush doctrine.
But there is another American tradition, one of anti-imperialism based on republican principles. On a grand scale, this non-interventionist tradition was expressed in the respective support given to such multilateral institutions as the League of Nations and the United Nations by Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. On a smaller scale, it found expression in Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy" forswearing imperialist ambitions in Latin America. Following Mexico's nationalization of its oil industry in 1938, for example, American petroleum companies (including the forerunner to Exxon) demanded US military action to regain their expropriated properties. FDR refused, announcing that "the United States would show no sympathy to rich individual Americans who obtained large land holdings in Mexico for virtually nothing and claimed damages for seized property."
It remains to be seen if FDR's Democratic successors can articulate similar policy approaches in the face of a political opposition determined to combine a grandiose war on "evil" with an aggressive advancement of global corporate interests -- all in the name of American values. The effectiveness of an alternative vision of America's role in the world will determine, in the end, whether we will be an empire or a republic. The stakes are high, for as historian Simon Schama has pointed out, empires invariably substitute dominance abroad for peace, justice, and prosperity at home.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.