Not long ago, a professor of philosophy offered a remarkable assessment of the United States. Americans, he concluded, are building “an extensive empire…which seems very likely to become one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.”

What’s so remarkable about that? Given America’s enormous military, economic and cultural influence, all that professor did was state the obvious. But what’s obvious today was not so obvious in 1776, when Adam Smith offered his prophetic assessment of the United States.

Equally remarkable, many of the Founding Fathers shared Smith’s vision and wanted to build a new kind of empire in the New World. Whether or not this has always served America’s interests is debatable, but the historical roots of America’s unique form of empire are not.

Stephen Kinzer wrestles with the roots, reach, wrongs and rights of America’s empire in his book The True Flag. He opens the book with an enduring question about America’s place and purpose in the world: “How should the United States act in the world?” Before offering his answer, he argues that “Americans are imperialists and also isolationists,” adding, “Both instincts coexist within us.”

He’s right about this, as evidenced by Washington’s pendulum swings between intervention and retreat in recent years, but he’s wrong about when America gave in to its imperialist “instincts.”

Distinctions

Kinzer contends that “as the 20th century dawned, the United States faced a fateful choice…whether to join the race for colonies, territories and dependencies that gripped European powers.” He concludes that Americans chose the path of empire “with astonishing suddenness in the spring of 1898” by annexing Hawaii, then taking Cuba and the Philippines from Spain.

The annexation of Hawaii, according to Kinzer, was “the first time in its history” Congress would “endorse the seizure of an overseas territory.” This was “a radically new idea of what America could and should be,” in Kinzer’s assessment.

Kinzer’s argument hangs on that modifier “overseas,” as if acquiring territory in the Pacific and the Caribbean, on the one hand, is somehow different from acquiring the Louisiana Territory, Florida, Texas, what was once northern Mexico, Alaska and the Great Northwest, on the other. This distinction is, at best, slight.

Kinzer uses Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt as the main exponents of the anti-imperialist and imperialist camps. “Roosevelt,” Kinzer writes, “came to embody America’s drive to project power overseas,” while “Twain believed Roosevelt’s project would destroy the United States.”

Kinzer makes it clear whom he considers as his heroes and villains. TR is labeled a “bucktoothed,” “hyperactive” “warmonger,” Twain and other anti-imperialists “freethinking” and “enlightened.”

Yet TR proudly noted that “not a shot was fired at any soldier of a hostile nation by any American soldier or sailor, and there was not so much as a threat of war” during his presidency. Moreover, he and other supporters of the Spanish-American War (which began under President McKinley, not TR) believed they were liberating oppressed peoples. And indeed they were.

Twain and opponents of the war worried about what would follow the liberation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines; their worries proved well-founded. Twain argued that Washington should have “destroyed the Spanish fleet,” brought our armada home and then “allowed the Filipino citizens to set up the form of government they might prefer.”

Of course, that would raise the question of whether these liberated lands could govern themselves. TR warned that if Spain’s tyranny were “replaced by savage anarchy, our work has been for harm and not for good.”

Moreover, expelling Spain and then declaring victory would have created a vacuum that other powers were eager to fill. Germany was circling in the Pacific and the Caribbean, as Edmund Morris details in his history of TR.

Instincts

Whether good or bad—and Kinzer clearly leans toward the latter—America’s imperial impulse is as old as America. But you don’t have to take my word for it, as underscored by Adam Smith’s observation about the America of 1776. As Niall Ferguson points out, “There were no more self-confident imperialists than the Founding Fathers themselves.”

George Washington called America “an infant empire.” Alexander Hamilton called America “the embryo of a great empire.” John Jay argued that America should aspire to the power and prestige of the British Empire: “We have heard much of the fleets of Britain, and the time may come, if we are wise, when the fleets of America may engage attention.”

In 1811, John Quincy Adams envisioned a nation “coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and by nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”

Thomas Jefferson concluded, “No constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extending extensive empire and self-government”; saw the United States maturing into “an empire of liberty” that would serve as the driving force for the “freedom of the globe”; argued that “It is impossible not to look forward to distant times” when the American system will “cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent”; and gushed, “What a colossus shall we be when the southern continent comes up to our mark!”

Jefferson’s policies helped spur America’s transformation from a tiny republic clinging to the Atlantic seaboard into a continental, then hemispheric, then global empire. As Ferguson details, much of this came courtesy of America’s treasury rather than its troops:

  • The Louisiana Territory (559.5 million acres, $15 million),
  • East Florida (46.1 million acres, $15 million),
  • The Oregon Territory (192 million acres, $0),
  • Texas, California and New Mexico (338.7 million acres, $20 million),
  • Arizona (19 million acres, $10 million),
  • Alaska (375 million acres, $7.2 million).

