Fri, 09 May 2003

United States ideal: Expansionist imperialism

Jonathan Power, Columnist, London

Woodrow Wilson, the idealistic president of the United States during the World War I, said that the U.S. world role came "by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God that led us into this way". Until Vietnam this view was held right across the American political spectrum. America was the God-given example to other nations and was the leading nation on a progressive scale of historical development.

The Vietnam-induced pause in this historical march now seems to be a long time ago. The forward momentum of the exceptional American spirit continues with a union under President George Bush of two powerful schools of American foreign policy: The Wilsonian liberals anxious to extend democracy and the neoconservatives, unilateralist inclined, who believe in power projection and who also think that an aggressive American leadership around the world will work for the good of all societies.

Yet the Americans have always claimed that, unlike their European allies, they were not an imperial or colonial power. Indeed the aid given Britain during World War II had to be paid for by London with interest, an American ploy to make sure that a post world war Britain could no longer afford to run an empire. When Britain with France and Israel went to war with Egypt over the Egyptian decision to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956 president Dwight Eisenhower cut off American financial support for the beleaguered British economy on the grounds that Britain shouldn't any more be indulging in imperial adventures.

The truth is more prosaic: What we see today, with the ascendancy of the neo-conservatives in Washington and the seeming undimmed energy of this administration to make the world to its liking by the projection of its overwhelming military might, is nothing more than the continuity of a long line of imperial yearnings that reach back to the earliest days of the United States. The country has always been driven by expansionist urges as Farsed Zukaria wrote in a landmark article in "World Policy Journal". "Ever since the 13 colonies, nestled east of the Allegheny mountains, relentlessly marched west to acquire and control the continent, expansionism and imperialism have been part of the American ideal".

And these ambitions were not exhausted with the conquest of California. In the 1850s, in the aftermath of the Mexican war, American leaders talked a lot about the need for further expansion. President Franklin Pierce in 1853 said he would "not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansionism". American diplomats tried to negotiate the purchase of parts of Mexico, Cuba and Hawaii. Even Canada was a target. John Quincy Adams thought that in the end the U.S. would annex all of North America. For a while the civil war tempered these ambitions. But once over revenge was in the air. Since Britain had aided the south the widespread feeling was that the reunited U.S. should take its Canadian possession to the north. Only the might of the British fleet kept the American debate, led by Abraham Lincoln's imperial minded secretary of state William Henry Seward, within sensible bounds.

At the end of the nineteenth century president William McKinley used the explosion (undoubtedly accidental) of the battleship Maine as the excuse to conquer Cuba. And then, tasting success, he went on to grab Spanish Puerto Rico and the Philippines, adding Hawaii to the list even though it had nothing to do with Spain. His assistant secretary of the navy, the next president, Theodore Roosevelt, told friends that he thought war brought out the best in the nation and although he would have preferred a war with Germany "I am not particular and I'd even take Spain if nothing better is offered". He was an unapologetic expansionist and imperialist. He organized the succession of Panama from Colombia in 1903 declaring publicly "I took Panama" and work on building the canal commenced. Later he quarreled with Canada over the Alaskan/Canadian border.

The threads of this history have been rewoven by George Bush to deal with new contingencies. But the colours are the same and the purpose of the garment remains unchanged: To make the world a safe place for America with the conviction that this can only be achieved by making the world very much like America. It may be practiced with more aggression under Bush that it was under Bill Clinton, but in fact it is only in degree. The expansion of NATO to Russia's borders was a Clintonesque idea. So too was to build up American power in the Caspian Basin and along Russia's southern border. This impulse would not change with a new president. It will change only when America stumbles, as it might with Iraq. But even then after the disaster of Vietnam it only took until the presidency of Ronald Reagan to right the ship. Now that America is militarily unchallenged the imperial urge can only gather speed. The only small cause for doubt is whether God is really on America's side. For the answer to that we might have to wait a century or even two.