American Values in Conflict: Democracy vs. Empire
School of International Studies, Hanyang
The Ideology of Democracy and the Reality of American
To many, democracy would seem to be the quintessential American
value. Certainly democracy has been
at the center of both American domestic and foreign policy rhetoric. The Bush administration states that it
has pursued a
policy of promoting freedom and human dignity in every part of the world. We
pursue this policy both because it is right and because it also addresses the
fear, hatred, and inequality that contributes to terrorism and violence.
Our policy is
based on core values that uphold human rights through democracy and the rule of
law. We are committed to pursuing freedom and promoting democracy and human
rights, through both words and deeds
Even in the increasingly polarized partisan
atmosphere of Washington, there is broad bipartisan agreement on democracy
promotion as a core value of American foreign policy. Bill Clinton argued
From its very founding, our
nation has stood for the idea that people have the right to control their own
lives, to pursue their own dreams. In this century Americans have acted upon
(these principles) and sacrificed for them, fought two world wars so that
freedom could triumph over tyranny¡¦
Now the ideas we struggle for,
democracy and freedom -- freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of
assembly, open markets, respect for diversity -- these ideas are more and more
the ideals of humanity.
This commitment to democratization was proclaimed nearly a
century ago when Woodrow Wilson justified America¡¯s
entry into the first world war on the grounds that it would ¡°make the world
safe for democracy.¡± On the eve of U.S.
entry into the second world war, Franklin Roosevelt characterized the U.S.
as the ¡°arsenal of democracy¡± which was striving to establish ¡°four freedoms¡±
for all the peoples of the world.
Yet in the past century, at the same time it has been
preaching democracy, the U.S.
has risen to unprecedented power in the international system, what some have
called hyper-power. However,
the degree of power the U.S.
has achieved actually undermines the democratic functioning of international
institutions, particularly when coupled with the recent revival of historical U.S.
unilateralism in foreign policy decision making. An American hyperpower
acting unilaterally as it pleases on the international stage clearly conflicts with
any notion of democratic functioning of international institutions.
Of course Koreans know well that American power rather than
democratic rhetoric has long been the driver of U.S.
foreign policy decision making.
From Cold War support for right wing military dictators like Park Chung Hee to the current war in Iraq,
American foreign policy, while officially promoting democracy, has usually
worked against self-determination of non-western peoples.
Formal vs. Informal Empire
This conflict of values is not unique to the U.S.,
although it may have reached its greatest expression in U.S.
foreign policy today. The modern
idea of democracy originated in the West at the same time European nations were
aggressively conquering empires that by the early 20th century
included most of the world¡¯s non-European peoples and territories. Britain,
which like the U.S.
likes to think of itself as a bastion of democracy, was even more proud that it
conquered an empire on which ¡°the sun never set.¡± The democracy that Britons enjoyed at
home did not extend to India,
Malaysia, the Middle
East, the Caribbean or the vast swaths of Africa
brought under British imperial rule.
The European empires made most clear the contradiction
between democracy and empire.
Democracy literally means ¡°rule by the people.¡± Colonization literally means ¡°rule by a
foreign people.¡± The contradiction
could not be clearer. Liberal
European democrats rationalized that racially or culturally inferior ¡°lesser
peoples¡± were not ready for self-determination—that European empires needed to
rule ¡°inferior races¡± until they developed the capacity for
self-government. However, somehow
the attainment of this capacity for self-determination always seemed to lay in
some distant, unspecified future, at least until the world wars made it too
difficult for the devastated European powers to maintain their empires.
prefers to operate through a more informal structure. In the 19th century, the U.S.
was preoccupied with expansion across the North American continent where newly
incorporated territories evolved into states equal in status to the original
13. Native American Indians were
exterminated and Africa-American slaves functioned as a kind of ¡°internal
colony.¡± The U.S.
did annex nearly half of the territory
of Mexico in a war of aggression in
the 1840s. It flirted with formal
empire when it took the Philippines
as a colony and Cuba
as a virtual colony after the Spanish-American War as the 20th
Yet from the Monroe Doctrine in the early 19th
century to the Open Door toward China,
Japan, and East
Asia to its renunciation of territorial gains in the two world
wars, the U.S.
has increasingly preferred expansion of its access to international markets
rather than territorial expansion.
