Those of us of a more paleoconservative predilection are wont to rail against the American imperium and the perfidy of its architects, not least the lickspittles and toadies who spare no effort, and no canon of scholarship or intellectual integrity, in confabulating legitimating myths with which to veil the nakedness of the Empire. We take it for granted that our jeremiads and imprecations will be received for what they are, in their specificity, namely, denunciations of the American empire, and not of the reification, Empire-in-itself. Consistent with the paleo sensibility - and I must state that 'paleoconservatism' is no more and no less useful than any other political designator in American discourse; 'conservatism' pretty much means little more than 'right-liberal' or 'not-Democratic', which is to say, very little indeed, but enough to give us a spacial understanding of the thing; so also is it with paleoconservatives, who are, taken collectively, the 'not-those-conservatives' - such polemics aren't concerned with the abstract concept of empire, divorced from historical circumstances and cultural particularities, as though we were all closet Straussians, contemptuous of the merely historical and intent upon arguing about transhistorical ideals and anti-ideals, but with the actually-existing American empire, such as it is, and its want of conformity to the better angels of our national character.
So, when Ed Feser linked to Charles Coulombe's disquisition on empire and the American character, and observed that imperialism per se is morally neutral, I not only re-read the linked essay, but did so in a state of bafflement. Not merely because I can conceive of few paleoconservatives, if any, who would argue against empire as an abstraction, but because it would be an odd paleoconservative indeed who could not find, amidst the proliferating variety he tacitly vows to defend, space for the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Habsburg Empire. Such a man would be more a Jacobin than a paleoconservative, and the two admit of no admixture. But the issue is perhaps more focused than that, and the elision in Coulombe's piece enables us to get at the nub of the matter.
It would be pointless to offer a point-by-point critique of that essay, since it is unobjectionable on the whole, and quite illuminating. Nonetheless, the conjunction of the first two points he is at pains to establish - that empires are not invariably evil, and that empire is in some sense consistent with American principles (though, he goes on to argue, we just don't have it in us to 'do' empire) - elides the point at issue in all of those paleo polemics, which so many are weary of reading: That while imperialism may be morally neutral, the actually-existing American imperium is, at best, profoundly tragic, reflecting not merely the ideals that guided the settlement of the West and our commercial traditions, but also the no-less-real flaws of our national character, the wounds of our history, and, by virtue of this tragic character, not a straightforward expression of American ideals that we can affirm without reservation. Granted, empire can be morally indifferent, even meritorious; but arguing that empire is in some sense consistent with American ideals is not the same as arguing that American empire is morally positive, a net ethical gain in human history. Neither, for that matter, is arguing that, pragmatically, we are not suited, presently, to make a go of empire, quite the same as arguing that the normative warrant for an American imperium is wanting. 'Being incompetent at empire' is not equivalent to 'empire being a morally dubious undertaking for us'.
To be certain, there are those who argue that empire is a straightforward transcription of American ideals, particularly politico-economic ones, but the virtual identity of this view with leftist readings of American history ought to give conservatives pause. If conservatives end up sounding like Howard Zinn in terms of narratives, but differ only by virtue of the assignment of an opposite moral value to the narrative, well, the most basic term for what has happened is failure.
American empire, in the judgment of paleoconservatives, is not merely imprudent and tragic, but more often than not a violation of core ethical norms, such as that of subsidiarity. Empire as such may be morally neutral, but any actually-existing empire is either licit on balance or not, and this norm, it would seem, is a critical criterion. Imperial undertakings are legitimate only insofar as they secure essential goods of order and flourishing, the absence of which would be more deleterious to substantive goods than the externalities of empire, where such goods cannot be realized or facilitated by lower levels of political, social, and economic organization. These issues have been debated ad nauseum both on this site and its predecessor, and I do not propose now to resurrect them in summary form, still less in all of their convolutions and nuances. Rather, I'd like to propose a negative argument, the argument from the EU. The EU treaty, in Article 5, section 2, contains the following language - yes, the EU has a subsidiarity clause, widely referred to as such:
In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.
Notice the absence of any substantive conception of subsidiarity, its place taken by a bare formalism, according to which any objective whatsoever, if deemed essential by the Community, and incapable of realization by the several Member States acting separately, must be assumed by Brussels. Think of the picayune sort of regulations that proliferate in the EU, and of their rationales - economic efficiency - or the general rationale for the EU as a political and economic colossus. The point is not a trivial one: When the objectives ostensibly legitimizing empire, unification, and centralization are utilitarian and consequentialist, the very notion of subsidiarity, intended to guard the substantive goods that local governance, mediating institutions, and civil society make possible, becomes a dead formalism, a mere paper brake upon centralization. The American imperium is much more a utilitarian undertaking of this sort; even in its occasional fits of idealism, its most tragic enterprises, it is hardly securing vital human goods incapable of being provided by others, goods that might not exist at all but for the imperium. That is part of its tragedy, that various calculations of utility become wrapped in a confused idealism, and vitiate human-scaled goods of self-government, political and economic, and the virtues they make possible. It is an empire of aggregation, of more-havingness, something we have in part because we will not govern our own appetites and ambitions, more akin to the EU project than most conservatives are comfortable admitting - which would explain the affinity of the American establishment for a European project explicitly presented as a counterweight to our own influence. Spiritual affinities coexist with geopolitical rivalries, as one would expect of history. And if we gaze upon the imperium and regard it as justified, the EU stands as a cautionary example of how professed commitments can be evacuated of substance by the manifestly utilitarian ambitions of whatever form of hegemony we're proclaiming.
Some empires have been justified, and some might yet be. Not this one.