As the U.S. eyed Alaska, Secretary of State William Seward predicted that if America could reach “the Pacific Ocean and grasp the great commerce of the East,” it would emerge as “the greatest of existing states, greater than any that has ever existed.”

The result of the American Republic’s relentless westward push was what John Lewis Gaddis calls “continental hegemony.”

By the time President James Polk delivered his inaugural address (1845), America’s empire was in full bloom. “Foreign powers should…look on the annexation of Texas to the United States not as the conquest of a nation seeking to extend her dominions by arms and violence,” Polk reassured America’s wary neighbors, “but as the peaceful acquisition of a territory once her own.” Polk grew America by a million square miles—in four years.

As Robert Kagan argues in “Dangerous Nation,” the impetus for expansion was grafted into the very fiber of the republic. “In the new liberal and commercial order…embodied in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, a government constructed by the people for the purpose of protecting their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness could not easily stand in the way of their efforts to acquire and settle new lands… The federal government itself risked losing popular support if it hemmed in its citizens…There was scarcely an American in a position of influence in the early years of the republic who did not envision the day when the United States would stretch across the entire expanse of the continent, not only westward but also northward into Canada and southward into Mexico.”

All told, America’s 19th-century growth spurts included acquisitions in the central third of North America, Florida, Texas, Oregon, Mexico, the Pacific (the Howland, Baker and Midway islands), and the massive chunk of earth known as Alaska. All of these came before 1898—the year when, according to Kinzer, “a suddenly-ambitious America” burst onto the global stage.

In short, America gave in to its imperial “instincts” from the very beginning.

Sorrows

To his credit, Kinzer identifies an enduring challenge for the United States. “Our enthusiasm for foreign intervention seems to ebb and flow,” he observes. “At some moments, we are aflame with righteous anger. Confident in our power, we launch wars and depose governments. Then, chastened, we retreat—until the cycle begins again.”

Again, this cycle began long before the 20th century: Of the 300-plus cases of U.S. military intervention tallied by the Congressional Research Service, 103 occurred before 1900. Some of these were launched to defend U.S. interests, some to punish aggression, some for humanitarian purposes, some to preserve order. And some remind us that America sometimes chooses the wrong course in this broken world. However, America’s wrong turns on the global stage do not invalidate the justness of interventions that have protected the American people, served humanity, promoted freedom and nurtured a liberal international order.

The war in the Philippines deserves every bit of scrutiny Kinzer gives it, but America’s experience in the Philippines is an exception to the rule. By and large, Americans have built a unique “empire of liberty” and fueled the “freedom of the globe,” in Jefferson’s words. “After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies,” as President George W. Bush once observed. “We left constitutions and parliaments.”

Gaddis notes that Americans have “found it difficult to think of themselves as an imperial power.” Yet after World War II, they “proved surprisingly adept at managing an empire.” Perhaps America’s postwar success was a function of how Americans treated those within their informal empire.

The Japanese found out after their defeat, which became their liberation. The post-imperial constitution, which guaranteed equal rights, labor rights, free speech and religious liberty, bore the unmistakable fingerprints of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur diverted 800,000 tons of U.S. military supplies to the Japanese people and persuaded Washington to earmark $250 million for food, farming equipment and medicine for Japan—an amount, as RAND’s James Dobbins notes, “exceeding the combined budgets of the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Justice and Labor.”

The Germans found out after Stalin blockaded West Berlin, as Americans crafted an air campaign that rescued a city, rather than destroy it.

The South Koreans and South Vietnamese found out when they were unable to hold back their northern neighbors.

The Israelis found out after their country was nearly overrun. “For generations to come,” Golda Meir declared after the 1973 war, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”

By the end of the Cold War, even Moscow was asking America to maintain its unique empire of liberty. “It is important for the future of Europe,” Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stunningly confided to President George H.W. Bush, “that you are in Europe. We don’t want to see you out of there.”

Kuwaitis, Kurds, Kosovars and many others have come to a similar conclusion. Some 50 countries representing more than half the world’s landmass willingly participate in security treaties with the United States and willingly welcome U.S. troops on their soil. Gaddis calls it “hegemony by consent.”

