What’s Wrong with the World

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America, empire, and conservatism

The label “empire” is often applied to the United States as an epithet, not only by left-wingers but also by paleoconservatives. But imperialism is neither inherently immoral nor inherently unconservative, and it is false to assume that the fact that some American policy might plausibly be described as “imperialist” is ipso facto a reason for a conservative to disapprove of it. (Of course, there might be other reasons to disapprove of it. That something is “imperialist” doesn’t make it necessarily good either. The point is that imperialism per se is morally neutral.)

I recently came across this article by the Catholic writer Charles Coulombe which usefully explains some of the reasons why. H. W. Crocker’s article “The Case for an American Empire,” which appeared in Crisis magazine back in October 2004, made some similar points. (Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a working link to it.) Significantly, Coulombe and Crocker are writers with “paleoconservative“ tendencies; their views cannot be written off as “neocon” propaganda. And Coulombe, at least, is not a defender of the war in Iraq. (This is good evidence, by the way, that “paleocon” is as useless as “neocon” has become as a term of serious political analysis. In any case, and as I have argued at length elsewhere – here, here, and here – whatever one thinks of the wisdom or prosecution of the war in Iraq, that it is at least a just war is a proposition that can be readily defended on grounds that any paleoconservative must take seriously. But I have no intention of revisiting this issue just now.)

Two small criticisms of Coulombe’s article. First, while I think he is right to hold that Americans ultimately don’t have the stomach for imperialism, his pessimistic conclusions about the American project in Iraq have been undermined somewhat by General Petraeus’ successes. (Though in fairness, Coulombe’s article was written over a year ago.)

Second, Coulombe gives the impression that the legalization of abortion in Japan in 1949 was both the policy of General Douglas MacArthur and the expression of a messianic American liberalism intent on imposing its mores on the world. In fact it was neither. (One suspects Coulombe has bought into the myth that MacArthur governed as an absolute dictator in Japan and remade Japanese society entirely according to his personal vision. In fact the Japanese were allowed a fair bit of leeway in settling matters of detail for themselves, and the policies MacArthur did impose were largely, though not entirely, formulated in Washington.)

For one thing, the legalization of abortion was not on the radar screen of mainstream American liberalism in 1949, even if there were radicals who foresaw a day when it might be. For another, one of those radicals, Margaret Sanger, was prevented by MacArthur from even entering Japan, so controversial at the time were her views on birth control and related matters. MacArthur also suppressed a report on overpopulation that favored birth control, under pressure from Catholic and other religious organizations who objected to it, and resolved to stay neutral on the matter, letting the Japanese Diet settle things for itself. Far from being an American import, abortion seems to have been something already practiced in Japan as a means of birth control, and the 1949 law merely codified it. And far from pushing for it in the interests of imposing American liberalism, MacArthur refused to get involved precisely to avoid seeming to meddle too closely in Japanese affairs, and also, perhaps, to avoid offending American religious groups and thus damaging his prospects as a future presidential candidate. (For a useful discussion of this subject, see D. Clayton James’s The Years of MacArthur, Vol. 3: Triumph and Disaster 1945-1964, pp. 279-281.)

Comments (10)

Hi Edward, is imperialism only imperialism if it is by military force? I've always thought of this as imperialistic

Mat 28:19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Mat 28:20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

[alghough not nation to nation][but city of man to city of God]

This command was not meant to imply making disciples by force[ala the sword], but it also didn't imply that there'd be no opposition along the way.


P.S. the initial question is genuine, I really dont know much about imperialism.

I haven't had time to read the linked piece on imperialism yet, and probably this won't be as long and profound a comment as I meant it to be, but it has always seemed to me that a) a country's having a wide-flung empire is not wrong in itself but b) it is dangerous for the country itself. In fact, I suspect that the British empire was often a truly benign force for the far-flung lands ruled by it, especially those in the non-Western world. (The end of suttee and slavery, for example, in the British areas, the navy's fighting the slave trade in the Atlantic, etc.) But it left Britain vulnerable and over-extended. In our own case, it seems to me that a number of negative results have arisen from our great involvement overseas. It seems to have helped in the growth of governmental power domestically. We are overextended. We seem not to take enough trouble to defend ourselves against threats at home, being even under the impression that we are doing something against them abroad instead. And sadly, and unlike in the case of Britain, I don't think we have enough national pride, so we seem to be missing out even on the potentially good effects (for ourselves) of a strengthened sense of the true value of our own cultural contribution and the true sense that we are helping others by spreading those valuable qualities abroad. Multiculturalism and liberalism are rotting us out at home while we continue to have vast and perhaps even increasing influence abroad. This seems like a poor deal for us all around.