In the 20th century, the ¡°third world¡± was decolonizing in
the wake of the destruction of the European empires by world war even as the
U.S. was rising as leader of the international system. The U.S.
did help its ally France in its futile but brutal attempts to regain its
colonies in Indochina and Algeria. But the U.S.
itself did not seek territory. Rather
it goals were more ambitious--hegemony over the new international institutions
created after the second world war, such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank,
tends to see the expansion of global capitalism and the spread of political
democracy as closely intertwined—free markets and free political systems
supporting each other. But the
principles of the market and the principles of democracy are actually quite
different. Democracy operates on
the principle of ¡°one person, one vote.¡±
Markets operate on a principle that on the surface seems similar, but in
reality is much different, ¡°one dollar, one vote.¡± In a democratic voting booth, Bill Gates
and an unemployed worker are equal.
In a market, Bill Gates has several billion ¡°votes,¡± while the
unemployed worker has few or no ¡°votes.¡± In political theory, a small third world
nation is sovereign and all transnational corporations are subject to its
laws. In the real economic world, many
transnational corporations have several times greater resources than many third
world governments. In the 21st
century direct political rule by advanced industrial democracies is less useful
as a means of control than informal economic empire supported by sympathetic
Amy Kaplan, in her visit to ASAK this spring, noted that the
term empire is making a modest comeback among foreign policy hard liners, the
neoconservatives who feel nostalgia for the days when ¡°lesser races¡± were ruled
by their white superiors. But the dominant tendency among American
political leaders and intellectuals is to believe that because the U.S.
is a democracy it cannot be an empire.
The United States
against Democracy in the Cold War
The contradiction between democracy and empire often arose during
the Cold War. The U.S.
consistently put a much higher priority on keeping a country in the U.S.
alliance system than supporting democracy.
The are several cases of this, but the most clear cut is Chile. Chile
had been a true liberal democracy for a century and a half, with free and fair
elections and a free and thriving civil society since won its freedom from Spain
in the early 19th century.
In 1970 Socialist Salvador Allende won Chile¡¯s
presidency with a plurality of the vote in a three candidate race. Right wing elements, the Chilean
military, and the CIA began almost immediately plotting his demise. A few months after his inauguration Allende was overthrown and assassinated in a military coup
backed by the U.S. The regime that followed was one of the
more vicious, repressive Latin American dictatorships that embarked on a
campaign of eradicating all progressive elements of civil society that has
opposed its iron rule.
Other, more fledgling democracies in Latin
America struggling to overcome long histories of military rule met
the same fate as Chilean democracy when progressives or socialists considered
unreliable by the U.S.
were elected. Since the early 20th
century the U.S.
has sent troops into Central American and the Caribbean
to crush threats to pro-U.S. dictatorships literally dozens of times. This continued during the Cold War,
beginning with Guatemala
in 1954 when a progressive government pledging to reduce the influence of
American corporation United Fruit was elected but then overthrown by a CIA
operation. In the small Caribbean
nation of the Dominican Republic
in 1964, the U.S.
invaded to oust an elected government too friendly to Cuba¡¯s
Castro and too hostile to American economic and strategic interests. Even in the largest Latin American
supported generals who overthrew a freely elected socialist party and
established a generation of brutal military rule. The intolerably socialist party ousted
in the coup was the same one that recently elected democrat ¡°Lula¡± in the last
The pattern of the U.S.
supporting pro-U.S. coups against freely elected progressive or socialist
leaders or democratizing movements was common in East Asia
as well. In the 1960s the U.S. not
only supported Park Chung Hee¡¯s coup in South Korea
and accepted his rigged elections, it also backed Marcos¡¯ suspension of
democratic processes in the Philippines and the bloody military coup in
Indonesia that overthrew the democratically elected Sukarno, a bloody putsch
that killed a half a million ¡°communists¡± and lead to 30 years of iron-fisted
and corrupt military rule. Of
course, the Vietnam War was the result of the U.S.
trying to impose a pro-western regime against the will of the Vietnamese
people. The U.S. had supported
France¡¯s attempt to recolonize Vietnam, and when that
failed, the U.S. blocked the nationwide election promised by the Geneva peace
accord because it knew communist freedom fighter Ho Chi Minh
would have won. Instead, the U.S.
installed a puppet regime in the temporary administrative area of the South and
later sent a half a million troops to try to stave off the eventual triumph of
the communists. Two million
Vietnamese died in that futile attempt to thwart the will of the Vietnamese
In the post-Cold War world, the U.S.
is more supportive of democratization because with the Soviet Union
gone it is no longer possible for a democratically elected regime to leave the U.S.
war bloc to become friendly with the Soviet adversary. It is no coincidence that the ¡°wave¡± of
democratization that swept Latin America, East Asia, Africa, and especially the
post-Soviet regimes came as the Soviet Union first faded as an adversary and
then ceased to exist. With the
decline of socialism as a global movement, in the post Cold War era
democratization usually means greater penetration of western transnational
corporations rather than the rise of regimes jealously protective of national
markets and culture.
