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Columns

How America’s Empire Got the Upper Hand

We’re finally making sense of American democracy. Now let’s correct it.

By Henry N. Brooks, Contributing Opinion Writer
Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

I recently rediscovered “The Two Faces of American Freedom” by Aziz F. Rana ’00, and I have to say, it makes for fascinating reading. Fundamentally a history of American democracy, Rana’s book probes a central question of our national past: How have we straddled the line between republic and empire?

In the book, we learn that it was by splitting our focus between internal and external objectives. The internal focus of American power, Rana argues, was always on securing economic independence and political equality for members of the civic community — an idea that he calls “freedom as self-rule.” It was our common commitment to this kind of liberty that produced some of the most radical political innovations in our history. The founders, for instance, weren’t just rejecting monarchy. They were declaring a right to equal membership in the political community — a right that, in theory, applied universally. This idea, Rana shows, would prove bountiful later on. Before the close of the frontier in 1890, non-citizen immigrants could vote in over 20 states and receive land grants from the federal government — both ideas almost unthinkable in President Donald Trump’s America.

The gifts of liberty, though, were always limited to the narrowly defined political community. Rana emphasizes how economic independence and participatory power in politics historically went hand-in-hand with the evacuation of American Indians, the enslavement of Africans, and the conquest of foreign land — Mexican, Hawaiian, and for shorter stints, Cuban and Filipino. This is what Rana calls our external commitment: a pattern of projecting our collective power on those deemed outsiders.

This tension — between a robust sense of liberty internally and a disregard for that principle externally — frames Rana’s diagnosis of our present-day political illness: that we have become mesmerized by the fruits of our global police power, even letting it corrupt our core commitment to liberty as self-rule. Rana’s phrasing is especially compelling: “empire, so to speak, has become the master rather than the servant of freedom.”

As Americans, we navigate a unique political culture in which our civic language of rights, checks, and balances seems to contradict our historical record of interventionism abroad. The cultural consequences are often vexing, as when Democratic presidential candidate Pete P. M. Buttigieg ’04 — the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — tweeted, “I did not carry an assault weapon around a foreign country so I could come home and see them used to massacre my countrymen.” Our norms of internal liberty and civic responsibility remain tied to our experiences of war abroad.

We might lend our concerted critical attention to this relationship as the 2020 election approaches. This means staying alert to the way that terms like “national security” have started to replace ideas of freedom and rights-bearing — since George Washington’s time, our most important national gifts.

This doesn’t mean scrapping — as some on the left might envision — our entire political inheritance. I have written before in these pages on the exceptionalism of our American experience. I, like Rana, stand by the idea of liberty as self-rule (an original American invention). That idea welcomed millions of immigrants to American shores, promising land and a vote. It is worth studying today, when both parties still agree that such policies are incompatible with our national security and labor standards.

Our challenge is not to punish ourselves for the sins of our past but to rein in the empire, to make it the servant of liberty and then phase it out.

There is certainly reason for optimism. Politicians are paying more critical attention to our foreign military commitments now than at any time after 9/11. The recent vote in the Senate to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen was an important symbolic shift, even if Trump may veto the measure. The exit of U.S. troops from Libya this week may mean the tide is turning, that we are finally reining in the empire.

We can extend these gains into civic and social life too, by ending “catch-and-detain” tactics at the U.S.-Mexico border and limiting our appeals to police power in interpersonal disputes, where we often rehearse old settler habits against racial minorities. These kinds of encounters are the vestiges of our empire, which exerted force upon outsiders even as it protected the freedom of insiders. To universalize the promises of settler liberty, we need to part with those imperial vestiges.

I maintain that Rana’s reading of history is a powerful one for the present day, when politics forces us to choose, falsely, between two visions of America: one that ignores our national sins and another that cannot forgive them. In “The Two Faces of American Freedom,” we find that America has always been both a safeguard of liberty and a rogue conquistador, a land-hungry slave power and a democratic deliverer. This is something like Bill Clinton’s famous view, that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

What is wrong with America today is our imperial thinking, which has captivated the public mind with foreign wars and security concerns. If anything can cure that thinking, it will be a radical love for liberty, extended beyond the settler society to all.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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