by Sheldon Richman
June 13, 2014
The Future of Freedom

American critics of U.S. foreign policy (as well as some neoconservative supporters) often refer to the United States as an empire. This is not an emotional outburst but a substantive description of the national government’s role in the world. But what exactly is an empire? This question is all the more relevant today with Iraq is being consumed by sectarian violence and calls for renewed U.S. intervention here are increasingly louder.

In 1952 the journalist and novelist Garet Garrett (1878–1954) took up this question in contemplating post-World War II America. The resulting essay, “The Rise of Empire,” is included in his anthology, The People’s Pottage (PDF). It bears close study today.

Garrett was an important figure in what has come to be known as the “Old Right,” an eclectic group of writers and politicians (mostly Republican) who emerged in the 1930s to oppose militarism and the centralization of power under the New Deal. (For a history of the Old Right, see my “New Deal Nemesis: The ‘Old Right’ Jeffersonians” [PDF].)

Garrett began with this somber message:

We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: “You now are entering Imperium.” Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: “Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.” And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: “No U-turns.”

If you say there were no frightening omens, that is true. The political foundations did not quake, the graves of the fathers did not fly open, the Constitution did not tear itself up. If you say people did not will it, that also is true. But if you say therefore it has not happened, then you have been so long bemused by words that your mind does not believe what the eye can see, even as in the jungle the terrified primitive, on meeting the lion, importunes magic by saying to himself, “He is not there.”

(For evidence that the American empire is older than Garrett thought, see my “Empire on Their Minds.”)

The country’s institutions may look the same, Garrett wrote, but a “revolution within the form” has occurred:

There is no comfort in history for those who put their faith in forms; who think there is safeguard in words inscribed on parchment, preserved in a glass case, reproduced in facsimile and hauled to and fro on a Freedom Train.

Garrett next proceeded to carefully isolate the characteristics of empire. After examining Rome’s transition from republic to empire, he wondered,

If you may have Empire with or without a constitution, even within the form of a republican constitution, and if also you may have Empire with or without an emperor, then how may the true marks of Empire be distinguished with certainty? What are they?

Republics, he said, can make war, conquer territory, and even acquire colonies, depending on how one defines the term, so “let us regard the things that belong only to empire, and set them down. Then we shall see.”

He came up with five traits:

(1) Rise of the executive principle of government to a position of dominant power,

(2) Accommodation of domestic policy to foreign policy,

(3) Ascendancy of the military mind,

(4) A system of satellite nations for a purpose called collective security, and,

(5) An emotional complex of vaunting and fear.

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