But even in the post-Cold War world democracy came into
conflict with the imperatives of empire.
In 1992 the socialist dictatorship of Algeria
opened up to free elections which were decisively won by the Islamic
party. The U.S.
and its European allies quietly supported the generals when they refused to
allow the Islamicists to come to power, plunging Algeria
into a decade long civil conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The Contradictions of Imposing Democracy from Abroad
Even when the U.S.
is committed to western style democratization in particular cases, the methods
it uses to achieve it are often counter-productive. Indigenous movements for democracy can
benefit greatly from political support from existing democracies. But democracy cannot be imposed from
abroad. The American experiences in
other democratization campaigns associated with previous American wars should
have taught this lesson.
Democratization could not be achieved in South
Vietnam at the barrel of the U.S.
which at the time of the first Iraq War was supposed to be made into the oasis
of democracy in the Middle East, turned a deaf ear to U.S.
plans once the royal family got back control of its oil fields. It should be no surprise that the
current campaign to democratize Iraq
is meeting heavy obstacles.
The post-World War II democratization of Germany
and Japan are
often cited as examples of the imposition of democratization by victory in
war. But both Germany
and Japan had
been functioning democracies before the political crises spurred by the Great
Depression. Both countries had long
standing indigenous institutions that evolved internally that could flourish when
a more supportive international environment came into being. Both Germany
and Japan had
achieved a high level of economic development that gave them a comfortable
standard of living, an educated populace, and complex social institutions,
conditions favorable to democratization. Because of the Cold War conflict both
were taken into the heart of the Western alliance system, giving them a stake
in the existing international system, which was exactly what their elites had
been fighting for in the fascist alliance.
Few of these conditions obtained in South
Vietnam or Kuwait
or exist in contemporary Iraq.
The contradictions of imposing democracy by war can be seen
today. If the democratic will of
the Iraqi people could be exercised in a free vote, the first act would be a
referendum on the withdrawal of American forces, which would pass
Empire as a Way of Life: Empire vs. Democracy on the Home
As William Appleman Williams saw, during
the world wars and the Cold War the U.S. came to accept ¡°empire as a way of
life.¡± Describing the American
system in the early Cold War when racial segregation was still in effect
(T)he war in Korea, and the related
increase in military spending, revealed the true priorities of empire and hence
dramatized the discrepancy involved in talking about empire in terms of
liberty, freedom, equality, and welfare while denying those benefits to large
numbers of people at home.
By the mid-1960s the contradictions between empire and
democracy at home had become more apparent as Williams documents
(President Johnson made) a brave—and in
the end tragic—effort to resolve that visceral contradiction in the imperial
way of life. He tried to make major
improvements in the quality of life for the poor and disadvantaged of all
colors¡¦and at the same time secure¡¦Indochina. That proved to be impossible.
The effects of ¡°empire as a way of life¡± corrode democratic
institutions at home as well as undermine self-determination abroad. Empires require periodic wars either to
defeat imperial rivals or pacify subject peoples who stubbornly refuse to
accept the beneficence of foreign rule.
Wars require support on the home front. Gaining prolonged acceptance of heavy
burdens of blood and treasure does not come easily. It usually requires suppression of
anti-war, anti-imperial movements. Periodic
campaigns to purge ¡°the enemy within¡± during wartime undermine domestic civil
The contemporary official racial and religious profiling of
citizens and foreign residents of Muslim origin for detention, deportation, and
surveillance and the rise in unofficial race crimes since 9/11 are only the
latest examples of hostilities of empire abroad degrading civil liberties at
home. This campaign against
the Muslim ¡°terrorist threat¡± harkens back to Cold War McCarthyite
repression of a wide range of progressive and civil rights groups as ¡°communist
subversives.¡± Other prominent
examples of the wars of empire in the 20th century undercutting
domestic civil liberties include the internment of Japanese-Americans during
World War II, the Palmer raids against foreign born socialists and trade
unionists after World War I, and the suppression of pacifist groups during
World War I. The 20th
century has brought much progress against the racism and xenophobia and abating
of the racial and ideological repression have been endemic in U.S.
history. But even as progress on
these issues has been achieved, much of it has been undermined by the new
conflicts of empire being fought out in domestic politics.
