A Strategy for Republican Empire?

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 2003

In his speech of June 25, 1787 at the federal convention in Philadelphia, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina asserted the predominance of domestic policy in a republic when he said:

We have unwisely considered ourselves as the inhabitants of an old instead of a new country. We have adopted the maxims of a State full of people & manufactures & established in credit. We have deserted our true interest, and instead of applying closely to those improvements in domestic policy which would have ensured the future importance of our commerce, we have rashly & prematurely engaged in schemes as extensive as they are imprudent. Our true situation appears to me to be this — a new extensive Country containing within itself the materials for forming a Government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious liberty — capable of making them happy at home. This is the great end of Republican Establishments. We mistake the object of our government, if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquest or superiority among other powers is not or ought not ever to be the object of republican systems. If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt & preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them — it is more than almost any other Government ensures to its citizens.

Several days later, Alexander Hamilton replied to Pinckney:

It had been said that respectability in the eyes of foreign nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of republican Government was domestic tranquility & happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No Government could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.

This exchange between Pinckney and Hamilton is a remarkably concise expression of the alternatives faced by all regimes and recognized since Thucydides. It is the ancient conflict between the city on the one hand and empire on the other; between civic virtue and poverty on the one hand and modern freedom and commerce on the other; between rest and motion; between Sparta and Rome/Athens.

The debate among the Founders was anticipated in the formulation of Machiavelli: “If any one therefore wishes to establish an entirely new republic, he will have to consider whether he wishes to have her expand in power and dominion like Rome, or whether he intends to confine her within narrow limits.”

This debate continues today. I was put in mind of this exchange by a couple of e-mails I have received during the last week or so announcing the formation of a new organization called the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group that opposes the alleged “imperial” foreign policy of the Bush administration. The group includes many respected experts in the fields of international relations and foreign/defense policy, including some good friends of mine. These are thoughtful people, not the Bush-haters who dominate so much of the current debate. Their arguments should be taken seriously, but I believe they are wrong.

An e-mail flyer announcing the group’s first event, a series of panels on the “cost of empire” to be held in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, October 23, reads in part:

the American people have not embraced the idea of an American empire, and they are unlikely to do so. Since rebelling against the British Empire, Americans have resisted the imperial impulse, guided by the Founders’ frequent warnings that republic and empire are incompatible. Empire is problematic because it subverts the freedoms and liberties of citizens at home while simultaneously thwarting the will of people abroad.

…the strategy of empire has already begun to erode our fundamental rights and liberties. More and more power is being claimed by the executive branch. And on the economic front, an imperial strategy threatens to weaken us as a nation, overextending and bleeding the economy and straining our military and federal budgets.

…The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy pledges to maintain America’s military dominance in the world, and it does so in a way that encourages other nations to form countervailing coalitions and alliances. The presence of American troops in foreign lands, meanwhile, is routinely used as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. An American empire is likely, the panelists will argue, to create the very conditions for terrorism and attacks on Americans that our foreign policy should be aimed at preventing.

One of the criticisms leveled by some members of this group is that the Bush doctrine smacks of a Wilsonian crusade — an attempt to “democratize” the world no matter the cultural or political circumstances. But the Bush doctrine is informed more by Thucydides than by Woodrow Wilson. The former noted that an important goal of both Athens and Sparta was to establish and support regimes similar to their own, democracies in the case of Athens and oligarchies for Sparta. The inference one can draw from this observation is that the security of a state is enhanced when it is surrounded by others that share its principles and interests.

The United States is not an empire, but it is a “hegemonic power” and that is a good thing, not only for the United States but also for the world as a whole. The overarching goal of U.S. foreign policy since World War II has been to create and maintain a liberal world order. The United States has largely been able to achieve this goal by establishing and securing a commonality of interests among a broad array of other states, while deterring the use of force by potential aggressors. The underpinning of U.S. policy and strategy is hegemonic stability theory, which holds that

fundamental …international trade based on the liberal principles of comparative advantage and the division of labor does not just occur through the actions of a global “invisible hand.” Instead, economic openness only arises in the presence of a hegemonic power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security. A state will only adopt the leadership role of hegemon when it is in its national interest to do so.

It remains in the interest of the United States to continue to do so.

According to the theory of hegemonic stability, a decline in relative U.S. power would create a more disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent for the United States is the decay of Pax Britannica, which, many believe, created the necessary, if not sufficient conditions for the two world wars of the 20th century. As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had incentives to cooperate with Britain “defected” to other powers, causing the international system to fragment. The outcome was depression and war. The decline of American power could lead to a similar outcome.

As the eminent Yale classicist and historian, Donald Kagan has observed, history seems to teach

that good will, unilateral disarmament, the avoidance of alliances, teaching and preaching the evils of war by those states who… seek to preserve peace, are to no avail.
What seems to work best… is the possession by those states who wish to preserve peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens of and responsibilities required to achieve that power.

The Bush doctrine is in keeping with this observation. Its underlying assumption is that the world is a dangerous place in which peace is maintained ultimately by the power of the strong. Accordingly, U.S. power is good not only for the United States itself but also for the rest of the world. For the United States to be fully secure and prosperous, everyone must be secure and prosperous. Such a liberal world order has been possible only because the United States was able and willing to make the effort to create and maintain it. The prescriptions of the Coalitions for a Realistic Foreign Policy will not enhance the security of the United States but diminish it.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.