This is not to say that America’s version of empire is perfect or problem-free. But many of America’s neighbors would concede—and history confirms—that America’s empire has been a force for good in the world.

Still, Kinzer writes of “the sorrows of empire”—and there are many: Some 4,000 Cherokee died during their forced migration in 1838. The Mexican War claimed 13,283 U.S. troops. The Philippine War claimed 220,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The post-9/11 campaign against terrorist groups and regimes—to some, a consequence of empire; to others, an effort to preserve international order—has claimed 6,900 American personnel and devoured $2 trillion.

Kinzer never writes of the sorrows of isolation and disengagement—and there are many: Nanking, Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which birthed the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq and Syria today, which spawned ISIS and chemical warfare.

Moreover, isolationists disregard the benefits of engagement—and there are many. During World War II, U.S. engagement prevented a return to the Dark Ages. During the Cold War, U.S. engagement protected free government, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, and transformed Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of prosperity. For more than seven decades, U.S. engagement has bolstered free markets, kept the sea lanes open, kept civilization’s enemies at bay, and prevented great-power war—the norm between 1745 and 1945.

The burdens of engagement are heavy and messy, but the costs of isolation are heavier and messier.


Enablers

It’s unlikely Kinzer would be persuaded by this. “Liberal internationalism,” “democracy promotion,” “the freedom agenda,” “humanitarian intervention”—all of these, according to Kinzer, are imperialism by another name.

Kinzer, for example, criticizes Bush 41 because he “ordered an invasion to depose the government of Panama,” “decided to base thousands of U.S. troops on Saudi soil” and “sent soldiers to intervene in a civil war raging in Somalia”; argues that President Bill Clinton framed “foreign wars as missions of mercy” to give them “an appealing patina” and that Clinton’s “success in wresting the province of Kosovo away from Serbia” was used by Moscow “to justify ripping apart other once-sovereign nations”; derides Bush 43 for responding to 9/11 “not by targeted attacks on the bombers and their enablers, but with a full-scale assault on Afghanistan”; and disparages President Barack Obama for ordering “operations to destroy the regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.”

But Kinzer’s isolationist critique paints a grossly incomplete picture.

It was Manuel Noriega—the drug-trafficking dictator of Panama—who annulled election results, prevented the democratically-elected government from taking office, and unleashed his security forces against elected officials, unarmed citizens and U.S. military personnel. Bush 41 based U.S. personnel in Saudi Arabia at Riyadh’s invitation because both Washington and Riyadh agreed that a wounded Saddam Hussein could not be left unattended—and the lifeblood of the global economy could not be left unprotected. America intervened in Somalia to end a manmade famine by ensuring that international food aid made it from the ports to those in need. “We come to your country for one reason only: to enable the starving to be fed,” Bush 41 said in an address to the Somali people.

Clinton’s decision to intervene in Haiti and the Balkans was indeed about mercy. There were no spoils of conquest. In Haiti, as in Panama, a military junta had prevented a democratically-elected president from serving and, in the process, had caused great suffering. In Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S.-led NATO airstrikes followed years of Serbian militias “cleansing” parts of Yugoslavia of non-Serbs—erasing 250,000 people. The only thing that stopped the killing was America’s military. Clinton didn’t “wrest” Kosovo from Serbia; Slobodan Milosevic lost the moral and political authority to keep it. Poland and the Baltics in the 1930s, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and South Korea during the Cold War, Georgia and Ukraine in the 2000s, remind us Moscow has never needed justifications before assaulting sovereign nations.

Bush 43 waged war against Afghanistan precisely because al-Qaeda’s “enablers” were the men who ran Afghanistan. The beliefs, actions, enemies, objectives and territory of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were one in the same. Targeting one but not the other was a fruitless exercise, as America learned in 1998.

Finally, Obama authorized airstrikes in Libya to protect Qaddafi’s subjects from being exterminated, according to Qaddafi, like “rats” and “cockroaches.” The U.S. and NATO took him at his word, then dismantled his military infrastructure. Once that infrastructure was gone, Qaddafi’s regime collapsed.

Rules

The isolationist, inward-looking vision of how America should act in the world is noble but naïve. The natural order of the world, regrettably, is not orderly. There are no police to enforce the rules, deter aggression, punish aggressors, settle disputes, keep the peace or protect liberty. Those tasks fall to power-projecting nations like the U.S.

Call it empire, liberal internationalism, global policing or something else, but America has been engaged in the world from the very beginning. Even with all the headaches and heartaches of engagement, America and the world are better for it.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appears at Providence.

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