Empire never comes cheaply. As long as Americans resist a high tax
burden, their government continuously faces a choice between ¡°guns vs. butter,¡±
between a large warfare state and a compassionate welfare state. The U.S.
has historically lagged behind western European advanced industrial democracies
in the development of government programs to assist its less advantaged
citizens. Distrust of government
born out of the American historic experience and the low level of taxation the
American people have been willing to bear are other factors that inhibit the
development of the American welfare state.
But the devotion of a huge portion of the limited resources of the
national government to the military-industrial complex has pushed out other
budgetary priorities. Just the increase
in U.S. military spending after 911 was greater than the entire military budget
of the second largest military power in the world (Russia or Japan, depending
on how you measure military spending).
American distrust of the ability of government to effectively meet its
objectives or to spend money wisely rarely is applied to the sacrosanct
However, perhaps the greatest danger of the imperial warfare
state to democracy is the undermining of the values of democratic community by
the warrior ethos. Military
discipline is the antithesis of a deliberative community that values pluralism
and dissent. A nation whose
political unity and social solidarity are forged by periodic warfare and
permanent hostility toward external enemies is not a nation which will respect
diversity and difference either at home or abroad.
Liberals and conservatives alike see the long running
conflict in American society between the attitudes of individualistic
consumerism and the ethos of democratic citizenship and public responsibility. Narcissistic, atomized couch potatoes
watching the terror and sacrifice of war on television for amusement do not
form the communities of citizens envisioned by classical democratic
Given the growing difficulty of creating participatory citizens
in a narcissistic individualist culture, it is particularly unfortunate that
increasingly the only way Americans can even conceive of effective national
action is war. The U.S.
political system can no longer even generate a metaphor for government action
or social solidarity except war. Even
in domestic policy, the only metaphor for sustained government action is war--the
¡°war on drugs,¡± the ¡°war on poverty,¡± the ¡°war on cancer,¡± etc.
For most of its history the U.S.
has imagined itself different from the old world, militaristic European
societies and empires. This has
always been mostly an illusion.
did avoid a large standing army by staying out of most of the wars between
European empires. Instead, young America¡¯s
greatest military conflicts were against Native American Indians and
African-American slave rebellions, which were often mostly non-state
paramilitary operations. Incidentally,
this tradition of private, paramilitary action goes a long way to explaining
the contemporary American fascination with private gun ownership.
However, in the 20th century there was a complete
reversal in the degree of militarization of American vs. European society. Europeans, still stunned by the
devastation of the world wars, have a deep aversion to military means and
methods. However, the U.S.,
flush from its triumphs in the world and cold wars, has developed not only a
massive military-industrial complex, but also the permanent war ideology
required by empire. By the 21st
century the warrior ethos has largely replaced the organic solidarity of
American town meeting democracy as the archetype of American nationhood.
Empires have consequences. The economic rewards of empire foster a
plutocratic, narcissistic culture that undermines domestic democracy. The military burdens of empire generate
a warrior ethos that undercuts democratic deliberation. And an unavoidable cost of empire is
¡°blowback,¡± i.e., retaliation from political movements of subject people that
will not accept their subordinate position in the imperial world order. In the 20th century The
United States faced communist, fascist, and indigenous resistance to its empire
from its southern border to the jungles of Southeast Asia
to the deserts of Arabia. At the beginning of the 20th
century, the U.S.
faced a new form of globalization—an attack on its own soil by desperate men
who saw American superpower as the cause of the misfortunes of their
society. It is too early to know if
there will be more terrorist attacks on U.S.
territory, but all history teaches that the U.S.
will pay a heavy price for its imperial hubris.
Hegemony, Empire, or World Order?
Of course, the U.S.
has never proclaimed itself a formal empire and in fact has vehemently denied
the charge, preferring to represent itself as a global force for
democratization. And there have
been counter-trends to empire in American foreign policy, particularly in the
late Cold War and early post-Cold War, as the idea of world order built on
consent and rule of law rather than brute military and economic power grew more
plausible. The persistence of the
idea of the spread of democratization on a global scale is important even if U.S.
foreign policy has often failed to live up to the rhetoric.