So while I certainly agree that empire is not evil in and of itself, any more than monarchy or democracy are evil in and of themselves, I think empire is imprudent. And this is probably why the founders put various limited government thingies in place in the Constitution that, if adhered to, would have prevented us from developing something that could with any plausibility be thought of as an empire.

I should add, too, that I don't mean by the above to say that there are no wrong ways to acquire an empire (or an "empire"). Obviously, there are. I would say that Edward I's blatant attempt simply to conquer Scotland for no good reason in the late 13th century/early 14th century is pretty much a paradigm case, though it failed, thanks not so much to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce as to Time the Great Leveler. (Even Edward I, that brilliant and ruthless general, could not live forever, and his son wasn't a patch on him.) But our ending up having troops permanently stationed in South Korea is quite another matter, both as to the way we got into the situation and as to the outcome. We don't actually rule South Korea, for example. Even Edward I's own conquest of Wales, much as I'm inclined to sympathize with the Welsh in that story, had a lot more ambiguity and two-sidedness about the circumstances than his attempted conquest of Scotland.

There is also an important difference between inheriting and deciding what to do about an empire already acquired and acquiring one in the first place. I'm a great believer in admitting that water under the bridge is water under the bridge and making our ethical decisions based on where we find ourselves now. It was no more automatically incumbent on the British to leave Rhodesia if they concluded that Rhodesia was wrongly acquired in the first place than it is incumbent upon us to give Oklahoma City "back" to the Indians (when there was no Oklahoma City on that spot in their day in the first place).

The point is that imperialism per se is morally neutral.

That statement is pretty hard to swallow. What precisely do you mean, Dr. Feser, by "imperialism"?

Hi Steve, taking time to reflect on your comment has allowed me to have a different take than the one I had by gut feeling early on. My first reaction was to say that imperialism [as I understand it] could be for good or bad [God's objective standard], thus making it morally neutral. So on first impulse I wanted to challenge your response because I felt you were implying imperialism is always immoral. Good thing I had a little time to consider because what you wrote didn't really imply immorality at all, although I might still be at odds with your position.

Here's my take. I'd argue that imperialism is always up for being characterized as being a moral or an immoral act--I'm intending to suggest objective standards, God's revealed standard of morality for good. Without a slanted moral value associated to the impetus for action there'd be no compelling reason to act imperialistically. When there is a compelling reason to act, change toward one standard or another makes it compelling. [With no net change, why would one act?] So good morality imperialism would be good imperialism in action, bad morality imperialism would be bad imperialism in action.

What Christian isn't glad that the Holy Spirit took the offensive to break in and claim them from the grips of the kingdom of death where we were happily in self imposed ignorance as we suppressed the truth in unrighteousness? This in a sense is the Church practicing imperialism--good imperialism by the way.

Emancipation of Dalits was a far-greater achievement of British India and oft-quoted example of suttee.
Suttee was never widely practised among Hindus and in 18/19th century was limited to Bengali Brahmins and Rajputs. It was not universal even among these two groups.
Among Rajputs, the suttee was not a required act but an especially meritorious act.

That there are good consequences of imperialism, as well as bad, I will not contest. But why did the British colonize India? To free Dalits? If yes, then why should not the British (or whoever is powerful enough whenever possible wherever possible) also spread empire whenever some injustice anywhere needs righting? If the British did not colonize India to free Dalits (or some other praiseworthy goal) but instead to enhance their wealth and prestige, then that particular example of the spreading of empire was evil, even if some good may have come of it. So I suppose I can accept that imperialism is not, per se, evil, but it is almost everywhere and at all times imprudent. And, ironically, it is seldom more imprudent than when the motives for it are wholly beneficient. It therefore deserves the role of epithet.

You mean, it's intrinsically evil if the motives are bad? I'm not sure that's true in general. I could, say, put good clothes on my children out of pride.

But I agree about the question of how you decide where to spread empire, if you are acting for good reasons. One may say that _in theory_ some country that had (as it were) nothing better to do might not be doing evil if it conquered a horrible and heinous tyranny and freed the natives, but then this could be used as an argument for world domination. And as you say, that's the most imprudent way of starting of all. That's really the nub of my problem, too, but is still consistent with Ed's statement that empire is not evil in itself.

So, is imperialism necessarily an act of military force? This seems to be implied by everyone-as far as I can tell. But I wonder is it really something different if military force isn't used. The westernization of China comes to mind.

I decided to check the definition of "imperialism" and found this:

the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.

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