The contradictions in American policy toward democratic
movements around the world can be better understood by utilizing the concept of
hegemony developed by theorists of international relations to describe power
relations in the modern world system.
As the European conquest fanned out around the globe in the modern era,
incorporating most of the peoples of the planet, the resulting world system has
had one power which stood above the others as a shaper of the system. In the 19th century, the
hegemonic power was Great Britain. The world wars brought an end to British
hegemony as the U.S.
emerged as the creator and guardian of the postwar system.
The concept of hegemony includes more than simple
dominance. The contemporary idea of
hegemony was developed by Italian Marxist Gramsci who
was trying to explain why the early 20th century working class had
not revolted as Marx had predicted.
Gramsci argued that the power of capitalism
rested on more than brute force.
Rather, the capitalist way of thinking had extended deeply into the
minds of working people. Workers
tended to accept the world view of the capitalist class rather than their own
direct experience of oppression under capitalism.
Many critics of colonialism developed similar theories of
the ¡°internalization of the oppressor¡± by colonized people, who tended to
incorporate the world view of the imperial power rather than their own direct
experience under colonization. In
the western world, feminists, racial minorities, and even homosexuals also
turned to the concept of hegemony to illuminate how traditional patriarchal,
racial, and gender constructions excluded them from power and even erased them
from history. The concept of
hegemony today informs manifold works in the fields not only of political
science and international relations but also literary and cultural studies.
In international relations, the theory of hegemony is
crucial because it captures both the tendency of the world¡¯s leading power to
forcefully assert its dominance yet at the same time to create alliances,
ideas, and institutions that attract the relatively free participation of other
states and peoples in a more or less open international system. Hegemony thus embodies both the coercion
of informal empire and the consent of democratic participation. It combines both the ¡°hard¡± power of military
and economic empire with the ¡°soft¡± power of democratic ideas and global institutions.
Because the current international system built around U.S.
hegemony thus contains both elements of coercion and consent, over time it
could evolve in either the direction of an expanded informal empire or a more
democratic, peaceful world order.
In the early Cold War, the elements of coercion and empire held primacy. In the later Cold War and the post-Cold War
era the ideas and institutions of consensual world order grew in influence. The end of the Cold War was made
possible by the patient construction of arms control regimes, European-wide
forums that broke down the bipolar divide, and the broadening and deepening of
international institutions and dialogues.
The relatively peaceful world order that emerged from the détente of the
West and the communist world in the 1970s and 1980s made it possible for both
the Chinese and the Soviets to ¡°come in from the cold¡± and participate in an
international community of shared ideas and values.
However, the Terrorism War of George W. Bush, in stark
contrast to the world order policies of his father, has driven U.S.
foreign policy back in the direction of coercion and empire. It need not have been so. Immediately after September 11 the U.S.
enjoyed a global wave of sympathy and support. Not only European allies, but government
and peoples around the globe, including much of the Muslim world, joined in
cooperative ventures to limit the financial and ideological resources of
terrorism. Even the U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan
enjoyed the support of NATO, sanction from the UN, and open political support
from most of the governments of the world.
However, Bush¡¯s unilateral decision to invade Iraq,
against the will of the UN and even most of America¡¯s
allies has squandered the reservoir of good will the U.S.
has accumulated. The Bush doctrine that
the U.S. has the unilateral right to send its military forces anywhere around
the globe to pre-empt perceived threats undermines a half a century of
evolution of international law and institutions.
American Imposed Regime Change or Democracy on a Global
The contradictions of the Bush administration¡¯s policy of
imposing democracy by unilateral American imposed regime change can be
clarified by looking at democracy not as something that just pertains to one
individual nation, but rather an idea that must be conceived on a global
scale. The contradictions of empire
are readily apparent when one contrasts the concept of democracy as ¡°rule by
the people¡± or self-determination with rule imposed by a foreign people. To be truly democratic a nation must not
only be democratic at home, it must also conduct a foreign policy that respects
the rights of other nations to self-determination.
The Cold War should have taught us that a crusading, warrior
empire cannot be a fully democratic nation. An empire at war with the world cannot
foster real democratic government.
Instead it will prefer regimes that are reliable allies in war over governments
that are free to dissent from its imperial agenda. Nor will it respect democratic dissent
at home if it challenges the grand imperial project. Even as the U.S.
stands at its apogee of power as hegemon of the world
system, empire and democracy still struggle for the heart of America.